Climbing and Route Development in Armenia: #ProjectArmenia
November 12, 2019 | Kim & Graham McGrenere
It’s hard to believe that just two months ago we were hanging off the side of limestone cliffs in Armenia. We were hiking the exposed edges of cliff bands looking for access points. We were trundling rock chunks as big as us from 30 metres up. We were jugging 150-200m walls. We were choosing, cleaning, bolting, and climbing new lines on beautiful rock.
In August and September of this year we went on our first ever climbing expedition. We travelled across the world to the small country of Armenia, and worked with a team of people from five countries to establish the first climbing routes in Dilijan National Park.
The experience was, in one word, incredible. Now that we’ve returned, we are reflecting and dissecting the trip as best we can. It has been awesome chatting with so many people back home who are genuinely interested in how it went, what we learned, what our struggles were, and what we accomplished. It feels really great to celebrate the trip over and over again in conversation with others.
We have received a ton of questions about the expedition and want to share some of our most frequently asked questions!
How was the trip?
The expedition was intense. There were so many good parts, scary parts, fulfilling parts, emotional parts. It’s hard to summarize all the feelings.
What was the food like?
The food was really really good. There is a lot of fresh produce like tomatoes, cucumber, cantaloupe, and herbs in the Armenian diet; and plenty of fresh cheese and meat. Making khorovats, aka barbeque, is really common: seasoned meat cooked slowly over a fire on long skewers.
In the rural areas, workers would stop for lunch of bread, cheese, vegetables and homemade vodka shots.
Our favourite things were definitely the cheese and dairy products, especially when we had the opportunity to eat them freshly made by The Grandma who lived near our base camp. Not sure if anything will ever top that…
How many routes did you establish?
We established 23 routes in total, and our team completed first ascents of 22 of them. Most of the routes were single pitch sport climbs, but we did put up a few trad and multipitch routes.
How was the rock?
The rock in Dilijan National Park is limestone. As with most limestone areas, the quality ranged from absolutely bomber to utter choss. Fortunately we had our fill of incredible rock quality and focussed our energy there. We decided to devote our time to two main sectors. The first sector was mostly less than vertical with very technical lines, and the second sector was gently overhanging and demanded more power endurance.
Who did you go with?
We travelled with a team of people from five countries and three continents. Val Ismaili, from the UK, had the vision for the trip and brought the team together. Florence Wallace, Peter Rosso, and Tad Karapetian, from the UK, Italy, and Australia respectively, joined as climbers and route developers. Alex and Janek , our media team, came from Poland. Finally, we made up the North American constituent.
Was the trip sponsored?
The trip was a grassroots endeavour that we all committed to prior to sponsor involvement. As planning for the trip began to come together though, we did have several organizations from North America and around the world come on board to support the project.
From North America, we were supported by Hive Climbing, MEC, Scarpa North America, Petzl via Onward Up, and Organic Climbing. Globally, our team received sponsorship from The University of Bristol, Sennheiser, Cokin, Fjord Nansen, Grimpi, Pajak, Milo of Climbing, and the UNSW Outdoors Club. If you have more questions about expedition sponsorship, please reach out!
What was the hardest thing about route development?
The work was very physically taxing. We typically hiked more than two hours a day, carrying heavy packs that included ropes, climbing gear, tools for cleaning, and bolting equipment. We were constantly jugging lines, manoeuvring around on walls, cleaning, scrubbing, and bolting. There was no time for rest days.
It was also mentally exhausting. We had to be constantly at the top of our game, making decisions about rock quality, anchors for rebelays, route directions, weather assessments, and where to hang fixed lines. Sometimes it would take an entire day to prepare and hang a fixed line, only to find it was in the wrong spot. Those moments were like emotional breaking points.
Above all though, the most challenging part was the time. Everything took longer than expected – there are so many unseen hours that go into route development. We definitely left with a greater appreciation of the effort and commitment of all the route developers who have equipped the climbing routes we’ve been enjoying for years.
Do you think the rock climbing in Armenia has potential?
Absolutely! The amount of rock there is endless. The biggest hurdle is the infrastructure. Getting to and from the various areas isn’t logistically easy, and there aren’t many (or any…) amenities near the cliffs. As adventure tourism grows in Armenia, hopefully local governments and communities will see the potential of rock climbing and find ways to support it, but I imagine this won’t be for at least 10 years. It’s an exciting time to be a part of a movement in its infancy, though!
What did the locals think of climbing?
The local climbing community is quite small. There are a handful of developers, and about a dozen core climbers. Various meet-up events have recently brought upwards of 50 people out to climb though, so popularity is definitely growing.
The Armenians who live near the cliff seemed to regard us indifferently. We asked one of the local farmers if he was ok with us being out there, and his response was “this land is just as much yours as it is mine”. Many farmers who would watch us during the day thought we were crazy for being on the cliffs. They would honk and wave and watch as we climbed or bolted.
One of the dilemmas with developing a new area is local opinion. We were a small group of 8, creating very little impact on the area. Their opinion on us being there might have been fine for now, but it’s hard to say how climbing might change and impact people’s way of life if an area became as popular as, say, Squamish.
Locals were particularly incredulous whenever they saw the women on our team on the wall. Even after watching Kim and Flo bolting or climbing, they still found it hard to believe there were women up on the cliffs. Gender inequality is often discussed in the sport of climbing, and we are fortunate in North America to have high participation in climbing by men and women. The culture in Armenia though is much more male dominated, and sexism is prevalent.
“I found the sexism and attitude towards women to be one of the biggest challenges for me. It was frustrating to not be viewed and respected in the same way as the men, and sometimes scary. Rather than stop me though, it motivated me to be even more visible. I believe that these moments of shock for the men who saw us had an impact, and hopefully the participation in climbing by women in Armenia will one day be the norm.” -Kim
Was it safe?
Aside from the inherent danger associated with spending 4-8 hours a day hanging and moving around on the side of cliffs, the expedition was quite safe. The most dangerous part may have been the tremendous lightning and thunder storms that would often strike the park near where we were camping.
As a country, Armenia is very safe and the crime rate is quite low. The country has two closed borders though, and it is not recommended to travel within 5 kilometres of Turkey or Azerbaijan. It can also be unsafe to travel alone as a woman in rural areas.
What are wafers?
A thin, crispy, wafer-textured cookie with multiple cookie and icing layers. We devoured a seriously epic number of these. Every flavour was delicious, but our favourites were double chocolate and lemon.
What was the best cat you saw on your trip?
Obviously Lellot. We dearly loved Lellot and the kitten trio of Kchuch.
Would you go back?
Absolutely! Because we focused most of our time in Dilijan National Park, we didn’t get an opportunity to explore much of the country. It would be amazing to go back and start developing a new area in a different part of Armenia. #ProjectArmenia2021??
Overall, the trip was amazing and unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Our advice to anyone thinking about an expedition (or really anything cool that’s outside your comfort zone): GO FOR IT! Especially if it’s new and different in a faraway place. Go with an open mind and be prepared to learn and grow.
More on #ProjectArmenia here: https://www.projectarmenia.co.uk/
Follow the team on Instagram: