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Vertical Unit meets Georgia

Text & Photos: Tobias Hipp

It was time: time to get out of the comfort zone that we have built up around us in the Alps, time for some travel to a foreign country and time to do some exploration of different mountains and (for us) unknown ski terrain.

What originally just was a rough idea turned into reality really quick after a call one evening to French Vertical Unit team rider Kilian Echailler: “Géorgie? Je suis chaud”. For those who are not too familiar with young French language, it basically means: I am all in! Also, Seb from Oslo and Frenchy No. 2 Pière are on board – and it’s on.

Long-term colleagues, friends and mountain guides showed us pictures of their trips the Svanetian Caucasus in the northwestern part of Georgia: big open slopes up to 3.500 m, multiple 4.000 and 5.000 m peaks towering in the background, two brand-new ski resorts in Mestia and ski touring in a tiny mountain village far away from everything. We’ve seen enough – and we had to see it ourselves!

Mestia – gateway of Svanetian Caucasus

After four hours of bumpy car ride from Kutaisi, we arrive in Mestia – the regional capital with its typical fortified towers, that are characteristic for Svanetia. Unfortunately we were not so lucky with the weather, as we were greeted by a grey wall of clouds and slight snow showers: no chance to have a glimpse at the famous Ushba or Tetnuldi. But we were warmly welcomed by our host in Villa Mestia with the omnipresent “chacha” (a strong version of what we call Grappa) and positivity that it will be a good day tomorrow.

It snowed all night and the next morning – is it gonna be our first Georgian Pow Day? Our local driver, hero, wine supplier and friend Irakli nods his head in agreement, as if he had already checked the snow conditions in person this morning, and takes us to Tetnuldi Ski resort. Well, he was right! The four chair lifts give you access to some fantastic freeriding terrain: easy open slopes, sparse birchwoods and steep chutes. When it is working (if it is depending on the weather, technical issues or simply the mood of the lift operator – we don’t know) the third chair lift – a hyper slow one – takes you up to 3.500 m and opens up the most prestigious freeride terrain of the ski resort: steep chutes and a lot of nice drops open up on the backside. A true playground for a couple of days.

“This is how the Alps must have looked like 100 years ago!”

The main mission of our trip, though, was to reach the tiny little town of Ushguli: at an elevation of 2.100 m it is surrounded by perfect ski touring mountains that reach elevations of 3.500 – 3.600 m. The town really doesn’t have much: there are more cows, pigs and chicken than inhabitants, wood is  still transported by ox and sleds through the narrow alleys between the old stone houses, no store, no bar.

But, they heave something more important: heart warming and welcoming people, that take you up into the family as friends. We are glad to call Villa Lileo our home: it’s warm, it’s cozy and we feel like home from the moment we stepped into the living room.

5 days in Ushguli are quickly over: we managed to ski a lot of powder, one large bowl after the other and a steeper line. The highlight had to wait until the last day: 1.500 m of breaking trail up to a 3.500 m peak, always with a breath taking view to the majestic Shkhara mountains (5.400 m).

A quick shred session at a little hill with the locals, three to four Chachas with our hosts at Villa Lileo, a last (already melancholic) panoramic look around at the main ridge of the Caucasus and our ski tracks, and it is already time to pack the ski bags on the roof of Irakli’s car one last time.

It’s not a “Good bye”

But, we don’t say “Good bye” to Ushguli, our new won friends at the hill or in Villa Lileo. We are all suddenly French: “Au revoir”! We like it much better, as we all have the feeling that this place will have to put up with us again in the near future!

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