Pro Team athlete Silvan Metz recounts his time ski touring in Caucasus, Georgia, where sublime and little-visited peaks offered great descents, and just a little type 2 fun for good measure.
Words by Silvan Metz
The soldiers in front of us had stern looks on their faces. One of them disappeared into a small hut with our passports. We were uncertain about what would happen next.
No one was around, everything was quiet. The only sound came from wind blowing dust over the road. The soldiers that remained with us didn’t know a word of English, so they just stared at our big and colourful bags and clothing. Eyes trained on the huge 4-person-ski bag, that could also hold a rocket launcher.
After a few minutes an old green army jeep jolted down the dirt road and stopped next to us. An even sterner looking soldier with stars on his shoulder bars dismounted and began to command the others in Georgian. He let his driver translate, and asked us whats the matter.
“We’re gonna stay here for a few days for skitouring,” we explained, “we’re not gonna cross the border into Russia!” His face remained fierce, “Where do you sleep?” he asked. We only knew of one guesthouse, the Guesthouse Angelina, by recommendation of a friend.
Suddenly the officers face relaxed. “Angelina – my daughter. Guesthouse – my house!“ he said without his interpretor. He yelled some commands, we got our passports back and the soldiers carried our baggage to the guesthouse. The skitouring could begin.
It took us two and a half days to get to Ushguli. The journey started from Munic to Tbilisi, where we were then scared senseless by the Marshrutkas – small, rusty busses usually driven by desperately drunk drivers en route from Mestia to our final destination.
Once we safely arrived at the guesthouse we decided to skin up a small hill above the village to get an overview over the area. There are no good maps of Georgia, so the only way to navigate is to scout the area and take pictures. We took plenty of time at the top. The views were stunning!
Georgia’s highest mountain, Shkara, forms a huge, 10,000 feet tall wall on the Caucasian main ridge. Below it was a nice skiable summit, we decided to try to traverse it the next day.
By this time it was getting late. But the great weather meant that it was too good of an opportunity to miss. I hoped to get some cool skiing shots in the sunset light. The camera didn’t get much rest until we arrived at the village.
In the morning we strapped our skis onto our bags and carried them along the snow-free road towards our objective. After one hour of carrying we swapped to the skins and made our way up the giant slopes.
The impressive Shkara wall towered high above us, so when we arrived at our 11730 feet high summit we still felt like we had just summited a small Allgäu-hill…
Although we were at today’s highpoint, most of the day was still ahead of us: We wanted to traverse the whole ridgeline towards Ushguli. That meant a lot of ups and downs were on our way. Because we were not well acclimatised the skinning soon became slower and exhausting. But as always, with new and spectacular views of the vast summit seas of the Caucasus, it was all but boring. At the last summit we skied down perfect slopes directly to our approach shoes and walked back to our Guesthouse. We were then spoiled with lots of delicious local food until we nearly weren’t able to move.
Over the next two days we skied some smaller mountains on the other side of the valley. Again, we were completely alone, our tracks the only ones on the hills. The perfect slopes were completely ours – you rarely find this in the alps!
Due to the climate, the snow-free south facing hillsides were already covered by lushly green meadows, so when we got rid of the bulky ski boots after the ride we could just stroll back to our place barefoot!
Our main objective in the Caucasus, was the 16,790 feet Kazbek in the east. This volcanic cone is not very difficult, but offers some steep and partly extreme descending options.
We arrived to Kazbegi, the town below the mountain, after a long trip by taxi and night train (not recommended). But we soon had to realise that winter was over in this part of the mountain range. The normal route still had snow after some hours of carrying, but all the south and east facing descending options were bone dry.
At the hut, an old Soviet weather station, we had to borrow sleeping bags, because the hut does not offer mattresses, blankets or even insulation beyond the concrete walls.
We knew that we could borrow Sleeping Bags and buy gas at the village, but once we were there we found that they were almost as big as my 37-liter Tupilak Pack. And probably as warm.
I decided to leave the Sleeping Bag and bivvy in my down jacket. That’s ok for only two nights, isn’t it? As long as you have your full pack on your back, at least…
After we carried our skis a reasonable distance we were finally able to change to skins and gasp our way up to the hut. On our way we noticed a dog that ran around us and other alpinists, even on the glacier.
Stray dogs are an everyday part of Georgia, so we thought this one wasn’t something special.
The hut was a very cool place. Of course, the cold rooms weren’t that comfy, but the spirit was great. Alpinists from all different countries shared the space. The kitchen walls and ceiling were completely covered by flags, banners and stickers. Most of the other alpinists had no skis, but heavy bags (Maybe I could bivi in one of these?), so we decided to wait an extra 2 hours after them.
From the light of our headtorches we stumbled over the nasty moraine rocks for hours until we could finally use our skis. But the snow was good, so we gained a good speed and overtook the other parties. The crevasses were filled and closed, so we decided to go ropeless, meaning everybody could take things at their own speed.
This was very helpful, as we were only acclimatised to 11,000 feet! The last 1,800 feet slope was very hard and a bit steep, so we swapped to crampons and made our way up. Personally, I prefer climbing over walking. It’s much easier to focus on a pitch than on a monotone pace, but after some start problems I ultimately found to enjoy this strange meditative rhythm of ascending a endless hillside. The higher I got the heavier my breathing became. Oh how I wished I was better acclimatised!
The last bit to the saddle between the west and main summit was a steep cornice. When I finally craned my head over it I was flabbergasted. The stray dog sat directly above me and looked in my eyes! I was the first person this morning, but he seemed to have been relaxing there at 16,500 feet for a long time already. So of course I had to take a selfie with my strange climbing partner before I headed to the last bit to the summit. This part was completely icy and dry, and the dog had forgotten his crampons, so no summit for him today…
The views from the summit were amazing! All of the other mountains in the area are at least 3,000-4,000 feet smaller, so it really was a birds eye view. On one side were the lowlands of Georgia, on the other the plains of Russia. Even Elbrus and Shkara could be seen on the horizon!
Because of the blanc ice we couldn’t ski from the summit, but only from 150 feet below. The slopes were hard and icy, so skiing was more type II fun. But luckily we found a way over the glacier, that brought us back to the hut without carrying.
We stayed for another night and descended the rest next morning in far better snow conditions. Of course we had to go by feet for the last few hours, and suddenly we felt like we were in the wrong place when we carried our skis through the desert-like valley. Oh how good the rich Georgian food tasted after some days in the mountains!
We stayed at Tbilisi for another night for a bit of sightseeing and wine tasting (they invented the wine 8,000 years ago and still have impressive skills in wine pressing!). The culture is a interesting mix of Russian, East Asian and European, and so is the architecture. When we flew back to Germany I already wished to go back. Apart from skiing, there is a lot of climbing potential…