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Ski trip to Georgia: Only Friends on Powder-Days

A ski trip through Georgia to Mestia and Ushguli

by Steffen Kruse 08/16/2014
Georgia is a magnificent country with an impressive mountain world and super friendly people. A wild country, Kinkali, Tcha Tcha - and a huge playground for mountain lovers and alpinists in summer and winter. These are, first of all, a few short words that summarize our experiences during our two-week trip from Tbilisi to Ushguli...

After a long journey, we finally arrive at Tbilisi Airport and can't really get lost: it's very clearly laid out. It doesn't take long to find our rental car, an almost new Isuzu Rodeo V6 (first impressions are deceptive, but more on that later). We quickly stow all our equipment and then we're off. We want to drive for another two hours or so and then check into our accommodation. And as it's already late, we don't want to make the rough and unsafe roads even more unsafe in the dark.

At the very first bump, the shock absorber greets us with a dull bang and we know from now on that we have to keep a close eye on the numerous potholes. Driving with foresight is a particularly sensible idea here anyway, as there is often a hole in the road (even on the highway) where you can easily hide a soccer. After an hour's drive and a little perplexity about our current position on the map, it's time to do some shopping before the stores close. So we drive to the next larger town and into a huge shopping mall: it's called Tbilisimall. Now we know where we are. We actually managed to drive a circle around the city in an hour and a half. However, the full car became even fuller with lots of delicious things that we wouldn't have been able to get otherwise. Packed like this, we can now really get going. Our eyes were getting tired and we looked for a suitable place to spend the night, which is never easy in the dark in a completely foreign country and twice as difficult with the locals' dogs (but more on that later). The place we found wasn't so bad in the end and after a small bottle of birthday vodka in the tent, the lights go out for us too.

We woke up in a gorge, not far from the road that would take us to Kutaisi, Zugdidi and our final destination of Mestia. Once you get used to the Georgian road conditions and the local driving style, the tension eases and a vacation feeling sets in. Things get more exciting again on the pass road from Zugdidi to Mestia, as there are no rockfall nets, slope reinforcements or other road protection here. There is a lot of rubble of various sizes on the road, which is why you need to drive extremely carefully and with foresight around the bends. Once we arrive in Mestia, we quickly find the cheapest hostel and look forward to a shower. However, it is extremely cold (just like everything else) and so we are happy to do without it. Our attempt to find a linguistic level of communication with the landlady fails, but with the help of Swiss chocolate and a lot of gesticulating, she helps us with the phone call to the car rental company. Because the worn summer tires paired with the unsuitable snow chains are a very bad combination for half a metre of fresh snow. The right ones were delivered to us the next day by mashrutka (public bus and post bus) from Kutaisi and we were allowed to take a cab to the ski resort. The day ticket for the ski resort costs a reasonable eight euros, which you can pay or you can go straight past the turnstile. For the same price, you can also hire antique ski equipment for a day, but we prefer to use our own equipment. At least for two descents: because then a hole opens up behind a hilltop in the forest right in front of us, in which, unfortunately for me, a tree lies across. My skis find the tree more attractive and I am swept over it with little elegance.

Now I have a badly rockered ski. Is that the end of my ski trip? Because where can I find a powder pole with touring bindings here in Mestia? But it wouldn't be Georgia style if Lary hadn't come around the corner and lent me his Obseth with Baron bindings and skins. Lary is one of the few off-piste skiers and local guides here and his guiding season is already over. I should just use the ski for as long as I need it; I give him my ski and the skins in advance. The dukes and skins are worth their weight in gold here and so we are both happy... After an incredibly good kubdari (meat pouch) at the mountain station, we set off for the last run and sundowner, which we reach after a good hour's walk. We were delighted with the best powder and great, varied terrain and an almost mystical play of colors in the sky. With our previous experiences and the right snow chains in our luggage, we continue our trip towards Ushguli full of anticipation.
The 46-kilometre journey from Mestia to Ushguli sounds short and like a visit to the next village around the corner. But that's not the case. It takes us a good three hours of intense driving with fresh snow, getting stuck, digging, pushing, cows, falling rocks, tree trunks, riders, rough terrain and worn-out shock absorbers. In short: an entertaining ride full of fun. On the pass we had to cross, we thought it would be a good idea to stretch our legs a little with a ski tour after all the exertion. The leg-stretching worked quite well, the downhill rush was rather limited and less recommendable. However, an extended snack and a coffee are always recommended and we enjoy both right on the pass. As Ushguli is the head of the valley in winter, there is virtually no oncoming traffic on the narrow road; for us, the oncoming traffic was limited to a single car (or something similar, as we were driving). Once you're there, it's as if time has stood still. A village as beautiful as a picture book and the Guesthouse Rhio just like at home. We had already heard the wildest stories about the avalanche accident that had happened shortly before, which dramatically claimed four lives. Heard, but still so far away. When I have to sign in the book to register with the military and read the names of the victims a few lines down, it sends a shiver down my spine. We had been warned and were already very defensive before the first tour.

Actually, it shouldn't be necessary to write such words in a report like this, but perhaps winter sports enthusiasts who have little experience and for whom this tip could be an important hint will also read our report: Forget everything about rescue that you know from the Alpine region, except for your colleagues, because that's all there is. The helicopter (if there is one) or the semi-professional rescue team will most likely not be able to help you. They will only be able to make sure that you don't find your final resting place on the spot. Ushguli is car-free, so we have to carry our luggage from the end of the road through the whole village. Harmless in itself, but quite strenuous due to the dung-urine-sludge soil softened by the sun. Wonderful, but that's just part of it. Our host Gulo's food is amazing and fills every hungry stomach. It's always funny because of the communication problems: For example, after a ski tour in the afternoon, we asked for a small snack, which was enough for dinner. We then explain to the good Gulo that breakfast would be great for us the next day at eight o'clock. But at 8 p.m. he knocks on our room doors to ask for a sumptuous dinner. Well, those are the little language problems, but you can't get enough of the delicious food either. Afterwards, the only thing that helps is a shot from the glass shot glass filled with cognac, which you should definitely buy in Mestia (at the small street store at the entrance to the town on the left, behind the petrol station), or alternatively the glass heart, or the glass high heel... we tried the entire range from the spirits supplier.

Life in Ushguli is beautiful and extremely simple: an outhouse, washing at the well and bedtime when the sun goes down. It is also nice that there is usually no electricity and therefore no cell phone reception; life is reduced to the most important things in life. We take our first tour on a mountain that we had looked at the evening before while enjoying the sunset and a bottle of beer on the veranda. Nothing spectacular, apart from the Caucasian herding dogs that almost tear us apart early in the morning in the deserted little town. The dug snow profile only tells us a little about the snow conditions, but once again confirms the suspicion that the numerous brilliant lines in this area are no longer to be thought of this winter. Nevertheless, we find a nice descent with a longer walk back to the guesthouse. We have the dogs to thank for the longer walk, or rather the workout, as they are not exactly inviting as we approach our car. The military show their appreciation on our return, after all they have nothing else to do but smoke all day, sit and look out over the surrounding mountains with their binoculars.

Then the time has come and we set off for a bivouac lasting several days, far away from the already tiny village of Ushguli. On the two-hour walk, we notice the many extremely large dog tracks. But what we come across is not a dog, but a full-grown wolf instead. Our fears that we would have to bury our food and take similar precautions proved unfounded, however, and it was (fortunately) to be the only encounter. On arrival, Benni and I check out the area and conditions on a short ski tour and Stephan sets up an excellent campsite. On our return, we enjoy the sun (we can't do anything else), the food, the card games... in fact, we just enjoy being here. We immediately adapt to nature and after sunset we zipper up our tents. The morning greets us with cold ski boots and dry spaghetti carbonara; a combination that proves to be a success over the next few days.

The day's destination is the summit "better wet than dry 3,105", from which we enjoy a very racy yet low-risk descent, contrary to expectations. Well, and when you're back at the tent early, there's plenty to do. We enjoy a dip in the local swimming pool, as it's been a few days since we were last in the water. And it's usually the case that no matter where you are, there's always someone else around. In our case, a Georgian and a Swede who rush past us wearing nothing but underpants and are on a month-long ski tour... In the evening, we have a little sundowner ski tour, which soon sends us happily back to sleep.
So time passes and all too soon it's time to set off and we're back on the "better wet than dry 3.105" and then continue along the ridge to the summit "zur Wolfsklause". We had looked at the conditions on the "map" beforehand, but everything looked a little different on the spot and so we had an interesting time finding our way in the different snow conditions. We grounded at the end of the valley and had a long way back to Ushguli with exciting river crossings, badgers and the mercilessly burning sun ahead of us. The first towers of Ushguli are already visible again when my ears hear a banging noise. Well, "it's not good until it hisses"! And it soon does. So the military have another pastime than staring at the mountains after all: shooting practice. But we get through this too and just want to get out of our shoes and finally have something sensible to eat - and a few beers. After a night of barking dogs and a visit to the local museum, it's time to head back to Mestia. That's our plan. Now a little time lapse...

Starter motor broken, "repaired" on site, broken down in the middle of nowhere, driving in the snow, cooking pasta, drinking beer, playing cards, in the dark, in the hold of a vegetable-animal-anything truck heading for Mestia... Leaving the guesthouse in Ushguli at nine in the morning, arriving in Mestia at half past twelve at night (for 46 kilometers!). As compensation, the car rental company gives us an ultra-fat V8 Land Rover, which can do relatively little apart from sucking a lot of gas out of the tank, but good, we were mobile again, albeit on summer tires. Our locals are just as happy to meet us as we are to meet them, so we enjoy homemade wine, 60 percent peach schnapps and a great evening with friends. Instead of heading to the Black Sea as planned, we decide to stay due to the promising forecast of fresh snow, which gives us a fantastic final day.

We know the handful of off-piste skiers by now and so it's just "friends on powderdays". The days and especially the evenings get wilder and wilder and it's good when we head home to Tbilisi after a kinkalilesson. In our luggage we have the experiences and impressions of the absolutely warm and open nature of the locals and an impressive mountain world. Back in Tbilisi, we only have one more evening to spend, which we manage to do... Who is Günter again and where is the Skybar? But we'll have to wait until next time to find out, just like the three of us driving to the airport in a VW Golf with ski bags (without a roof rack) and other bits and bobs.

General information and addendum

The food is super tasty and wholesome, with cabbage or pulses often served as a side dish with the meat. Socializing is a very important topic and a supra - a kind of banquet - should definitely not be missed. It is better to sit together anyway, as the heating in the rooms is very spartan. The roads are okay for the kind of driving there, because nobody minds if you have to snake around the potholes on the highway. Otherwise, the locals drive very considerately and everyone just looks at what's happening in front of them. Powder equipment is in short supply locally and the locals are very happy to receive souvenirs, even if it's already discarded equipment.

Final words

I would like to thank our crew: these were great days with you and we had a really good flow, with no rough edges. A huge thank you of course to all the locals, the two Annas and Lary: you are all amazing.

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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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