After landing in Tbilisi we found one of our bags (namely, Hanna-Maija's splitboard and gear) missing. After filing the missing skibag in the airport we spent the first couple of days in Tbilisi – a decadently beautiful place with a character of it's own. Sulphur baths, stray animals, decaying buildings, shisha pipes and plentiful, tasty food.
But soon we were ready to head for the mountains. First thought was to go by a minibus and get there cheaper, but we opted for a taxi since we needed to rent some of the missing gear and wanted to get to Gudauri asap. Taxi driver was making signs of the cross across his chest constantly, sometimes multiple in a row. I started to feel a little worried, but after a while we figured that it must have more to do with churches he spotted by the road than actual, acute danger. After a long trip towards Gudauri resort we get there.
Raining.Water. At 2400 m. In February.
And as if that was not enough we saw many natural avalanches upon arriving. Mostly the avalanches we spotted were slush, but we observed a couple of slab crowns and debris as well on the north faces. A rare event of desert wind had blown sand into the snow making it a brownish color, which created even more friction in addition to the wet snowpack. This winter has not been kind to us so far. So we decided to take it easy for the first couple of days. We wanted to rent a splitboard for Hanna-Maija, since and hitchhiked a ride from a board instructor to a local hostel and guiding service that had an operation of Russian guides and clients with backcountry gear for rent as well. The guys were nice and since we had zero experience with the local terrain and difficult conditions, we booked a couple of tours with them as well as skiing the resort for fun. Russian guides and other clients were fun and we had a memorable after ski moment in a small village shop/cafe that sold homemade wine and moonshine for the group after the military road was closed for a few hours. We also learned about places in Russia for freeskiing. Who knows, maybe we can arrange something in the future.
The terrain here is awesome, but approaches are challenging with steep gorges and difficult gulleys. Local knowledge paid off once more and we found some good snow on north faces and started to get to grips with route planning and snowpack. We do not like big groups especially with varying skill levels, so after getting our gear back and moving to a different spot along the military road we started planning our trips with topo maps to peaks we spotted from previous trips. We are not sure if the line we picked had ever been skied before us (at least the local guides were only studying the route). It was not steep or especially demanding, but the vast terrain and moderate amount of freeskiers mean that there are a lot of first descents available in Georgia for those who appreciate such things. We struggled a little bit with route finding since our maps were not detailed enough to represent the jagged terrain, but got to the last plateau before actual summit and skied a fun line of rolling hills with good snow and plenty of daylight left at the bottom to return to our hotel. We were staying at a really nice hotel (Rooms Kazbeg) in a village deep in the Caucasus mountains. After a rest day we decided to return to the same line for a second trip and perhaps go for the steeper upper section from the summit ridge. After careful consideration and a compression test at the high plateau we decided to climb to the ridge and ski the upper section. Everything went extremely well, snow was stable and we had an awesome continuous line all the way down the mountain.
That is, until after the descent when traversing along a steep south facing feature to get back to the car pickup point. Suddenly I saw the face bubbling like lava, shouted a warning and prepared to trigger my airbag. But fortunately the slush propagated slowly and mostly below my position so I had no troubles skiing out of the loose snow. Even though this was a small slide, the slush still ran over 50 meters and propagated into a bouquet of heavy debris. The runout was maybe a 1.5 – not enough to bury a person, but definitely more than harmless sluff that we usually experience. It was basically a slush slab that was triggered by us and could've potentially been much bigger and/or more serious. This woke me up, even though the actual event was harmless, we had no idea it would occur and thus we cannot really say it was harmless. It could've been much bigger just as well.
This was a classic heuristic trap. We were substituting an easier question for the hard one. The real question was "What are all the potential dangers on all parts of the tour and descent?". I replaced it with easier ones: "what is the probability of releasing a slab avalanche while descending the upper section from the ridge", and "how to avoid wind loaded zones while touring up?". We were fully aware of the slush avalanches occurring on south facing slopes, but we had been on the same spot two days prior and we saw enough grass on top of the ridge to sort of dismiss this part of the route as not having enough snow to cause a serious slide. We were wrong of course and this serves as a reminder for us - and hopefully to you readers - that disaster can strike when you least expect it. So let us be calm and on top of our game up there.
All in all we had a good trip with lots of exotic experiences we were after. Fun times with friendly people and even though the conditions were challenging, we still managed to get more experience and some very nice lines under our belts, admittedly not as many as we were hoping, but still.
Have a good one!
We will start packing our gear for our Caucasus trip this week, it will be interesting to see what will come of this experiment. We once took out an atlas and decided to put a finger on one of the pages of the book at random while flipping through the book. The finger ended on a map of Jugoslavia (The book wasn't the most recent edition), so we had to visit Croatia (which happened pretty soon thereafter by our friends invitation). Last summer we decided to do the same with an awesome book called something like "skiing around the world", which we saw at our friends house. Finger ended up on Georgia and since we've never skied the Caucasus mountains, we really had no choice but to make it happen. Hanna-Maija has visited Tbilisi before and Georgia seems nice with culture, food and language that are once again a bit different from what we are used to. Weather looks to be a bit on the warm side, but it should snow nicely in the mountains before we get there. Let's just hope temperatures will stay below zero at higher altitudes to preserve the snow.
Based on our map and google earth reconnaissance the mountains around Gudauri look quite promising. There are formidable mountains with open fields and steep faces all around Gudauri and Stepantsminda. Unfortunately we have been too busy to plan any lines properly beforehand. I think we will start by skiing lift accessed sidecountry and getting the obvious powder-goods first while getting to know the place. After that we have a couple of ideas for longer tours and more remote descents, if conditions allow. The latter week will be spent skitouring in the backcountry anyway, since our second accommodation is far from lifts.
I'm sure our two weeks in Georgia will be full of adventure and fine foods. Probably we will get some good skiing and riding, too. But more on that later.
Hi there, nice of you to stop by.
We have a passion to share our experiences and the the endless beauty found in the mountains. Offtrack pictures was born out of this passion.
We just released our first short film ”Nihon no koto yume- A dream about Japan”, which is available at Vimeo or at our freshly launched site.
We have just returned from this seasons first trip to the Hakuba mountain range in Honshu, Japan. We were skiing/riding and filming in the Hakuba area during the New Year and early January. That was our third consecutive season there and weather certainly was warmer with less precipitation so far than last season (which was epic in Japan!). Maybe El niño is playing tricks with the weather this year. Lack of snow during this early season in Hakuba made things kind of tough, but we managed to have good alpine days at higher altitudes and magnificent clear weather and views.
It’s also nice to feel at home abroad during a ski trip. We analyzed the snow-situation quite fast and knew our options were very limited compared to previous seasons, but at the same time we felt that the fact that we knew the terrain and conditions helped us get more out of a difficult situation compared to someone who goes there for the first time and has to learn the ropes there.
This year we also booked Damian from Hakuba Mountainlife as our guide for the first couple of days. We have been taking advantage of his personal blog http://www.steepdeepjapan.com/ in the past couple of years for weather and snowpack information, along with other sources. He happened to be available during our trip and we decided to book him for his insight and knowledge of the local mountains and snowpack. He and his tailguide Zach did not disappoint and definitely helped us get to a higher level right off the plane – highly recommended for those who like skitouring and adventuring a bit further into the backcountry. Past years we have also booked simpler tours with Evergreen Outdoor center and have been very satisfied with their guides as well.
By the way, if you plan on skiing / riding off-piste in Japan, please bookmark and check http://nadare.jp/alert/index.html for the Japan avalanche network’s official avalanche bulletin, updated daily during the ski season. http://www.snowjapan.com also has valuable information, including local weather and resort updates.
If you do not yet know how to read avalanche bulletins or feel unsure about your skills or experience in the mountains, please take a course in avalanche awareness and learn to use proper safety gear, evaluate the snowpack and plan routes and descents safely before heading out. Basic skills on the board or planks won’t hurt either. Local guiding services at destinations usually offer the courses as well if you don’t have that resource at your hometown.
We will not repeat this in the blog too often, but since this is the first entry:
Freeskiing and freeriding are inherently dangerous sports. Avalanches are potentially fatal and can endanger others (even whole resorts or villages) as well. Always carry a functioning beacon, probe and shovel with you when you are skiing or riding off-piste. Please learn to avoid hazards and injuries and search and rescue others if something does go wrong. Safety aspects should not be overlooked. That said, have fun out there!