Miles and miles of powder and the highest ridges in Europe; skiing in Georgia, whether it is Gudauri or Mestia is a heaven for skiers and adventure enthusiasts who do not simply want to pay the high prices of skiing in the Alps. I was smitten by the Himalayas and little did I know that the Caucasus mountains are considered a continuation of the Himalayas where the Arabian tectonic plate collides with the Eurasian plate.
A ski trip in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia takes you to endless pistes and provides high-quality free-riding experience. After 20 years of the Soviet Union collapse, Georgia strives hard to shake itself up and offer some of the most stunning and wild landscapes. If you’re a beginner like me who does not want to spend your money on some expensive ski lessons, equipment and prefer an English speaking instructor, places like Gudauri offer the best introductory course to ski lessons and ride some high mountains with unbelievable views.
Skiing in Gudauri
Quite possibly the most famous and easily accessible resort from Tbilisi - Gudauri has everything for all ages from bunny slopes, to beginner hills and the perfect stop for even freeriders to explore vast terrains on a four day trip. I met free-spirited Germans and Russians who had their own gear and went up to the mountains of Georgia all the way between Gudauri and Stepantsminda for ski touring.
Expats from Dubai, Ukraine and Russia often come to the less-ventured spots of Gudauri to explore off-the-beaten ski trails to test their limits and shred fresh powder.
The more risque and adrenaline-seeker could get on the paved Georgian Military Highway to Stepantsminda, where experts can ski-mountaineer 16,558-foot Mount Kazbegi and see the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church from above.
The skiing season often lasts from December to April, and I went at the start of the season in December and made it in time to catch a good day with clear blue skies, pristine powder and beautiful people. The costs for one ski pass ride costs about $3.4 and a season pass is $102 - unbelievably affordable.
I stayed at the Happy Yeti Hostel and it was the perfect place to meet other travellers who were on a long journey and trip all the way from the Caucasus. There was a German couple who assembled their own campervan and were on a round-the-world trip. Then there was the owner himself, a lawyer turned hostel owner from Ukraine who wanted to live a happy life and was sick of the toxicity of his legal job.
I even arranged my lessons with an instructor who taught me for approximately $20 including rental of equipment at the hostel. The hostel had a great deal for approximately 15 to 20 euros a night where you get 3 meals all cooked by his resident chef and a quirky stay at the hostel. People who stayed here were almost like family, we had guests who overstayed their period simply because they could ski anytime they wanted and still meet other travellers at night to share their skiing tales over a meal and some beer.
Where to stay in Gudauri?
Veranda Guest House (Kazbegi)
Skiing in Mestia
Alone and unaccompanied, my first skiing / snowboarding try-outs were at Mestia. I took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi and then took a marshrutka (minivan) to Mestia. Amid a gray, dreary sky, I boarded the train and befriended a young Russian girl who was studying in Georgia.
I was travelling solo to Mestia and was pretty clueless on what to expect. I knew that the upper Svaneti in the Greater Caucasus mountains are uniquely beautiful with its medieval towers and tower-like houses. But the weather did not look so good, but nevermind my naivety, I was here to reap any chance that I get to experience some snowboarding or skiing during the off-peak season.
When I took the marshutka, I befriended two Russians who were part of the freerider club and were there to zigzag through Tetnuldi and Hatsvali pine tree forests and hike up steep terrains like Mt. Ushba (4,700m), known for its steep rock massifs, and the epitome of beauty of the Caucasian mountains, like Matterhorn in the Alps. They quizzed me and wondered why I would come to this region, alone to learn skiing / snowboarding. Frazzled by my choices, they offered me cha-cha (grape vodka) and proudly provided me a freerider badge which I didn’t know why but accepted anyway.
As we dodged bumpy roads, we finally arrived in Mestia and the driver arranged my stay in a babushka’s house. The weather was bad and communicating with the locals in this terrible weather was near impossible so they proceeded to handle my staying arrangements for me.
I spent the day warming up, eating plates of kachapuri and exploring the highland townlet at 1,500m above sea-level. I walked around but came across big dogs twice the size of me. It was disconcerting and apparently one has to say aloud that ‘Tamar passed here’ and they won’t touch you.
Tamar is definitely not your shepherd police but rather Georgia’s only female King. Legend has it that Tamar ruled Georgia from 1184 to 1213, leading to the summit of the Georgian Golden Age. During the times of Tamar’s rule, laws were codified, churches and cathedrals were built, trade and economy flourished. It is funny how the periods are blurred and people often talk about historical characters as if they’re neighbours.
Bushy tail and fresh-faced, I woke up early to inquire about transportation to go up to the mountains to learn skiing and snowboarding. They mentioned the season has not started but a kind local who was a skier and athlete agreed to teach me. With no English, he strapped me on and took me up to the mountains and told me “Ok, you me, woosh, adrenaline!”. I realised at that point that not having an instructor who couldn’t speak English to go down the Caucasus mountains with no experience is downright lethal and irresponsible.
With not a soul in sight, just the howling mountain air and miles of pine trees in sight, I knew that there was no way down other than piggy-backing my adrenaline obsessed instructor. His strokes were agile and he used the best principles of gravity-defying stunts to complete our trip down the mountain. After that ill-prepared trip to Mestia, I figured Gudauri might be a better spot to try out skiing or snowboarding.
A day pass at Tetnuldi costs approximately $6 and rates are often inexpensive. Mestia is known to have unlimited opportunities for fresh tracks in the backcountry and often known as Georgia’s freeriding mecca.
Where to stay in Mestia?
Skiing or Snowboarding, how do you decide?
If you are a beginner like me, you might come with a fixed plan to try snowboarding but let me tell you that skiing is far more easier to learn if you only have 2 to 3 days. With skiing, a beginner's technique can be broken down into a modular approach but its perfection will require you to become extremely technical, which with time and practice you’ll get the drift.
For snowboarding, it requires a lot of falling down and picking yourself up every few minutes which will take couple of days before you master it. For most people, after a couple of days it clicks and you just get the hang of it. I intend to go back to Georgia one day to spend atleast 7 to 10 days to learn the sport and perfect my landing.
Apart from ski tourism, the mountains in Georgia like Svaneti is also a paradise for mountain climbers. Mount Usha, a magical jagged four-headed peak on Svaneti’s Caucasus Mountain is located at an altitude of 4,700m above sea level. Many experienced mountain-climbers have died on its steep slopes.
Beyond that, Georgia is gaining popularity and it is not long before people discover this fertile corner of the Caucasus.
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