Climbing Armenia’s Basalt Columns – BANNED!

But Why? - An interview with Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, founder and promotor of "Up the Rocks", the group responsible for the press release publicizing the ban. While climbing at my local crag, a basalt quarry in Germany, I met an enthusiastic woman responsible for establishing a slew of the lines I had enjoyed pawing up. After [...]

But Why? – An interview with Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, founder and promotor of “Up the Rocks”, the group responsible for the press release publicizing the ban.

While climbing at my local crag, a basalt quarry in Germany, I met an enthusiastic woman responsible for establishing a slew of the lines I had enjoyed pawing up. After a few minutes of this crimp to this sloper to the crux talk, she quickly diverted the conversation into a climbers’ travel destination to-do list; Armenia, “Beautiful, overhung basalt columns resembling a church organ’s pipes”.

With the power of facebook, we legitimized our friendship and she recommended I also become friends with Mkhitar Mkhitaryan. At the time, my conservative facebook photo stalking led me to believe Mkhitar was just another one of us enthusiastic climbers with pride for his nation’s aesthetic rock. It turns out Mkhitar is the founder and promotor of “Up the Rocks”, a local Armenian climbing club. His pictures of Armenia’s basalt columns were like nothing I had ever seen before and I had every intention of visiting this spring or fall. SCREEEECCCCHHHH…

May 5, 2013. A press release from Up the Rocks, the local Armenian climbing club, infiltrates the internet and climbing community – “Rock climbing on the Basalt Columns of Armenia is BANNED”.

My heart dropped for a second, and as other climbers can empathize, my desire to climb them was exacerbated. I immediately reached out to Mhkitar to try to get a better understanding of the ban. We had a casual Q&A and I invite you to take part by posting a comment below.

Interview with Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, Founder and Promoter of “Up the Rocks”

May 7, 2013

How did these unique geological formations, resembling a church organ of sorts, form? I’m not the expert on this but they say that crystals of the magma have a hexagonal shape and when it starts to freeze it cracks like it’s crystals are and forms these hexagonal columns.

What species of animals are endangered by climbing access? It’s basically few different families of poisonous vipers. On the basalt columns are nesting swallows and eagles on the basalt formations above the columns.

What survey or scientific research supports the claim that climbers endangered the animals? I recall there being a mention of birds using the columns for nesting, do they do so seasonally? If so, why was the ban not limited to the opposing seasons of nesting like other world-class climbing areas? As the climbing was new and not popular, [not] any research for that have been made. We didn’t want to apply for the research or the permit to climb on them until we [after we] first found the style of climbing with minimal impact on the rocks. Even if the birds’ topic is seasonal, the climbing can’t be allowed seasonally because its not only due to the birds.

Who/What groups were responsible for the ban? And how does Armenia plan on enforcing such a ban? The climbing has always been illegal on the columns, rather it is forbidden now. The officials, and the, civil eco-movements who signed under the statement, kind of were closing their eyes, trusting us [Up the Rocks] to develop a harmless climbing style on basalt columns, to introuduce them [to the community] and [ require] a permit. If the foreign climbers can’t respect our nature as we do, and care for the basalt columns as we do, then its obvious for us that it shoud be banned, rock climbing is not the most importand thing. We ask climbing magazines/websites not to publish photos or articles of climbing on the Basalt Columns of Armenia. We also ask climbing gear producers not to sponsor climbers to come to Armenia to climb on the Basalt Columns.

Understandably, the Basalt climbing ban will create a negative impact on tourism dollars for Armenia. What other climbing sectors can you recommend in Armenia that would attract a traveler, half the globe away? The basalt columns climbing so far hasn’t seen any touristic income cause it was not popular, and trying to keep it open we didn’t think about it at all, just to give some dedicated climbers opportunity to enjoy climbing on them without putting a harming impact on them! And thats why we never thought about touristic benefits, the high climbing traffic would definitely affect the rocks and wildlife. Armenia is a rocky country, so everywhere else you can find other types of basalt and limestone formations. So far the best developed places are Noravanq and Hell’s canyons.

Am I upset that I can’t climb these aesthetic columns? Of course. Can I do anything about it? No. Armenia has every right to unilaterally ban climbing on its lands. The columns are on land that is indeed a protected monument. This is a very painful lesson in how one climber’s lack of adherence to local climbing ethics can negatively impact an entire climbing community. Don’t be a jerk and try to get away with climbing here and remember to always follow local climbing ethics when climbing in a foreign environment. Don’t be that guy/girl. Just don’t.

A special thanks to Mkhitar Mkhitaryan for his time and patience. Hope to see you on the sharp end, Mkhitar!

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Ilana is a native of Southern California. She is an accomplished rock and ice climber and is the brains behind Thrillseekers Anonymous. Currently residing in Colorado, she is a Registered Surgical/Trauma Nurse, who can be found leading her own adventures on days off. Ilana is a sponsored athlete with GoMacro, WoolX, and an Arcteryx Denver ambassador. She has been featured in various media outlets including the February 2015 issue of ‘Climbing’ magazine, December 2013 issue of ‘Rock and Ice’ magazine, December/January 2013 issue of ‘Gripped Climbing’ magazine, Canyoneering: A Guide to Techniques for Wet and Dry Canyons (How To Climb Series) by Dave Black and Pasadena Magazine as well as a Climbing Expert on MTV’s Parental Control (Season 7 – “Heather”).

Ilana has written 110 articles for Thrillseekers Anonymous.

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