Memories of Georgia – Part one

A report from Georgia: perfect destination for adventure skiing. Courageous ski tourers and idle heliskiers cheerfully rub shoulders here, but setting a slow pace lets you discover this wonderful country best.

Antoine JAG

Thank God there’s no teleportation when trying to explore new mountains and that you still have to travel through places to reach your objectives. For skiers and mountaineers, transportation and stopovers constitute contact points with pockets of civilisation before being isolated, tucked away high above the others. Even for people wanting to go from their living rooms straight onto slopes in a remote corner of the world- keeping any hassle to an absolute minimum- a journey still has to be made before clipping into your skis, although distances are shortening all the time. Having to cross paths with other cultures constitutes, in my view, one of the fundamental riches of skiing.

Antoine JAG

For people who land in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, this is an opportunity to cross the threshold into the ancient orient. To complete this immersion, all you have to do is open the door to one of the many churches in the city. Incense, gloominess, holy chants, psalms setting the litany’s tempo, female voices resounding off centuries-old walls, engulfing effigies of all the Georgian saints; the houses of the Autocephalous Apostolic Orthodox Church are fascinating experiences. Mysticism gushes forth and you find yourself asking whether the schism of 1054 that separated the Church of the East and West hasn’t cut Latin Christianity off from an enchanting communion.

Antoine JAG

Between Tbilisi and the mountains places of worship follow one after another. Surrounded by walls, churches and monasteries thousands of years old dot the way, and sheltered by the mountains religious fervour expands throughout the Caucasus range. Churches carved into the rock, hermitages serving as refuges at mountain passes, crosses marking paths and trails, religion emanates from every waymark you pass. Deep down, this country is inseparable from its religion. As the third country in history to have adopted Christianity as an official religion after Armenia and Ethiopia, Orthodoxy plays a spiritual as well as a cultural and political role.

Antoine JAG

Having arrived in Gudauri, a small village transformed into a ski resort, we find our lodgings at a pretty little hotel alongside the road. The following day would take us from the gorges of the River Aragvi to the Lomisa monastery (2200 metres) on our first ski tour. Three monks look after the premises, the eldest having held his role for 45 years. Given that the heating was only put in last year, you can’t question their devotion. This church dating from the tenth century is perched at a mountain col and embodies-like many saintly Georgian sites- resistance against invaders. In the half-light of the church, leant against a pillar, we see a thick chain. Legend has it that a woman put this chain weighing around 40 kilos around her neck to incite a miracle. Her request was duly granted in view of such self-sacrifice. Nowadays people can put the chain around their neck, go clockwise once around the pillar and make a wish. Believers have remained big kids it seems.

From the col, the view of the horizon is mesmerising. 360 degrees of mountains and endless peaks. However, skiers have to swallow their thirst for adventure because they are up against the most wretched of inventions: a border. As it happens, the northern horizon stops at the autonomous region of South Ossetia that, like all borders, has been drawn in blood. Two successive wars in 1992 and 2008 have led this micro state-acknowledged by a handful of nations close to the Kremlin-to independence under Russian guardianship. And to think that thousands of lives were laid down to draw this imaginary line…

Antoine JAG Detained by the monks’ hospitality, inviting us for tea in their refuge, we forget all about time. Lulled by the heat of the stove and the purring of their feline friend who came to test how comfortable our laps are, the minutes tick by unnoticed. During this cosy little interval the snow has had all the time in the world to heat up and our first tracks in the Caucasus are in pretty baked spring snow, careful not to blow a knee out on the first day….

Antoine JAG

From Gudauri, we take the road to Kazbegi, a settlement that is the jumping point for Mt. Kazbek on the Russian border. It’s a typical Caucasian village with houses surrounded by loggia balconies, stray animals and little dilapidated streets that head straight up between tangles of baroque constructions. We are staying at the Pension Nazi: you wouldn’t make it up… Far-removed from their unwieldy surname, the family are your typical Georgians, extremely kind and caring in every way. Pampered and well fed, we’d surely end up as plump as the rest of the family if we’d stayed too much longer.

Antoine JAG

On our first ascent on the flanks of Mt. Kazbek, the bad weather forces us to ski around another religious site, the Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church that, perched at 2170m, has a breathtakingly beautiful setting. It was an unforgettable sight to see the 14th century church rising out of the mountainside and the two lamas coming out to greet us, excited to see foreigners to break up the monotony of their day. We spend a good part of the day exploring a place that time forgot before continuing on our way, closer to the normal Mt. Kazbek route. The worsening conditions force us to return to the fold and on the way back we bump into two mountaineers loaded like beasts of burden making heavy work of it through the snow. These two youngsters were heading out in pursuit of the second highest peak in Georgia (5047m). We went on our way, secretly carrying the image of two conquerors pressing on into turmoil.

Antoine JAG

The skies clear and in the following days we are able to plan more lengthy excursions. This would take us through the little village of Guta on the Russian border. Our guide Alexei advises us to bring our passports in case the border guards suspect us of being smugglers… After being dropped off by little 4x4s at an uncleared road, we clip in and eventually reach a village two kilometres further on. While breaking the trail, we come across a wolf carcass, probably caught in an avalanche. The canines are so common in this country that Gorj, the Persian name for Georgians, comes from gorg, wolf, with the elders understanding Gourdjistan as “land of wolves”.

Antoine JAG

We arrive with the sunshine in a little village that would have seemed deserted if it weren’t for this charming young girl who welcomed us by dancing blissfully in the mud, turning towards us then disappearing as if by magic, and by a friendly greeting from a group of policemen stationed in the village. We carry on up towards a group of peaks, behind which is a distant wall providing a vertical backdrop reminiscent of the mountains of Chamonix. There are also lots of mellow faces to spark a skier’s curiosity. This country is a gold mine for touring and exploration. Airborne bounty hunters have noticed that there are already numerous chopper bases in the sector.

Antoine JAG

That particular day we weren’t bothered by any blades but the day after another French group following our advice were taken by surprise by a rotorcraft spinning above them on the way up. But after flipping the bird in the general direction of the buzzing object, the pilot – Swiss of course – overcome by a sense of guilt or sudden charity did the unthinkable: he landed near the group, apologised for the disturbance and offered to drop them off to make up for it. Righteousness soon gave way to convenience- in this case several hours of effort instead of a few minutes of air travel- the fists stops shaking and everyone took their place obediently in the aircraft hailing the wonders of heliskiing, Swiss permissiveness in the practice and Swiss charm in general probably. To hell with the principles of peace in the mountains: skiers often have the tendency to eat their beanies when such opportunities arise.

To be continued…

Antoine JAG

Antoine JAG

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