Ground Hog Day! I've been back in Denver for 4 days and tomorrow I'm off to Georgia. This has been quite the whirlwind season! I'm still very jet-lagged from India but it's time to hit the road again. This time I'm heading to somewhere completely new, to Georgia, to ski the Caucasus Mountains. This is going to be a 2 week research trip to look at the potential for starting tours there in 2020. I have a couple of friends coming along for the ride. I'm stoked that my wife is coming too! It's great to be traveling again with her and this is our first overseas ski trip together (first of many I hope!).
We fly out of Denver tomorrow night just before midnight to JFK, then fly to Doha and then onto Tbilisi. We are flying with Qatar Airlines and it's costing about $850 USD per person, for a return flight. That's quite an amazing deal. We'll be stopping in Doha for about 10 hours and we have a quick 2.5 hour city tour scheduled in to check out the city. I have been to Doha before, but I was 6. I still remember it though, seeing the gold souk and then the dows (boats) that they build. I'm excited to go back to the Middle East with my wife who has never been there before. I wonder what she will think of it all?
We arrive in Tbilisi around 8pm on the 27th. We have 1 night staying in the Old City of Tbilisi (we'll stay there for 2 nights at the end of the trip, so we can explore more). So this first night will just be to catch up on some rest. We then drive about 3.5 hours into the mountains and our first stop, Gudauri ski resort. We hope to do some site-seeing on the way to break up the drives. We'll ski the resort the first day and get a feel for the place, before meeting up with some local guides and exploring the backcountry. I can't wait to see it as Gudauri has some great terrain. We have 5 nights and 4 days skiing here.
Then we have an 8 hour drive north to get to Mestia. Mestia is an old town with two ski areas closeby. We have another local guide to show us around and explore. There is a lot of history and culture on display in this area. Again we have 5 nights and 4 days skiing to get the feel for this place. Then we do the long 8 hour drive back to Tbilisi to finish off the trip, with 2 nights in the Old City staying at the first hotel.
I'm genuinely excited about this trip. I know it's late in the season, but I'm not bothered about the conditions. As long as we get some turns in and get a feel for the terrain, please meet the locals and get to experience their culture, then I'll be really happy. It does look like an amazing place, under the right conditions. I'm going to be doing a lot of social media on this trip (more than my other trips this season), so please do follow along! Speak to you all soon.....
International (Europe/Japan/NZ/Au) Republic of Georgia - Skiing the Caucasus Mtns
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2019 Georgia Blog
25th – 27th March – Traveling to Georgia/visiting Qatar
We left Denver just before midnight on the 25th and flew to JFK with a 6-hour layover. I was flying with my wife Julie and traveling with our friends Gary (Big Salad) and his wife Laurie. We also had my friend Gordon from Telluride and friends John and Karena Fitz meeting us in Tbilisi. That red-eye flight set us up with some pretty decent jet-lag from the get go and then our next flight was due to depart at 8:55am, so hopefully we could catch up with some sleep then.
We were due to fly from JFK to Doha and that was about 12 hours. We were flying with Qatar Airlines for the first time and this was also my wife’s first time visiting the Middle East. I had been to Doha about 35 years ago but didn’t remember too much. We were on a brand-new Airbus A-350 900 series and that is a nice plane. The flight was supposed to be full but when we got on there, it was only half full. There were empty seats and aisles aplenty.
I have to give a big shout-out to Qatar airlines, they are amazing! This was half the price of the airline with a US carrier and about 3 times the service. The food was great too, with a menu with 3 meal options (we were in economy) and proper silverware. The staff were all young and enthusiastic and the service exceptional. The seats were great, for regular economy (they didn’t have premium economy which my 6ft 3 body normally needs) and I had some room. The seats all had extra power outlets, lots of pockets and the largest video screens I have seen. Movie choice was great. They have proper thick blankets as well. For $850 USD return (Denver/Tbilisi), this was an absolute steal. I’ll be trying to fly with them again.
So I managed to get a decent amount of sleep and then we had a 9 hour layover in Doha. We decided to take a city tour (2.5 hours at $20 per person) to take up some time. Getting through immigration was a little stressful; the ladies in immigration were grilling everyone and I even got told off for moving from one lane to another when our lane slowed down and the lane next to us was free. Whoops! Back to the original line and don’t move again….. Once that was over, they had a nice air-conditioned bus to drive us around and we went to a few different places.
The first stop for 5 minutes was to the beach with an overlook of the city and a harbor where all the sailing boats (Dhows) are moored. That was pretty cool. Then we had 10 minutes at a mosque and small tower where the collect dove poop (for fertilizer) and then 10 minutes at a new off-shore island housing complex with Ferrari and other swanky car dealerships. That was that amazing unfortunately, that seemed like the theme for Doha, massive opulence with no culture or history (there are no buildings in Doha that are more than 40 years old, everything is very new and they have one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world). It wasn’t really my cup of tea.
What was fun was visiting the Souk, an older market area with alleyways and many different items for sale. There were handicrafts, spices, parrots and birds, bicycles and other items for sale. They seemed to be clustered in different areas. That was definitely more interesting and I enjoyed that part of the tour, but 30 minutes was over pretty quickly and we had to get back to the bus to return to the airport. All in all, it was nice to get out of the airport and stretch our legs, but I wouldn’t recommend the city tour. We have a longer (13 hour stop on the way back), so we might look at a longer tour (maybe the 4wd sand dunes tour) or just stay at a hotel, we’ll have to see. Then we had a few more hours to kill before the next flight to Tbilisi.
Thankfully that was only 3 hours and that one went quickly. Again (online) we had seen that this flight was supposed to be full as well, but this time the plane only had about 40 people on it and there were tons of free seats. Julie went to sleep so I sat in the row behind and had nice views as we traveled north. It was only about 30 minutes before I saw the first snow. There was more and more as we got to Georgia.
There was a big queue ahead of us in immigration but surprisingly it went pretty quickly. We got our stamps in (no visa and no fee required for Georgia for US and UK passports) and in we came. Our driver was waiting for us and our bags all arrived. I bought a SIM card with 23 gigs data, 30 minutes international calls and free local calls/texts for 15 days, for 60 GEL which is about $22 (2.7 GEL to the $). Not too bad. Then we changed some money and off we went.
We have a pretty sweet Mercedes Sprinter VIP van and a driver. It seats 17 people but we have only 7 of us, so there is plenty of room. After about 20 minutes of driving, our van sideswiped another car and the driver had to stop and deal with that. Whoops! After 10 minutes we were on our way again and no blood was spilled, so all good. They do seem to drive aggressively in Georgia, from what I have seen.
Then we stopped at our hotel in Tbilisi, the Rustaveli Boutique Hotel and settled in for the night. We were exhausted and in desperate need of sleep….. it had been a lot of hours traveling.
Very impressed with Qatar Airways - this is the seat tech, with big screen tv's, plenty of storage and a very accessible powerpoint. The A350-900's are nice planes.
Dhow's, traditional boats build in Doha.
One of many modern and grandiose buildings you will see in Doha.
Doha city skyline
All of these buildings are brand-new
Dove poop tower that they use for harvesting fertilizer
Exploring the alleyways of the Souk, definitely the best thing to see on the day tour.
28th March – Tbilisi and traveling to Gudauri
We had a really good night’s sleep and both awoke feeling a lot less zombie-like. The showers at the Rustaveli (Boutique Hotel – be careful, there are 4 Rustaveli Hotels in that area) were awesome and the breakfast downstairs was also really good. The dining room was in an old wine-cellar that was dark and cozy, with racks filled with bottles from the floor to the ceiling. The food was very tasty and we enjoyed cheesy bread, meats and different style eggs. It was really nice. Then we went on a quick walk about to check out Freedom Square (actually a circle and a road) and got a bit lost using good-old Google maps trying to find Gordon and John/Karena’s hotel. We finally found it by going in the opposite direction to what maps was telling us.
They were at the Shota Rustaveli Hotel (named after Georgia’s famous dumplings!). That is a nice hotel and I think we will stay there for our last 2 nights in Tbilisi as the rooms are bigger and it has a quieter location. Then we headed back to checkout of our hotel and meet the driver. We were on the road by noon and off we headed to Gudauri.
There was lots of rolling hills and scrub about initially and there are plenty of abandoned buildings. There were a few big old churches that were pretty cool, plus plenty of old soviet-style heavy vehicles and trucks. After about an hour we came to the Ananuri Castle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ananuri) and that was right at the side of the road (no detour needed). So that was an easy stop and highly recommended. It’s free to get in but we spent some money playing dress-ups (Julie and Karena did) where you can put on Georgian costume, weapons (swords/rifles) and sit on top of a horse and then have your photo taken. That was only 5 GEL which is about $1.85, money well-spent!
Then we looked around the castle and the church before checking out the small market area outside. It’s all very fun and well-worth a stop. Then we hit the road again and started heading up into the mountains. This is also the main road into Russia, so there are a lot of heavy goods vehicles traveling on it, so watch out for that. It only took about 3 hours to get to Gudauri and to our accommodation at the Gudauri Loft Hotel.
The hotel is pretty cool. The rooms are small but perfectly situated. The staff speak decent English and they are very friendly. It’s very affordable. We have ski in/ski out accommodation. The upstairs loft area where there is the bar/restaurant is really nice, with inexpensive food and cheap beer and wine. The views of the surrounding mountains are amazing. For Georgia it’s quite a lot of money, but for Western prices, it’s ridiculously cheap. Julie and I had 5 big dishes of food (I had steak which was the most expensive item on the menu at 40 GEL/$14), 2 glasses of wine plus 4 beers and that was only $42 in total for the 2 of us. When we get to Mestia, we will probably pay half of that…..
I can’t wait for our first day of skiing tomorrow!
Arriving in Tbilisi for our first night. This was probably the most tired I've been after a journey.
Lovely baked egg dish for breakfast
The old wine cellar in the basement of the Rustaveli Boutique Hotel
Tasty breakfast spread
Definitely no shortage of wine at this hotel
Georgian Parliament House
Super comfy ride in the 17 seat Mercedes Sprinter van with only 7 people in it. Some friendly local dogs on the drive up to Gudauri
My wife doing her finest Cossack impersonation in front of the Ananuri Castle
Karena scaring the horse a little on this photo....
Ananuri Castle and Church, actually 2 castles in one.....
No photos or video allowed in the church..... whoops!
Gary and Gordon enjoying the sites. #NotInVail
Pretty cool that this was right next to the road on the way to Gudauri
Checking out the market next to the castle
Made it to the hotel in Gudauri, time for a glass of Georgian wine and a cheese bread.
Gordon enjoying the view from the deck. When the clouds fully disappear, it's going to be pretty stunning.
29th March – Exploring Gudauri
We all had a bit of a lie in and hit the slopes around 10am. We had to ski down past the chairlift outside our hotel to go and purchase a lift ticket. The tickets were on sale at the bottom of the chair and the price was only 40 GEL or about $15 for a day ticket. This was very inexpensive. I thought Japan was cheap but Gudauri blows them all away for price.
Surprisingly the lower chair was a brand new 6 pack chair. The trail map doesn’t tell you what the lifts are. Then again, the next chair was another 6 pack, this time with a bubble. My expectations were already blown away. The cloud was at the mid-level of the mountain so we did a run down from the top of the Soliko chair. They were all blue runs and we skied down to another 6-pack chair. There was no lift lines and we were straight up.
Then we went up higher as the cloud was starting to lift. We saw a gondola, a triple chair, and more high-speed chairs. Julie and I were skiing on our own now as the others took off to explore more areas. Up high the snow remained cold even though the runs are all south-facing. Down low it was spring skiing and hadn’t thawed yet but up high it was still winter. We skied an easy run down from the triple and headed over to the Kobi Gudauri 1 gondola. This was a low angle lift and we weren’t sure what the point of it was, but when we got to the top, then we understood.
There has been a new lift put in from the northern side of the mountain, from the Kobi pass area. It opened at the end of January this year. There was also a groomed run but none of this was on the trail map. We decided to see where it went. This was a long intermediate trail that went down to the Kobi side. Halfway down we saw that the lift didn’t go all the way down to the valley, it ended half-way down the valley, but then we saw another gondola. Wow, this added a whole new level of infrastructure to the place.
We did the nice cruiser and then took the gondola back up to the Gudauri side. The freeride options in that zone looked amazing. Now you could potentially ski down there and take the gondola back. Traditionally you would have to take a taxi back along the Georgian Military Road (this road leads to Russia which is about 30 km’s away). We’ll be skiing there in a couple of days’ time hopefully.
We took the new gondola back up and skied back to Gudauri. Julie was pretty tired by this stage so we took the very long run down to our hotel and that took some time. On the way we caught up with the rest of the group for lunch at one of the mountain café’s (of which there are many). We’d had a fun day exploring the mountain and I have to say I was mightily impressed. They have some amazing terrain and the lift infrastructure is way better than I had imagined. I can’t believe there are so many gondolas and 6 person chairs with a lift ticket price of only $15 US. It’s crazy. This place has some serious potential and we are looking forward to exploring more of it.
At the bottom of the first chair where we bought our lift tickets for $15
Riding one of many high speed 6 pack chairs
Skiing some blue runs below the clouds
On the higher plateau with even more lifts heading above. They have some decent vertical here.
Skiing down the north-facing slopes down to Kobi Valley. This wasn't even on the map and we had no idea there was a groomer and 2 gondolas.
Tasty terrain above
More tasty terrain
My wife skiing the groomer
More great above the gondola
I'd like to ski this valley
The top of the lower Kobi gondola
Khachapuri (cheese bread) with an egg on top. So good.....
Gordon enjoying the scenery and a chance to see the big mountains to the side of the resort.
30th March – Backcountry Ski Day – Skiing to a Monastery
It was a little overcast and cloudy up high so the skiing on the mountain wasn’t looking too good. We had teamed up with some local guides and they had suggested that we head down the valley and go ski touring up to a small monastery (Lomisi Monastery) up on the top of the mountain. It would be about a 3-hour skin and we’d gain about 750m in vertical. John had not really skinned before but he, Gordon and Gary were up for it, so we jumped in the van and drove for about 30 minutes down the road.
We had 1 guide with us, Iwo (pronounced Ivo), from Poland, an experienced ski guide who has been guiding in Gudauri for at least 5 years. He knows the place well. The monastery is very remote and they needed us to bring in some supplies as they were running short, so we all had a big bottle of water each and some food for the monks. Iwo gave us a good outline of what the tour would be like before heading out.
We started down in a little village and up we went. At first it was mellow as we passed the outskirts of the town and then it became progressively steeper. We had a steep face to climb up and there was a small trail with switchbacks in it. We followed that through the trees before we had gained enough height to be level with the lower part of Gudauri, which we could see on the other side of the valley. That took just over an hour and we had a couple of stops on the way. It felt good to be stretching the legs properly and burn some calories.
We came to a large open area above the forest and we saw some Georgian soldiers hanging out. They were with a monk and were escorting him up to the monastery. The soldiers offered us some local coffee infused spirit and some sliced apples but only Gary and John were game enough to try it. I don’t drink spirits and was wary of offending them, so I took some slices of apple and they were fine with that (it’s customary to accept whatever gifts you are given, even if you don’t want them). Then we had a couple more hours in the alpine zone as the trail got a bit steeper and we had to put in quite a few kickturns. I gave John and Gordon some pointers and they got a lot better at them.
We kept a similar pace to the soldiers as the made their way up the boot pack. Finally, after 3 hours, we made it to the top. Iwo took us inside the church and we had to bow as we passed through the tiny main door. Inside it was dark and cold, but the whole feeling of the place was very spiritual and serene. It was an amazing place. Then Iwo showed us the massive iron chain that people carry to do penance.
It had a big metal hook on one end that goes around your neck and then you take the rest of the massive links and coil that all around your neck. Then you walk 3 times around the pillar in the center of the church and make good wishes. That was no mean feat as the chain must have weighed close to 100 lbs and in ski boots after a 3hour hike, it was super heavy. We all had a go and then exited the church.
Next we went to the monk’s living quarters, a small bunkhouse and living room next door. There were 2 monks and then the soldiers inside. They greeted us and then made us some herbal tea. We sat around and chatted. Then I noticed some nice new K2 skis with Marker Kingpin bindings in the corner of the room. I asked Iwo whose they were and he said one of the monks. The monk loves to ski and he does a lot of ski touring! Unbelievable! Then we all started talking about skiing and ski touring.
We finished off by going outside for pictures. The monk was really excited by my Salomon Shift bindings as he had not seen those before. He wanted to know how they worked and he enjoyed putting them in and out of touring mode. Salomon, if you are reading this, then there is a monk at the Lomisi Monastery who would love a pair. He says he already has a pair of Salomon fat skis to put them on! We posed for a bunch of photos before it was time to ski down. We hiked around the monastery and had a view down to South Ossetia, the disputed territory between Georgia and Russia; it was right behind the monastery in the valley below. Wow! Gordon’s phone had said welcome to Russia when we were in the monk’s bunkhouse…..
We had some nice turns at the top of the run down, with a few pitches of soft snow and then it turned to breakable crust. That made for some challenging skiing but we made it down. It took us about an hour to ski down. Not the best skiing but that didn’t matter, just skinning up to the monastery, taking supplies with us for the monks, seeing the church (which was built in 1400) and then carrying that chain around, made it all worthwhile. It had been one of the most memorable experiences and most rewarding ski tours ever. Everyone had memories they would never forget.
We finished off with Iwo taking us down valley a little further to a bakery where we bought piping hot fresh bread and then fresh wine in a large jug. wo showed us how to toast and drink the wine properly (which involved chugging the whole cup, thankfully it wasn’t a big cup). We had a beer as well and then headed back to Gudauri. It was an amazing day, one I will never forget. Thankfully our wives had also been out sightseeing and had had an awesome day too. I think we were all starting to really enjoy Gudauri.
Leaving the village and starting our 3 hour skin
Heading up through the steep wooded part
Moonshine and apples, with a monk and some Georgian soldiers #notinvail
Heading up higher out of the forest
Time for some kickturns
We made it to the top and the monastery
The church is on the right, then the gift shop in front and then the bunkhouse behind
Gordon carrying the 100lb chain
Centuries old relics inside
Verizon thought we were in Russia!
The monkhouse bunkhouse
The bells in front of the church and the tiny door you had to bow down low to get through. That stone floor was super slippery when you went inside
Gary received a patch from the Georgian soldiers. He was stoked!
One of the soldiers pointing out where Ossetia is
The monk checking out my skis. He likes the new Shift bindings.
The monk was happy to pose for photos holding his new favorite skis. I'm surprised I got them back.....
Bootpacking a little higher to gain a face so the monk could watch us ski.
We had nice snow for the first couple of pitches
Iwo buying us fresh bread when we finished the tour. It was hot and soft.
Breaking the bread
Taking some wine
The monastery is in the middle of the picture, on top of the ridge.
March 31st – Ski Touring Day from the Resort
The sun was out and the weather was looking great. This was our day to really get after it! Gordon was not skiing as he had a sore back so it was Gary, John and myself. We met Iwo and a new guide (Peter, a snowboard guide, also from Poland) at the meeting place above the Soliko 6-pack chair. From there we headed up the Kudebi 2 chair to the top of Mt. Kudebi (3,006m) and skied a fast, steep groomer over to the Sadzele chair and this was the (in)famous chair that ran backwards last year. There were no problems for us thankfully…..
Then it was a straight traverse away from the lift along a groomed track and a fast schuss over to Mt. Sadzele. We put our skins up and made the easy 25-minute skin to the top. Then we had a nice steep face to ride. There was an untouched face to the right of a rock band and after a few slow turns over crust and hard snow, the snow was soft and you could break out into some GS turns. That was nice skiing.
Next came a quick 15-minute bootpack and over to a whole new area. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact name of the valley that we skied into, but we were next to an area the guides called Little Alaska. That’s a massive zone full of steep faces and spines. It has to be in just the right condition and we were a little to the left of it. We had nice untouched snow for several long pitches. The wind did start to get up and that started to turn the snow to slab. It was still great skiing in a jaw-dropping zone.
After a lot of nice turns, we were in the bottom of the valley. We had a long team ski for several miles. The views were absolutely stunning. We came to a stream and followed that until we came to an abandoned village and then hit the Georgia military road. Then it was about a 15-minute walk along the road to the bottom of the Kobi gondola. That whole run took 3.5 hours and was an amazing adventure. The terrain in Gudauri is legit, the skiing amazing and the scenery stunning. We have definitely found ourselves in freeride paradise. But they say Mestia is even better……
We took the two stages of the Kobi gondola up, enjoying amazing scenery, all the time with Iwo giving us intel on all the lines/terrain we were passing over. We were straight into our next run! This time we hiked up Mt. Bidara (3,174m) for about 40 minutes up a steep bootpack on a ridge. That was hard work. Then we could put our skis on and traverse around the summit and over to the start of our line. This was a straight shot all the way from the top down to the Georgian Military Highway, with at least 2,500 vertical feet. We could see straight down the line.
Unfortunately, the snow at the top was breakable crust and made for really hard skiing. My legs were on fire and I found myself having to stop a couple of times. The guide had set a pretty long first pitch. This was not my best skiing and I was in need of a rest when I got to the group. The snow did soften as we made our way further down and the crust was manageable, so the skiing did improve. To ski this run in good snow would be a dream. The second half of the run took us into a gully like a half-pipe and the snow was really nice in there. That was fun carving up and down the sides. Then we came out at the highway (we were a lot further west than our first run) and a driver with a van was there waiting for us. Great service!
We piled in and then we drove about 5 minutes to the Georgian-Russian Friendship Arch. It was busy but we got out to take a look. There is a large mosaic depicting a scene of Georgian and Russian co-operation. I think most people find this scene rather ironic given Georgia and Russia went to war in 2008. It was cool to see it but I don’t think I appreciated or related to its message. Then we were back to Gudauri and off for a rest before dinner. We were all pretty spent. We had a very nice dinner at a new restaurant called the Drunk Cherry, a short taxi ride away from our hotel. I slept well that night.
It had been an amazing day. We had seen the potential of Gudauri on that first day of skiing and on this day we had gotten to experience that potential first-hand. This was the experience I was hoping for. Gudauri is one of the best places I have skied and the scope of the terrain is limitless. The scenary is some of the best I have seen, it is truly jaw-dropping at times. Our group loves it. For John who had never done any real backcountry and touring before, this place is an absolute dream. What an amazing place to get into BC skiing....
The start of the adventure! Heading out from the Sadzele chair
Heading out to the Mt. Sadzele area (heading where those 2 people are heading behind Gary's right shoulder)
Crazy views from all directions
Our lines from the top of the first pitch. My wiggles are the furthest to the looker's left
Heading down into the valley. One of the most spectacular-looking lines of my life!
Stoked you got to do this John!
Another pitch, Peter our tail-guide looking on
Looking back on a couple of our pitches
The Little Alaska zone behind us!
John couldn't control himself he was so excited!
Miles of skiing to go to get down to the Georgian Military Road
Little village up on the hillside
Getting warmer down lower
Heading through an abandoned village, almost at the highway
After a 15 minute walk we made it to the Kobi-Gudauri gondola, phase 1
More silly views on the way up the Kobi Valley
Can I put my camera away please? Nope! We would end our next run further up the road
The top of our second run. A 40 minute bootpack and a quick traverse took us to this line. We'd ski all the way down to the road, a long ways down.
Where we skied down from, from the middle of the picture
Yep, big day mate!
Georgian-Russian Friendship wall
Dinner, much needed. Fried veal in tomato sauce, dumplings (middle-left), chicken in garlic-sauce (middle-right), bean bread, salad and then spicy-meatballs at the very top. Good fun and very inexpensive.
April 1st – Day off in Gudauri
The weather was not the best so Julie and I had a little day off on our own. We took a quick taxi ride down to the supermarket and then went to the Marco Polo Hotel to take a look around. The Marco Polo is rated as one of the better hotels in Gudauri but the atmosphere felt a little stale compared to The Loft. I think we will stay put there in 2020. Then we had another dinner at the Drunken Cherry and had an early night.
April 2nd – Traveling to Mestia
It was a glorious day as we left Gudauri for the big trek north to Mestia. You cannot take a direct route (as the crow flies it’s not too far through the mountains), but the disputed and Russian occupied territory of South Ossetia lies in the way, so you have to bypass that and that means going back down to Tbilisi and then take the road north west, before heading back into the mountains.
There’s not much too see as you leave Gudauri and enter the flatlands of central Georgia; we were on a nice freeway outside of Tbilisi initially but then you get onto smaller and much slower roads. You go through a lot of towns and many of them have old, Soviet-era dilapidated buildings. It would be a depressing scene normally but I found it all quite interesting yet stark.
The weather changed and it started to rain. As we got into the mountains, the mountains suddenly rose up and the scenery started to get quite impressive. There were some big drops off the side of the road. We stopped at a dam and had an overlook that gave views into Abkhazia, another large disputed province occupied by Russia. We could see a large Russian military base that was close to the dam. Wow, we got to see another occupied territory, I hadn’t been expecting that.
We kept driving and we were on the mountain road for about 4 hours. We couldn’t see the big peaks that no-doubt surrounded us, but the views were still impressive with deep gorges and rivers below us. There were a lot of warterfalls and one section had a lot of tunnels leading into the mountainsides (we thought they must have been mines). As we got close to Mestia we came to a large landslide area and there was a lot of mud on the road. We were able to cross easily and made it through to the other side. As we progressed, we had our first view of a village with the Svan towers.
Every old village in Svaneti has many of these stone towers. They are about 40ft high with 4 or 5 floors. They are very thick and strong at the base and are meant to give refuge from adverse storm events (most of them are avalanche proof) and give shelter to the local people if adversaries attack the village. They could then shoot arrows down on their attackers. Multiple independent towers replace the need for a castle. They also would like signal fires in the towers to send out warning signals to other villages and a force could be assembled to repel the invaders. All very clever….
After about 10 hours of driving, we came to Mestia and headed to the hotel. Mestia is very different to Gudauri. It is a town (with a lot of history). It has a main square, with lots of shops, restaurants and hotels, but it’s all very tastefully done and keeping with the heritage and local architecture. There are 40 of the Svan towers in the town which they light up at night. It’s a beautiful place. We arrived just as it was getting dark, around 7pm so we went straight to dinner and then had an early night, ready to start the second half of our adventure.
DJ Wifey in da housey-house! The DJ booth at the Loft Hotel in Gudauri.
There's a lot of new development in Gudauri. I'd be tempted to get an apartment myself; there's new ones going for $35,000 USD with ski in, ski out access.
The view from the hotel in Gudauri as we ate our last breakfast.
Heading down valley and seeing hundreds of trucks getting staged, ready to head into Russia. They have several convoys go up during the day. The trucks go up enmasse so to cause less disruption to the other traffic. You get caught up in that, then it's going to take you an hour or so, when the last section should only take 30 minutes or so....
Having lunch in a town along the way to Mestia, meeting some friendly locals at a little cafe.
The view from our room at the Hotel Banguriani when arrived. It had been a long 10-hour drive!
April 3rd – Cultural Day in Mestia
Our hotel, the Hotel Banguriani was up on a hillside overlooking the outskirts of the town. We could see plenty of towers opposite us and the foot of the mountains. Unfortunately, they were still shrouded in cloud. I knew there were 2 resorts accessible from Mestia; Hatsvali and Tetnuldi, but we didn’t know which was accessible. We had seen a chairlift on the mountainside as we passed through the town the previous evening and the lady at reception told us it was just a 10-minute walk to get there. We decided to put on our ski gear and go walk to the lift.
We didn’t know exactly which way to go, but we had been told to go straight and then cross over a bridge. We passed a herd of cows in the road as we made our way to the lift and then a pig and some chickens. There were several farms and you could smell the cow dung in the air. It felt very rural. We came to a bridge and then we saw the ski lift. It wasn’t running. I called our local guide Leri and he said the lift had just closed down for the season. This was actually Hatsvali resort and it was done for the season. It had gotten very warm apparently so they shut down. Bugger! We walked back to the hotel and got changed again. Time for a cultural day then!
We decided to head to the other side of the river on the direct opposite side of the valley where there was a tower that was accessible to the public and you could climb to the top. Most of the towers had wooden flooring and it had long since rotted away, but this museum had a tower which had been restored and you could climb to the top. We headed down from the hotel and crossed the river and started to climb up to the other side.
We passed through old cobblestone alleyways with old buildings around every turn. There were some gorgeous old buildings. Some were private dwellings put some of the bigger ones had been converted into guest-houses. There were a few cafes around as well, plus some old dilapidated buildings. The people that we passed were friendly with many smiles, waves and hellos being exchanged. We were having a great time.
It took about 30 minutes to reach the old tower. It was clearly marked as a museum. We climbed some new (but rickety) wooden steps and went inside. Straight away we found another set of near-vertical wooden ladders. Up we went. We climbed up 4 floors and came to the top. There were many slit-like windows and a hole in the roof to let in the light. We took a lot of photos and then were joined by a group of Georgian lads. We had a quick chat with them before heading down.
We walked back down through the alleyways and met a couple of the local dogs. One of the friendly waitstaff at The Loft had told us to be careful of the dogs in Mestia, he said they were aggressive, so we were a little apprehensive when a solid all-black Cane Corso came over. We needn’t have worried. This killer was an absolute teddy bear, he loved to be patted and have his butt scratched. I didn’t want to leave him but we had to keep moving.
It was getting late so we headed down into the part of town and walked through to the square. On the way we did a little souvenir shopping. Then we found a nice café and stopped in for a late lunch. We tried some of the local Khachapuri and meat-filled bread (Kubdari), cheesey-mashed potatoes (Tashmijabi) and some other dishes. The food was really good and that filled us up. I don’t think that stopped us from having dinner later that night though!
We stopped in to meet our new local guide, Leri, at his shop on the main street and go through the plan for the next few days. Unfortunately the weather was not looking too good for the 4th, so we decided that we would take 1 more cultural day before getting 2 big days of skiing in on the 5th and 6th.
Heading across the river into the old town.
John dodging the cow-pies in the streets of Mestia.
Getting close to the Svan towers.
Gary reaching the top.
The view from the top from one of the windows
The tower we climbed
One of the ferocious Mestian dogs!
This Cane Corso was an absolute beast, and when I say beast, I mean teddy bear!
The gang in old Mestia
Another local dog
This guy had unfortunately claimed the life of a small, plush hedgehog. He was very proud of his toy!
Humorous iron sculpture in the main square of Mestia.
Eating the cheesy mashed-potato. The longer the strands, the better it is. This one was pretty good. You definitely need to like cheese if you come to Georgia!
Lot's of different Khachapuri's, beans in a clay pot, dumplings in a clay pot, veal stew and cheesy mashed-potatoes. The local Argo beer was really nice too.
April 4th – Museum and Checking out Hotels in Mestia
The weather was a bit overcast so we decided against hiring a local guide to go to Tetnuldi. Instead Julie and I had to run some errands. started at the museum near the Hatsvali chairlift. The museum is great and is very well done. It details the history and culture of Mestia and has a lot of old artifacts and exhibits. All of the information is in English as well, so we were able to learn a lot about the region. Entrance was 7 GEL ($2.50)
Next we went to check out a few more hotels in town. That wasn’t super exciting so I won’t get into detail…… We had a late lunch and then it started snowing pretty hard in the afternoon. Things were looking promising for the next day.
April 5th – Bluebird Powder Day in Tetnuldi
This was the day we had been waiting for! Leri our new guide came for us at 9:15am and we headed up to Tetnuldi. John, Gary and I were in Leri’s Toyota Forerunner and Gordon, Karena and Laurie (who were also coming up to ski) went in another vehicle. There was about 20cm’s of new snow on the mountain road.
It took about 40 minutes to get to the resort. The road hadn’t been plowed so you definitely needed a decent 4WD with good snow tires to make it up there as there were some steep sections close to the resort. We had no problems in the Toyota and we were the first ones up. It was bluebird and the mountain looked amazing. There were no tracks to be seen and there was only us there. We were surrounded by massive mountains. It was quite the view. This was going to be a good day.
Still, no rest for the wicked, others would be coming. We got our boots on and headed over to the lift. There was a large base lodge and then a 6-pack chair with a ticket office. We bought electronic day passes (30 GEL or about $12) and then headed to the chair. We were first in line. Others followed. I got a trail map and from the map we could see another 6-pack chair, a 4-pack chair to the left and then another 4 pack to take us to the high point at 3,106m (10,367ft). The base is at 2,265m (7,431ft) so that meant a vertical of 841m or 2,759ft. There was plenty of skinning up higher that could be done and you could ski well down into the valley’s, so that was just lifted vertical. This place has some serious potential.
We took the two 6-packs up and then the quad. A few patrollers and some other locals had already gotten to the top ahead of us and they were dropping on. At the top to the left, there is a nice steep off-piste area full of gullies and spines. The skiing looked amazing. We dropped in one at a time and enjoyed steep lines and light powder. The skiing was great. It was a bit of a free for all as people skied on top of each other. The avi danger was rated as considerable but thankfully nothing was moving. Then we had a big traverse to our left before coming out into a big open face, not as steep or technical as the previous zone, with more vertical. This was a different aspect (the first zone was north-facing) and there was a slight wind/sun crust. It was still great skiing and we had some decent vertical. We skied it in a few pitches and then came out at the 4-pack chair we had seen down to our left on the first chair ride up.
We took that up and that brought us to the bottom of the second 6-pack. We took that up and then the next 4-pack to the top and then skied the same zones again, skiing further to the left. We repeated this pretty much all day. We did have a quick break for lunch but soon got back out there. There was probably only 20 other people skiing the same zone as us (there was an absolute ton of untouched snow next to the groomers for less-experienced freeriders. This place would be a paradise for them. On our second to last run we hiked off the top of the highest chair and you could just keep doing that to get fresh tracks. Then on our final run of the day we explored the looker’s right side of the mountain.
That’s a big zone in itself. You could skin way out and ski all the way down into a valley. It is more south-facing so you have to hit it at the right time. They are putting a new lift in down there as well, so that will add a lot of new terrain next season. This place is definitely on the up and up. The snow was a little crusty at the top but as we got lower, it softened and we found some nice snow. It was a good time and then we had a long but easy traverse to get back into the resort. Good times. Then we had to ski some long groomers to get back to the bottom.
We’d had an awesome day. Tetnuldi was a hit. The conditions definitely helped, but here is a resort with good infrastructure (and more lifts are coming), great snow, few people, inexpensive and with amazing views. It’s definitely worth a few days of skiing if you come to Mestia. I’ll let the photos and video’s do the rest of the talking…..
We have left Georgia and are back in the US. Made it as far as New York/JFK, had to stay here overnight as our flight back to Denver was cancelled. Hoping to get in tonight. In the meantime, here are a few quick video's before I post some proper edited video's of the skiing from Tetnuldi.....
Enjoying some great powder at Tetnuldi - Alpine Ski Resort on April 5th. This is the complete run to give you a feel for the place. This was straight off the top lift with no hiking involved, with two really nice sections. Then it was a ski down to get to the 4 person chair and 2 more chairs after that to make it back to the top. You can get a lot of laps in, in this zone. I'll post sections of the runs later.
April 6th – Backcountry Day in Ushguli
We drove 2 hours to Ushguli, the highest continuously inhabited town in Europe at 6,900ft to do some ski touring. Ushguli is made up of 4 small villages with over 200 people at the foot of Mount Shkhara and one of the villages is UNESCO listed. It has a lot of the Svan towers that you see in Mestia and other villages in the area.
It was a very rough road to get to Ushguli and you definitely need a decent 4wd vehicle to get there in the wintertime. There are some big drop-offs on certain sections of the road and it’s not for the feint-hearted. We reached the first village and that is where Leri stopped and parked the car. We skied down to the start of the skin track and then we put on skins and up we went.
It was about a 1,000m vertical climb and it was expected to take about 3 hours. As we left the village, a small dog (a mutt that looked like a small German Shepard) came running after us. I gave her some food and then she was our best friend. She followed diligently behind us as we made our way up the skin track. This is a somewhat popular area for touring and there was a group of 8 people way ahead of us.
It took us about 3 hours to reach the top. The group of 8 had dropped in already and then they rejoined the skin track and headed up towards us. Pretty soon they caught us up and overtook us. It was a busy little racetrack. They kept going and we opted to ski down from the ridge. Unfortunately the clouds were coming in so we didn’t have a good view of Mt. Elbrus.
The snow was soft and we skied several nice pitches. Our faithful dog (now christened Merlin) ran down as we skied. What a good girl! We followed the same line that we skinned up. Then we came down to the bridge and Leri decided to take a short-cut up a small stream through a farm. It was fine at the start and then it turned to animal waste as we got closer to the farm. Gross! I wasn’t so stoked on that. Think I’ll go the longer way round next time…..
Our wives had also made the drive into Ushguli to look around the village so we went in search of them. They were at a restaurant (there’s only a couple in Ushguli) so they were easy to find. We had some lunch and then headed back to Mestia. Ushguli was pretty cool overall, the village is worth seeing and I can see the potential of the touring in the area, there’s many, many lines. I would definitely go back there…..
This was a skiing mission, but also turned into a fun 4WD adventure too!
There were plenty of steep drop offs on the dirt road
Ushguli actually comprises 4 villages. This is the first one and the starting point for our tour
The start of our tour. Merlin is our pup in the middle
We were heading towards that peak in the middle
It was a solid 3 hour climb for us
Snack time for the pup!
Skiing down the first pitch, next to the skin track
Decent vertical all the way down to the valley and back to the car
Gary enjoying his surroundings
Merlin liked to stay in the skin track as much as possible
Looking backup at our tracks
Crossing the bridge and then taking the shortcut up the poop stream!
Having lunch at Ushguli. This was a surprisingly good restaurant.
Ushguli village #2. This is the one that is UNESCO heritage listed, I believe.
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