Mount Ararat Climb Fulfills Lifelong Dream


BY TOM VARTABEDIAN

“All my life, I thought of Mount Ararat as sort of a mother figure with its kind, loving, and gentle presence. As you climb this mountain, it proves to be unkind and more challenging with each step upward. Ararat makes you feel insignificant yet majestic with each step you take to reach the summit.”

The voice belongs to Vahe Aghabegians, an Iranian-born manufacturer by trade who divides his time between Yerevan and Glendale, once having served as advisor to the foreign minister of Armenia.

“All my life, I thought of Mount Ararat as sort of a mother figure with its kind, loving, and gentle presence. As you climb this mountain, it proves to be unkind and more challenging with each step upward. Ararat makes you feel insignificant yet majestic with each step you take to reach the summit.”
With the wind lashing at his face and the sun to his back, Aghabegians did what many people had dreamed yet so few accomplished. He scaled Mount Ararat this year with a team of other mountaineers, braving God’s fury along the way and the rigmarole it took to get there.

The image of a trio at the peak following their 16,854-foot ascent with arms hoisted in the air dressed for the North Pole sends shivers up your spine.

According to Aghabegians, they had just conquered what they called “the goddess of Armenian mountains.” What was his incentive? A personal goal that turned into an obsession with age perhaps?

“I heard an inner voice calling,” admitted the 59-year-old. “I had grown up with pictures of Ararat in my home, school, and club. I lived in Yerevan for 12 years and saw it every day, thinking it was unreachable and not mine to have. With friends, we attempted to get a permit five years ago but were refused. When opportunity knocked, it was a nobrainer.” With practically no mountain climbing experience other than his Boy Scout years, Aghabegians set foot upon a journey of a lifetime. Friends talked him into it.

He had no intentions of going. They told him Ararat was Armenia’s Everest and the idea festered.

His preparation and conditioning proved minimal: two weeks of swimming in his pool and repeatedly climbing a 1,000-foot hillside by his home in Glendale. Admittedly, he was neither prepared nor conditioned for such a venture. That week, he drove to Mount Aragats (Armenia’s tallest mountain) and scaled 4,500 feet of it.

All was fine and confidence was restored. The thought of altitude sickness became a myth.

A travel agency in Istanbul handled the arrangements, however suspicious they were with Aghabegians and his crew.

“In the end, it was not clear if we received official clearance,” he said. “I think the local guides [Kurds] just pay off the officials to look the other way. The whole process is by no means a well oiled machine. Improvising is necessary to make things work in different steps of the journey.” The cost of $750 covered two nights in Dogubayazid and three nights/four days on the mountain, horses to transport food, tents, and other equipment.

“With the Armenian-Turkish border closed, we were forced to drive north to Georgia, then enter Turkey, passing through Kars before getting to Dogubayazid,” Aghabegians said. “It’s a solid 15-hour ride. Border-crossing formalities didn’t make it any easier.”

On the day of the climb, a mini-bus picked up nine hikers and drove to Ararat, disembarking at 7,200 feet. Included in the group was Raffi Niziblian, a onetime prominent AYF athlete from Canada who has since repatriated to Armenia.

A message Niziblian had posted to his wife Lara warned of tumultuous weather conditions on the mountain. It read, “Our spirits are high. Pray for us.”

The first day they hiked five hours before setting camp. There waiting for them were camp tents all erected and a kitchen tent with warm food. The campground was nestled on boulders.

Day 2 proved a six-hour climb, impeded by the lack of oxygen and breathlessness. On the third day, they waited for midnight to arrive before covering the remaining distance. Severe weather caused the group to retreat and wait the next day before making the ultimate approach.

Reaching the peak was like being on top of the world.

“Conditions were really severe with wind, sleet, and cold raising havoc,” Aghabegians described. “The thin air wears you down by the hour. It is not a technical climb but the higher you go, the steeper it gets. Three members started showing signs of altitude sickness during the day. One got hit real badly.”

Heghinar Melkom Melkomian, who followed the Mount Ararat exploit daily on Facebook, was also enamored by the experience. She happens to be Aghabedians’ niece, having lived in Yerevan as well.

“Even though Ararat is in the hands of the Turks, it still belongs to us,” she confirmed. “Ararat is feminine, elegant, and breathtakingly beautiful. I looked upon her as my good luck charm and felt that beauty reflected upon my face as I climbed. We kept our friends and spouses posted so the virtual journey became theirs as well.”

There were no illusions about a fortuitous discovery of Noah’s Ark along the way, though the subject crossed their minds and remained a topic of conversation. “We met members of a team that was on the mountain, excavating and looking for signs,” Aghabegians brought out.

“There’s a group that works up there full-time during the season.” A week before their climb, another team had made a big fuss about their climb and raised a tricolor on the peak, which rubbed local officials the wrong way. “As a precaution, we didn’t take the Armenian flag with us, but three of us who made it to the top wore red, blue, and orange overcoats,” Aghabegians noted. Although the descent was easier than the climb upward, it was by no means a piece of cake.

“Muscles you didn’t know you had were being put to work and it hurt,” he said. “Two weeks later, we were having coffee with fellow climbers and we all acknowledged that we’d like to do this again, perhaps next year.”

In 1999, Aghabegians found himself as a chief economic driving force in Armenia. As advisor to the foreign minister, he was busy preparing a visionary plan to increase economic standards, tourism, education, and healthcare in that country. He held that post through the 2008 presidential elections. Thanks to funding from the Cafesjian Foundation, he was able to develop a program to revitalize 20 monuments throughout Armenia.

During that time, he also operated a prosperous bread business in Yerevan called “Voske Hats” (Golden Bread), which was sold a year ago.

Prior to that, from 1975-83, he served as operations manager of the Hairenik Association. Today, he partners a business called Elite Hygiene CJSC Feminine, which manufactures sanitary pads in Yerevan.

He’s operated a print shop, imported and distributed sporting goods, and worked as a computer consultant.

Aghabegians shuffles back and forth between countries in a heartbeat. How he juggles both lands is really no mystery at all.

“One I live in and call home (Armenia) and the other (Glendale) is where my extended family resides,” he points out. “I enjoy the best of both worlds.”

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