Project Armenia: UBES/UBMC climbers bolt first ascents


By Peter Rosso, PhD, Mechanical Engineering

What  would you do if a guy you had spoken to only a couple of times sent you  some photos of a faraway country you knew little about, and said: 'let's go climbing there'. Val had me hooked from the beginning! This is how I ended up bolting first ascents in Armenia.

For those who don't know Val, he completed the first thru-hike of the 1500km Transcaucasian Trail through Armenia and Georgia in 2017 and came back full of stories of the adventure and enthusiasm for the region. I think that the main reason I latched onto the idea of the improbable adventure to develop new rock climbing routes in was because of the sheer passion he had for the country.

Armenia is a landlocked country in the southern Caucasus which is not famous for high mountains. Yet it offers one of the largest amounts of limestone I have seen in such a concentrated area. Located at 2000m within Dilijan National Park, the limestone cliffs extend for over 15 kilometres ranging from 50-400m high. As beautiful as the rock is, and as good as the climbing is, what struck me as the most unique aspect of our experience was the incredibly hospitable nature of Armenians.

The cliffs extend for over 15 kilometres from 50-400m high | Project Armenia / Peter Rosso

When I first came to Bristol at the start of my degree, I would have never imagined myself doing something like this.  I was all about safe bets and the certainty of what was coming up the  next day. I knew I had to go to lectures, and I knew I would have to eventually get a job. Life felt more like putting one foot after another, marching in a direction that I was told to. During my studies, the certainty of what I wanted to do with my time faded and all that was left was what I knew made me happy: climbing.

When I first came to Bristol at the start of my degree, I would have never imagined myself doing something like this.

I found myself in an eight-person team spanning three continents and five countries. The Project Armenia team was composed of UBMC former President Florrie Wallace, Bristol Uni Alumni Val Ismaili, Kim McGrenere, Graham McGrenere, Tadeh Karapetian, Aleksandra Wierzbowska, and Jasiek Kędzia, and myself Peter Rosso. I was desperately trying to learn all I could about bolting new climbing routes. "Commit and figure it out!" I messaged any developer I knew from local climbing walls until one of them agreed to mentor me.

Meanwhile, as a team, we were applying for sponsors and collect funding so that we would actually be able to afford the trip. Here’s a tip: don't be shy about asking - if you have an idea in mind and a story to tell, you might find someone willing to support you through your adventure.

Don't be shy about asking - if you have an idea in mind and a story to tell, you might find someone willing to support you through your adventure.

When you are preparing to set off for an adventure of this scale, time flies! Before  I could realise, it was time to fly to Armenia. Luggage was lost,  flights were delayed, and from day-one things started deviating from the plan.

The overwhelming potential for climbing required Val and I to set off on a scouting mission walking along the full extent of the cliff line to understand where to focus our works, quickly realising that the scale of these cliffs was larger than we had imagined.

Walls where likely nobody has ever been | Project Armenia / Aleksandra Wierzbowska

The weeks to come built up to be what I think was one of the best experiences of my life. I abseiled down walls where likely nobody has ever been. Slowly this made me realise the true scale of the walls we had in front of us. We slept through terrible thunderstorms to be woken up by beautiful cloud inversions. Blessed by the warm sun in the  morning, we were forced to hide in the shade at lunchtime. But  regardless of how things were going, it was beautiful to share this  experience with such a motivated team. I sweat and bled on those walls,  but I did it with people who are now close friends and hopefully will see again soon in Armenia.

To be woken up by beautiful cloud inversions | Project Armenia / Aleksandra Wierzbowska

Thinking that a few years ago I was learning how to tie a knot for the first time, it's mad. I want you to consider joining a society and be curious above all else. Ask questions, and learn as much as you can so that when adventure comes calling, you’ll be ready for it!

The expedition is now over, but #projectarmenia has just begun. The enormous area of rock is no longer hidden away unknown to climbers. We’ve equipped 23 routes which are ready to climb, but there are another 15 kilometres of cliff line ready for other adventurous climbers willing to take a gamble and try develop new lines. As Val said, “here's an open invite to any experienced or wannabe route developers - there's lots of rock waiting for you in Armenia!”

Featured: Project Armenia / Aleksandra Wierzbowska

If you want to hear more stories about the expedition, check out Project Armenia
Meanwhile, multiple talks are being set up.  One coming very soon - see Project Armenia: Mind your Head, and be sure to follow UBES/UMBC for more details.