Snowboarding Georgia: Gudauri Ski Resort
By Mark McGettigan
Published January 2010
The view that greets us as we stumble out of our hotel is not one you'd expect in a typical ski resort. But then Gudauri, arguably Georgia's premier winter sports destination, is definitely not your typical ski resort. Empty buildings, it's tough to tell whether they're derelict or in the process of being built, line the pot-holed road on which battered Ladas roar past, smoke bellowing from exhausts.
We'd landed in Tbilisi five hours earlier, at 3am, and had roughly 48 hours to get enough footage in the bag - photos and film - to satisfy the marketing honcho from Eristoff Vodka, who had forked out to get us there. The idea was simple: Eristoff Vodka is from Georgia, you can ski in Georgia, skiing is cool. Therefore, Eristoff is cool. Frankly, it made sense to me - even before they started handing out the free vodka.
Clutching my paper lift ticket - it has the date written in biro - we head past the concession stalls selling everything from bottled water to traditional Georgian headwear and join the small queue waiting to get on the lift. The lift itself has seen better days. A simple three-man affair, it takes an age to ascend to the mid-station, from where it's a short traverse to the next lift. Two bone-jarring lifts later and we're at the top of one of the resort's two main peaks. It's over 3000m high and the view from the top is pretty awe-inspiring.
Our Georgian guide, Nicolai, delights in telling us that pretty much everything we can see is accessible and ride-able, it's just unfortunate that our visit has coincided with a lack of fresh snow. Obviously eager to make us feel better, he then tells us that normally Gudauri has a thriving heli-skiing operation throughout the winter but that right now the choppers are being used by the UN on military operations. Thanks, Nic - now I feel much better.
Desperate to blow off a few cobwebs after yesterday's day of travelling, we decide to blast down a few pistes before going in search of the soft stuff; Nic assures us he knows where the secret stashes are. A tour of Gudauri's pistes is an experience in itself; we're used to the (by and large) beautifully groomed pistes of the Alps and North America, and our group finds itself slightly unsettled by the Georgian equivalent. They are rutted, icy and certainly the members of Team Eristoff, more used to the desk than the mountain, are not as comfortable at speed as our guide Nic or the pro riders in our party.
Legs suitably stretched, we pile back onto the top lift to try and track some of Nic's promised powder bounty. A short hike gives us a couple of nice little couloirs, followed by a choice of rock drops at the bottom; the snow is good enough for some small powder turns, but the sun is shining and it's hard not to imagine what would really be on offer if we'd timed our trip to perfection. Nic's enthusiasm, though, is not waning and he continues to cajole us into mini hikes to reach the ride-able terrain.
A chance encounter with a group of local shredders turns out to be bonus. Not only do they have some incredible, envy-inducing photos of powder face shots on one of their cameras, but they also convince us to follow them to a natural kicker spot. After a lack of sleep and some hard hikes, the sound of sessioning a booter that requires no digging is far too tempting.
A quick blast into the heart of the resort's no-man's-land reveals a perfectly-shaped roller - big and smooth - and we happily pass the rest of the afternoon hitting it, only stopping when pro skier Joe Tyler overcooks a front flip and knocks himself out. He recovers, thanks in part to some local hooch from a piste-side bar, and it's arranged that we'll call time for today and return tomorrow to sort out some jibs on the tempting derelict buildings that are scattered around the mountain - remnants of original ski cafes and lift stations.
Heading back to our lodge provides the perfect opportunity to scout out more buildings that I fancy trying to convince Joe and Orlando to risk their limbs on. As we trudge along the road, we are passed by a steady stream of big black SUVs heading down the hill - apparently back to Tbilisi - that just don't tally with the abandoned buildings, rickety chair lifts and 80s ski fashions. Skiing, it seems, is a sport favoured by the rich wherever you go.
That night, Nic takes the opportunity to introduce us to traditional Georgian drinking. Initially scared by the threat of a whole night downing vodka, I'm pleased when Nic orders bottles of the top-notch Georgian wine for us to drink - until I realise that here wine is downed by the glass at regular stages of the meal. Sipping is frowned upon. By the time dessert is finished, the likelihood of an early start tomorrow seems unlikely.
And then the bottles of Eristoff come out...