Saturday, 20 May 2023

The exhilaration of reaching the summit of Sevazhayr (literally meaning "black crag") was accompanied by the pure awe of taking in the 360° view for the first time. This was the first true summit I’d reached in Armenia. Sure, Koraberd stood atop a very large boulder, but the commanding view and sheer steepness of Sevazhayr were unparalleled, as was the much more serious company.

It was another cloudy morning, and as the sprinter van sped through vineyards toward Yeraskh, Mt. Ararat refused to show all but its snowless skirts to onlookers. Once off the main highway, we skirted the Vardenis mountains, keeping its peaks and the Yeghegis State Sanctuary to our right. Mountain peaks appeared and disappeared through the windows of the van at every turn... sometimes clouds got in the way, and at other times the tall trees on the roadside. Each brief glimpse left me longing for more… These were mountains I’d seen but once before, and that during a nervous descent from Smbataberd when Stepan’s car had a flat tire (that I’d dutifully changed) and we were wary of a second flat that would strand us in the middle of nowhere. Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery, small villages nestled in the green foothills of crags reaching for the sky, massive rocks with lines of trees on each tier of their cracked faces, mountain peaks lost in the clouds, and the occasional meadow where the yellow of wildflowers overwhelmed the green undergrowth.

We disembarked at the village of Sevazhayr, the namesake peak barely visible in the distance. A poorly maintained dirt (now completely muddy) road had brought us here, and as was the course, our hike began on that same road, rising upward as it curved into the foothills. Less than a kilometer later, several cows posed photogenically by the roadside, and soon after, our trail diverged from the road, following a track onto the florally bejeweled northeastern slope of Sevazhayr. Roman was our trip lead again, and much to my surprise he turned and headed straight up the slope, making his own trail toward the summit. Belatedly, I realized that most of the 600 m elevation gain was still ahead, to be covered in just over a kilometer on a slope that sometimes tilted at 70°. It was the most challenging part of any hike I’d been on in the last couple of years, as short switchbacks were followed by strenuous stretches of heading directly upward. The going was slow, and our initially tight string of hikers stretched along the slope, with large gaps separating us. Near the top we circled and approached the summit from the west, and at last we took the final steps onto the rocky summit.

Sevazhayr stood tall in the midst of a ring of mountains like the uplifted center of an impact crater, like the crow’s nest of a sailing ship raised high by a wave in turbulent seas and frozen in time by the brilliant flash of lightning. It was difficult to hold still, and I kept turning my gaze to new sights revealed in every direction. Snow covered summits stood to our east, distinguishing themselves from the misty mountains to the south and the chain of grassy hills pierced by sharp crags to the north. Clouds came and went, changing the view, obscuring one peak while revealing another… It took a long time for me to tear my eyes from the view, to finally realize that I needed to replenish the energy I’d burned on the climb. The wind grew stronger and soon had the taste of rain in its breath again as I ate my sandwich atop my perch. Not for the first time, I wished I’d had room in my pack for either a thermos or a Jetboil, as a hot meal (you know you’re desperate when you crave Cup O’Noodles) or drink would have really hit the spot.

Reluctantly, we began our descent, watching the fog roll into the deep gullies we were heading into. Soon we were in our rain gear again, heads down, strung along the westward slope of Sevazhayr, heading more or less in the direction of the village of Arates, where our van would be picking us up. Despite the rain, I couldn’t stop looking around… A stream or rivulet ran down every gully, each destined for the Yeghegis river, each lined with wildflowers that grew in abundance, bursting away from its shores. As we descended, more and more poppies sprang from between crags, adding their deep vermillion to the yellows and whites of spring.

One final stream crossing was to be our bane. Our choice was to hop from rock to precarious rock and hope that no one fell into the deep part of the stream, or walk across a shallower portion, getting our boots wet. It was to be the second choice. Had I not rushed across, I might have avoided the one footstep that finally sank my foot deep enough into the stream for water to gush in. I didn’t mind wet feet, but now I had less than 12 hours to dry my boots for tomorrow’s hike.

The final treat on this hike was the monastic complex of Arates, mostly in ruins, blending into the hills, green grasses growing upon its ruined roof and dome. After a brief pause, we continued on, cleaned up, and boarded the van for a ride home that would include a stop at Yeraskh again. I was no longer on probation, having been on three strenuous hikes with ArmGeo in eight days, and the Kilikia beer I had with my shawarma really hit the spot.

At home that night, it was battle stations as I turned the heater in the living room on maximum, and arranged my wet clothes, backpack, gloves, and most importantly, my hiking boots under the heater vent. Not willing to wait, I found a small hair dryer and placed it inside each boot thirty seconds at a time to hasten the drying process. My only experience with hair dryers is from years ago when I used to dry my daughter Tara's very long hair, and so I'd forgotten just how hot a hair dryer gets if kept on for a long time. Before I knew it, the hair dryer nozzle had melted off, and the dryer itself had died a sudden death. So much for that idea! By morning, the boots would almost be dry, and any wetness I felt through my socks during the hike to Mt. Teghenis would only remind me of the surreal climb and otherworldly descent of today’s expedition.

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