Climbing in Armenia: A Journey to the Caucasus

Armenia is a real gem of a country, with a landscape that took us completely by surprise. Amazingly, the average elevation of Armenia is 1,792 meters above sea level, making it the 11th highest average elevation in the world. The country’s highest point is 4,090 meters and no point is below 390 meters. Anyone who loves mountains and being in nature is in for an absolute treat, Armenia is covered in stunning scenery and impressive geographical features.

Steep and narrow limestone valley with one side of the valley casting a shower on the other. There is blue sky with clouds.
Noravank in the spring sunshine

Currently (as of Spring 2022) there is no official guidebook for the rock climbing in Armenia. The best topos are found on Up The Rocks website. You can cross reference this with information on mountain project.

Climbing recommendations

Noravank

Noravank canyon is an impressive climbing area, with a seemingly endless amount of rock that is very easy to access. It is located 110 km south of Yerevan. There are around 66 documented routes here, most of which are sport, some trad and there are many Multipitches. The grades range from 5a to 8a. In Noravank it is possible to climb routes over 120 meters (or 5 pitches long) starting less than 10 meters from the road. The road through the canyon is essentially a dead end road, that only leads to a monastery, so there isn’t much traffic in the climbing season.

Climber on large pinnacle in a large canyon of black and brown tuff rock
Needle Factory, 6b

There are many great aspects to Noravank and very few downsides with one notable exception, loose rock. Depending on which area of the canyon you are in, the rock can vary from being totally solid to very chossy, a helmet for belaying is essential. Don’t be deterred, there is still a lot of great quality climbing. Just be aware that any new routes will need a lot of cleaning, and be careful on established routes after winter.

Climber on a vertical limestone route
Twins, 7b

There are lots of pleasant things about Noravank aside from climbing, including the beautiful stream, a Bronze Age archaeological cave, a famous monastery and a cool rock bar built inside a cave. The surrounding area is a beautiful part of Armenia, with lots of mountains, rock and a nearby local wine factory.

Hell’s Canyon is only 23 kilometres away, giving a lot of options to choose from in the area. Yeghegnadzor is a great base with many B and B options within a close proximity to Noravank and a 30 minute drive to Hell’s Canyon.

Person stood at the top of a symetrical staircase which is on the front of an orthodox church
Noravank monastery and its ornate staircase

Hell’s Canyon

Hell’s Canyon is another of Armenia’s most popular crags, with mostly sport climbing and a handful of trad and multipitch routes. There are around 30 routes here, between 5a and 8a. Just like Noravank, it has a huge potential for further development and the canyon is full of virgin rock. The canyon is in a peaceful valley, hidden a few hundred meters away from the main road and overlooked by a small chapel.

Climber on a route in the middle of a large wall
Nzhdeh, 6c, at the crux finish

Hell’s Canyon naturally lends itself to comparison with Noravank Canyon, the two both have their ups and downs. We really liked the tranquility of Hell’s canyon, you can’t hear the road and the area seems to receive almost no other visitors. We also found that in general, the rock at Hell’s Canyon is more solid and consistent than at Noravank. However, Noravank has the most impressive walls, more routes, more multipitches and easier access. Both are great places to climb and anybody on a climbing trip in Armenia should make sure to climb at both.

Rocky canyon opening out to grassy hills
A view from sector east, Hell’s Canyon

Ohanavan

Ohanavan is a peaceful climbing area situated immediately next to a river, with two sectors either side of the river. The rock is basalt (not columns), as well as what is seemingly limestone, and has some unique features and holds. There are around 34 routes, some sport and trad, some of which are still projects. The established routes are between 5a and 6b+, they are generally 20-27 meters long. Beware of visiting in the winter season or after heavy rain, as some routes start literally in the river bed!

Steep sided gorge with rocky cliffs either side
Ohanavan Gorge

Ohanavan would make a great warm weather venue, as one sector is east facing and the other west, you can follow shade as desired and jump in the river to cool off afterwards. Ohanavan is about 30km from the centre of Yerevan and around 11km from the climbing at Ashtarak. There is the opportunity for some pleasant short walks in the canyon as well as visiting the nearby Saghmosavank Monastery.

Ashtarak

Ashtarak is a beautiful canyon set in a small town around 25km from the centre of Yerevan. Despite its proximity to the capital, the canyon is a peaceful place to be, with lots of rock and a nice river. There are currently only 10 routes in Ashtarak, some are trad but most are sport, the grades range from 4b to 6c. However, the canyon has lots of beautiful unclimbed rock, a lot of which looks very hard. No doubt Ashtarak has the potential to become a much bigger area in the future. The rock in Ashtarak is basalt, but not in column formations, the climbing is an interesting style and involves lots of pocket pulling.

Large boulder with a smooth wall with pocketed rock around bare winter trees
A beautiful basalt boulder at Ashtarak

What really caught our eye are the boulders. Big, imposing and surprisingly clean boulders sit at the bottom of the canyon, only minutes walk from the road. The blocks have some striking arêtes, wall climbs and very steep overhangs. We would have had more fun in Ashtarak with a bouldering mat than we did with a rope. As far as we are aware, the boulders haven’t got any established problems, but even if there are some, there are definitely more waiting for their first ascent.

Banned Basalt Areas

We feel it is important to mention the ban on climbing basalt columns in Armenia. Up The Rocks make it clear that climbing on any Basalt columns in Armenia is forbidden. However, across the web this information is sometimes out of date or incorrect. Climbing access on the columns was always tenuous, however the full ban was heavily linked to international climbers ignoring the established ethics and placing bolts. Now visiting climbers (climbing on permitted crags) must be on their best behaviour so as to not jeopardise access to other crags.

Interesting basalt column formation, 3D long, geometric columns of different heights
The basalt (banned) at Garni

Arpa and Garni are the two main basalt areas and whilst climbing is banned, it is very worthwhile to take a walk in these areas and admire the stunning crags. Arpa was our favourite, around 40km from Noravank canyon, it is a stunning gorge in a remote and tranquil area. A dirt road runs through the bottom of the gorge beside the river and leads to the famous mineral water town of Jermuk. Whilst in awe at the rock, we can dream that the ban could one day be lifted. But whatever you do, DO NOT climb on them.

Interesting basalt column formation, 3D long, geometric columns of different heights along a cliff with a large grassy bank leading up to it
A small section of the enormous crag at Arpa (banned)

The Garni Gorge is one of the most popular tourist areas in Armenia, famous for the Garni temple, the basalt columns known as ‘The Symphony of Stones’ and the Geghard monastery. Despite the popularity of the area, in climbing season it wasn’t very busy and gives a pleasant rest day within easy reach of Yerevan. The monastery is one of the most ornate and interesting we visited in Armenia.

Greek style temple with large columns surround a building
The Garni temple
Stone carvings of two cat like animals with a lead around their neck and a vulture with a lamb in its grip. Carved out of the rock there is a beam of light from the ceiling illuminating the carvings.
Stone carvings at the Geghard Monastery

Dilijan National Park

Dilijan National Park is home to one of the most beautiful and impressive climbing areas in Armenia. The team at Project Armenia have put a lot of effort into developing climbing here, and no doubt there is still lots more to come from this area in the future. Unfortunately, due to the time of year we were in Armenia, and the altitude of the crags, we were unable to visit the climbing area in Dilijan National Park. We were very sad to miss out, but we have a great excuse to return to Armenia one day to climb here! The area was developed in 2019 and the team created a great website and downloadable guide. Make sure to check this area out if you are on a climbing trip in the Caucasus region.

Rest Day Activities

Wings of Tatev & The Tatev Monastery

The Wings of Tatev was built in 2010 and is the longest non-stop double track cable car in the world at 5.7 kilometres long (Guinness verified!). The wings take you to the Noravank monastery in around 12 minutes, which is impressive as the drive along the mountain pass takes around 40 minutes. The price is very reasonable, at roughly €13 for a return ticket, the monastery is free to enter.

Cable car cables running down the valley. The landscape is covered in snow and there is a snaking road down at the valley floor.
A view from the Wings of Tatev
An orthodox monastery covered with snow on the roof and on the ground. There are mountain peaks in the background.
The Tatev Monastery

The surrounding area is a beautiful and interesting part of Armenia, the nearby city of Goris is known for its historic cave dwellings. The area is very mountainous, with great views, hiking and natural oddities to see. For example, the Devil’s Bridge, a natural limestone bridge that is 30 meters long. The roads runs on top of the bridge, and the river disappears through the tunnel before coming out on the other side. When we visited the hot spring pools near the road and the top of the bridge were stagnant and dirty. However, if you know how to scramble there are some beautiful natural travertine pools in a grotto down by the start of the bridge. The water isn’t hot, but is still a nicer temperature to get in than the river flowing with snow melt!

Interesting travertines pools formed by the deposition of minerals in the water. The ceiling is low and filled with tufa like formations.
Travertine pools near the Devils Bridge

The river was teaming with fish and some local fishermen had large nets to cast over the shallows. The side of the bridge that leads to the Great Hermitage of Tatev was very quiet and was a different world from the monastery and road above. One solitary monk lives at the hermitage and the only way to visit is by walking, so solitude is almost guaranteed as evidently most people can’t be bothered! The walk to the hermitage follows the river through the canyon, where there were several horses, it seems they are used to take supplies to and from the hermitage.

A shallow river running out of a thin cave exit. On the side of the entrance of the cave there are interesting tufa like formations.
One side of the Devil’s Bridge

Vorotan Hot Spring

Before we visited Vorotan, the google reviews didn’t give us high expectations. Reports of rubbish making the hot spring unsuitable for bathing almost put us off going. We were pleasantly surprised to see someone had made a good effort to clean the spring up. Although there was still trash in the surrounding area, the spring was clean and pleasant to bathe in. In contrast, the hot spring pools near Devil’s Bridge (Tatev) which is well reviewed, was stagnant and full of rubbish. Sometimes a gamble pays off.

A concrete pool surrounded by reed like plants by the river. There is a bubbling source in the middle of the pool. In the background there are rocky cliffs.
The Vorotan hot spring

The water is comfortably warm and the spring is constantly pumping fresh water from the centre of the pool in a ‘jacuzzi style’ jet. What was a pleasant surprise for us was the rock in the area. While the basalt columns will be banned, near the old bridge and the river are several boulders of varying sizes. Some boulders are ready to climb, and some would need a lot of cleaning. With some effort, there could probably be at least 25 problems here at various grades, some of which would be quite good. There are several other thermal springs in Armenia, notable mentions being Jermuk and Hankavan.

Yerevan Blue Mosque

Armenia is famous for being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity, and during our time in Armenia we visited loads of churches and monasteries. Visiting the Blue Mosque, Armenia’s only functioning Mosque, is a great way to hear about the history of the region. It is an 18th century Shia Mosque, with beautifully ornate tiles on the outside.

Beautiful and ornate tiled mosque with a blue and mustard yellow dome with an islamic symbol on the top. The front of the building is also decorated with bright tiles and patterns. In front of the mosque is a well kept garden with some of the fruit trees in blossom.
The Yerevan Blue Mosque

What made our visit to the Mosque all the more enjoyable was being told about its history by a friendly Iranian-Armenian woman we met at the complex. She had an incredible knowledge of the Mosque as well as the relations and history between Iran and Armenia. She made us feel very welcome and we learned a lot from her that we wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan is known for being the largest body of water in the Caucasus region and it makes up 16 of Armenia’s Territory. Lake Sevan is at an altitude of 1,900 meters and is culturally and economically significant in Armenia, accounting for about 90% of the fish caught in the country. The lake is the perfect place for canoeing or kayaking, as well as swimming as part of an active rest day away from climbing.

A large alpine lake with snowy peaks in the background. In the foreground are large ice formations on the bank of the lake.
Lake Sevan in early spring

Armenian Cuisine

Armenian food is a reflection of the country’s rich and diverse history, with a variety of delicious dishes which vary from well known to regional specialities. A good place to start is when you are in the capital Yerevan. The GUM market has a range of produce to choose from, delicious dried fruit, freshly made lavash, fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, meat and almost anything else you could ever want. You will get a healthy amount of samples whilst browsing the market, so don’t go after a heavy lunch!

Large circled and flat bread with a decorative pattern on the top with some Armenian written on and a heart. The bread is glazed and has a shiny finish.
A beautifully decorated Armenian Gata

One of the more unusual and delicious dishes to try in Armenia is Harissa, a dish made from wheat and chicken. Harissa is often dubbed ‘chicken porridge’, which is essentially true, although Harissa is much tastier than any porridge you’ve eaten before! Another popular dish in Armenia is dolma, consisting of vine or cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice. Although many countries eat and lay claim to dolma, we did find the ones in Armenia to be especially good compared to others we’ve eaten in the past. Armenian’s are also excellent barbequers, and you will find barbecued meat, potatoes and vegetables at every restaurant in the country. Of course, there are many more delicious meals awaiting you in Armenia, but some things are more enjoyable to learn along the way.

Armenia has a very historical wine making culture, and alongside their neighbours in Georgia, have some of the oldest known wineries in the world. In fact, the Areni-1 winery is around 6,100 years old and was only discovered in 2007. The winery is in a cave at the mouth of Noravank Canyon, within walking distance of the climbing. The good news for visitors to the region is that there is a fully functioning winery nearby, so you can enjoy some 21st century tipple! Traditional Armenian wine was made in a Karas, a large egg shaped clay pot. Modern wine in the country is often made in oak barrels which gives the wine a unique flavour. Armenia is also renowned for other fruit wines, particularly pomegranate wine, which is totally different to anything we have drank before, and was very enjoyable.

Summary

We had a fantastic time in Armenia and we were very impressed at how so much is packed into a relatively small country. The climbing culture here is more distinct and developed than we expected, and this shines through in the high ethical standards of climbing in the country. Armenia is the least visited of the three trans-caucasus countries, as can be found on the world economic forum tourist index. This makes travelling through Armenia and quieter and more peaceful affair. Of course, there are downsides to this, things being difficult to find or on bad roads. However, we really enjoyed the ‘unspoilt’ feel much of Armenia has. Hopefully we have shown that Armenia has already got some great climbing, and still has much more to offer future visitors.

To read more about climbing in the Caucasus, you can read more articles here.

Revelant links and resources

Good information about the climbing and topos

https://www.uptherocks.com/index.php/rock-climbing-in-armenia/rock-climbing-topo-armenia

https://www.mountainproject.com/area/107317326/armenia

https://www.projectarmenia.co.uk

Information about the banned climbing areas in Armenia

https://www.uptherocks.com/index.php/armenia-basalt-column-climbing-ban

Useful information and resource for tourists visiting Armenia

4 thoughts on “Climbing in Armenia: A Journey to the Caucasus

  1. Dominic 29th May 2022 / 8:00 PM

    So many places to add to the Rockaroundtheworld to-do list – thanks for sharing 🙂 Cheers, Dom

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheCragJournal 29th May 2022 / 8:29 PM

      Thanks for the comment, likewise we’ve seen so many nice crags on your blog our to do list has practically doubled!

      Like

  2. Monkey's Tale 8th Jun 2022 / 6:43 PM

    The basalt formations are gorgeous, too bad you can’t climb on them, but I can also understand. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheCragJournal 8th Jun 2022 / 7:10 PM

      Thanks for your comment! It’s understandable, as climbers we can still appreciate the rock formations even if they’re banned for climbing on ☺️

      Liked by 1 person

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