Last fall I sat on my deck with a world map searching for a new mountain range to ski. I settled on the Caucus Mountains in The Republic of Georgia.
The exciting part of planning ski trips to a place like Georgia is that you feel like a pioneer exploring a place that is fresh, new and unknown. However, the unknown while exciting, can quickly morph into anxiety when there is less than copious data on the places I was interested in going. Even the internet left me wanting more information on skiing in Georgia.
After hours of combing over bits and pieces of info via Google, I decided that I would stake my claim in Guduari. I knew that Gudauri had some infrastructure and was just 2 hours from the capital city of Tbilisi which had daily flights from Munich. Photographer Scott DW Smith and I put together a plan of attack, dropped some cash for plane tickets and headed east.
We arrived in Tbilisi at 4am and were picked up promptly by our. I can tell you first hand that finding a driver holding a simple sign with your name on it is a huge relief when arriving in a very foreign country with a formidable language barrier.
Scott and I drifted in and out of sleep as we bounced up the winding road from Tbilisi to Gudauri. As we gained elevation the snowpack grew deeper, the mountains bigger and terrain more rugged. We snaked up the valley and were deposited on the doorstep of our hotel at 7 a.m. A departing storm has left a foot of new snow and the dissipating clouds signal the start to what may be an epic week.
Gudauri is by definition a village, but in reality it is simply a collection of a half dozen hotels spread out across a vast hillside. Upon our arrival, the first thing I noticed was the complete lack of vegetation. Gudauri sits well above treeline and the mountains are a rolling sea of white, punctuated on rare occasion by rugged cliffs and rock towers. I got the sense that this place had a lifetime worth of skiable lines and not a single person competing for turns.
We spent a few days skiing the resort of Gudauri. The lift system was state-of-the-art with high speed lifts and a new gondola which officially opened coincidentally on the day of our arrival. The lift accessible terrain was vast and untracked snow blanketed terrain loaded with huge bowls.
After a winter in Colorado mostly void of powder days, we were ready to lap some untracked snow. On a powder day by 11 a.m., the ski area had a crowd of maybe 50 people. Scott and I were shocked that we each had a couple thousand acres of untracked snow to ourselves. Given that the temps were near zero, the snow stayed perfect all day even in blazing sunshine. We spent 2 days shooting around the ski area and doing short hike-to lines above the lifts.
Over the weekend the crowds picked up, but the mountain never looked busier than an off-peak weekday at a mom and pop resort back home. On day three, we started to get comfortable with the snow conditions and headed out for some touring outside the resort. There was nothing resembling a boundary, just a point when we realized that going a certain direction probably eliminated our chance of a lift ride back up. The days were long and we took full advantage, shooting late into the evening each day.
One thing I knew from my research was that Gudauri had a heli ski company called Heliksir in their sophomore year. We thought it worthwhile to see what heli skiing in the Caucus Mountains was all about. Our guides were confident they could get us to some of the massive peaks a few valleys over and our plans were put in motion. Our pilot Guy and guide Archil delivered us to a perfect LZ above an area called Chaukhi. This zone was lined with huge spires that dropped into a huge amphitheater of spines, bowls and gullies. We pillaged the zone all day trying to capture in digital glory the scale and magnitude of the region.
After spending some time with the heli guides we found out it was possible to climb the mountain above the highest lift and drop off the backside to numerous huge valleys that drop to a road connecting Russia and Georgia. This road, going over Cross Pass, is amazingly open all winter and one can hitchhike back to Gudauri or plan ahead and arrange a pick-up. I gamble in Vegas, not Georgia, so we opted to book a pre-arranged ride to improve our odds of getting home in time for dinner.
Our run from the summit of Sadzelle to the Cross Pass road was epic and reminiscent of Alps-style runs, where you take a lift, hike an hour and drop 4,000+ vertical feet into a neighboring valley to be whisked back to the village where your day began.
We were truly alone in the midst of very large and very incredible terrain. We stopped briefly to admire the peak of Kazbek, at just under 17,000 feet, looming above us on the Russian border. We hit every possible feature as we dropped to the road. We hit the road speechless as we were spent from the day and it was one of those times when words would ruin the moment. We both knew what we had just experienced and in our own ways, we were saying some silent thank you for our fortunes that had brought us to such an incredible place such as this.
After a Georgian Feast and nap at the Hotel Truso, we sauntered next door to the Hotel Gudarui Hut and celebrated the trip with some homemade Georgian Chacha. Although the drink may be the first cousin of moonshine, it didn’t cause us to go blind which was a plus as we still had a couple thousand photos to edit on the flight home.
If Georgia isn’t on your radar now, add it to your wish list as it delivers the goods. Incredible skiing combined with unreal culture makes this a must do that should be added to any serious skiers bucket list.
Sven Brunso is the typical ski story. Kid grows up in Huntington Beach, California as a beach bum, goes to college at The University of Arizona and goes on to a career as a prolific freeskier. Okay, so his story is atypical but true. Sven is a husband and father and a forever a ski bum willing to chase after the endless winter.