With reliable powder, an ever-growing lift system and deserted slopes the pull of Georgia’s ski resorts is bigger than ever, finds Olly Allen
“Georgia? I didn’t know there was skiing in the southern states of the US!” Despite an endless string of comments like this, I managed to convince a small group of adventurous skiers that the country most famous for being the birthplace of Stalin, also had fantastic skiing!
Sandwiched between Russia and the Black Sea, Georgia has recently enjoyed an upsurge in foreign visitors, due mainly to its hospitable people, cultural history and world famous viticulture. Geographically diverse, its miles of unspoilt coastline in the west of the country offer a stark contrast to the wild and harsh Caucasus mountains that mark the border with Russia.
The main street in Mestia
Perhaps the most spectacular spot of all is Upper Svaneti, in the north, which is famous for its cultural history, epic mountains and, more recently, fantastic skiing. Mestia is the regional capital and the area’s ski hub. It’s a pretty low-key place, with cows wandering down the main street amongst pickup trucks and the occasional decked-out skier. Having said that, there are interesting museums, galleries and other attractions in town and great restaurants serving local food at bargain prices. Hotels are cheap and plentiful with western facilities, and even fast Wifi!
The Caucasus mountains form a spectacular backdrop to the town with superb tree-lined valleys and huge alpine peaks piercing the clouds. The precipitous, rocky peaks of Tetnuldi (4858m) and Ushba (4698m) are the highest summits and tower over the two ski resorts of Tetnuldi and Hatsvali.
Hatsvali is a tiny resort close to the town with a quaint chair lift that’s long enough to freeze to death on. It accesses some great tree skiing but even on its busiest days there’s rarely more than 20 people on the lift.
The powder is pretty reliable and will give you endless smiles as you explore the clearings between the trees and wonder where you’ll end up next (pack skins just in case). If you find time to stop for lunch, the mountain restaurant serves local dishes and has a breathtaking view of Ushba.
Tetnuldi is the jewel in the crown and was still under construction when we visited. However, even with just half of the lifts open you got a real sense of its off-piste potential. The drive from Mestia takes about 30 minutes and uses some extremely rough roads. As you lollop along in a huge 4×4 through ice, snow and mud its hard to believe there is a series of modern French-built Poma chairlifts at the end of the track.
The reward is seriously fantastic terrain and, again, a busy day consisted of a dozen or so skiers wondering where enough the crowds were! Lunch was mulled wine and a pasty from a man-in-a-van… they are planning a restaurant for next season though.
Despite the lure of the lifts, this area’s full potential can only be realised when you don your skins for a spot of ski touring. The chair lifts will whisk you up to 3000m allowing exploration of the valleys that lie on either side.
Some of the terrain is fairly steep and involves a certain amount of ‘combat’ ski skills through woodland — along with pre-arranged taxis to get back to civilisation — but that just adds to the fun. Besides, it’s not often you have a whole mountainside to ski fresh tracks on, with not another skier in sight. The villages you end up in at the end of these off-piste adventures are like the ‘land that time forgot’, but the locals are always friendly and keen to ply you with local food and wine.
For the really adventurous it’s even possible to do a multi-day ski tour and link valleys using local hotels and farms. We stayed with a local farmer for a few days, which gave a real perspective on the traditional Svan way of life. Best of all, on returning from our ski tours we were treated to a feast; and the farmer always insisted we try his local home brew — which he also ran his car on!
Svaneti is a must see ski region for any adventurous skier. Hurry up though as it won’t stay a secret for much longer!
Travelling to Georgia is fairly hassle-free with a free entry visa when you arrive in Kutaisi. The local currency is lari and, as a rule of thumb, everything is around half the price of the UK. The two biggest challenges are surviving taxi rides with your nerves intact and not being incapacitated by the local firewater.
Mountain Tracks organise ski touring weeks in Georgia each winter. For more information visit their website