Written by Guest Author – Rowen Tych
At first I don’t even recognize the car. A variety of taxis in various states of disrepair have rolled past already in the morning pre-dawn fog and darkness. They’ve seen my big ski bag. They can smell the hefty fare. They’re circling and giving me hungry looks, inviting waves. What rolls up next to me at the curb in the predawn dusk of Tbilisi is an absolute hunk of post soviet bloc crap – a tiny cramped Volkswagen sedan in the front, van like appendage ungainly mated to it in the rear. It still has the logos from its former life as a small Eastern European telecom fleet vehicle. Two seats up front, brimming with bags and gear behind.
“Hey, I cant stop the motor because the battery is dead!”
Kyle twists and hauls himself out of the tiny drivers seat, looming over the vehicle.
“Good to see you dude! Also, the power steering is out. I think Jon and Brian are inside the airport somewhere looking for you.”
My flight out on this adventure took off from Seattle at 1pm Friday – 28 hours later, its Sunday morning local time and I’ve slept 2 hours through plane rides and airports. We recover the Olmsted brothers and they pile into the back, sprawling into semi-comfortable nooks between ski bags and luggage. I hop in shotgun and instinctively reach behind my shoulder for the seatbelt.
“That’s broken too actually.”
I was hoping the car we all pitched in to buy would have some character, but this is a total piece of shit. The motor makes straining noises like its trying to shed the rest of the car and live free as we pull away, accelerating at a creep. Kyle is soon wheeling and weaving us through dark and deserted foreign motorways. Inside, we’re shooting the shit just like we’re headed up to Stevens Pass on a ski day. The ski town of Gudauri is two jolting and twisting hours later. I’m tired, bewildered and in the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia.
The road keeps climbing. The views get more and more stunning. Pristine naked and treeless alpine draped in snow. Bluebird skies. Brown and shitty roads, towns and villages. Winter always does injustice to otherwise beautiful countryside when you travel. Georgia adds half finished cinderblock husks, suddenly changing highway surfaces, and kilometers of filthy semi trucks parked along the roadside for good measure. Underpowered in the Rickquest (the nickname quickly given to the car) we are repeatedly passed by needlessly aggressive Porsche Cayennes and BMW X6’s. I’ve been in countries with crazy drivers before (Mexico City is a favorite standout), but passing around blind mountain highway corners seems to be a Georgian national pastime.
Gudauri is a blessing. Lifts perched on a high plateau. Everything around us is mountains. Immediately, we park the car near our apartment, hoping that the spot we put it in will allow us to push it out and bump start it if the battery dies again. Kyles friend back in Tbilisi was paid to fix the electrical issue over the weekend before I got in. When we pop the hood its obvious the battery and all the connections haven’t been touched. Such is Georgia – people can be nice to the point of agreeing to things way beyond their actual abilities. End result: shit doesn’t get done.
“I fucking need to get rid of this car.”
Kyle has had it with this thing. It took me less than two hours to feel the same.
I dump my gear and baggage unceremoniously in the apartment. “Gondola Underfoot” as the Airbnb listing read is actually quite nice. But its been lived in for a week and is a mess of ski gear, food and beer and cha-cha bottles. It sleeps 6, max, and we have at least 7 people residing in it now. Everyone else is out touring, so Kyle, the Olmsteds and I do what anyone on two hours of sleep would do in this situation – buy a weeks worth of tickets and go get some lift laps immediately.
Gudauri is about as completely different as I can get to the snowpack I know and ski. Coming from WA State, the phrase “33 degrees and snowing” is pretty accurate most of the season. Huge dumps, sticky marine snow. Last year I spent the entire season in Hakuba Japan – add a few thousand feed and some wind, but basically the same type of snowfall.
The Caucasus are different. Dry. Cold. Windy. Infrequent snowfall. No slope anchors. Slim tree skiing. And absolutely no avalanche forecasting. Kyle set off a fairly serious avalanche a few weeks ago – inbounds, onto a commonly skied run. The rumor is that they cannot use explosives because we’re so close to the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the Russian border.
Having recently taken my Avy 2 course back in WA, I immediately want to be a gopher and dig to see what we’re working with. Within a single run I realize it may be a worthless pit – with no recent snowfall, the south facing resort is baked, variable, but most commonly crusty. Oh well – ripping piste and dodging gapers is great after spending basically an entire day in a metal tube packed solid with humanity. Day 1, dazed with jet lag, but happy to have skis on my feet.
Bread, butter, beer…
After a brief apre, we do a highway lap, catch a cab back to town and head back and retire. The lifts stop spinning at 5 but because Georgia runs on this insane time zone just to be contrary to its neighbors, everything seems very out of frame and shifted – Sun rises at 8am and sets around 7pm. Kit and team get back from a day tour out to the Monestary at Lomisi – hugs, cheers and curses are exchanged. Halfway around the world, this is the biggest gathering of Ricks in recent years. Chris has to peace out on account of his flight the next day, but the conference, however brief, is incredible. I haven’t seen Kit and Kyle for almost a year – and there’s much to catch up on.
Georgian food comes in three main varieties. Bread, meat on a stick, or meat in dough, aka dumplings. Besides a folded roasted eggplant in walnut sauce, most other recipes involving vegetables seem to be imported. Plain fresh bread is done well here – with a round of the chewy flatbread and real butter, I can be a happy fat kid in our kitchen, sipping tea in the early dark while my brain adjusts to the 12 hour time difference. Smells of barbecued lamb, pork, chicken and beef (veal, or as the accent sometimes makes it sound, ‘whale’) waft over the Gondola base area from the scattered establishments, each with their own fleet of small tables and chairs made from wooden pallets.
The excitement dies once we all simultaneously realize that this grill meat is grilled extremely well done to a step below rubber. No such thing as medium rare, or rare – just chewy, smoky, lamb and beef with generous amounts of gristle left on. Similar letdowns with the filled breads we’ve been told about. Khatchapuri is usually oily filled bread that’s somehow greasier than NY style pizza, and the fabled egg-boats (thin bread bowl filled with molten cheese, butter and egg) is twice as rich as I can handle. I’m getting salt sweats. Even with his extreme caloric intake, Kyle estimates he may only be able to eat about a dozen more of these in the three more months he will stay here. I’m pretty much one and done.
For dumplings, I do have praise. Georgians have created a supersized soup dumpling that you may be familiar with from Taiwan and China. And rather than thin the dough at the edges to ensure that the dumpling is even thickness, I’m quickly shown how to embrace the steaming hot twisted top with fingers, gnaw into the side and suck out the juice and meat, leaving the top doughy twist uneaten. The twirled dough end ‘nipples’ left on your plate quickly become nightly scoreboards to who has taken down the most Kingkali. Chacha, a white brandy two steps down from make-you-go-blind moonshine, flows freely with our group at every restaurant.
The weather is good the next few days, so we immediately try to make a shot at Lomisi Monestary and a crack of 9am start. After a taxi down to a small village down the road, the tour starts off at the village church. Nobody is inside, and we clunk around the dark smooth stoned interior in ski boots. Kit finds a caretaker and with much miming, we confirm that yes, there are some small parcels we can take up to the Monestary today. A small bag of clothes gets stuffed into my already full backpack, and we go off through the town, skintrack weaving to avoid piles of cow shit.
Lomisi is perched on a long ridge to Gudauri’s south. It’s sunny and hot. The skintrack that Kit and friends pushed just a few days ago is now riddled with post holes. Halfway up we intercept transgressors – two monks in black robes headed down to town for the day. As we skin higher, the trees thin, the views get exponentially better. When we finally hit the small stone building swamped in snow on the ridge top, its three in the afternoon. One of the small handful of monks that stay the winter up here, 1300m above the next farmhouse, waves us in for tea, wine, fireplace and cat cuddles. More gesturing and halfway understood conversation – none of us really know more than half a dozen words in Georgian, or Russian. For taking up 6 lbs of clothes, fresh oranges and chocolate, we are gifted a two liter coke bottle full of homemade white wine. We’re definitely taking more weight down than up – not sure how that works.
Coming from a non-religious background, I always feel a little out of place in places of worship, and Eastern Orthodoxy is definitely alien. Inside the Monestary itself, everyone gets to do a lap around the central icon with a HEAVY ceremonial shackle and iron chain around the neck, in ski boots. This chain is traditionally taken up and down the mountain once every year. For once, I can imagine something heavier than Brian’s pack. To the south from our ridgetop view, a wilder land stretches. South Ossetia. Dropping in here could run us afoul of this breakaway republic’s border policy, but the frighteningly large glide cracks and wet loose slide run outs are more than enough incentive to stay away. Besides, the crust from two days ago on the north side now has 4 inches of wind transported pow, and its a low angle party ski back to town in pinkish alpenglow.
Holy FUCK. This is high. At my level, seeing this much air under your skis means you screwed up bad. And its multiplying every second. The radio in my chest pocket chirps with someone’s voice, buts the words are lost in the rush of wind going by. It snaps my gaze from between my feet and I remember I need to pilot. Keep the arms up. Active steering, equal pressure on toggles. None of that pendulum bullshit. A small updraft causes a massive jolt and I suddenly feel very small and very alone. A mote of dust in a sea of atmosphere. All I want is smooth air. And to survive this.
I check behind me to make sure that the wing is down. I lived through my first speedflying flight. The Olmstead brothers, both on rental skis en lieu of their usual snowboards, drift down to the ground behind me one at a time as Kit coaches them in over the radio. “Nice flare Brian!” Looping the lines of the wing up my hands are shaking. I realize I’m buzzing more than the first time I skydived. That was cool. I want another one.
The skies over Gudauri are always dotted with a paragliders. It’s a tandem factory, charging exorbitant prices, even for Georgia, so Russian oligarchs can get 20 minutes of selfie sticking and swooping. Don’t get me wrong – there are pilots here that are pro’s. Ones apparently even a somewhat elderly stripper. Occasionally you do see other speedflyers and rec flier, and our fledgling antics do get the attention of the occasional gaper. They are the true hazard, not so much the lifts or ski police – nobody gives a shit what you do inbounds as long as you’ve paid for a ticket.
In Japan, the objective hazards on the piste were clumps of Japanese making timid and slow turns while you rocketed through trying to carry speed out across flat green runs. Here, Georgi smokes by you at what’s near twice the speed of ‘controllable’, backseat on short carving skis, fuming vodka, and on a quest for legend status – and a glorious apre ski surrounded by Russian models in ski-onesies. These trials by fire often end in a catastrophic NASCAR style wreck involving multiple skiers, projectile yard sales of gear and great billowing clouds of snow that look like tire smoke. After a half dozen more flights speedflying, I realize that Ricks do have a weapon to punch back with – target Jerry from a few hundred feet above, close on his six and go for a low altitude pass. Kiting down next to skiers and a posse of Georgian Military doing ski training, we get smiles, more Russian I don’t understand and thumbs ups. Little do they know how little we know about what the heck we’re doing.
I’m sick. I feel like shit. It is 3 AM. I’ve been trying to sleep for 30 minutes but Grant has come back from the bars that I elected to skip and is reading passages of the Q’uran translated into English, slightly elaborating it into his own Gospel of the Hopeful Emirate Stewardess Hookup.
I put in earplugs from the Turkish Airlines complimentary travel kit bag. Kyle gets up and chucks the Q’uran out of the window 10 minutes later, to the laments of the downstairs loud Ricks. Maybe only 41 virgins for him now.
“Sheyeeet. Its alright tho, I have another Q’uran around here somewhere” Grant mumbles.
After two days of no skiing, early to bed and mostly restful nights (our apartment complex loved the Drunk Rick American Karaoke night, and came to our door to tell us about it three times), I’m finally ready enough to get out and ski. I still have a terrible raw hacking cough but I’m good enough and there’s new snow to ski. We jet out and ski a handful of low tree lines on Lomisi in the storm, 1500 or so feet below our apartment.
The next day, we lap the high upper lift by ourselves it seems, and set first tracks in half a dozen bony looking but somehow clean to ski chutes. My inner decision making in avy terrain comes back with a vengeance. Dropping into the first chute, all I can imagine is the worst case scenario – my first committed turn triggers the enormous windslab that rips down to the toothy slate rock we occasionally see exposed on ridge lines – and I get cheese gratered against the walls of that stuff where the line constricts below. But the snow holds and for better or worse we push it into new terrain as the day goes on.
Last line on Sadzele is different. Kyle and I ski out onto the top, stepping around small spicy rocks with our skis. Its a skier left entrance to a big broad chute with a rocky spine in its center, or two chutes with small areas allowing transfers, depending on how one views it.I volley the first ski cut. It holds, in what’s probably the worst wind affected area. I’m fairly confident it will ski. Kyle looks unsure. I look down from where I stand. A year ago I might have tried to push him, for better our worse. But for now I’m sticking with what got reinstalled by my Avy 2 class until I have reason to differ – if one person veto’s, for any reason, its off and we go safe.
We back out of there and rally with the full group for one last end of day big one on Kobi Pass to the road, as is becoming a tradition. Not as optimal snow conditions, but party skiing untracked low angle pow for 3000ft is still enough to put broad grins on all our faces. What’s even better is the free hitchhike we get back to the village, getting jostled around with flats of Pepsi products in the back of a box truck with two crazy Georgian drivers. They wave away the tip we try to give them for taking time out of their day for us.
“Well, this is an entirely different aspect than what we are going to ski – but I’m not getting any worrying ECT or CT’s.”
I’m at least half a leg lower than everyone else, transfixed on the observation wall I’ve dug. Not a very representative pit at all for what we want to ski. But I console myself – practice makes perfect. Digging a pit on the other side of this thing would be insane – steep and risky. Note for future self – bring beer for these pit breaks to console impatient Ricks.
We’re just below the summit of a peak off the side of the resort, in a 2 meter deep north facing snow pit above a delicious looking untouched bowl. But we want the spice on the south facing side adjacent. It’s three days past the storm/wind event, and its been shocking to see how quickly certain aspects out here go from punchy crusts to pow, or visa versa. The other side of this thing might go. We’ve punched lines out on nearby peaks; Bidara, Kobi, Sadzele, Deda Ena, and now this – we have no idea what its called. What looked miles away on the first day is actually realized to be somewhat close. Without any of the trees I’m used to seeing in the PNW, the mountains distance, height and pitch of each peak is all deceiving.
Notes are made. Gear is broken down and hastily repacked. We’re at a similar elevation as the top of Mt Baker back home, and the sun works on southern slopes fast. Time to punch the last few feet of skintrack and peek over the other edge. I look longing at the nice snow and gently sloping bowl we climbed up. We’re probably leaving great conditions in favor of something shittier. But Ricks want spice. As we climb out of the shade and into the sun streaming over the top of the ridge, I try not to think about how close the rocks will be under my skis.
Back in the US, fighting jet lag, mundane facts of our American existence suddenly stick out. Roads have sidewalks. Buildings in Seattle, even old ones, aren’t covered in graffiti and black from years of smog and smoke. Stray dogs are missing from every gas station. People are casually unfriendly to strangers. Cards are accepted everywhere. I understand the conversation unfolding between the clerk and the customer at the supermarket. My neighborhood suddenly feels incredibly diverse and multicultural.
What truly gets me about traveling is how a place can put a new lens over how you see your old home. When people ask me where I was, I know when I say “A ski trip in Georgia” conjures the wrong image in their head. Rick’s don’t do lavish. Luxury is tired legs, a 2 liter bottle of homemade wine with suspicious origins, and a table ringed with familiar faces, halfway around the world in a unusual backwater. Georgia couldn’t be a more ideal place for us.