Alpinist Nick Marmet's Dispatch from Georgia

Alpinist Nick Marmet's Dispatch from Georgia

Alps & Meters Alpinist Nick Marmet lives and works in Moscow, but skis all over the world. We love asking Nick where he's headed next, because his adventures are always unexpected and off the beaten path. This week on the Journal, Nick's dispatch from Georgia's Caucasus Mountains. 

Tell someone you're going skiing in Georgia and they're likely to give you a strange look. In a year of increasingly bizarre weather patterns, it still seems far-fetched that the southern state renowned for its peaches would be a mecca for winter sports. But when you explain that you won't be in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains but in the heart of the mighty Caucasus, the picture becomes clearer.

Spanning nearly 700 miles from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus Mountains cover parts of southern Russia and much of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The range is home to some of the highest peaks in Europe, including Mont Elbrus, which towers a full 832 meters above Mont Blanc. Two years ago, the Sochi Olympics brought both luxury-level amenities to Rosa Khutor, Russia's premier ski resort, and international attention (if only momentarily) to these underappreciated mountains. Further south, however, in Georgia, both on- and off-piste skiing continues to remain a more wild pursuit. 

When Romantic writers like Byron and Shelly sought solace and the sublime in the Alps, their Russian counterparts found analogous experiences in the Caucasus, which during the 19th-century represented the southern frontier of Russian Empire.  “The massive amphitheater of mountains grows even bluer and mistier, while on the fringe of the horizon stretches the silvery chain of snow-capped peaks beginning with Kazbek and ending with twin-peaked Elbrus,” Mikhail Lermontov wrote in 1840 in his classic novel A Hero of Our Time. “The air is pure and fresh like the kiss of a child, the sun is bright and the sky blue—what more could one desire?” For much of the 20th century, when strict travel bans prevented most from traveling from outside the USSR, Georgia was a kind of “Soviet Italy”: a sun-soaked republic of mountains, seaside, and forests dotted with age-old architectural details and inhabited by a warm, gregarious people with delicious cuisine and copious amounts of wine. Shift la dolce vita several degrees east, infuse it with Russian, Turkish, and Persian influences, and the result is Georgia.  

Clearly feeling that it has been a secret for too long, Georgia wants you to fall head over heels from the second your plane touches the tarmac. At the Tbilisi airport, the official Wi-Fi network is named “TBILISILOVESYOU” and customs officials have been known to return stamped passports with half-bottles of Georgian saperavi wine. We arrive on a late-night flight from Moscow and are taken into the mountains by a voluble driver who in heavily-accented Russian gives us a comprehensive overview of Georgian history, superstitions, and cuisine over the constant beat of techno pop tunes. After three hours of windy, uphill roads passing few other cars, we reach Georgia’s premier ski resort, Gudauri.

A few hours later, the bright sun breaks through our windows. Despite having had only a couple hours of sleep, the brisk mountain air and a cup of bracingly strong Turkish-style coffee are enough to help us make first chair, which in a relaxed Georgian fashion is at 10 AM. With six lifts, 50 km of skiable terrain, and 1000m of vertical drop, Gudauri is a total steal at 30 lari, or $13.25, for a single-day lift pass. It’s a clear day and to get a sense of our surroundings we go to the top of Mt. Kudebi (3006m), where we’re met by a roaring wind that makes it difficult to fully appreciate the spectacular panorama of the South Caucasus. We find a relatively untracked backside but what appears from afar to be light powder is in fact crusted and heavy.  We skin up to Mt. Chrdili (2504m) and ski lines down its south-facing side, which has been nicely softened by the morning sun. Further up the mountain, the wind is becoming stronger and the top lifts soon close, but we’re fully engaged making fresh tracks off of Chrdili’s ridgeline.

It’s impossible to write about Georgia without discussing its cuisine, which almost always entrances the uninitiated with its rich, rustic flavors. Unsurprisingly, it makes for fantastic ski food and at lunch we feast on khachapuri, Georgia’s iconic cheese bread, kharcho, a beef soup with rice, crushed walnuts, and pureed plums, and pkhali, chilled rolls of grilled eggplant with bright walnut paste inside. Thinking of the classic “Prisoner of the Caucasus” trope that has been used in a Pushkin poem, Tolstoy novella, Soviet musical comedy, and, most recently, mid-90s Russian drama, it’s easy to imagine becoming a captive of Georgian cooking alone.

In addition to gastronomy, Georgians are also extremely proud of the country’s Christian history, which extends back to the 1st century when, according to Georgian Orthodox tradition, the Apostles Simon and Andrew first preached to gospel in what is now Georgia. Ancient-yet-still-functioning monasteries are scattered throughout the mountains (built as high up as possible so as to be closer to heaven) and for the next day we make plans with a guide to skin up to Lomisi Monastery, which is perched on a ridge across the valley at 2200m. Having read reports of monks greeting skiers with mugs of hot tea, we have been looking forward to this tour for quite some time. When we talk to our guide in the morning, we are told that a snowstorm is moving in and that it would be unwise to go up to the monastery or anywhere else in the mountains. From the groggy voice on the other end of the line and the clear view of the monastery from our window, the obvious conclusion is that our would-be guide had too much inexpensive Georgian wine or chacha, a potentially lethal local moonshine resembling grappa, the night before. We scramble and get in touch with Wild Guru, a hostel-cum-freeride-cum-paragliding operation run by Anton, a Ukrainian ex-IT specialist who came to Gudauri by way of Moscow. It’s almost noon by the time our crew comes together: the three of us plus Kostya, our splitboarding Siberian-born guide, Vova, a Ukrainian Everest expedition leader, and Anton, who decides he can put off his other obligations for a few hours. Having missed the window for the monastery, we drive north on the Georgian Military Highway, park by the side of the road, and start skinning up to Dedaena (3449m).  

We had admired Dedaena’s steep slopes and near-perfect isosceles outline from the resort the day before. Our approach takes us up the backside, which is often shielded from the sun so that the snow still feels fresh even a week after the last major snowfall. We skin up an open snowfield and, after testing the snow, traverse across a steep col under a serac before climbing up an even steeper slope that requires us to strap our skis on our packs and clamber up. The more altitude we gain, the less we can see, as the snow storm that we were warned about is in fact approaching. After reaching a plateau (3000m), we imagine the view that could be and then cruise down the wide-open slopes. With the snow completely untouched, save for our economical skin tracks, it’s challenging in the low light to make out the best line down, or even to be entirely sure that we are heading downhill. Near the top, we hit some great narrow gullies before steering around the mountain’s shoulder and into slightly less cloudy conditions. Our van soon comes into view and we do the last 3km in a straight shot ending only by the side of the road.

That evening, with the storm picking up, we unwind at Tsar Bani, a spa that gives the traditional Russian banya experience a tasteful update. From the outside, the building appears to be little more than a snowed-in concrete bunker with three red chimneys. The interior, however, is a contemporary combination of stone, glass, and pine imported specially from the forests of Siberia. Our group gets a private cabin that consists of a steam room, a room for relaxing, and an outside balcony that looks over the valley. After settling in, the eight of us squeeze into the steam room and receive marching orders from the banchik, who helps us to achieve banya nirvana through his superior knowledge of how to create the best steam, regulate the ventilation, thrash yourself with sheaves of birch branches for optimal blood circulation, and other topics often overlooked by bathhouse amateurs. In between steam sessions that last until our blood feels to be on the verge of boiling, we drink mountain grass tea from clay bowls and roll in the growing pile of snow on the balcony.

The snow is still coming down the next day, completely killing our touring plans, but we have the resort almost entirely to ourselves to explore. We’re far more fortunate with the weather on our last day and head to Mt. Kudebi, from which you can ski down almost any face. It’s the clearest day of the long weekend and at the top of the mountain paragliders are launching one after another, despite the violent winds that blow tangled strings and billowing wings directly into skiers coming off the lift. The resort runs are for the most part gentle, with the exception of those coming off of Mt. Sadzele (3300m), the lift to which has unfortunately been closed since we arrived due to high winds.

After lamb shashlyk, or grilled kebabs, with pungent tkemali, a sour plum sauce, we decide that we can’t leave without skiing Sadzele, so we skin up its western face, almost immediately feeling removed from the resort. The clouds are low but it’s still clear just how impressive the range is. When we reach the top of the lift, we find the machinery in the kind of condition that you would expect from an abandoned Arctic field station. The wind gets so strong up here that there is little snow and what hasn’t been swept off the peak is fused to ice and metal, stretched over time by unrelenting winds so that it juts out horizontally. As we begin to ski down, we find the snow cover near the top to be inconsistent and the fresh powder from the storm the day before elusive; off the sides of the ridgelines we find snow banks perfect for effortless tight turns. Further down the mountain, we drop into mini couloirs for closer turns in deeper snow before a long run-out that takes us back to the groomed trails. The lifts have stopped running and only a handful of skiers remain on the mountain as we try in vain to find decent side-piste skiing, ultimately deciding not to taint the run off Sadzele and instead to enjoy the well-designed and maintained pitches and curves carved into the mountain for maximum comfort and enjoyment.

In Georgia, adventure seldom ends in the mountains. The van taking us back to Tbilisi sinks into the ground, soft from snow melt, and it takes a Range Rover and a very strong rope to jerk us out of our tracks and pull us back onto the road.

Back in the capital, the portrait of a long-forgotten imperial outpost framed by chipped pastel paint, slowly decaying wood, and rusting and rumpled wrought iron, the remoteness and brutality that we experienced at the top of Sadzele feels more than 75 km away. Over a bottle of Georgian amber wine and carafes of saperavi made in traditional clay vessels buried underground, we sample dishes at Shavi Lomi that cleverly update Georgian classics with elements from Mexican and Mediterranean cuisine.  Still, despite this more cosmopolitan approach, the food retains its rustic nature, the flavors big, bright, and wild – the very same qualities that first attracted the Romantics to the region almost two centuries ago and that continue to make Georgia an increasingly popular destination for tourists. Much as Georgia is desperate to be loved, the South Caucasus beg to be skied, from Svaneti in northwest Georgia to Shahdag in Azerbaijan. That the tourist infrastructure is heavily underdeveloped for winter sports only adds to the sense of adventure and discovery that the region still retains after all these years. While you may not see a high speed gondola, you will find mountain hamlets that have changed little in the past millennium and people you are incredibly friendly, generous, and above all excited to be sharing with you a secret that they feel they have been keeping to themselves for too long.