A few years ago I rebuilt my grandfather's house in Kaghsi, a small village in the Kotayk region. I spend my summers there, occasionally organize events, invite friends to come and hang out in my beautiful shady garden during the summer heat, etc. Earlier this summer, I was looking for people with interesting ideas to help me put the name of my little house on the map. It's called Tunik-Bunik, a one-room house/loft sitting under some heavy-set basalt cliffs and surrounded by 3000 meters of land.
One sunny morning I posted on Facebook about my land and the house and a few people responded with their ideas. And one of them was Luca Keushguerian, an experienced rock climber who had just returned to Armenia from the US, to settle down here and build a business. Luca first came to Kaghsi with his father, Vahe Keushguerian, a famous winemaker in Armenia and a well-respected repat. On his second visit, we spent some time sitting in the house and chatting about his ideas, plans, aspirations, and hopes.
Luca: I'm 26, half Armenian and half American. My mom’s a schoolteacher. And my father is a winemaker. And I have a twin sister, who joined the family business. I grew up all over the place, first 12 years in Italy, then moved to US, Maine. And halfway through high school, my dad came up with an idea to move to Armenia for a year, he was probably bored in Maine.
While we were living in Armenia, all of us, including the family cat, I was looking for something, a hobby or sports, and my dad suggested rock climbing. Back then there was one practicing rock climber in Armenia, Mkhitar Mkhitaryan. I was instantly hooked. During that one year, he taught me all the basics. Apart from me, he’s the most experienced climber in Armenia and he developed most of the routes here.
What was the most impactful experience you've had so far?
Luca: The most impactful experience I had in my life was climbing mount Ararat during the last days of my stay.
I went back to the US and soon after came time to go to college. I realized I wanted to learn outdoor education and become a guide. I went to college in Vermont and spent all of my free time climbing outside as much as I could. As I graduated I moved to Kentucky to be a full-time climbing guide. The entire time I’d always been thinking and planning to move back to Armenia, and help develop climbing in Armenia. I had a strong connection with the land as I fell in love with the mountains when I first learned climbing here.
What's the reason you want to establish a climbing culture?
Luca: Actually, there is quite a history of climbing in Armenia. Back in the day, it was funded by the state: once the Soviet Union fell apart it kind of died with it. The biggest reason why I am doing it is there’s a need for more climbing routes closer to Yerevan. Now they’re all near Areni, and too far away for people to get there. Hell’s Canyon is by Shiva, 20 min before Noravanq. The climbing is geared for experienced climbers, not beginners. I am interested in developing routes for beginners. I’ve been climbing for 10 years now and route developing for three years. I've also been developing boulder problems for 6 years. I'm a very experienced climber and my climbing abilities are way above general knowledge.
What's needed to start rock climbing as an individual in Armenia?
Luca: In a country where climbing is established, USA, France, they start in a gym. You go three, you rent everything you need - super easy. In a place like this, where there are no climbing gyms, you essentially need to know someone who rock climbs. They give you the gear and teach the basics. So, I am going to be teaching people how to climb on real rocks. I’ll give them the gear and teach them the basics.
Also, Armenia is lacking the infrastructure for climbing. Most places to climb in the US have well-maintained trails, signs, toilets, etc. Climbers coalitions help maintain it in some countries, In the US its national parks. Climbers’ coalitions also play a role in developing/maintaining infrastructure in the US as well and a lot of volunteer work.
Do foreign climbers come to Armenia at all?
Luca: Yes. A lot of French and Czech climbers come and stay for a week or two, develop some routs and go. There are a few local climbers that are dedicated to developing the sport. They got a fund from the Awesome Foundation and developed a route near Ohanavan. It’s very nice - I’ve been there.
What's the problem with developing the sport in Armenia?
Luca: Armenia is stuck in a loophole: there aren’t enough climbers to develop the routs and there are not enough routs to keep climbers interested, I guess. There are fewer than 200 routs in Armenia, which is ridiculously little. I have been reaching out to hiking organizations; Hike Armenia and others for collaboration. The problem is that there aren’t enough climbers yet that are willing to do the work.
When you talk to people about rock climbing, what's their reaction?
Luca: Not too positive. Armenians are not risky sport-loving people. On the one hand, some people want their kids to live a good life, stay in the city and don’t take risks. On the other hand, it’s way dangerous to be in a car in Yerevan then climb a rock. If done properly, rock climbing is not as risky/dangerous as it may appear. Recently, rock climbing has become a very attractive business all over the world. There are climbing gyms popping up everywhere these days. The reasons why parents like the climbing gym are because it’s safe and there’s padding. They are comfortable leaving their kids in the gym for hours and/or climbing with them.
How do you attract professional climbers?
Luca: The way you attract climbers in the area you need a few things: A range of routes with different difficulties. Routs with cool names (generally the person who climbs the rout first gets to name it). Easily available information on climbs and the area. Online information about the routes : mountproject.com
What's your favorite crag in Armenia?
Luca: What's my favorite crag in Armenia? My most favorite hasn't been found yet. There is so much unexplored rock that's just waiting to be found!