29 July 2013, 16:33
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On Top of the World

Once Karo Ovasapian took the Armenian flag in the Consulate General of the Armenian Republic in Los Angeles and promised to set it on the tallest peaks of each of the seven continents, as well as on the North and South Poles. After raising our flag on heights it never had reached before, Karo intends to present it to Armenia.

An ascend to a summit is an ultimate journey, and, as with any journey, it is important what one takes with him and what he brings back. Karo Ovasapyan, a distinguished, Tehran-born Armenian mountaineer and polar explorer, took the Armenian flag and brought it back with courage, humility, and a deep respect for Mother Nature.
Having faced the inhuman weather conditions, physical exhaustion, and the prospect of injury and death each time, he safely returned to prove yet again that the will to survive is an essential part of the Armenian character, engraved in our very core, wired into our genetic code. Karo has demonstrated this by putting it to the test, whether in the mountains, at the poles, or in the jungles.
Thanks to Karo, the Armenian flag is the only one that has seen all seven Summits of the world. Karo conquered them all, including Mt. Everest (that 29,028-foot giant of a mountain) – his lifelong dream, which he finally fulfilled in May of 2005. He is the first Armenian to climb all seven tallest Summits of the World.
His journey started in 2000 with the skiing voyage to the South Pole and culminated with Carstensz Pyramid, in February 2008. In between, the restless mountaineer conducted numerous skiing treks to the North and South Poles.
Once you enter his home, decorated with exotic ethnic masks, hunting trophies, souvenirs, and framed photos, you are drawn into his world of pure action and few words. The newlywed mountaineer seemes at ease in his cozy room with a stereo playing a bland, smooth jazzy tune. He speaks softly, almost whispering, but at the same time, passionately. His modesty and simplicity are endearing, and yet he is a genius of sorts. He likes to do the job rather than talk about it – that is his essence.
Once he is “up there,” he is nothing but power and determination. For him the word “human” does not signify an excuse for failure; rather, it's an honorable title.

How did you first start in sports and mountaineering?
I started sports at the age of 12 with wrestling. From early childhood I loved nature and mountains and so did my whole family. However, I hardly had the opportunity to really explore mountaineering. When I was 10 years old, we moved from Tehran to Armenia. We lived in Charentsavan, 25 kilometers away from Yerevan. My friends and I went hiking on weekends, and through reading I discovered my heroes, including Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the first explorer of Antarctica. In 1997, I went to Canada by the invitation of the chief of a North-American tribe and lived there for two months. It was a great learning experience. Not only I learned about the customs and traditions of the tribe, but also acquired survival skills in the extreme conditions. Later, in California, I met one of the heroes from my favorite books – the famous polar explorer Lori Dexter. This was fantastic! For four years he had been testing my abilities before taking me on an expedition to the South Pole. In November of 2000 our group started a skiing trip. Eight out of ten team members, including myself, reached the South Pole. Antarctica is the largest source of fresh drinking water in the world, so the expeditions are conducted with special caution. We even collected and removed our own waste.

When did you climb your first major mountain?
It was 1980 – Aragats Mountain in Armenia.

What kinds of skills are important to make it in the mountains?
One has to be physically fit for this kind of sport; one must have survival and navigation skills in the wilderness. There is also a psychological factor. First of all, you have to love mountaineering more than yourself. You have to prepare yourself for encounters with all kinds of nature's unexpected obstacles, which could be severe and cruel. One has to fight to survive. It is an art to be able to endure difficulties that nature brings. I had times when out of a 5 or 6-person team I was the only one who made it to the summit. In a team some do not make it, some get injured or die, it is not uncommon.

Tell us about your family.
Well, I got married a week ago, actually. I was married before. I was married to the mountains. I knew what I was doing and the kind of risks I was taking on, and I just did not want my family to go through this.

Well, it seems people take on these risks consciously. But what draws them in so much? Is it the nature, the beauty, the risk itself?
It is impossible to explain, it is like a narcotic. Even at the poles, where all you see around is snow and ice and nothing else, it is incredibly beautiful. You have to be in that moment, love it and live it. It is very different from what a person experiences in the civilized world. It has its purity, its own beauty, peacefulness; you feel that you are alive and living. You realize that you are becoming kinder, and you promise yourself that once you are back in the civilized world you will make yourself an even better, more generous man. The nature empowers you, makes you stronger.

Your experiences, how did they affect your attitude towards animals or nature that you encounter in the civilized world?
I have the greatest respect for nature. Of course, we must protect its ecological state. A human being is a part of nature, and if he or she pollutes it, that is disrespecting oneself. I love animals, and I am particularly fond of dogs. We had a lot of farm animals in Tehran when I was growing up.

Which one of your experiences was most memorable and why?
Every single one has its own place in my heart. The most challenging was the Everest experience, of course. I never told anybody about my desire to climb Everest. Nobody knew why I am so persistent to train and keep in shape. After several injuries doctors insisted on decreasing the intensity of my training routines. It took me basically 21 years to prepare for this ascent. When I first started my training, I had no idea how many peaks I have to ascend before seeing the legendary mountain. Finally I felt that I am ready. It was a special ascent for me. I did not just dream of Everest, I lived for it. And, on the 30th of May of 2005 I stood on its peak, for 45 minutes…

Do you ever experience fear?
I am not afraid of anything. The only thing that I am afraid of is a syringe. Even though I have received a lot of shots throughout my life, every single time it was a very unpleasant experience. Sometimes I have to administer the shot myself when necessary…

How do men and women differ in their skills and abilities to survive in the mountains?
Some women are far stronger than most men I have met in my life. It is about percentages, as well. If the team consists of fifty men and three women, it is hard to make an evaluation as to their strength and survival skills. If it is 50/ 50 – that is another story. Physically, men are stronger; morally, women are not stronger, but just as strong.

Mountaineering is quite an expensive type of a hobby. Is it worth the money you invest in it?
If you love it as much as I do, yes it is.

Have you ever had a near-death experience in the mountains?
On Everest I came face-to-face with death. I slipped into an ice crack twice. The snow opens and you fall in. I had to climb out. Luckily, I was tied to my crew by a rope. The second time the crack was narrow at first, but then it widened up, and I was very fortunate not to get injured. When one falls in, he has to scream out to his crew to let them know he fell, like shouting out “falling!” The faster they react, the better are his chances for survival. These are some essential rules of behavior in the mountains.

How does it work if one of the team members gets sick or injured? Is it the “all for one, one for all” principle here?
Of course. If that happens, it has to be determined if the person is able to go back alone; if not, somebody goes along. Whoever goes back with him has to give up his participation. This is the decision that a team makes beforehand – who goes back with whom. If it is more than one person that has to go back, the whole team returns as well. The greatest joy for the mountaineers is when all members of a team come back safely from an expedition. Once, a close friend of mine, Alexander Yakovenko, was climbing down from a mountain by a rope ladder. I waited for him, so we could continue the descent together. Time went by and there was no sign of him. I started worrying. The guys secured me while I looked down a steep cliff. I saw him hanging on a rope motionless. It was obvious that something had happened. It turned out, that the rope got tangled and blocked the oxygen hose. If we came to rescue two minutes later, we would have found him suffocated. Fortunately, that did not happen.

Is there a limit to the control of the team captain?
His word is law for the team. It has to be followed unconditionally, as the captain is chosen mostly according to his experience.

Well, you are all grown men; does it not hurt your pride just a bit to obey unconditionally?
People who get hurt by it do not go on such expeditions. There is no room for ego in the mountains. Mountains choose the right people. It is not we who make the choice, it is the mountains. We just do not take people who are anger-driven or mentally irritable.

Has it ever happened that you felt you couldn’t go further?
I made it every single time. Maybe it is luck. I have to admit, though, that each time I was well prepared. Maybe it was just that.

How advanced are mountaineering expeditions in Armenia? Our nation is very sturdy, we would succeed in this sport, don’t you think?
Unfortunately, there is not much financial opportunity for it there. When I came back from Ararat, I met a team of mountaineers that work in rescue missions. Their equipment was old, lef t over from the earthquake of 1988. The government does not support them much. It is very sad because this is a very masculine and interesting sport. It builds discipline; the younger generation would benefit a lot from it. As far as Armenians succeeding in this sport, it does not only take survival ability, it takes inner discipline and moral stamina. We have yet to grow in that sense - we pollute our country to such a degree!!! I love Armenia, but I cannot remain ignorant to what is going on.

You have placed the Armenian flag on the highest summits of all seven continents. What does the ritual consist of? Did you leave it there?
Oh no, it is my most precious possession! I place it, take a photo with it, and take it back with me for the next expedition. I want to give it as a gift to the History Museum of Armenia.

You have ascended Ararat Mountain. How did that feel? And did you encounter any difficulties in organizing this venture?
I have been denied a permission to climb Ararat for four years. Turks look at it their way – it is their territory. One of the major Russian mountaineers had helped me, and fortunately we managed to do it. A lot of Armenians have actually climbed Ararat, but it was me that they did not want to let in. I guess, they assumed that if I visit Ararat, the whole world will know about it. The press meticulously keeps track of my life…
Ararat is beyond sacred for me. I am talking about it now, and I feel like crying. For me it is the most beautiful mountain in the world. It is a feeling that can't be compared to anything. I can hardly explain it. I could feel that, of all other mountains, this one is “ours.” I looked down from the top of Ararat and... I lost my breath from the feeling of love that came over me. I came down on my knees and prayed, I believe. When I came to my senses, one of my friends said: “It is too bad that it is cloudy – we will not be able to see Armenia”. I said: “Everything I am looking at right now is Armenia. It is sad I cannot see Yerevan though!”

Reaching a mountain peak – is it the very goal for you?
Yes and no. I think that mountaineering is not a sport but rather a lifestyle, a philosophy. And I do not know how one can live without a desire to “go even higher”. This desire is stronger than anything else in this world. It is even stronger than death. In the mountains I have lost three of my friends. Most often this happens on the way back when one has little energy left. I used to think that after Everest and Ararat I can die without regret. Sometimes I think it is silly, sometimes – that it is worth it.

What is your motto - your principle of survival, so to speak?
One should never underestimate nature and its strength. And one has to be patient.

Do you regret sacrificing so much time and energy to mountaineering? If you become a father now, your children will be young and you’re almost 50 now.
I do not regret anything. I have reached my goals. I always dreamed of climbing Everest and I did. It took me over 25 years, but I did it. If you set a goal for yourself, you cannot stop halfway, give up. Now my goal is my family.

Would you want your kids to pursue mountaineering?
No, I do not. But if they choose it I will not stop them. I will guide them. I want them to be into sports for the discipline of it. And I want them to have a connection with nature.

What are you planning now?
Greenland is the destination. It would be a 636 km ski trip…

Yerevan Magazine, Fall, N2, 2008

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