An Unpredictable Hike To An Alpine Lake In Armenia

Tsaghkhari Lake, Meghri Pass, Syunik

May is an ambiguous time of the year. For most people, it’s when the sun gets warm enough to consider not wearing a jacket, when the light lasts till after happy hour, and when the scenery becomes vibrant, filled with all hues from trees and flowers.

For me, adding onto those reasons, May is the time I can start to think about longer and higher hikes, after about 6 months of pause that transformed my legs into logs.

This specific May I had planned a trip to Armenia, one so full of interests that it would last two months. I was in Armenia for a photography trip, meaning to partake in many different projects all over the country, from the more culturally focused ones to the more place oriented.

Hiking was definitely a part of my plans. Armenia has a long but underdeveloped system of hiking tracks that run through all regions, even combining with Georgia in an effort to make a trail called “Transcaucasian Trail”. But that’s for another story.

Thought as a way to take breaks in between my main projects in the country, I had planned a few hikes in various areas. By the time late May arrived and the snow mostly dissolved as far as I could see, I knew I had my chance to attempt the first hike of the season.

I was staying in Southern Armenia, so close to the Iranian border that I could see its mountains across the river. 

Meghri, Syunik, Armenia
The town of Meghri

The whole trip up to that point had consisted of gloomy, rainy days, leading me to wait for a break to get out in the mountains. That day, the sun was finally out. 
The temperature being 7 degrees wasn’t encouraging, especially at 2000m asl, but the direct impact of the sun made it more manageable.

The hike was a short but intense one. I intended to reach the Tsaghkari Lake, situated 3300m asl, by going up the mostly straight and steep valley on the border with the Azerbaijan exclave.

I set out for the starting place of the hike, the Meghri Pass, a 2500m asl mountain pass that connected the very isolated Armenian town of Meghri to the rest of the country.

This route also connects Iran with Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus as the main artery of heavy transportation. Whilst reaching the pass, I had to beware of the long lines of imperceptibly moving trucks, as they signaled the road to be clear ahead with their blinkers, allowing me to overtake.

Start Of The Hike

The fresh air of the pass eased my mind, leaving in the car all the worries about preparation and planning. I was ready.

The hike wasn’t difficult. It’s a round trip of about 16km and 800m of both ascent and descent total. It’s intense, but not too long. Plus, I wasn’t planning on staying up there for the night, so I only took my daily backpack with my camera gear and a few necessities.

Hiking in Armenia, Tsaghkari Lake, Syunik

As I started hiking and getting further into the valley, sprawling from the pass and towards the peaks of the Zangezur Mountains, I remembered why hiking is such a conflicting experience for me.

I love exploring on foot, earning the ground and getting to a destination slowly, but I absolutely hate the ascent. Despite being a fit person, with a background of sports since I was five, my calves crumble every time I embark on one of these journeys.

There are plenty of people who hike because they love walking – I am not one of them. I hike because I like exploring and looking around, therefore I take my time to stop, take it all in, and eventually move on.

It turns out, that’s not optimal for this activity.

Hiking in Armenia, Tsaghkari Lake, Syunik

Luckily, as I said before, this hike isn’t too long. As I reached the center of the steep valley, a view of the higher peaks opened up, seemingly so far away.

The track, which could be used by equipped cars with experienced drivers to get to the Lake, goes from the left side to the right side ever so frequently, making the ascent slightly more manageable.

Weather In The Mountains Is Unpredictable

About one hour into the hike, the bright sun started to fade, getting covered by dark charged clouds in the direction of the lake. The forecast didn’t mention rain, and being already there, my alarms didn’t ring.

Just a few minutes later, the peaks got covered by the clouds, making me lose my guiding star at the horizon.

Where I was, still quite a way to go to reach the lake, the scenery was unreal. Rugged cliffs and mountains on both sides protect the valley and separate it from a series of other valleys just like this, so typical of the Zangezur Mountains.

Hiking in Armenia, Tsaghkari Lake, Syunik

The vibrant green slopes were only interrupted by fields of white flowers and the constant river flowing through the middle, starting right from my final destination.

The further I went, the thicker the dark curtain of clouds got. Behind me, towards the pass I started from, the sun was still shining. It felt so close, yet so far.

With the worsening weather, the air sent chills down my spine, closing in on zero degrees at that point.

Hiking in Armenia, Tsaghkari Lake, Syunik

Ice Crossing

After turning a corner, I finally saw the peaks above the lake, signaling the border with Azerbaijan. Now closer than ever, a new obstacle presented itself – ice.

My prediction was correct. Most of the snow had melted on the ground, only topping the surrounding mountaintops, but by luck or lack thereof, a huge side of snow and ice was covering the path in front of me for about 20 meters.

Hiking in Armenia, Tsaghkari Lake, Syunik

To the right, the secluded glacier went up to the top of the mountain, while to the left, it followed the steep slope until the river. It looked like it got thinner towards the river, but the descent from the path was unmanageable.

As I stood there, pondering on what to do and how to cross it, raindrops started appearing on my jacket.

I’ll admit, I was under equipped. My jacket wasn’t waterproof or heavy, and I only had a shirt below it. The freezing temperature paired with the snow quickly took a toll on me, as I had to concentrate heavily just to breathe properly.
Most people who are used to being in the mountains know that rain comes quickly, and it can get heavy out of nowhere.

At that point, I only had three options: start heading back down, wait it out, or cross the glacier to get to the lake. The latter was theoretically possible, but the risk was too high, as the steepness of it made me fear crossing it even without the rain.

With the lake less than 500m away, it felt like the worst place and time to turn around and call it a day. It wasn’t possible for me to just try the following day, as the weather was about to get worse.

Naturally, I decided to wait it out, hoping for it to stop as I froze there.

After 10 minutes of heavy rain, it starts hailing hard. As if things couldn’t get worse. At that point, I considered heading down. There was no rock to duck under, no tree or any other improvised shelter, so not only it was cold, but it hurt too.

Experience told me that hail only lasts a few minutes, after which the rain calms down. I hoped it to be true that time.
After what felt like the longest 5 minutes ever, the hail stopped, and only a slight rain was left instead. Drenched and colder than I had ever been, I gathered what was left of my willpower and decided to cross the glacier.

The only way to do it was to dig into the hard snow with my boots and use the holes as platforms to stand on. It was terrifying. The steepness of the glacier only worsened when I reached the center, in a limbo between life and death.
It only took 5 more minutes to cross, and with the rush of adrenaline from it I could push through and head towards the lake.

Hiking in Armenia, Tsaghkari Lake, Syunik

At Last, Tsaghkari Lake

A slight descent before the final steep ascent, towards where the lake had so narrowly been able to hide.
As I begged my body to hold on, there it was. Tsaghkari Lake, in all its beauty, appeared before my eyes, still mostly frozen.

Hiking in Armenia, Tsaghkari Lake, Syunik

I sat down, forgetting that the lake was even there, just to recuperate a tiny bit of lifeblood.

I had no way to get dry, and despite the rain stopping, the wind was blowing in the valley. It was dangerously cold.

There was no way I was heading down without taking photos and flying my drone. My mind was stuck with the idea that without the sun, it wasn’t worth it to fly the drone. I then waited for a whole hour for the sky to clear, freezing near the lake, doing a handful of push-ups with the strength I had left to warm me up.

Despite my efforts, the sun didn’t come through, and it was getting late.

I decided to fly the drone anyway, exploring the area on all sides. I wasn’t able to appreciate it fully at the time, partly for the condition I was in, and partly for the lack of light, but it was a real spectacle.

The valley is simply stunning.

Tsaghkari Lake in Armenia in the Zangezur Mountains
Tsaghkari Lake in Armenia in the Zangezur Mountains

After landing back on earth, I headed down, not without giving a last look to the lake. I promised I’ll be back.

The descent was made difficult by the thick fog that swarmed the valley, making it quite creepy but atmospheric. I was late, and my view was getting darker.

Before the night arrived, as I was less than 30 minutes away from the car, another quick storm entered the valley, drenching me just as I had dried from the previous. At that point I just laughed.

When I finally reached the car, one of the most powerful feelings of gratitude overtook my body. I changed into dry clothes, warmed up the interiors, and headed to my stay for the night.

Pushing Limits

There are a few things to take from this tale. The first is that no matter how much you plan, things in the mountains can always change. I assumed that there was no snow left, and I assumed that it wasn’t going to rain.

Mother Nature made me pay. From then on out, I always bring more gear, especially if I’m heading to places where I’m the only one around, which is most of the time.

The second reflection is more mental. What if I had turned back? In the short term, I wouldn’t have gotten the photos I had set out to get, after only being 500m away from the destination.

As a more long term consequence, a switch might have flicked in my brain, signaling me to turn back again the next time I was in a similar situation. If not even turning back before I got into it.

Now, I am grateful for the effort I gave. It might now always be smart to push boundaries, to a certain extent, but it is how we grow and obtain more out of life.

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