Our man in the shop, Tom Arnstein, had some holidays to take and a yearning for some turns. But not wanting to tread the same path as everyone else, he headed off the beaten track for some splitboard touring in the wilds of Georgia. Ignore the recent ski-lift horror stories and hear how he got on with human power!
Fancying something different – with the appeal of legendary food, a somewhat disputed claim for the birthplace of wine, and some (very) big mountains – we booked tickets to go to Georgia for this winter’s snow trip. Located at the intersection of eastern Europe and western Asia, the terrain that is accessible in Georgia, shared between the Greater Caucus (in the North) and Lesser Caucus (in the South), is up there with the best.
Deciding to self-drive, our trip began on the ‘wrong’ (right) side of the road, on the ‘wrong’ (left) side of a car, having had, at most, 2hr sleep and following a ‘wine route tourist’ map from Tbilisi to Bakuriani, a small resort in the Lesser Caucuses. It soon became clear that much wine had been consumed in the making of the map, and the 3hr jaunt turned into a day-long expedition. However, upon arrival, all was forgotten during a quick evening tour in a few inches of fresh snow. The next day we encountered the ‘ski police’ for the first time. Dressed in police issue jackets, salopettes and matching rossignol skis, we later found out that their main role was to ensure that everybody on the slopes was sober enough to be in control of their board/skis. Spend your day finding untracked tree lines and then in the evening go to a local restaurant and start with khachapuri – a fried bread and cheese fest that is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner and ensures that you have enough calories onboard to repeat the day’s activities again tomorrow. Don’t go expecting steep faces and big mountain lines, but in good snow, there is tonnes of fun to be had with endless tree filled terrain.
The next stop on our trip was Goderdzi, another small resort in the north west of the Lesser Caucuses. This time using Google maps, we set off early, hoping to make it in time for an afternoon ski. However, after disregarding Google’s insistence of a certain road being closed, this drive turned into another day-long epic, cumulating in being towed the last 5km by a piste-basher from a cat-skiing lodge over a snow covered 2000m mountain pass. This did, however, mean we got to spend a fun (wine) filled evening with a Russian cat-skiing party who’s snowcat rescued our Pajero. The next morning, we were able to tour straight out of the front door of the lodge into a haven of some of the most fun terrain imaginable.
Goderdzi resort has only two lifts and a yet to be finished concrete skeleton of a hotel. However, put some skins on or pay for some cat skiing and you open up some of the most fun skiing/boarding there is, with big, wide, mellow faces and trees galore. Do go to the ‘fast food’ huts at the bottom of the mountain where, if you’re lucky, you’ll be given a complimentary shot of hooch to accompany your khinkhali (a Georgian soup filled dumpling). It is also guaranteed to be quiet until the access consists of more than a 4x4 track.
Mestia is in the Svaneti region of Georgia and marked our transition into the Greater Caucus range. It is a UNESCO heritage village and serves as a base for the Tetnuldi and Hatsvali ski resorts. As soon as we arrived, we knew we were in for a good time as we drooled over the fat skis and splitboards on top of taxis taking people back from their day on the snow. Our first day was spent at Tetnuldi ski resort, a 40-minute drive or taxi away from Mestia half way up Mt. Tentuldi – an imposing 4,858m peak boasting some awesome lift accessible and tour-able terrain. Take three lifts to the top and then drop into a steep north facing bowl. Hold left, watch out for some sizable cliffs and you will arrive back at the bottom, ready to do it all again.
The next day we put our skins on and explored some of the slightly harder-to-reach faces from Tetnuldi resort, though barely making a scratch on what it has to offer. A trip to Mestia wouldn’t be complete without seeing Ushba, an infamous 4700m twin pronged mountain on the border between Georgia and Russia. We set off at first light with a Russian paragliding champion who we had met in a bar the evening before, skinning up 1700m vert in an attempt to get a view of Ushba in all it’s glory from a satellite peak. Getting close, we didn’t quite make it before the weather began to close in and Alex, the Russian paraglider, unfurled his ‘speed-flyer’ and made it back down in no more than 10 minutes. We thought that was very much an opportunity wasted, as we got to ski and board down the 1700m we had climbed up.
This was followed by and evening spent in Café Ushba having Kharcho, a hearty Georgian soup and pints of beer for a very pleasing 60p each. A good end to an epic day. On our final morning in Mestia, we did some runs at Hatsvali resort. Although really a one run resort, it shouldn’t be dismissed as its north facing aspect leaves the snow feeling fresh and its tree filled terrain makes a change from the big steep faces of Tetnuldi. We only spent 4 days in Mestia but are already working out how we can spend 4 months, and that sums it up really!
Our final stop in Georgia was a resort called Gudauri, 2.5hrs north of the capital Tbilisi and again in the Greater Caucus range. This is the biggest resort in Georgia and from what we could tell, a popular Russian destination. Our time here was slightly hindered by a severe multi-day hangover from a very welcoming Georgian guest house where we shared our whisky and they shared their chacha (a grape vodka) and wine. However, helped by the invigorating mountain air, we took the lifts to the top of the resort and then following some powder tracks skied and boarded over 1000m down the other side. Not wanting to skin back up, we kept going, and after a while found a road with a taxi rank, waiting to collect unsuspecting skiers and bargain with them for a lift back to the resort.
We jumped in a Lada and took on a 400-strong convoy of trucks weaving through mountain tunnels on their way to the Russian border. However much shouting and gesticulating our taxi driver did at the lorries, it’s safe to say that they definitely had the upper hand and we finally understood why some of the key phrases in the travel section of our guide book were ‘slow down’ and ‘please let me out’.
We feel we didn’t do Gudauri justice and it is not to be missed. We strongly recommend spending a morning skiing over the other side of the resort and getting a taxi back, as long as you time it so you aren’t sharing the road with a convoy of trucks. When we go next time, we’ll throw some skins on and properly explore what it has to offer.
Our trip was coming to an end as we made our way back down to Tbilisi for our flight home. We picked up some local honey and churchkhela (grape juice covered walnuts) at some road side stalls as souvenirs and had a fun day exploring the capital and eating a final feast of the oh so fine food. It certainly was an adventure, and one that we would recommend giving a go, although not to too many people to ensure that there are some untracked faces left for us when we return.