30 October 2016    

Suppose you have one or two weeks of vacation and want to go on a splitboarding and freeride trip. Your friends can not make it so you are forced with two options: 

Book a trip or go alone and meet new people and friends. To see what works best my journey was split into two parts. The first week was a booked splitboard journey with Elooa where everything is organized with hotel, car transfers, and mountain guide. The second week was the more adventurous part to find out more about Georgia and to see how easy or difficult traveling and splitboarding can be if you are on your own.

Getting There

My trip starts in early February at the Munich airport at 5 am where I met K2/BCA teamrider and Elooa guide Berni together with his girlfriend Michaela. Both came that night from Salzburg. The first challenge: Getting the avalanche backpack through airport security. The clerk at the check-in from Turkish has no clue about it. I hand over all necessary paperwork: datasheet with specs from ABS, permission from Turkish, IATA dangerous goods regulation table, printout in English and Russian in case there are problems in Tiblisi on the way back. After a few phone calls the airbag passes the security. I'm relieved that I don't have to trigger it in the departure lounge to get it on plane. In Istanbul we meet with Pete and Philipp from Basel, now splitboard team Austria, Switzerland, and Germany is complete.
Together we arrive at Tiblisi airport. In front of the airport police officers patrol on Segways with machine guns. Not the picture I had in mind of Georgia but cool anyway. Our driver is already waiting at the airport, with a small van we travel the remaining 130 kilometers north to Gudauri. At our hotel the Gudauri hut we met with Ilia our mountain guide. The Caucasus Mountains located between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea offer a high potential for exploration, splitboarding, and winter mountaineering. Unfortunately many Northern Caucasus regions like Ingushetia, Dagestan, Chechnya, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia are either difficult to enter or have some minor security problems that can get you into trouble as a tourist. On the contrary in Georgia you do not need visa, there is no corrupt police to deal with, and chances of getting robbed are nearly zero.

A simple viewing platform was not sufficient back in the Soviet times so they build this monument near Gudauri.

Gudauri is one of the finest skiing resorts in terms of freeriding in the Caucasus Range. The lifts operate from 10 am to 4 pm, on weekends until 5 pm. Most of the resort area is quite flat with plenty of 20° terrain but the upper chair takes you up to an elevation of 3200 meters near the Sadzele Mountain. And this is where all the fun begins because from there you have easy access with only short hikes to Kobi Saddle (2980 m), Mt Bidara (3174 m), and Mt Sadzele (3307 m). Countless freeride variants with over 1000 vertical meters exist from there. While in Europe all ways lead to Rome, in Gudauri all ways lead to the Georgian Military Road and this is a good thing. The road is the only North-South connection in Georgia to Russia and therefore gets a lot of traffic by trucks which makes hitchhiking easy. All the freeride variants lead to the Georgian Military Road unless you have done something utterly wrong and then you would probably be lost in the middle of nowhere.

 Gudauri panorama, view towards north.

First Days in Gudauri

First Days in Gudauri allowed only for some inbound runs due to bad weather. After lunch with lots of Chacha - a very popular Georgian brandy made of grapes with 50% up to 70% alcohol by volume - the sky cleared up a bit so we decided to do our first small tour to Mount Chridili. After a very short hike we reached the top. The second snowboard day started with bad weather again so we only did some resort laps, refreshed our avy skills, and had more time to enjoy the wonderful local Georgian cuisine. In Georgia people love barbecue. At almost every hut, snack bar or restaurant there is someone barbecuing meat or vegetables, no matter if its summer or winter or if the hut is in the valley or located above 2000 meters in elevation.

Gudauri hut never runs out of booze thanks to these two chaps who distill Chacha at the front of the hut.

In the afternoon we had a short hike to Chridili again as the sky opened up a bit. But on the way down we soon found ourselves in whiteout with only 30 meters of sight. That gave us a quick reminder how fast conditions can change in this high alpine environment. Nonetheless we had a nice run in perfect snow conditions. The next day we still had foggy conditions in the morning. Nonetheless we took the first chair and broke through the lower lying fog and could see the wonderful Georgian mountains for the first time. Our first goal was Kobi Pass in northward direction - a nice run with 1000 vertical meters that could be accessed with the lift. This morning the upper chair was still closed but with our splitboards we made our way to the top. Suddenly, near the top lots of snowboarders and skiers passed our way in the opposite direction because the chair started its operation. Quickly we left the resort boundaries towards Kobi saddle and rode down the way towards the Georgian Military Road with a wonderful view to Kasbek Mountain in front of us. At the bottom a van already waited for us to bring us back to Gudauri. Hitchhiking is also easy because a lot of trucks from Russia come along the way. Sometimes taxi transfers are already waiting or can be booked in advance for a few Lari. Luckily we had enough time for a second run this day through the neighboring valley.

Splitboard team Austria, Switzerland, Germany enjoying the snow. Photo: Bernhard Winter

Today's plan was to ride to the village Kobi from Sadzele. It was very windblown and another group managed to trigger a small slab on a traverse at the north face. So we decided to take another route which required to climb a steeper section towards a ridge below Sadzele. There the conditions weren't hundred percent safe so we decided to back off and took the direct way down to the Georgian Military Road. Gudauri does not provide an avalanche bulletin but the mountain guides from the heli operations, the mountain rescue, and lift guys get a quite good picture about the snow situation and danger levels. You can ask at the Gudauri hut (near the police station) or at the mountain rescue at top of the second chair. If you start your tours within the resort a good sign is if the upper chair to Sadzele is operating or not. After heavier snowfalls and the first good days after that the lift remains closed.

Joke of the day.

This day the weather was pretty good, so we decided to do a tour to the Lomisi mountain further south from Gudauri. At the top of the ridge at the border between Georgia and South Ossetia above 2200 meters there is a small monastery. South Ossetia is one of the autonomous regions in Georgia that declared its independence from Georgia after the fall of the iron curtain back in 1990. The crisis escalated and led to war in 91/92. After some quite years the conflict led to war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 where Russian and Ossetian forces gained de-facto control over the territory. In that year a few countries recognized South Ossetia's independence but Georgia and the rest of the international community does not recognize it as state or political entity. So entering the territory as tourist from the Georgian side is considered as illegal border trespassing and can get you into serious trouble. At the monastery we had some tea with the monks who are pretty young. During winter times they always hike up with snowshoes and one of them snowboards as well. After the break we went further up the ridge to Lomisi and had a quite nice way down staying safely on the Georgian side.

View to South Ossetia.

Heliboarding

Our hunt for untracked terrain led us back to Gudauri where we went around Sadzele up to Mt Miliona. From there it is only a short climb down the ridge in eastward direction and then you can ride down into another valley till you reach the small village Kobi at the Georgian Military road.  The days before we had good snow in the neighboring valley but here the situation was completely different. All faces in every possible direction were heavily windblown. Luckily the steeper section was stable and we made our way down. After a never ending cat track and a short boulder section we arrived at the village. From there we went by car further north to Stephansminda for a beer and to enjoy the outstanding view to the Kasbek Mt (5047m). Stephansminda formerly known as Kasbegi in Soviet times is one of the last villages before the Russian border and the starting point to climb the Kasbek. It is a rural village. Some wine and tourists shops at the main street and lots of cows walking through the side streets. At the upper end of the village opposite to the Kasbek you find the glamorous and heavily guarded Rooms hotel where most of the heliskiing tourist are accommodated.
In Gudauri and Kasbegi are currently operating three heliskiing companies that offer complete packages or single trips that can be booked spontaneously. If you have the budget a day with three runs will cost you 500 something Euro but keep in mind that this does not work like in your favorite Travis Rice movie. They won't drop you on a steep ridge, peak or any face a heli possibly can land. There are some fixed destinations and its likely you ride some easy 30°..35° face without rocks or other cool features. The guide will go first and you can ride some meters next to his track. If he stops, you stop above him. Since the number of destinations to fly is limited they try to use the space as efficiently as possible on the mountain and pack the tracks as tight as possible.  So they won't allow you to ride very wide turns or riding features you would like if they are not in the perimeter of the chosen line of your guide. So this hasn't to do much with freeriding it's more following the tracks of your guide.
After a few beers we left Kasbegi again. With lots of trucks on the road our driver was driving like crazy with breathtaking overtakes of the lorries. The fact that he made the sign of the cross a few times during the ride didn't made us less nervous.

The end of the first week

We took the day off from splitboarding to go to Tiblisi which is worth the visit once you are in Georgia. There are many good hotels or hostels in the city center if you are on a smaller budget. To relax and stimulate your muscles after lots of days of splitboarding you should visit one of the Sulphur Baths which Tiblisi is famous for. There you can have private bath rooms for small groups but make sure to book some hours in advance because they are quite popular. Our trip in Tiblisi ended in a Georgian Karaoke bar with lots of Chacha that night.
My fellow travel mates left for the airport this morning. I took a Taxi to Didube station in Tiblisi to catch a ride back to Gudauri. Luckily the engine had some problems and the taxi couldn't go very fast which I really enjoyed. At Didube station all the Mashrutkas (van like taxis in former CIS states) leave to different locations.  As the only Western tourist there a lot of people approached me. Within minutes I was surrounded by a small crowd and people offering rides with insane ticket prices. Unsure what to do I left the scene trying to get an overview about this place. One bloke followed my way and offered a ride for 80 GEL, which is double of the usual price but anyway I was happy to get back to Gudauri. Some of the Mashrutka drivers will go like nuts so try to grab a seat in the back of a van. This slightly increases you rate of survival in case of an accident. After a one or two near-death experiences during that ride my new home is the Dacha hostel here in Gudauri. The place is run by some young Ukrainians they all speak English and their hospitality is incredible.

       My new home for the upcoming week.

At the Dacha Hostel

Temperatures raised and I couldn't do any splitboarding because I had no touring partners. After buying a new lift ticket it was almost 12 am when I arrived at the top. So for resort splitboarding it was already too late because all faces within the resort have an exposition towards south. The next day I started 4 am hiking to get to the peak of Sadzele before sunrise. Missed the peak because the hike took longer than expected. Anyway I found a good spot to watch the sunrise at a high altitude. At 9 am I was back at the hostel for breakfast and did some more resort riding until 1 am. In the afternoon some of the Ukrainians from the hostel planned a trip to Kasbegi to visit Gergeti church. The church is located at an elevation of 2170 meters and can be reached within one and a half hour hike. This is the starting point for all climbers that want to go on the Kasbek. From the church it is few hours hike to the glacier and the Bethlemi hut - an abandoned Meteo station at 3650 meters. From there you go on the glacier and up to a 45 degree field to the summit. Winter touring starts from mid of March. The summit is easy to reach this is why a lot of people climb it without a guide. However if the weather changes you can get into serious trouble because the glacier offers no landmarks for orientation. Even mountain guides who went up there fifty times and more then have problems finding the right path.

Kasbek (5041m) and Gergeti church on the left.

Back to Tiblisi

Some nice last powder runs but in the afternoon it was time to travel back to Tiblisi. I went with Bogdan one of my new Ukrainian friends from the Dacha Hostel. Our trip ended in a hospital in Tiblisi because Bogdan had a skiing accident one day ago. The driver who took us to Tiblisi waited patiently with us at the hospital a few hours until they put Bogdans knee in a plaster cast. The security guys at the hospital whose job is to check that nobody enters the emergency section without proper clearance wanted to drink with us to the Ukrainian Georgian friendship but the doctor said no. It was already late in the evening and we still had to find a hostel in Tiblisi. Nonetheless we were stopped at the gate of the hospital by the security guys. They gave us some wine and we had to drink in a hurry. After few more drinks at the hostel and only two hours of sleep I had to take a taxi to the airport at 5 am. The BMW had no engine problems this time and the guy felt like Michael Schumacher racing with 160 km/h through Tiblisi. I was too exhausted to complain but at least that ride saved the coffee at the airport.

Conclusion

So what is best, an organized journey or an individual trip? Splitboarding in Georgia requires a bit more experience than doing the same in the alps: In terms of infrastructure you will only find very few mountain huts and there is no avalanche bulletin available. Elooa did a great job in organizing this splitboard trip and I can highly recommend that. If you are on a smaller budget organizing a journey on your own will probably cost you less but it is more for the experienced splitboarder. Staying near the resort also offers a lot of splitboard and freeride opportunities. If you seek more for pristine backcountry far away from the lifts then booking a mountain guide is highly recommended.  

 

Map: Geoland Trekking Map No. 4 - Georgia  Stephantsminda, Gudauri 1 : 50,000
Best available at Geoland Office in Tiblisi near Public Service Hall.

Guiding: Georgian Mountain Guide Association
Ilia Berulava
info at mountainguide.ge
www.mountainguide.ge
www.facebook.com/georgianmountain.guides