Georgia - The other place

Are you dreaming about skiing untouched backcountry? Go to Georgia. Not the US state. The country.

“There's skiing in Georgia?” was the pre-trip question. A confused expression directed my way while envisioning where snow fit into the picture. After all, the eastern US state is a hot place known for a southern drawl and of course, the invention of Coca-Cola. “Georgia the country,” became my reflex response. This added to the confusion.

A week later while kicking my ski boots up an icy ridge on the other side of the world, it dawns on me how ridiculous those pre-trip conversations were. Looking at the bowl of powder below me flanked by ridges and peaks so perfect they seemed invented for the sport I love. Make no mistake : this Georgia definitely has skiing. Welcome to the Republic of Georgia, a satellite set free in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country shares its southern border with Turkey. Armenia and Azerbijan lie to the east. But it's the northern border with Russia that interests us. This is home to the Caucasus Mountains that stretch some 1 100 km between the Black and the Caspian seas and are home to the highest mountains in Europe.

Ski fashion is definately not the same in every country.

It's my first day and a headache from altitude and jet lag hampers my enjoyment as I slide off the last lift at the Georgian ski resort called Gudauri. On a hunt for an aspirin, I wander into the tiny ski patrol hut where a dozen mountain-weathered faces stare back at me through a thick fog of cigarette smoke. Through sign language I articulate my ailment and an old patroller emerges from the fog. One hand drips with green juice and holds out … a pickle? The other a shot glass with a clear viscous liquid. “Take zees. It will cure you,” his accent the villain from a cold-war James Bond movie. Partly disgusted, partly intrigued, I do what any seasoned traveller would do. I down both in a fury of dill and ethanol. Five minutes later I'm clicking into my skis. My headache is gone. That's when I realize two things about Georgia.

1) I like this place.
2) don't break a leg.

Skin's on and ready for action. Photographer Kari Medig has quite the view.

Gudauri is a ski resort spread on the Russian Military highway a couple hours drive north of Georgia's capital Tbilisi. Spread out over 10 km of switchbacks, it isn't so much a town as it is a series of hotels that service the thousands of eastern Europeans keen to access the seven lifts to the summit of 3 300m Mt Sadzele. By all accounts, Gudauri is a big resort, with miles of perfectly groomed corduroy and free ski terrain. There's more than enough room to accommodate the plethora of Ukrainian and Russian holiday seekers who careen its runs in between shots of vodka at the mid station. But we aren't in Georgia to ride lifts. We are here to ski mountaineer.

Great skiing, and a dash of culture makes for an interesting ski destination.

It was dark when we started skinning upwards from the cozy confines of the Hada Hut, an alpine refuge that was our home high on the slopes above Gudauri. My hazy brain slowly comes to life with instant coffee and the robotic movement of early morning exercise. An hour later the sun outlines the peaks across the valley. Here the Caucasus are both gentle and austere. It has snowed several centimeters over night, and my friends from Canada and I take turns slogging through knee-deep snow towards Kobi pass in the distance, moving in the rotation of clumsy slow motion cyclists. The final slope to the pass is steep. A cold wind nips my face and light blinds me as my head pokes above it. My eyes adjust to see the region's most fantastic sight. To the north, pink light still accentuates the hanging glaciers of 5033 m Mt Kazbek, its giant cone is Georgia's third highest peak. In Georgian legend a mythical hero named Arimani is chained to the slopes of this mountain, his punishment for stealing fire from God to give to us mortals. Is he still there I wonder? There are worse places to be stuck I guess, mesmerized by the beauty of the place.

The reward at the end of the day. Skiing with this view.

On top of Mount Biddara and I am the last to drop in. The backdrop couldn't be more perfect. Peaks with at least a dozen skiable ridges spread out like gentle folds in a white sheet. One could have a lifetime of ski touring in just this vista. But that's the future. Now is now.

I'm presented with a perfect canvas to make my mark on the earth. I drop in and the vertical melts away in big arcing turns. Deep, light snow temporarily blinds me before I drift to a stop on the Russian Military Highway a thousand meters below. I glance up at our lines on the slope above, each turn reminds me of a different character of the cursive font of Georgia's written language. My trance is broken when an old man in a Lada stops. He drives us over the Cross Pass back to Gudauri.

Whitout in Georgia.

Our fashion sense couldn't be more different than our hosts at the monastery, bright ski clothes and boots share the warmth of a fire with Christian Orthodox monks in their long black robes. It took us 3 hours to skin up from the valley to the Lomisi Monastery. Perched high across the valley from Gudauri, its ancient walls sit on the 2 200m ridge that separates Georgia's Kazbegi region from South Ossetia, the volatile rogue state, that with help from Russia, vies for independence from Georgia. But Lomisi predates all these recent politics. Its monastery dates back to the 10th century, named for Saint George's bull who died part way up the long climb to the ridge. Now it's an important temple frequented by faithful Georgians seeking miracles.

There are no such thing as bad weather, as long as you have the right clothes.

“It seems you spend a lot of time close to God,” says father Nicholei, a middle aged monk with a bushy brown beard. His eyes smile as he sips red wine. He refers to climbing mountains on skis, and I can't argue with him. In many ways we are both seeking similar spiritual connection, we just use different vehicles to find it. He a cross and bible. Me a pair of skis. “I'll cheer to that,” and we raise our glasses in Georgian tradition, each of us saying something we are grateful for. We spend a few hours with the monks on the ridge of South Ossetia. With their robes flapping on the
windy ridge, we say goodbye and ski the long run down to the valley.

The daily coffee break.

I know we have made a mistake when I see the tires of the Toyota Land Cruiser. They are bald. A fresh blanket of snow has fallen overnight on the 45 km track to Ushguli, a small village deep in Georgia's mountainous Svaneti region, some 450 km west of Gudauri. But my worry turns to anger the second time we get stuck. Our young driver, dubiously named SoSo, starts to tie a rope aroundour back tire in a vain attempt to help with traction. “SoSo, turn us around! Let's go back and get chains!” We are definitely his first clients for Ushguli. How did he even get this truck? My question is answered when I see the word 'Mama' flash on the screen of his buzzing cellphone. SoSo's mother is looking for him. My confidence sinks a little lower.

Reluctantly, we give SoSo a final chance to prove himself and in this land of miracles and prayers, he manages to get us to Ushguli 4 hours later. Navigating the Land Cruiser through crumbling rock walls and harrowing switchbacks, SoSo's confidence appears to grow with each kilometre. We joke that our young driver left Mestia a boy but arrived in Ushguli a man. But with my heart still in my throat and my nerves frazzled, I wonder what negative toll the stress of the trip has on my lifespan.

At 2 400m, Ushguli is famous for massive stone towers that dot the village. The towers, given world heritage status by UNESCO, were used in ancient times during an attack. The villagers would climb up to the top and hurtle rocks at the outsiders below. I hope the locals have forgotten this tradition as we wander through the ancient labyrinth to our guesthouse. We have stepped back in time as if entering the set of the Georgian Game of Thrones.

Plunking our skis in the snow right at the gate of our guesthouse, it isn't long before we are skinning up the rolling slopes above town. In two hours we are atop a 3 000m sub peak beside Georgia's highest mountain, the 5 201m Shara whose vertical rock face looms high over the villagers below. From up here, the towers of Ushguli look small. We are quiet when we drop in, our minds already thinking of the food that our wonderful hosts have waiting. Twenty minutes of powdery bliss later, we ski right up to our door. We've found the real Georgian ski adventure. The next day, we will get up and do it all again.

FactsGeorgia
Where The Republic of Georgia's Caucasus Mountains. Specifically the slack country in the Gudauri Resort in Kazbegi Province and backcountry from the village of Ushguli in Svaneti Province.
Travel Fly : Oslo to Tbilisi (1 stop via Lufthansa, KLM, Turkish Airlines). Shuttle : Tbilisi to Gudauri (2 hours, 118km). Bus : Tbilisi to Mestia (9 hours, 458km). Jeep : Mestia to Ushguli (3 hours, 45km).
Accomodation Gudauri Hada Hut Khizhina (through Gudauri Travel (www.gudauri.travel/en/), Gudauri Marco Polo (+995 591 11 19 04) (through Gudauri Travel, Ushgul Temuraz Nizharadze Guesthouse (+995 899209719)
Guides and guide books
Gudauri Travel LTD, Owner Oleg Gritskevich (+995 591 340 500) (email : gudauri.travel@gmail.com).

Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan, Geoland 1 : 50 000 Trekking Maps
(+995 322 92 25 53)
Read more www.gudauri.travel/en