Ara Khatchadourian atop Mount Everest

Ara Khatchadourian Tackles Mountains, Life and Obstacles

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By Michael Melkonian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

LOS ANGELES — Ara Khatchadourian, a renowned French-Armenian adventurer, extreme sport athlete and mountaineer who climbed the highest mountain in the world, now has his eyes set on a new challenge as he continues to conquer his “next Everest.”

Climbing Mount Everest has not been his only physical achievement.

In 2018, he ran a tri-continent marathon from Marseille to Yerevan. Khatchadourian covered 11 countries, 500 towns, and 2,685 miles in an astonishing time span of 105 days. He ran an incredible 26 miles a day without stopping for a day break. So remarkable was this achievement that he was greeted  by crowds of people in Yerevan, and most notably was commended in person by the president of France, Emmanuel Macron.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1964 to Armenian parents from Erzurum, he grew up in a community that welcomed his Armenian roots. Unfortunately, after finally finding his place in Lebanon as a jeweler, he was forced to leave at age 19 for Marseille due to the escalating Lebanese Civil War.

Ara Khatchadourian with French President Emmanuel Macron

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In France, with almost no money and no knowledge of the French language, Khatchadourian worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week in order to keep his head above water.  Khatchadourian did find solace in Marseille however, as it was home to a large Armenian community and the weather and its surroundings reminded him of his former home in Beirut. It was here that Khatchadourian became more connected to his Armenian roots as he learned Armenians songs and dance from the community there. He also developed his artistry in jewelry, making that his passion and profession.

Khatchadourian made many friends in his new adopted city, and some were very adventurous. When one new friend heard that he had taken up running and completed his first marathon just a few years back at the age of 40, he told Khatchadourian about his upcoming expedition to climb Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe west of Russia’s Caucasus peaks, and invited him to join them. Mont Blanc, in Switzerland, is infamous as climbing fatalities reach nearly 100 per year, with the overall number estimated to be from 6,000 to 8,000, making it the deadliest mountain in the world.

Khatchadourian, a man with no mountaineering experience, but in great physical condition due to his marathon running, took up his offer and embraced the challenge to explore a new horizon. He was taught by a mountaineering expert over three days on how to rock climb, including the basics such as using an ice axe and putting on crampons. After three days of developing the proper skills. Khatchadourian, his friend, and his teacher set out to climb Mont Blanc. After a long and arduous climb, Khatchadourian and his companions reached the peak at 6:30 a.m. and witnessed a breathtakingly beautiful sunrise view. This site inspired Khatchadourian to climb even more mountains, and when he scaled Mt. Ararat before long, he described it as being the “most beautiful and greatest climb I have been a part of.” Khatchadourian then ascended Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 19,341ft.

Next, he set a very personal goal, to climb Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, and he wanted to climb it in 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. To physically and mentally prepare for this grueling undertaking, Khatchadourian trained rigorously and climbed mountains around the world, especially those with high elevations throughout South America and Central Asia. In Spring 2015, Khatchadourian headed off to Everest to begin the ascend with his crew of fellow mountaineers and sherpas. Khatchadourian and his team set out to conquer Everest from its north face due to its greater challenge, a route that is traditionally harder than its southern counterpart, as it has high-altitude base camps, technical climbing, and stronger winds. The Everest climb also included crossing massive crevices on small ladders, with only pieces of rope protecting climbers from falling 10,000 feet into certain death.

“The trick is not to get scared,” Khatchadourian said. “When you get scared you stop, and especially when crossing crevices, such stoppage could be deadly.”

By far the most treacherous part of the climb for mountaineers is when they reach the “death zone,” with an altitude above 25,000 feet. This term was coined by Everest climbers due to its extreme elevation and the knowledge that a person cannot acclimatize to that altitude; humans can only take in 30 percent of the oxygen in the air that they would take at sea level. Most of the deaths on Everest happen in this zone, with almost all the dead bodies remaining on the mountain, as it would require a herculean effort to remove them at that altitude. This provides a grisly reminder to mountaineers on how treacherous the climb truly is and makes some climbers even want to turn back. When asked how he felt seeing bodies lying along the trail as he got closer to the summit, Khatchadourian gave an encouraging response.

Ara Khatchadourian running in Armenia

“To see the bodies line the trail like that gave me even more motivation to reach the summit, as I was not just doing this for myself and my people, but also for my fellow mountaineers who never made it,” he said.

The ‘”death zone” is also known for its extreme, unbearable cold, causing frostbite to many including Khatchadourian who later lost the tops of his two big toes to it. At this sector, Khatchadourian and his peers made a mad dash to the summit, as time was of the essence. It took Khatchadourian 12 straight hours of strenuous climbing without rest to get from 27,230 feet to the summit at 29,029 feet. He and his team finally reached the summit at midday. Years of preparation and training, mind and body discipline, and hard work led to this moment for Khatchadourian, as he now stood literally at the top of the world at the age of 51. This was symbolic for Khatchadourian as well, as he pondered coming from the bottom of society as a poor refugee from a war-torn country to now achieving a triumph which only about 4,000 people in the entire world have accomplished.

“I tell the children I talk to that if they don’t do such achievements for themselves, [they should] do it for their family, if not them then your friends, and if not for friends and family, do it for country,” Khatchadourian said. “For me, I do such adventures and achievements for all three of those groups.”

Khatchadourian and his team remained on the summit for 30 minutes, taking photos and enjoying the magnificent view they all worked so hard to witness.

The journey, in total, took 41 days to get from base camp to the summit, with many of those days being spent to acclimatize to the higher altitudes.

Khatchadourian is currently training and planning to tackle another challenge, to row a boat from Marseille to Beirut. This challenge would require him to undertake 1,903 nautical miles through the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Khatchadourian is also a motivational speaker in schools across France, Lebanon and Armenia, inspiring young people to conquer what they think is the unconquerable.

“I always tell people, everyone has their own Everest,” Khatchadourian said. “It could be summiting the tallest mountain in the world or getting the job you always wanted. It will take hard work and perseverance to conquer such things, but it is the greatest feeling in the world when you succeed and reach the summit of greatness. So I ask them, what is your Everest?”

To see a video on YouTube of some his climbs, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omSn3kQm2UU

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