Ski Club Member Chris Madoc-Jones took a two week trip to Georgia and the ski resort of Gudauri. Would the resort’s skiing live up to its burgeoning reputation?

When I first mentioned that I was spending ten days skiing in Georgia to friends and family, most replied with an answer of “but why Georgia?”. As I landed into the tiny Kutaisi airport at well past midnight after a cramped five hour flight and facing the prospect of a long transfer in the morning, I was also asking myself the same question. Would it be worth the journey? Would the language barrier prove too great? And would the skiing be any good?

My final destination of Gudauri lay five hours away, high up in the Caucasus Mountains – the vast chain of towering peaks along Russia’s southern border. Gudauri is in fact much more easily accessed via Tbilisi (around a two hour transfer), but Wizz Air recently introduced a flight to Kutaisi from Luton for less than £100 return – an offer that was too good to turn down, despite the long transfer.

I had heard of Gudauri via a handful of magazine articles and video segments highlighting its great backcountry terrain, and through the fact that it has built more new lifts – three Poma gondolas and three Doppelmayr high-speed six seat chairs – in the past year than any other resort. So when I eventually rolled into the resort in the early afternoon I at least knew roughly what to expect, but the next ten days were to add a huge amount of colour and detail to these pre-trip expectations.

 

The Skiing

From the base of the resort, a vast, south-facing bowl extends up to almost 3000m, providing a network of well-groomed, rolling blues and reds. It reminded me somewhat of the bowl above Les Arcs 2000, the slopes below Männlichen in Wengen or the runs at Idalp in Ischgl – perfect for a few warm up laps.
Above this lie the steeper slopes of Kudebi and Sadzele, whilst over the back of the mountain, the north-facing Kobi Valley is a new addition – so new that the Poma gondola accessing it only opened a month before I arrived and was still officially in “test” mode. Around 75km of pistes are marked on the trail map (amusingly this hadn’t yet been updated to include the Kobi Valley), which proved more than enough to keep me busy for the first few days, as a February snow drought forced me to stay firmly on piste.

A few snow flurries combined with some strong winds gave me a few windblown powder turns on day four, but on day six, my snow dances paid off and a foot of fluffy, dry Georgian powder landed overnight on Gudauri. The next day dawned bluebird, enabling me to finally explore the resort’s famed off piste terrain – the very thing that first drew me to skiing in Georgia.

What struck me straight away was how much powder was accessible directly from the lift system. Not only was the front of the hill a ski-anywhere playground, but over the back at Kobi, the entire valley was a vast off piste run, full of wind lips, cornice drops and wide, open powder fields.

Then up the summit, via the infamous Sadzele chair – the same lift that went viral last winter after a video of it going rapidly into reverse hit the headlines – over 500 vertical metres of steep gullies and bowls made this my favourite zone. These were all in perfect condition and the lack of crowds meant I was still able to get fresh tracks right until last chair.

The skiable off piste then expands further if you are prepared to hike or put on your touring skins. Two particular areas stood out for ease of access – Mt Bidara and Mt Chrdili. The former was accessed via a fifteen minute bootpack from the Kobi Pass and the latter by a similar hike up from skiers left of Gudaura. I was able to score over 300m of vertical in perfect powder for minimal effort and fresh tracks were still on offer three days after the snow fell.

With a guide and a set of skins however, the options are limitless. The runs off the north side of Mt Bidara were popular – you can then hitchhike back to Gudauri – as were routes in the valleys to the east of Kobi. But one stands out in particular and tackling this proved to be the highlight of my trip.

Although I did it before the snow fell in pretty poor conditions, the Lomisi Monastery ski tour was perhaps my most memorable day on skis. A tough three hour skin through birch forests from the valley town of Mleti – located a quick taxi ride below Gudauri – led us to an ancient monastery that had been inhabited since the 9th Century.

We arrived in thick fog and a howling gale, the buildings were half buried in snow and were located right on the disputed South Ossetian border, but what happened next will always live long in my memory.

One of the monks welcomed us in to their warm hut and offered us tea, food and as we were in Georgia, a shot of locally brewed Chacha, otherwise known as Georgian brandy. Our 45 minutes spent eating, drinking and talking via our phone translate apps with the monk was a unique and fantastic experience that I’m not sure many other ski trips can offer up.

Despite these undoubted highlights, the skiing in Guduari did came with a few teething issues. For example, I got stuck on the new Soliko chairlift for 75 minutes, the Kobi gondola was regularly run at half speed and some piste marking was vague at best – but these faults were so easy to overlook when the terrain was so good and the scenery was so epic.

The fact that my 10 day lift pass cost a mere £117 definitely helped, representing remarkable value for what I was able to ski – take note the rest of Europe!

The culture

Before I arrived I had heard that the Georgians have a reputation for being very friendly and open. This was instantly confirmed upon my arrival to my hotel in Kutaisi. It was 2am on a Sunday night, I didn’t have the right money, there was a massive language barrier, but soon enough it was sorted and we had a long laugh, followed by a big swig of Chacha.

This theme continued throughout the trip, from the manager of my hostel to the waiters at the après ski bar TimeOut (I was getting a hug there after four days), everyone I encountered was helpful and friendly. Initially service might seem a little slow, but everything in Georgian is relaxed and laid back – so just sit back, soak up the sunshine and rest your legs, your food will arrive!

The country’s relaxed nature is exemplified by the fact the lifts don’t start spinning until 10am and you’d be very hard pushed to buy a coffee before 9am. The 5pm finish compensates and you soon become used to the lie in, which also enables you to indulge in the best Georgian food and drink late into the evening.

Throughout the trip, this local food and drink was a real highlight. Some other “budget” destinations have a reputation for poor food, but this most certainly does not apply in Georgia. I ate out at breakfast, lunch and dinner, but never had a bad meal and never spent more than £20 a day – even with drinks thrown in.

The local specialities were delicious and my favourites included Khinkali (meat and soup filled dumplings), Lobio (stewed red beans with herbs and spices), Khachapuri (flatbread filled with local, salty cheese and in places topped with an egg) and Ojakhuri (pork or chicken fried with potatoes, onions and peppers).

All of this was then washed down by a cold Natakthari beer, Chacha or local red wine – arguably Georgia’s most famous export. Always choose one of the “homemade” wines on the menu but ask to try a little first to check which one you like best. They are usually very good but taste different to “normal” wine, owing to them being made in traditional clay qvervi pots that are then buried in the ground during the maturation process. Expect to pay around 20 Lari (£6) for a litre – this is certainly part of the reason why the lifts open at 10am here...

 

Away from the slopes

Although my trip to Georgia was very much about the skiing, I made sure I spent some time exploring the country off the slopes. Getting around was very easy and I utilised the Mashrukta minibuses, which connect everywhere and were remarkably cheap. For instance, the two hour ride from Gudauri to Tbilisi cost £2. I even caught the train from Tbilisi back to Kutaisi for £3 – not bad for a five and a half hour trundle through spectacular Georgian countryside.

Tbilisi itself is well worth visiting. It has a great balance of history and a modern buzz, fuelled by the younger generations and Georgia’s strong independent, open culture. The food in the city was even a notch up on that in Gudauri, whilst microbreweries, wine cellars and Chacha rooms are popping up almost daily across the vibrant city.

I spent my two days there trying out as much of the food and drink as possible, dropping into beautiful old churches and catching the funicular railway to the spectacular viewpoint at Mtatsminda Park. I would also thoroughly recommend the sulphur baths, located in the heart of the city and a great aid to your recovery after a tough week of skiing. For the true Tbilisi experience, forgo your British modesty and join the locals at the public baths in #5 Bath House. 

Sadly I did not have time to explore more of Georgia and I feel like I only really scratched the surface of this beautiful country. There is such easy access to more spectacular mountains, historic monasteries, beautiful wine country and even a large stretch of Black Sea coastline that warrants several return visits, let alone one further trip.

 So to answer the initial question of “but why Georgia?”, I have returned to the UK with so many answers. Not only is the in-bounds terrain spectacularly good, but the potential for ski touring is vast, the locals are incredibly friendly, Georgian food and wine is absolutely delicious, getting around is very easy and it is hard to find a better value ski destination.

 Yes there were a few small creases that could be ironed out and some facilities were pretty basic, but these all added to the charm of the place. I certainly will be back, not only to Gudauri, but also to visit the country’s four other ski areas. Georgia is a special place, with special people and very special mountains – I could not recommend coming here highly enough.