Modern Armenia’s highest mountain, Mount Aragats is the country’s favorite climb and for good reason. The mountaintop, covered in a dense blanket of snow for most of the year, offers climbers an incredible vista of upper Armenia. The snowy white of the peak eventually gives way to the rocky brown of the upper elevations but eventually is taken over by the deep lush greens of the lower mountainside and valley below. All in all, it is probably one of the best day hikes you will have ever completed.
Getting to the Trail Head
Believe it or not, you can drive most of the way up the mountain, with the trail head just sitting a little more than 800 meters below the summit. The small collection of buildings at the trail head is known as Kari Lich which is home to a small guesthouse and restaurant where locals seem to flock to for some lamb and vodka after a long morning up and down the mountain. There is no public transportation to Kari Lich meaning you will have to arrange your own transport or hitchhike your way up to the trail head. It is a long and windy road to the settlement, taking upwards of an hour from Byurakan.
Hitchhiking is usually not a problem and is easy to do, however the problem lies in the fact that you want to start your hike up the mountain as early as possible. Clouds can cover the summit by late morning, making a pre-sunrise start advisable. You’d be lucky to find a car heading up around 4-5 am, so if you plan on hitching, expect to not find many cars heading up till mid morning. Luckily for me, I was able to tag along with a Danish couple who were also staying at the Observatory and was planning on climbing the mountain. If it wasn’t for them, I am not sure how late it would have been for me to get up the mountain.
The road up to the trail head is narrow but is well maintained for Armenia standards. If you are driving up yourself, be careful on the switchback turns as drivers expect everyone else to move out of their way. Cars coming down the mountain tend to have the right of way but never assume this. Soon the lush green found around Byruakan will fade to brown as the rocky surface begins to dominate the higher altitudes. As you approach the starting point, this will all turn to white as piles of snow begin to cover everything in sight.
Climbing the Mountain
Mount Aragats is cold most of the year so proper clothing is essential. We started our hike well below freezing and it didn’t get much above it once we reached the top mid morning. As with any hike, dressing in quality layers is essential. Gloves, thermals, moisture wicking layers and a winter windproof jacket are required most times of the year. Snowfall can also be deep on the mountain so waterproof boots and thermal socks are necessary. Having a waterproof pants is also highly recommended. A winter hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses are also a must. High elevations leave little atmosphere for UV protection and the reflection on the snow makes this even worse. Be sure to protect your face. Obvious advice would be to bring enough water, some food, and a first aid kit in the event of something going wrong.
My Experience Climbing the Mountain
I did my climb up Mount Aragats May 29th and it was still very cold and full of snow. The most ideal climbing season is short, only July through September, but I wasn’t going to pass up on a mountain just because conditions weren’t ideal (you should know me if you read this blog enough). Getting to the summit should take no more than two hours up and less then one hour back down. Getting up to the starting point was pure luck for me. The Danish couple staying next to our room at the observatory arrived very late the night before so I did not get to talk with them the evening before the hike. I decided to get up extra early to try to hitch a ride up the mountain (with little hope) when all of the sudden I heard people getting ready next to my room. I quickly sped up my morning ritual and managed to get out of my room the same time the couple was leaving. I asked them if they were climbing the mountain and they let me know they were and that they had their own car. Luckily, they let me tag along as we got to know each other during the long drive up to the trail head. Coming from a country with no mountains, the couple was eager to accomplish their first high altitude climb while in Armenia. They were in the country for a friend’s wedding and had a few days to explore for themselves before the big event. Chit chat made the ride up pass quickly as we stepped into the frigid cold.
Stepping out of the car at 6:00am was a shock to the system. The 700 meter elevation change really made the outside temperature miserable. “Had I brought enough clothes?” I thought as my face went numb and hands felt a bit cold. I quickly dug into my bag, putting on all my additional layers that I had brought with me. After getting ready, we set off onto the ‘trail’. By trail I mean random snow prints that seemed to go in several directions. This proved to be the most difficult part of the hike as we seemed to get off trail multiple times. Stepping through the snow is also exhausting given that at this time of year, the snow is deep (over one meter) but isn’t frozen enough to support your weight all the time. Each step you had to question whether you would stay atop of suddenly sink down to your waist. This becomes less of a problem as you climb up the mountain but makes the lower half of the hike frustrating and tiring.
As we continued to climb, layer upon layer of clothing was shed as the sun began to heat things up. My worries down below were for nothing as I never felt cold again during the hike… except for my toes.
Unfortunately prior to the trip, I ended up deciding to go with light breathable everyday hiking boots as I didn’t envision myself climbing any mountains in snow or cold weather during the trip. That left me stuck facing this mountain with inadequate footwear. I came mentally prepared that if my feet got wet and cold that it was game over. Once before I had to turn around due to my footwear as I turned back from my summit attempt in the German Alps during the dead of winter. I prepared as much as I could. Extra socks in my bag and some spray on waterproofing was my only defense from the wet and cold. All I could hope for was that it would be enough.
Once the snow become hard enough, the goal of the lowest summit was in sight. We stopped after catching up to some locals who were climbing the mountain. We shared snacks and fruit before making the final push to the summit. Once at the top, I couldn’t have prepared for the jaw dropping (I need a new expression for this) view that opens up in front of you. To your left, the three other peaks of Aragats stand covered in snow which form a bowl that decedents down into the valley below. The pure white snow you stand upon contrasts stunningly with the browns and greens of below.
Feeling a bit sick, my new found friends decided to begin their decent back down to the trail head. As for me, I decided to catch up with them and spend another twenty minutes up at the top. I was rewarded with having the mountain top to myself, where I simply just reflected and took in the view in front of me. I didn’t want to forget this view as I attempted to capture the panorama that had had me in a trance. I took off my boots and socks which were wet and changed into new socks as I let my boots dry a bit. Sadly, this couldn’t have lasted as long as I would have liked as I forced myself to put my boots on and start heading back down the mountain.
If you didn’t like pushing through waist deep snow on the way up, prepare for much more of it on the way down. The combined factors of warming temperatures and more force with each step down, the sink-ins become more frequent and less surprising. Towards the end of the hike, the top layer of snow had practically become a slushy, completely soaking my boots and socks. In the parking lot I changed back to the socks I had worn up the mountain and attempted to warm up my feet again. We had successfully conquered Mount Aragats, with only headaches starting to emerge. My friend’s girlfriend started showing other symptoms of altitude sickness such as fatigue so she decided to rest in the car as the rest of us went into the lively guesthouse to grab a quick bite to eat.
Khash is the specialty here so having one is kind of a mandatory while up here. The soup is a collection of lamb parts stewed while salt and other spices are on the side so those eating it can adjust it to their taste. Our lunch together turned into quite the adventure as a bunch of men sitting at the table next to us offered us some food and drink. While alcohol seemed like a bad idea with a headache looming, turning down an opportunity to meet locals and enjoy some free vodka was too hard to pass up. After a few rounds and a lot of laughs, we headed back to the car and headed down the mountain.
By the time we got to the bottom of the mountain, my head was throbbing and it wouldn’t go away for the rest of the day. I ended up sleeping it off back in Byurakan and was fine by morning. I’d take that headache again any day to have that view and those few merry rounds with some locals after a long morning of climbing.
While the lowest and most accessible of the four peaks sits at 3893 meters, altitude sickness is still very much a concern. It is advisable to stay a few days in the nearest town, Byurakan, which sits at 2300 meters. Byurakan has plenty of wonderful day trips to keep you occupied while you give your body some time to acclimatize. Be on the lookout for our post on what to do while in Byurakan.
If you can afford the price tag, there is also a guest house at ‘base camp’ of Mount Aragats. Kari Lich is the small collection of buildings at the start of the hike which includes the guest house. You can also stop here for a meal after your hike if you wish. Sleeping up here will allow you to acclimatize more properly if you are inexperienced with higher altitudes. If you start from Byurakan, you are most likely going to experience mild altitude sickness symptoms such as a headache and nausea by the end of the hike. Jumping up more than 1500 meters within three hours is tough for any body to handle. By the end of the hike I had a pounding headache that took a while to go away, and one of my hiking partners, who had no high altitude experience began throwing up once we returned back to Byurakan. They continued down into the lowlands and were fine. I am not trying to scare anyone here. I am just trying to stress the importance of understanding the symptoms of altitude sickness and knowing when to turn back if you have to. If you have a severe headache, dizziness, or are vomiting (among other symptoms) you need to stop climbing. If these symptoms do not go away, descend immediately. While your risk of serious complications (including death) are minimal due to the short duration at high altitude, it is something you need to be conscious of while climbing.
DO NOT GET TOO CLOSE TO THE EDGE AT THE SUMMIT! What looks like a cliff edge is actually just an accumulation of snow that overhangs the rock face. This means the edge can be unstable and give way if you are stepping on it. While you won’t get your perfect shot, err on the side of caution as it is a very long way down if you fall.
Mount Aragats: The best day hike you’ve ever done
Nothing about hiking mount Aragats is difficult (for experienced hikers). The climb is short, the incline is smooth and steady, and its simply a walk up to the top. The ease of such a hike makes it arguably one of the best day hikes in the world. Altitude is the only factor that can make the hike a problem for those inexperienced with high altitudes. But if you come prepared and ready to go, prepare for a wonderful day up int he mountains.