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Powder trip Georgia | Part I - 6 Swiss freeriders in the Caucasus

Sat'khilamuro tsels Sakartlwelo - Skiing in Georgia

by Jonas Blum 04/02/2012
The request in the fall came out of the blue: "Do you want to go to Georgia? I was there in the summer, the mountains look promising." Georgia, hmmm. Check the rusty geography in my brain. It should be somewhere in the east, close to Russia. Oh yes, there was a conflict over an autonomous region between Georgia and Russia in 2008. That's it for my knowledge of Georgia. Wrongly so, because the country has an incredible amount to offer, as I will gradually learn during the trip.

The request in the fall came out of the blue: "Do you want to go to Georgia? I was there in the summer, the mountains look promising." Georgia, hmmm. Check the rusty geography in my brain. That should be somewhere in the east, close to Russia. Oh yes, there was a conflict over an autonomous region between Georgia and Russia in 2008. And that was the end of my knowledge about Georgia. Wrongly so, because the country has an incredible amount to offer, as I will gradually learn during the trip.

Georgia, called "Sakartwelo" by the locals, lies on the western shore of the Black Sea. In the north, the "Greater Caucasus" forms the border with Russia, while in the south the "Lesser Caucasus" forms the border with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Around a fifth of the country is covered by mountains over 2000 meters high. Fertile land lies between the two mountain ranges. Situated on the border between Asia and Europe, Georgia forms a mosaic of different cultures and religions. We, a group of six Swiss freeriders, wanted to explore this mosaic during a five-week trip.
For the sake of clarity, I am dividing this article into three sections. The first part describes the region north of Tbilisi, the second the province of "Svaneti" and the third is more general about the country and its people.

Chevsuretia and the Military Road

Roads have always been a pivotal point in the development of a region. Because the road was the shortest and at the same time the most dangerous and arduous way to cross the Greater Caucasus in a north-south direction, it has a special significance. The "Military Road", which runs through the province of Khevsureti, played a strategic role in the development of Transcaucasian relations. It connects Vladikavkaz in Russia's North Ossetia with Tbilisi in Georgia and opened the way to the Georgian ski resort of Gudauri.

Gudauri is located around 120 kilometers north of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Gudauri was built in 1988 by Austrian and Swedish investors. Thanks to its easy and relatively quick accessibility, Gudauri has become the best-known ski resort in Georgia. However, it should be mentioned that there are just four ski resorts in Georgia, two of which consist more or less of a single lift. This is in a country with an area of around 69,700 square kilometers, with mountains and foothills covering 87 percent of the country. So the competition is not particularly fierce.

Robert Eberli enjoys one of the countless variants in the Gudauri ski area.

Gudauri, which advertises itself with the slogan "Gudauri - Feel Good Aura", is the most modern and westernmost resort in Georgia. Thanks to its high altitude of 2200 to 3300 meters above sea level, Gudauri offers guaranteed snow until the end of April despite its south-facing orientation. What makes the ski resort interesting for freeriders is its proximity to the 2379-metre-high Kreuzpass, which winds its way north towards Russia next to the ski resort. If you ski from the top lift on the north side, you automatically reach the pass road, where you can be picked up and taken back to Gudauri. The only problem is that the pass road is more or less arbitrarily closed by the authorities. However, the three-hour return trip is an experience in itself, as it leads through unlit tunnels and galleries and a beautiful mountain landscape. this variant does attract some freeriders and in general the ski area and accommodation are far too westernized for our taste. So this is not the Georgia we are looking for. After three days, we therefore decide to do without the ascent aid and do more legwork in future. To keep our way back over the pass open, we reduce our luggage to a daypack with a sleeping bag, mat and a few spare clothes so that we can return over the cross pass on foot if necessary.

So, there's room for everyone?

Without organizing further transport, we take another route from the ski resort by chance, which leads to the pass road in a place called "Kobi". There we end up in the middle of an army operation flying wood through the area with a giant Russian helicopter. We explain to them that we want to go to "Stepantsminda". One of the soldiers babbles something we don't understand, runs off and comes back a few minutes later in his old ratty Lada. Somehow we manage to stow our luggage and six people in and on the car and our cab drives off. This is Georgian simplicity combined with Georgian business acumen, where everyone somehow earns a little "lari" on the side.

Stepantsminda, which used to be called Kazbegi and is still called that by the locals, is a village with 1800 inhabitants and is located 15 kilometers from the Russian border at the foot of the mountain "Kazbek". At 5047 meters, Kazbek is the second highest mountain in Georgia and is a popular destination for mountaineers in summer. The village itself lies in a basin surrounded by 3000 and 4000 meter peaks, which are criss-crossed by various steep couloirs that make every freerider's heart beat faster. Unfortunately, we had to forego a winter ascent of the Kazbek and the north-west couloirs behind the village. Shortly beforehand, a winter storm had swept through the area and the snow had taken its toll. So we only visited the "Gergeti Trinity Church" at the foot of the Kazbek. However, the real reason for heading north over the cross pass was not Stepantsminda but the side valleys that branch off from the Tergi Valley. We hoped to find better snow conditions in these valleys. After studying the map, we decided to visit a remote village called Juta (pronounced: Dschuta). The village lies at around 2100 meters at the end of the "Sno Valley" and is only accessible on foot in winter. However, we don't know whether the village is even inhabited in winter and whether we will find accommodation there. Vasili, the owner of our guesthouse, takes us as far as possible into the Sno Valley after we have made it very clear to him that we want to leave his care. From there, it's time to strap on our skis and splitboards and tackle the twelve-kilometre trail to Juta. From there, we spend the next three days ski touring the surrounding mountains in search of good snow. Unfortunately, the wind was also at work here and we only find wind-compressed slopes with a few patches of powder snow. The snow-covered Caucasus at least compensates us with a breathtaking landscape, especially the 3842 meter high "Chaukhi" with its 800 meter high rock faces at the end of the valley. On the fourth day, the weather seems to take a turn for the worse and snowfall announces itself. We therefore decide to leave Juta and return to Stepantsminda.

There we get into a "marshrutka", a public minibus that runs everywhere in Georgia and usually still bears the imprint of the previous owner from Western Europe. The marshrutka takes us back to Tbilisi via the snow-covered Cross Pass and the historic military road after a few shifts, broken chains and chaos.

Curiosities and experiences Part I

  • Before 2004, special permits were required to enter the autonomous republic of Adjara. The permits were obtained in exchange for a donation to the favorite football club of "Aslan Abashidze", the incumbent ruler of Adjara.

  • "If you drink too much in the evening, you have to take two or three shots of schnapps the next day to combat the hangover. If you then feel better, you keep drinking. You can drink like this for the rest of your life." This was explained to us by a grinning Gia Chkhatarashvili, a well-known Georgian photographer whom we met in Tbilisi with a hangover.

  • Even if you are poor, a television is a must in Georgia. And it's on non-stop. From the moment the first person gets up until the last person goes to bed. Georgians are crazy about catastrophically dubbed Brazilian soap operas, which are interrupted every 15 minutes by a commercial break from the government, police and Lazika, the Georgian tank manufacturer.

If you want to watch Georgian-style commercial television, follow this link

Outlook Part II

In the next part, you can expect the Georgian skiing adventure we've been looking for. To give it away: the two weeks in "Ushguli" were the best "ski vacation" I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing...

Photo gallery

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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