Ski touring trip in Georgia
We are four friends, leaving from Briançon (France), for 2 weeks of ski touring in the Caucasus, in Georgia. The main goal is to ski on Mount Kazbek, a 5047-meter high summit. Then we want to go skiing on the surrounding mountains where possibilities seem endless and slopes wonderful. Of course, skiing is not the only goal in such a country where we also expect to be lost and disoriented.
We have not been disappointed : we just came out of the plane and taxi drivers were already setting the tone. We meet Georges, our car renter with the 4x4 that we have booked before leaving. But the vehicle has some brake issues, Georges offers us another one, brand new and super powerful, much more eye catching than expected. It all starts well !
Once in our car (which was a mix between a racing car and a tank) we drive towards Stepantsminda, a village near the Russian border and at the bottom of Mount Kazbek. Driving in Georgia is quite scary. Everything we did in the mountains during this trip will never be as scary as driving on Georgian roads.
People drive really fast, pass each other anywhere or anyhow, trucks pass each other on mountain roads or in curves, they drive and cross each other three side by side where it seems to be only enough space for two… But, weirdly enough, most of the time it is fine. Truth be told : many cars don't have a bumper anymore…
We manage to arrive safe and sound at Stepantsminda and take place in the lovely lodge named "Nazi" (after its owner), before trying local food. We go to the first small restaurant that we find, the "Kazbegi Good Food". It doesn't look anything special, but for about 5 euros per person the table is full of plates. I think that in 15 days we barely managed to try all the food on the menu ! Local food is not the most delicate but when you come back from skiing it's perfect. We will remember the Khinkalis, big tasteful raviolis and the Adjarjan Khachapuri, a "toast" with cream, cheese, an egg and melted butter on top, only fat…
The local architecture also amazes us. Some very old ruins, castles and towers from the middle ages, but also many abandoned Soviet buildings, huge abandoned concrete buildings and quite murky. Regarding the houses, they often seem to be hasty built, even the newest ones, and are sometimes ruined before being finished. They are all linked to an outdoor gas distribution system and it looks like a small leak would blow up the all country !
To resume, in this country we feel that everything, from the organisation to the architecture, or from driving to food, was done hastily. It seems that the country's official motto is "don't worry it's fine!"
This lifestyle is really surprising and can be scary when you arrive there, but it is quite pleasant compared to our western countries where everything is standardised, in line and policed. But Georgia is growing rapidly, and "westernalising" very fast all along trying to get rid of Russia and its soviet past. Things may change a lot within the following years.
Discovering the area and preparation of our climb on Mount Kazbek (Monday 13th May)
On our first day in Stepantsminda, the weather was supposed to be quite bad so we decided to take a break after our two-days trip. We slept late in the morning and once we have had breakfast the rain had stopped and the clouds were gone. We chose to roam around the valleys to discover what we can do in these mountains, and to spot where we could ski during the rest of our trip.
We went towards Juta, it is a small village at the end of a valley, at the bottom of Mount Chauki. It is an amazing mountain, with steep slopes, full of fresh snow and narrow corridors. That looks like a place where we will surely come back !
We kept going a few more kilometres towards the end of the valley until the snow stopped us. From there we could spot other slopes and other mountains… But in this world region the climate is more continental than in Europe and May is already very warm. The snow limit is already very high and we realize that we will probably have to walk a bit before skiing. Heavy snow avalanches have already devastated the slopes that are more exposed to the sun. We will have to be careful.
We went back to Stepantsminda our heads full of great ideas for the rest of our stay. But first we must focus on our main goal : Kazbek Mount. The weather is announced to be perfect so we must make the best of it !
We go to the local tourist office to get some information. The place does not look good, the building looks old, and walls are covered with drawings and inscriptions. The person welcoming us does it quite poorly. We still buy him two maps before asking for some pieces of advice. He informs us that there is a shelter at Kazbek Mount, that it is open and supervised but that there is no heating nor blankets and that they do not serve any meal - for fifteen euros per night. Therefore we are going to camp ! He also tells us about a water spring half way between the car park and the camp, which will allow us to fill our bottles in on the way.
Then we go grocery shopping for our 3 days of camp before going for a run just above the lodge to stretch our legs. We go to Gergeti Trinity Church, a local touristic place. The church dominates the city from the bottom of the Kazbek. The place is wonderful; we have a beautiful viewpoint on what we will do the following days. For the itinerary we did some researches before leaving and hesitate between two choices : the normal way, long an not too technical, and the southeast face, more direct that goes straight above the shelter and that we can see well from the city.
It is a 1000 meter high face with a 40° to 50° slope. The highest point is usually frozen which can make the climbing harder. But what we mostly want to do is skiing down from the top, and for that we need the perfect conditions : if there is not enough snow the slope is icy so impossible to ski, if there is too much and it is windy, the avalanche risk is too high. We look at the mountain with our binoculars and think that these days all the conditions are gathered : there is a patch of ice in the middle but it seems that we can pass on the side. We keep dreaming about it all along with looking for other itineraries in case of bad conditions. The south face seems to have a safest downhill and is a good plan B.
A long and tiring approach (Monday 14th May)
After eating at Kazbegi Good Food the day before and a good night of sleep in the Nazi shelter we left for the Kazbek. We went to Gergeti Trinity Church again, starting point of our ascent, but by car this time. The road was brand new, better than the old earth track, which shows the economic growth of the country. Even though it was new it was already collapsing, some landslides had already destroyed half of the road, the walls on the side were falling down and we had to slalom between the trees on the road
From the parking we only walk five minutes before putting on our skis, and here we go for a long day. Until the camp we have a 1600meter ascending elevation and 11 kilometres. In our bags we have all the climbing material that we could need and enough to camp during 3 days : tents, blankets, food… It is heavy, even more when the weather is warm.
After many hours we arrive at the water spring. We had only taken a little water because we though we could re-fill our bottles there. However, the guy who told us about this spring was wrong, there is no spring here, or not during this season. It is probably somewhere under the snow, or still frozen… We still have 800 meter ascending elevation until we can camp and melt some snow.
Finally, we stop on the glacier, above the shelter at about 3850 meter high. We find a big rock under which we can protect our camp. This day was exhausting but the next day will be perfect, we don't want to miss this window ! Building the tents, cooking, melting snow to get water take us some time, we go to bed at 10pm. The alarm is set at 3am. The night will be short, probably bad and tomorrow will be hard.
The summit day (Wednesday May 15th)
After a quick breakfast we go for the south-east face. We still have 1200 meter to climb before the summit. The night is light, starry, we can see a storm further away, the lightnings lit the mountains, the landscape is breath taking. We do the firsts 400 meters easily on our skis. We reach the bottom of a corridor and from that point we put our skis on our bags and continue climbing with our crampons and ice axes.
Our rhythm is much slower, the altitude starts to be felt, breakfast is hard to digest and the water freezing in our bottles keeps us from drinking properly. Only Luka seems to be fine, he does most of the climbing in first place.
The more we climb the more we realise that the face is pretty snowy and that the ice is really far under, it is quite a good sign ! As we had seen from the bottom, there is only one patch of ice, but easily avoidable. However, the snow has been blown and there is a big fragile sheet of snow on the centre. It would be possible to ski down but it would not be pleasant and would be dangerous, mostly because falling there was not an option. With the height and being tired we finally chose the south face.
We enjoy the view from the summit, the weather is perfect, and we can see hundreds miles away. It is wonderful. We directly put on our skis, which is a chance. Even the less steep slope is often frozen on the summit. We do some curves on the Russian side before going back on the Georgian one on the south face. The snow has melted with the sun and the downhill is done in big curves, a true pleasure with our UBAC! We go back to the camp happy and slow down to rest…
Ski touring above the camp and back to the village (Thursday, May 16th)
After a much better night and a late awakening we decide to go for a small tour above the camp before going back down. We have spotted a small corridor along the glacier, overlooked by aesthetics seracs. Pierre-Louis and then Nikky quickly leave us, tired from the day before. We keep going with Luka. It is very warm, even at 4500 metre high. We ski down the corridor, the place is great but we better not stay there for too long. Back to the camp we pack our stuff and here we are ready to go back to the shelter. The talking is now more about dinner.
The downhill was longer and harder than expected, it is too warm and the snow is sticky. We arrive at the car exhausted from these 3 days but happy that we have reached our main goal.
Enjoy before bad weather (Friday 17th and Saturday 18th May,)
The weather is said to be mixed from Sunday so we want to enjoy the good days and will rest later… On Friday we leave for a small tour on Jvari Pass, a small peak above Stepantsminda that allows us to start directly on our skis from the car. The walk is cute but once again the warmth makes the snow very sticky. A small slope at the top allows us to make some curves and the region is wonderful ! The next day we decide to ski on a corridor we had spotted on the first day in Juta valley. The tour is long but beautiful, the corridor and its height (4000 metres) make us think that the snow will be good there. We wake up early to put on our skis at dawn. We take the same road than at the beginning of the week but a small military camp is along the road. The Russian border is really close and the situation between the two countries is tense. After we put our ski shoes an armed soldier asks us to leave. The end of the valley is now forbidden. All the summits and itinerary we had seen were on this side of the valley. There is no plan B. It is part of the local folklore but we are still a bit disappointed. And with a flat tyre ! Luckily there is still the Kazbegi Good Food !
Rest, tourism and tyre repair (Sunday 19th and Monday 20th May)
bad weather has arrived, it's raining we can finally rest. We sleep, we play backgammon at the shelter, and we eat. We also enjoy visiting the region. Bad luck : the museum is closed for renovations. Many of the castles and towers are not to be visited either. We roam around some waterfalls and mostly we are looking for a way to fix our flat tyre. After going to different garages and petrol stations, and trying to explain our problem in Georgian, we finally find, in a small and scruffy building, the valley's repairman. On the metal door we can see a tyre and a few words in Russian, probably meaning "tyre reparation", that seem to be engraved by hand. The place, the guy, its workshop, everything here is unique. He does not speak a word on English. We give him our tyre and he fixes it in a few minutes. He writes on the wall "30 lari", which makes 5 euros.
Bivi at Chaukhi (Tuesday 21st, Wednesday 22nd and Thursday 23rd May)
The weather is announced to be better for the rest of the week. We are not going to have the perfect blue sky from the first week but whatever. We go back to Juta. If we do not pass the village the access is allowed, and even very touristic. We walk one hour to reach the bottom of the Chaukhi's faces. We find a small lake surrounded by three huts. The first one is brand new, well built and well finished. The second one, still being built is already collapsing. And the third one only has a roof. We decide to put our tents under to hide from the wind and the rain. The place is perfect.
The next day we climb the Chaukhi to ski down two small corridors. They are short but steep and the surroundings are amazing.
Back to the camp Pierre-Louis tries to water-slide on the lake. He does not succeed but we laugh a lot ! We end up playing on the pieces of ice floating on the lake and at one point we all fall down in the water.
For the last day of our ski trop we have kept the main corridor of the face. When climbing we observe bear tracks just next to our tents, that is a danger we did not know about… hopefully it is the last day. We reach the top through a breach. The corridor is wide but very steep. There is some fresh snow that makes the first curves very pleasant. Then it becomes steepest and the snow becomes really hard. We must be very careful but the vibe is crazy ! A real downhill, great ski and a great way to end this trip !
Back to Tbilissi (Friday, 24th May)
Our flight back is very early on Saturday morning. We must be in Tbilissi on Friday. After the driving – and its unexpected surprises – we spend the day visiting the city. Parks, streets, churches, castles… and food ! We must enjoy our last day by eating many typical meals ! We eat until late at night and take a taxi straight to the airport. We arrive at midnight and the check-in is at 3am. We take our blankets and mattresses and become hobos until taking off.
From these two weeks we will keep amazing memories, we have discovered a brand new culture and way of life and seen huge and wild landscapes. We managed to ski the Kazbek in amazing weather conditions. And for what is left we had a dew disappointments but that's what adventure is all about ! Georgia is a great destination, why not going back there in winter to find powder snow…?
Text: Baptiste Baudry
Photographer: Luka Leroy