Ararat Redux: Abovian, Prof. Parrot and First Ascent

A sketch by Parrot of Ararat and Echmiadzin

By Philip P. Ketchian

The history of Mount Ararat abounds with accounts of explorers and adventurers taking up the challenge of scaling its fabled summit. Absent, however, are any signs of abatement in the interest and the controversy surrounding its first ascent that would dog Prof. Friedrich Parrot and Khatchadur Abovian to the end of their days, as evidenced by Edward Peck’s article, “Ararat: Another Controversial First Ascent,” published in the British Alpine Journal (2002, Vol. 107, pp. 207-215). I would like to take this opportunity to introduce some additional information that may inject some clarity into the subject from sources that exist only in the Russian and the Armenian languages. It will be seen that the long-forgotten account of the Russian adventurer Spassky- Avtonomov confirms Parrot’s successful pioneering first ascent of the peak.

As is well known, it was only on their third attempt on October 9 (September 27, by the Old Style Julian calendar), 1829, that University of Dorpat (presently Tartu, Estonia) physics professor, Friedrich Parrot, and Khatchadur Abovian, together with two Armenian villagers from Agori on Mt. Ararat, Hovannes Aivazian and Murat Boghossian, as well as two Russian soldiers, Alexei Zdorovenko and Matvei Chalpanov, successfully ascended the western summit of Mt. Ararat at 16,854 feet (5,937 meters) above sea level.

Parrot had met Abovian at Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Church, where he was employed as a clerk and translator to the catholicos, the head of the Armenian Church. Parrot’s report of the successful ascent was first published on October 30 in the Russian-language weekly, Tiflis Chronicles. The full account of the expedition appeared in his book, Reise zum Ararat in 1834, translated into English in 1845 as Journey to Ararat.

In his book, Parrot writes that the controversy was given credibility by an article appearing in 1831 in the Tiflis Chronicles in which “… a man belonging to the educated European public, a man of merit in his way … was the first to cast a stone against me, and in a published commentary to insist on the impossibility of the fact asserted by me.” Parrot did respond in writing to the charges in the Tiflis Chronicles and also initiated an action to take sworn depositions from the members of his summitting party and from the Agori village chief Stepan Khojiants, who had accompanied Parrot on his unsuccessful second attempt a week earlier where they had reached a respectable altitude of 16,028 feet, and where they had erected a wooden cross bearing a lead plaque.

The deposition from Melik Stepan Aga (Stepan Khojiants) was taken on October 24, 1831. His statement was mostly inconsequential to the matter at hand, since he did not participate in the third attempt. However, his secondhand comments on the cross erected during the third attempt being placed “…in respect to distance not higher than the first,” was only partially correct and contributed to setting a negative spin. That cross was deliberately not placed on the actual summit pyramid by Abovian, but somewhat lower in a location to be better observed from Agori.

Villager Murat Poghossian was questioned three days later. He stated, “We were not on the very summit, and could not get there, because further on there is no snow lying, but only ice; and besides, the steepness of the slope allows no further progress.” This statement reaches us after being translated from Armenian into Russian, into German and finally into English and is what doubters cling to as proof of their arguments. Nevertheless, it appears that Aivazian was uncomfortable with the turn of events but reluctantly concurred with Poghossian. Hovannes Aivazian’s deposition is said to be “simply confirmatory of his comrade’s.”

Be that as it may, Abovian had noted in his diary that some days following the successful ascent, Aivazian and Boghossian had approached him to voice their concern regarding the disbelief and harassment that they were being subjected to by some officials and clergymen for claiming to have climbed to the summit. They also mentioned being concerned for their safety, insisting that if this continued, they could be pressured to renege on the truth if they did not receive adequate protection from the authorities. It is not clear whether Abovian related these concerns to Parrot, although it appears not. Thus the stage had been set for what eventually occurred.

The two Russian soldiers Zdorovenko and Chalpanov, however, were under no such pressure and did confirm the fact of reaching the summit. On November 2, 1831, Chalpanov stated, “I was, in fact, with Professor Parrot on the top of Mount Ararat in the month of September, 1829.” Zdorovenko’s statement was “…exactly similar in all points to that given above.”

Ultimately, it is Abovian’s statement that is of prime importance to the matter at hand, for he was highly intelligent and educated, as well as the one in a position to provide the authorities with a credible and factual account of the events of the day. Abovian presented himself at the courthouse in Dorpat, where he was studying, on August 30, 1831. Asked whether he had personally been on the summit of Ararat with Parrot on October 9, 1829, Abovian emphatically answered, “Yes.” To the second question, asking from where the expedition started, Abovian responded that they had set out from the Monastery of St. Jacob, which was located at an elevation of 6,375 feet, and reached the top of the summit on the following day. Another question asked was at what time they had been on the summit; to which Abovian replied, “In the afternoon.” Finally, he was asked what they had done on the summit. Abovian related that he had erected a cross while Parrot, standing on the very top of the peak, took measurements with his scientific instruments. It is, however, unclear why Abovian’s official deposition was not included in Parrot’s Reise zum Ararat in 1834, for they were both in Dorpat and had close personal relations at the time. He thereby missed an opportunity to put an end to the quibbling that would follow. Abovian’s deposition was eventually published in St. Petersburgische Zeitung in 1835.

Soon after the climb, Abovian would write about the final push as follows:

“We had been mercilessly suffering such various difficulties that when the pinnacle of the mountain appeared not far from us, each one of us, one after the other, headed in that direction, not taking any notice at the moment of any difficulties and not considering their exhaustion, they were hurrying and hastening to see the spot desired by so many. It appeared as if we were winging up the slope to the sky, toward where the summit was. Our hopeless legs and wobbly knees had gained momentum and were soaring upward, toward the astonishing aerie. Wonders came to view, in addition to our joyous desires that led us to rejoice, towards the birthplace of the entire world. Our souls were enveloped with happiness and were overcome by unimaginable gaiety; we began to run about in this and that direction to view the lower-lying valleys and ridges. One was amazed by the height of the mountain, the other was attempting to observe faraway places, and words of gratitude and blessing were pouring forth in our dialect from their mouths.”

Abovian’s first and repeat ascents of Ararat, in addition to his subsequent first ascent of 13,435 ft. (4,095 meters) Mt. Aragats while accompanying University of Munich’s Prof. Moritz Wagner, firmly establish him as the father of Armenian mountaineering. After returning to Armenia from his university studies in Dorpat, Abovian established himself as a progressive educator and the premier national man of modern letters.

Parrot had met the young Khatchadur Abovian at Echmiadzin. It is interesting that later in 1844 Abovian also accompanied Herrmann von Abich, a professor of mineralogy at the same University of Dorpat as Parrot, to Ararat. They made three unsuccessful attempts together, having been turned back by violent storms just short of the summit. During one of the attempts, they erected a cross short of the summit. The following year, however, Abich, accompanied by Peter Sharoyan, a student of Abovian’s, and two other Armenian guides, was successful in ascending the eastern summit. One of his guides was Simon Sarkisian.

Abovian was, nevertheless, destined to successfully ascend Ararat once more. This time he did it together with the Englishman Henry Danby Seymour and Simon Sarkisian on September 30, 1846. Sarkisian was a survivor of the 1840 Agori avalanche and would summit for the third time with the massive 68-member expedition organized by the Russian Army topographer, Col. Iosif Khodzko, in 1850. His fourth attempt at ascending was in 1878, while guiding another Englishman, George Percival Baker. This time the now 90-year-old Sarkisian was forced to turn back short of the summit. Baker continued on to successfully ascend the peak on August 7.

It is also of interest that a dozen years later Abich’s cross was discovered by the Englishmen Maj. Robert Stuart and Walter Thursby on their way up to the summit on August 14, 1856. Three of their companions had summitted two days earlier. “About 1,200 feet from the summit, we came upon an oak cross that had been fixed by Professor Abich,” Stuart wrote. He speculated, “Professor Abich made several attempts, but failed in all, as is proved by the position of the cross…” Not being familiar with the history of the mountain, Stuart mistakenly assumed that they were the first.

To shed more light on the matter one must seek out the Russian and Armenian sources. One such invaluable source is an article by E. G. Weidenbaum, “Greater Ararat: and Attempts to Climb Its Summit,” published in the Transactions of the Caucasus Branch of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society (vol. Xiii, 1884). According to Weidenbaum’s account, one year after Parrot’s ascent, Ivan Shopen, the chairman of the Incomes and Properties Department of the Province of Armenia, expressed doubts concerning the veracity of Parrot’s announcement of reaching the summit of Ararat. Thus we learn the identity of Parrot’s principle tormentor, whom he had described as “… a man belonging to the educated European public, a man of merit in his way — one who on account of his long residence in those countries possesses undoubted claims to confidence in his local knowledge.”

Weidenbaum also mentions Karl Kokh, a noted botanist, who was personally acquainted with both Parrot and Shopen. Kokh opined that “jealousy was the principle reason for Shopen to question the veracity of Parrot’s statements, in view of the fact that he himself had made two attempts at climbing Ararat, and both times experienced total failure.” He continues to say that Shopen’s portly body was hardly suited for such an endeavor, in contrast to the athletic build of Parrot.

Another such skeptic was the postmaster of Yerevan, Artem Kalantarian. He was to hound Abovian into agreeing on a wager to climb Ararat once again to prove it possible. Before that could take place, regrettably, one day in April of 1848, Abovian left his home and mysteriously disappeared. No trace of him has ever been found.

In any event, the most conclusive evidence of Parrot’s achievement is to be found buried in the pages of a book by Kozma Spassky- Avtonomov, The Ascent of Ararat, published in Moscow in 1839. Spassky-Avtonomov’s was only the second expedition to successfully summit Ararat in 1834. His account also dispels the mistaken notion of most chroniclers that Spassky-Avtonomov may have only ascended the lower eastern summit pyramid or even not reached the summit at all. As a matter of fact, he climbed both summits. In that endeavor he was fortunate to be assisted by two Armenian guides from Agori, Hovannes Aivazian who had also accompanied Parrot on his successful third attempt and proven so helpful to him, and Yeghdar Ghougassian. The Armenian village of Agori was situated at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet above sea level at the base of the Agori Gorge on the northern slope of the mountain. This was prior to 1840 when a powerful earthquake violently shook the mountain, triggering a catastrophic avalanche that totally destroyed the village and the monastery, and buried all its inhabitants under a massive layer of rock and ice. I believe that the Turkish name Agri Dag for Mt. Ararat is derived from the name of this Armenian village.

Aivazian confidently guided them to where Parrot had bivouacked on the first night of their third attempt. The following morning Aivazian directed them to the cross on the dome plateau that Parrot had erected at 16,028 feet, the high point of his second attempt. The trio continued to climb atop the snowcap toward the eastern summit pyramid, which they soon successfully ascended. Following a relaxing lunch break in the saddle between the two summits, they headed toward the western summit. As the climbers ascended the higher western summit pyramid, Aivazian suddenly shouted out to Spassky-Avtonomov that this was where Parrot had stood. Thereby prompting him to write, “for myself at least, it became clear why the guide Aivazian initially had stated to me that the professor had not been on the summit, but later began to insist that he had been; he, as all Agori residents, considered the main summit of Masis (Armenian for Ararat) to be the eastern peak. Therefore, for Aivazian the professor had not been on Masis, when he had been only on the western peak.” The eastern summit is a mere 50 feet lower than the true western summit; however, Agori villagers and, in fact, all observers from the north side of the mountain view the closer eastern pyramid to be the higher of the two due to the trick played by perspective on observers some 14,000 feet below. Having seen the mountain from the north, I too had been under that impression. But my July 19, 2003, successful summiting up the southern route with a British expedition dispelled the confusion and also exposed me to Ararat’s unique beauty and the spell it casts upon its admirers.

A mere five years had separated the first two ascents. Spassky-Avtonomov had been fortunate to share the able services of Parrot’s guide Aivazian, who was a participant and eyewitness of both successful summit ascents. His spontaneous, unsolicited declaration atop the true summit must be accepted as proof positive that Parrot and his party did indeed summit Ararat in 1829. The proof had been there for all to see, but inaccessible to most chroniclers on account of the rarity of Spassky-Avtonomov’s text. It is my firm belief that this information should lay to rest any lingering questions and doubts surrounding Parrot’s truly spectacular achievement, for his ascent was one of the highest of any human to date.

(Philip Ketchian is a retired physicist, who climbed Mount Ararat with a British Expeditionary Group and his wife, Elsa Ronningstam Ketchian, in July 2003.)