Faint, but unmistakeable: the pre-dawn light is growing. Birdsong confirms this. Against my instincts, which tell me to get out of my sleeping bag and burst from the tent to soak up the sunrise, I roll over and go back to sleep.
I wake a second time. It’s cool and quiet. I lie still for a few minutes, listening to my breathing, noticing the sensation of my chest rising and falling. Then I blink, stretch, and with my right hand instinctively reach behind my head to the deflation valve of my air mattress. Ruthless, but it works.
My camping gear is quickly stuffed away. Outside, the sun is up but still hidden behind the mountains. I unclasp the kitchen box and rummage for the lighter, trying not to make a racket. Then I fill the pot from one of Georgina’s water tanks, set it on the gas stove, place a teabag in my mug, and open my laptop to write my journal, sitting in the wilderness on a folding chair with a 240-volt power supply and the world asleep around me.
Somebody yawns. A zip. I refill the pot and type faster.
Breakfast done, tent empty, the sun climbing rapidly as we discuss the plan for the day. We cross-reference Google Earth, Soviet military maps from the ‘70s, and OpenStreetMap, and compare it to what we’ve so far seen. We propose routes, set objectives, and agree on a pickup point and time. Georgina waits patiently.
Ale and Georgina disappear in a cloud of dust. I look at Zohrab. An architect by trade, he’s one of Armenia’s most experienced outdoor enthusiasts and has been bugging me to join a scouting trip for months. He’s packing 3 litres of water, a bandana, and some sesame seed bars. I’m carrying everything needed to survive an unplanned overnight on the mountain, enough medical supplies to look after a small African village for a year, and lunch.
Our mission to avoid passing through villages takes us on a traverse of the mountainside above Kapuyt, following overgrown animal tracks. I discover that big thorns help shrubs live longer by making passing creatures bleed. There’s something to follow, at least, but this bypass will need work.
We drop into a side valley. There’s a stream under some trees. We drink long. No sign of livestock between here and the mountaintop: the water is almost certainly potable. I pull out my smartphone and make a voice note. Then, round the next bend, we come across a collection of 12th-century carved stone crosses. Because you can’t go hiking in Armenia without tripping over an ancient relic or two.
We know that today’s biggest challenge is to find a safe route among the cliffs and crags on the far side of the bowl. Our aim is to reach the ridgecrest and descend to the next valley through a forest, where Ale will be waiting. Now, as we reach closer to the cliffs, it looks like there are enough patches of green among the pillars of rock to make an ascent up one of the gullies. We start zig-zagging up the hillside.
It’s steep – almost a 45 degree slope. The sun beats down. We pass two almond trees and a dead lizard, then take refuge in a cavern at the base of the rock for lunch (cheese, cucumber, rye crackers) and a nap.
The slope grows steeper – perhaps 50 degrees – as we enter a narrow gully between a sheer face and an outcrop of rock. The grass up here has been grazed: animal tracks, abundant cow shit and the discarded sole of a shoe. We pity the cowherd who had to hop back to Kapuyt from here, and continue pushing upwards.
We cannot continue without scaling a small overhang. Zohrab, an experienced climber with a tiny little backpack, dances up the holds and disappears over the ledge to scout ahead. I, an inexperienced climber, dump my big heavy pack on the ground to see if I too can dance up the holds. I find that I can. And that I cannot climb back down.
Zohrab returns to say that the gully splits and that the right fork looks passable. I tell him I made a mistake and left my pack at the foot of the climb. He dances back down the holds, carabiners my pack to a hiking pole, and I pull it up from above. The slope is now at least 60 degrees. We’re scrambling. Things remain comfortable. I pull out my phone and take a 360-degree photo.
Scrambling up a boulder field and pushing through hardy trees which have somehow managed to take root up here, we reach a second overhang. We’re up high now. The view down the gorge is dramatic; I notice a faint trail running diagonally up the opposite, wooded side of the valley that wasn’t visible before, and make a mental note. In the meantime, Zohrab is confident we can tackle this problem. Well – I’d always wanted to get into bouldering.
Overhang conquered. The top of the cliff looks to be no more than 10 metres above us. But we cannot climb the crumbly subsoil of the meadow beyond the crest, which rises vertically above us. But I am still in doubt of my ability to descend. We take a rest in a patch of stinging nettles on the 70-degree slope. I ask Zohrab if he’d like some peanuts.
It’s late, but after half an hour of deliberating, we choose to descend, despite being so close to the top, rather than bivvy in a patch of stinging nettles on a 70-degree slope. Zohrab swings easily over the overhang, entire left arm inserted into a crevice for friction. I am surprised when I too swing easily over the overhang. Another challenge overcome; another learning opportunity taken. We start to scramble slowly back down the gorge. Today has turned out spectacularly well.
We discover that the left hand fork would have taken us easily to the top all along. Damn.
We summit. Zohrab screams. The perspective change is phenomenal – one moment grass and rock and earth so close I can taste it; the next a panoramic view that seems to reach into the next country and probably does. I cackle uncontrollably, then take another 360 degree photo. My phone dies.
We drain the last of our water. With two hours of usable light left, our priority is to get down as soon as possible. I radio Ale, who should be waiting in the village we can see about 3km away at the bottom of the next valley. No response. We start marching down from the bald ridge, whacking the dry grass and rocks with our poles. Two snakes wriggle away from our passage. Then we are again among greenery and wildflowers.
Zohrab thinks it will be easy to drop down through the oak forest that separates us from the valley floor. I disagree, but remain quiet. Five minutes of clambering through undergrowth is all it takes to convince him. We start back up towards the ridge, where we’d previously seen a faint jeep track heading downhill, though it isn’t clear where it goes, as it’s not on any of our maps.
Ale finally responds over the radio. I give him our coordinates and tell him we’re on our way down but that the pick-up point has changed. I say we’ll be another hour at least. We continue marching along the jeep track, which winds down along the top of the cliffs to level ground and begins to descend back into the valley we’ve just spent a full day climbing.
The light is fading. We’re still marching through a blank space on the map. Ale radios in to say he’s on his way up the valley below. He asks if we can see him flashing Georgina’s headlights. Spotting two distant points of white, I reply that we can. The post-sunset glow is intoxicating. I let my eyes adjust to the twilight, trusting my feet to know where to put themselves, enjoying each and every moment. My headtorch stays off.
Deep in the bottom of the valley, having spent the last hour hiking in pitch darkness, we round the base of a small hill to find that Ale has parked Georgina in the least visible place possible. To make up for it, he’s mixed a jar of homemade cherry syrup with a litre of ice-cold water for us to drink – as we arrive at the end of another day of scouting the future route of the Transcaucasian Trail; tired, satisfied, having not found the path we were looking for but discovered several more; paving the way for another day of hiking and exploring the forgotten corners of the Caucasus.
Yes – it’s a tough job. But somebody’s got to do it.