Deep snow and dumplings: heli-skiing in Georgia

Deep snow and dumplings: heli-skiing in Georgia

We had been a motley crew introduced collectively at a small airport by the promise of journey excessive within the Georgian Caucasus. A forestry marketing consultant and a veterinarian from reverse ends of Switzerland received to know one another, whereas an Italian businessman from Manila caught up together with his father, a robotic lawnmower tycoon from Vicenza.

Whereas we waited for a window within the climate at Natakhtari Airport, positioned throughout from a chocolate manufacturing unit simply exterior Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, the airport canine snoozed within the seat subsequent to mine. It was snowing closely the place we went: a medieval mountain city that’s now turning into a brand new frontier in snowboarding.

After a number of hours the storm subsided and we boarded a Czech twin-prop airplane of unsure classic, confronted the wind and took off into the clouds.

Mestia, which lies in a steep valley about an hour to the north, is finest recognized for its medieval watchtowers. Greater than a dozen constructions nonetheless tower over the cobbled streets like fortified skyscrapers. The city of not more than 2,000 folks lies within the coronary heart of the Svaneti area, dwelling to the Svan folks. It proudly guards an historical tradition and language – and a few of Europe’s best mountains.

I used to be a part of an East-West experiment in twenty first century heli-skiing. A brand new partnership between mountain guides from Canada and Georgia promised to mix heavyweight heli-skiing experience with the youthful ambition and nationwide delight of native guides.

The dual peaks of Ushba dominate the view north from Mestia © Andrey Borodulin/AFP by way of Getty Photos

I first met Matt Edwards, who lives on Vancouver Island together with his spouse Angela Bueckert, at Final Frontier, a heli-skiing resort in British Columbia. Edwards and Bueckert, who run their very own journey firm, Expedition Engineering, had been on the lookout for a wilder journey and heard about two enthusiastic younger guides in Mestia.

Misha and Alexei Margiani, brothers of their thirties, have constructed up contacts with helicopter leasing corporations and pilots via their different work as volunteer mountain rescuers. He and Alexei’s spouse, Tatiana, a former marine engineer, had been planning their very own heli-skiing enterprise when the Canadians referred to as. May they assist?

The map shows Mestia in Georgia

Our chopper for a take a look at week late final March—a brand new $2.5 million Airbus in low-key black—lower an incongruous determine in a farm subject as we assembled for our first pick-up simply out of city. A cow wandered by. His bell, which was comprised of an previous truck engine piston, tinkled as onerous because it may.

Quickly we had been flying over Mestia in direction of Svaneta’s mountain giants. The view to the north of the town is dominated by the forbidding twins of Ushba (4,710 m), whereas to the east is the nice pyramid of Tetnuldi (4,854 m). Rising 20 miles south of Mount Elbrus (5,642m) close to the Russian border, Ushba has lengthy held a fascination for climbers. In his 1940 e book Ten nice mountainsEnglish mountaineer Graham Irving described the height alongside Everest and the Matterhorn.

Even for Misha Margiani, an area information, lots of the descents had been new territory © Simon Usborne
Simon Usborne enjoys excessive altitude powder

Snowboarding is way newer in Svaneti. Within the final decade, a number of grizzled vacationers in addition to sponsored movie crews on skis started to journey to the mountains within the shadow of Ushba. There has additionally been latest funding in native ski resorts and a few heli-skiing operated by a German operator, however a lot stays unskied; made by a Slovak adventurer first descent Ushba in 2017.

All over the place I appeared, nice peaks and zigzagging glaciers had been repeated within the distance. It was alpine snowboarding with helicopters at an altitude of 4,000 m and lengthy runs. We had been cut up into two fast-paced teams of 4 skiers plus a information. After one drop on Tetnuldi’s facet, Misha (Alexei was out of motion with the new child) disappeared down a steep, anonymous couloir. Quickly he shouted for me to observe him, his voice echoing off the rock partitions.

The floor snow rolled round me in a wave of slush that I moved to the left to flee. Below the couloir, I grinned like an fool at Míša. He did the identical again. The information, who had a mischievous smile, advised me that he realized to like the mountains above Mestia when he took sheep together with his grandmother. “Each time I went, I went slightly greater,” he mentioned.

The snowboarding scene in Mestia is so latest that younger Misha mastered the game on picket skis geared up with bull bindings. He was now main a global group of heli-goers excessive above his hometown. He was bursting with pleasure; lots of our descents had been new to him. He wasn’t certain if one bowl we tackled had ever been on skis, and will solely translate its identify as “earth pirate”.

Edwards, in the meantime, wished to fill what he noticed as a niche available in the market. Helicopters have been opening up distant terrain in former Soviet states for years. Decrease prices than, say, a luxurious lodge in Canada have not at all times included the best sense of safety, but a rising demographic of seasoned heli-goers crave journey. “Individuals wish to be protected, however additionally they wish to really feel like they’re doing one thing actual and unscripted,” Edwards mentioned. “And that is about as unscripted because it will get.

Mestia is dotted with watchtowers, constructed as standing symbols and to guard towards invasion © Alamy
A typical church within the Svaneti area of northern Georgia © Andrey Borodulin/AFP by way of Getty Photos

Edwards, who was in his early forties, adopted Misha with a barely older head and skipped the couloir together with his personal group, not due to the chance of extra critical motion within the snow, however as a result of one time in 100 the sluice would possibly push a skier too near the rocks for his liking ; the wisest guides assess threat not simply within the second, however throughout a profession.

Edwards and Bueckert had been cautious about stepping on toes. However they had been additionally taken with coaching Margianis in a enterprise mannequin that had been evolving in Canada for the reason that first business heli-ski journey in 1965. Security was solely a part of it. Edwards additionally suggested David Kaadze, our pilot, on easy methods to string collectively runs in essentially the most economical manner attainable, and coached Misha within the administrative artwork of the closing report.

Edwards was impressed by the mountains round Mestia, however noticed the identical potential within the metropolis itself. Downtime attributable to unhealthy climate is a trademark of any helicopter operation. There aren’t any luxurious spas in Mestia (I stayed in a three-star lodge on the principle drag), however the city is blessed with distractions, together with for these unwilling to sacrifice snowboarding: Hatsvali resort’s two lifts rise from the southern fringe of city, and it is a brief stroll to the bigger resort of Tetnuldi by automotive.

Mestia’s charming cobbled important road, the place emaciated cows munched on the thawing edges of the grass, is lined with eating places serving principally Georgian delicacies, together with its wonderful khinkali dumplings and khachapuri, bread filled with cheese. The town carries its cultural heritage at each nook. The watchtowers are protected and one in all them, which is a part of the previous Margianis property, or machubi, was restored as a small museum. Miša led me to it one cloudy afternoon alongside a steep winding highway – and again in time about 1000 years.

Within the heart of a big, windowless room with thick stone partitions and soot-stained picket beams was a raised slate fireside. Cattle enclosures with elaborately carved picket openings confronted the fireplace. Even within the time of Míša’s great-grandparents, the animals spent nights inside, feeding via the holes and warming the greater than a dozen members of the family on the sleeping platforms above. With its patriarch’s nice throne closest to the fireplace, the home felt like a cross between an English medieval farmhouse and an previous Swiss cowherd’s cottage.

View of Mestia from Misha Margiani’s household dwelling

Míša then climbed up the within of his household’s thirty-meter watchtower on the nonetheless shaky ladders. They had been constructed as standing symbols and as lookouts in case of invasion. Misha surveyed the valley from above earlier than trying down on the household chapel. “I will likely be buried right here,” he mentioned. A life within the mountains had maybe at all times been his lot; it was named in honor of Mestia’s most well-known son, Mikhail Khergiani, a mountaineer recognized all through Europe because the “Tiger of the Rocks”.

One other museum within the metropolis is devoted to Khergiani. The third museum, the Museum of Historical past and Ethnography of Svaneti, stands on the opposite facet of the river. Rebuilt in 2013 with state and overseas funding, it boasts ninth-century Christian iconography and Svaneti artefacts, together with a ritual cauldron giant sufficient to boil three cows and an early pair of picket and leather-based snowshoes.

I may spend per week in Mestia with out snowboarding. We received collectively for a Georgian wine tasting one night and ate at completely different eating places most nights. My favourite was Lushnu Qor, a low-key picket restaurant the place a gentle stream of beer and steaming khinkali landed on the tables of younger native guides.

The town buzzed with a way of vitality and potential. A small new ski rental store with a naked chipboard entrance has began delivering alpine skis. It has not but acquired a reputation. “Possibly subsequent yr,” mentioned the service provider as he adjusted some bindings. (I had borrowed my very own skis from the one rental store in Tbilisi, in a transformed household storage behind a Soviet-era housing property.)

Low clouds threatened to finish the week with a day on the native resort. However after I was snowboarding in Hatsvali after lunch, the radio got here up with sudden climate. Miša referred to as a helicopter to a clearing within the forest on the high of the resort. Quickly we had been flying in direction of the 3500m summit line for 2 valedictorian runs in snow that was turning a cream shade as spring approached.

The experiment was a triumph of alpine snowboarding in an interesting space brimming with promise. Edwards and Bueckert later sit down with the Margianis and agree to hitch forces beginning 4 weeks into this winter. “This place has the potential to be like Georgia’s CMH,” Edwards mentioned, referring to Canada’s pioneering heli-skiing outfit. “Right here there are solely mountains and mountains and mountains.

There are respectable questions concerning the sustainability of heli-skiing. Edwards thought of quitting, however at this level he prefers to restrict and mitigate the impression of his travels and encourages friends to offset their emissions (he and Bueckert offset their very own). He estimates that every visitor is liable for 250 liters of jet gas over the course of per week – the equal of about 4 fill-ups of a big household automotive (though jet gas incorporates about 10 per cent extra carbon than petrol).

Khinkali dumplings stuffed with meat © Getty Photos

Tasting of Georgian wines with snacks

Cows are a well-recognized sight round Mestia © Alamy

The not too long ago rebuilt Museum of Historical past and Ethnography in Mestie © Alamy

In the meantime, the financial impression of a enterprise on a spot like Mestia turned obvious on the final night time, when, at a desk overflowing with native dishes for our ultimate dinner, Misha led a Georgian ritual often known as above. Avidly refilling glasses haha, wild grappa, ticked off a collection of toasts. First got here God, then peace, then Georgia, with a spherical “gaumarjos!” or “Cheers” earlier than every sip. On the tenth toast, Míša began freestyle. “We’re looking for one thing new in Mestia – it is one thing that different locations had been doing possibly 20 years in the past,” he mentioned earlier than elevating his glass. “Thanks for that . . . Gaumarjos!”


Simon Usborne was a visitor of Expedition Engineering (, which presents heli-ski journeys to Mestia for €7,000 per individual, together with 5 days of heli-skiing, six nights at Resort Paliani, transfers, meals and avalanche security gear. The season runs from now till April sixth and there may be nonetheless some availability


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