Deep snow and dumplings: heli-skiing in Georgia
We were a motley crew, assembled at a small airport with the promise of adventure high up in the Georgian Caucasus. A forestry consultant and a veterinarian from opposite ends of Switzerland were getting to know each other, and a jet lag Italian entrepreneur from Manila caught up with his father, a robotic lawnmower magnate from Vicenza.
While we waited for the weather window at the Natakhtari airfield, which is opposite a chocolate factory near the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the airport dog was dozing on the seat next to mine. It was snowing heavily where we were heading: a medieval mountain town that is now becoming the new frontier in skiing.
A few hours later the storm subsided and we boarded a Czech twin-rotor aircraft of unknown year, hit the wind and soared into the clouds.
Mestia, located in a steep-sided valley about an hour north, is best known for its medieval watchtowers. More than a dozen structures still rise above the cobbled streets like fortified skyscrapers. The city with a population of no more than 2,000 people is located in the heart of the Svaneti region, where the Svans live. They proudly guard an ancient culture and language, as well as some of Europe’s greatest mountains.
I was part of the east-west experiment in 21st century heli-skiing. A new partnership between mountain guides from Canada and Georgia promised to combine heavyweight heli-skiing experience with the youthful ambitions and national pride of local guides.
I first met Matt Edwards, who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife Angela Buckert, at Last Frontier, a heli-skiing club in British Columbia. Edwards and Buckert, who run their own travel company, Expedition Engineering, were looking for wilder adventures and had heard of two energetic young guides in Mestia.
Misha and Alexei Margiani, brothers in their early thirties, have established contacts with leasing companies and helicopter pilots through their other work as mountain rescue volunteers. Together with Alexei’s wife Tatyana, a former ship engineer, they were planning their own heli-skiing business when the Canadians got in touch. Could they help?
Our trial week helicopter at the end of March last year—a new $2.5 million Airbus in discreet black—looked ridiculous in a farmer’s field as we gathered for our first pickup truck just outside the city. The cow walked lazily past. Its bell, made from an old truck engine piston, rang as it went.
Soon we were already flying over Mestia to the mountain giants of Svaneti. The impregnable twin peaks of Ushba (4710 m) dominate the view to the north of the city, while the great pyramid of Tetnuldi (4854 m) lies to the east. Rising 20 miles south of Elbrus (5,642 m) near the Russian border, Ushba has long fascinated climbers. In his 1940 book ten great mountainsEnglish climber Graham Irving described the peak along with Everest and the Matterhorn.
Skiing appeared in Svaneti much newer. In the last decade, several avid hikers as well as sponsored ski film crews have begun traveling to the mountains in the shadow of Ushba. There has been recent investment in local ski resorts and some heli-skiing by a German operator, but much remains untapped; The Slovak adventurer made the first descent from Ushba only in 2017.
Wherever I looked, huge peaks and writhing glaciers were repeated in the distance. These were high-altitude skiing, with helicopter approaches at an altitude of 4000 m and long descents. We were divided into two high-speed groups of four skiers plus a guide. After one drop on the flanks of Tetnuldi, Misha (Aleksey was out of action with a newborn) disappeared into a steep, nameless couloir. Soon he called for me to follow him, his voice echoing off the stone walls.
The surface snow hit me in a bog wave, which I kept moving to the left to save myself. Below the couloir, I was grinning at Misha like an idiot. He did the same back. The guide, who had a mischievous smile, told me that he learned to love the mountains above Mestia while taking sheep with his grandmother. “Every time I walked, I walked a little higher,” he said.
The skiing scene in Mestia is so recent that young Misha mastered the sport on wooden skis with oxhide bindings. Now he led an international group of heli-skiers high above his hometown. He was full of excitement; many of our descents were new to him. He wasn’t sure the one bowl we climbed into had ever been skied on, and he could only translate its name as “pirate of the earth.”
Meanwhile, Edwards sought to fill what he saw as a gap in the market. For years, helicopters have opened up remote areas in the former Soviet republics. Costs lower than, say, a luxury hotel in Canada don’t always provide a sense of security, but a growing demographic of experienced heli-skiers is hungry for adventure. “People want to be safe, but they also want to feel like they’re doing something real and unscripted,” Edwards said. “And it’s almost as unscripted as it gets.”
Edwards, who is in his early forties, watched Misha with a slightly aged head and missed the couloir with his group, not because of the risk of more serious movement in the snow, but because one time in 100 this slush could push the skier too close to the rocks, on his taste; The wisest mentors assess risk not only in the moment, but throughout their careers.
Edwards and Buckert were wary of stepping on their toes. But they also sought to educate Margiani about the business model that had developed in Canada since the first commercial heli-ski tour in 1965. Security was only part of it. Edwards also advised David Kaadze, our pilot, on how to tie runs together in the most economical way, and taught Misha the administrative art of debriefing at the end of the day.
Edwards was stunned by the mountain scenery around Mestia, but saw the same potential in the city itself. Bad days due to bad weather are a common feature of any helicopter operation. There are no luxury spas in Mestia (I stayed in a three-star hotel on the main highway), but the city is blessed with entertainment, including for those who do not want to sacrifice skiing time: the two lifts of the Hatsvali resort rise from the southern edge of the city and the larger resort of Tetnuldi are within a few minutes drive.
The charming cobbled main street of Mestia, where skinny cows nibble on thawed grass, is full of restaurants serving mainly Georgian cuisine, including its wonderful khinkali dumplings and khachapuri, bread stuffed with cheese. The city wears its cultural heritage on every corner. The watchtowers are guarded, and one of them, which is part of the old Margiani farmhouse, or Machubi, has been restored as a small museum. Misha took me there one overcast day along a steep winding road – and back in time by about 1000 years.
A raised slate hearth rose above the fire in the middle of a large windowless room with thick stone walls and sooty wooden beams. Cattle pens with elaborately carved wooden holes face the fire. Back in the days of Misha’s great-grandparents, animals spent the night inside, feeding through holes and keeping more than a dozen family members warm on the sleeping platforms above them. With the stately throne of the patriarch closest to the fire, the house seemed like a cross between an English medieval farmhouse and an old Swiss shepherd’s chalet.
Misha then climbed increasingly rickety ladders, climbing the inside of his family’s 30-meter watchtower. They were built as status symbols and as lookouts in the event of an invasion. From above, Misha surveyed the valley, and then looked down at the family chapel. “This is where I will be buried,” he said. Life in the mountains may have always been his destiny; it was named after Mestia’s most famous son, Mikhail Khergiani, a mountaineer known in Europe as the “Tiger of the Rocks”.
Another museum in the city is dedicated to Khergiani. The third museum, the Svaneti Historical and Ethnographic Museum, stands on the other side of the river. Restored in 2013 with state and foreign funding, it boasts ninth-century Christian iconography and Svan artifacts, including a ritual cauldron large enough to boil three cows and an early pair of wood and leather snowshoes.
I could spend a week in Mestia without skiing at all. One evening we gathered for a tasting of Georgian wines and most of the evenings we ate in different restaurants. My favorite was Lushnu Qor, a modest wooden eatery where a steady stream of beer and steaming khinkali rained down on the tables of young local guides.
The city hummed with a sense of energy and potential. A tiny new ski rental shop with a chipboard front has started selling big alpine skis. It hasn’t got a name yet. “Maybe next year,” the shop owner said as he adjusted some of the fasteners. (I got my skis from the only rental shop in Tbilisi, a converted family garage behind a Soviet-era apartment building.)
Low cloud cover threatened to end the week in the afternoon at a local resort. But as I was skiing in Hatsvali in the afternoon, the news came on the radio of an unexpected weather window. Misha called the helicopter to a clearing in the forest at the top of the resort. Soon we were flying to the 3500-meter peak line for two farewell runs through snow that turned creamy as spring approached.
The experiment was a triumph for downhill skiing in a charming, up-and-coming region. Later, Edwards and Buckert would sit down with Margiani and agree to join forces starting four weeks this winter. “This place could be like a Georgian CMH,” Edwards said, referring to Canada’s groundbreaking heli-ski gear. “There are only mountains, mountains and mountains.”
There are legitimate questions about the sustainability of heli-skiing. Edwards has been considering quitting but for now prefers to limit and mitigate the impact of his travels and encourages guests to offset their emissions (he and Bueckert offset their own). He estimates that each guest consumes 250 liters of jet fuel per week, which equates to about four fill-ups for a large family car (although jet fuel has about 10% more carbon than gasoline).
In the meantime, the economic impact of the enterprise on a place like Mestia became clear on the last night, when at a table laden with local dishes for our last supper, Misha performed the Georgian ritual known as higher. Zealously filling glasses chachaAfter drinking grappa, he celebrated a series of toasts. First God came, then the world, then Georgia, with a circle”gaumarchos!” or “cheers” before each sip. By the 10th toast, Misha started freestyle. “We’re trying to find something new in Mestia – that’s what other places were doing maybe 20 years ago,” he said before raising his glass. “Thank you for this… Gaumarchos!
Simon Usborn was a guest of Expedition Engineering (expeditionengineering.com), which offers heli-ski trips to Mestia for 7,000 euros per person, including five days of heli-skiing, six nights at the Paliani hotel, transfers, meals and avalanche equipment. The season runs from now until April 6th and there are still spots available.