November 4, 2021
Climbing in Armenia is a young sport but like its growing hiking scene, changing political environment and tech start-up industry, climbing is developing fast! Landlocked between Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, you may wonder what the country looks like on the ground. Dense lush forests, dry barren gorges, steppe-like plateaus and even volcanic mountains, Armenia has got a bit of everything.
In 2017 I found myself on my way to Armenia for the first time. Earlier in the year, I came across an article in a Wizz Air magazine about a group of explorers designing and building a new 1500km long-distance trail through Armenia and Georgia, known as The Transcaucasian Trail (TCT). At the time, nobody had attempted to walk the full proposed route; they hadn’t even actually finished scouting the route. Slowly exploring a new part of the world on foot to try and complete the first thru-hike of the TCT and contribute to its long-term design all sounded like a real adventure to me. I spent four months in the region and fell in love with the hospitality of everyone I met, the food, the depth of history and most of all the extraordinary landscape.
The cliffs of Dilijan, captured during the first trail-building camps of the Transcaucasian Trail in 2017. © Tom Allen
During this first trip out to Armenia, I came across these enormous limestone cliffs in the north of the country above the old Soviet era spa town of Dilijan. At 2000m above sea level, the stunning cliffs loom over the broadleaf forest of Dilijan National Park and seemed like they would offer a real backcountry experience to climbers. After putting a team of friends together from the UK, Italy, Canada, Australia and Poland, we ended up among these cliffs spoiled for choice on the 15 kilometres of cliff line with walls up to 400m tall. We chose to focus our six weeks of new routing efforts on a small stretch of the cliff line centred around a Bisetka (picnic shelter) and managed to put up twenty-three routes with grades ranging from 5 to 8b (and a handful of trad routes). The area that we named Bisetktor, offers some spectacular slab climbing, big multipitch trad routes and steep, hard single pitch all within a few minutes’ walk of each other.
Kim McGrenere approaches the anchors on the first ascent of The Passing Lane (7a+), at the Empress Slabs, Dilijan. © Graham McGrenere
The climbing in Dilijan is on limestone which naturally yields a vast diversity of movement. In Shady Water Gully, climbs tend to be characterised by hard, boulder cruxes on crimps, pinches, and pockets, separated by less difficult terrain. At The Empress Slabs, there is also a diversity of hold types and movements, though the difficulties become more pronounced where the features grow sparse. Though the small quantity of routes currently in existence in Dilijan may not justify a climbing-only holiday, the sheer beauty of the place with its almost daily cloud inversions and the high chance of meeting friendly locals as well as the vast potential for more routes, makes the place stand out for those looking for a more backcountry and adventurous climbing experience.
Graham McGrenere climbing Bullet Through My Flo (7c), an immaculate slab route at The Empress Slabs in the Bisetktor sector of Dilijan. © Kim McGrenere
Dilijan is by no means the only place to climb in Armenia. There is rock everywhere! Mkhitar Mkhitaryan and UpTheRocks were the first to develop climbing in Armenia. Most of their efforts have been focused on Noravank Canyon which contains about a third of all the routes in the country. A paved road running through the canyon to the tourist site of Noravank Monastery provides roadside access to the climbing. The climbing here is technical conglomerate-topped limestone pockets and edges. The nearby town of Areni is famous for its wine; just about everywhere you look you can see a roadside wine stall selling homemade wine in coca cola bottles for absurdly cheap prices.
Graham escaping a bad weather spell in Dilijan to climb some of the existing routes at Noravank Canyon. © Janek Kedzia
There are a few other crags dotted around the country including Hell’s Canyon and Kaghsi. The latter is a new area being developed by local guide and developer Luca Keushguerian who joined us in the development project in Dilijan. If you’re in need of a local guide or want some recommendations on what or where to climb in Armenia, get in touch with Luca.
The summers are hot in Armenia! Temperatures can go well over 30C making summer climbing quite challenging. Dilijan weather can be quite changeable as it’s the high point of the region, so mornings and evenings still get quite cold during the summer. Your best seasons tend to the border months of summer where temperatures are a little cooler but the weather is still stable enough.
Peter Rosso going for the first ascent on Pressure Pump 7a at the Shady Water Gully wall in Dilijan on the final day of Project Armenia expedition. © Kim McGrenere
During and after our trip to Dilijan in which we bolted routes within the National Park, I began to reflect on the impact of climbing on these otherwise untouched cliffs. The surrounding landscape has been worked by locals for years, but the cliffs themselves have not been. In my mind, promoting climbing in remote area like Dilijan has some contrasting effects. On one hand the country has embraced outdoor tourism with the recent growth of hiking trails, hostels and maps leading to opportunities for Armenians across the country so the development of climbing seems like a natural extension. The other side is that one part of the appeal of climbing in places like Dilijan is you feel like you’re really out there far from the infrastructure of other touristic places. How do you help guide the development of these areas so that the original appeal of the place is not lost? Or is it none of our business and local people should be able to develop and build to capitalise on tourism opportunities? Those are questions worth considering when deciding to develop anew climbing sector in a remote area.
Either way, climbing in Armenia is a young but growing sport, and has a fantastic array of rock types in a country with amazing food, landscapes and people – it’s worth a trip!
Cows grazing in front of an unclimbed part of the cliffs at Dilijan © Val Ismaili.
A big thanks to Val Ismaili for writing this piece and the photos. Make sure to check out the Project Armenia website
You can also find a free downloadable guide of the climbing in Dilijan, produced by Project Armenia: www.projectarmenia.co.uk/guide
Cover photo caption: Graham McGrenere climbing Khosrov Kotak (8a), in Titan Rock, Noravank Canyon, Armenia. © Janek Kedzia
Top photo caption: Kim McGrenere bolting Lil'Swolie (6c+), on the Empress Slabs, Bistekor, Dilijan. © Janek Kedzia