A Tour to Remember

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The Caucasus Mountains spreading along the border of Georgia and Russia.

 

I turn sideways and push my edges into the ground as hard as I can, bringing a mountain’s worth of momentum to a full stop in a fraction of a second and filling the air with light, sparkling powder. The snow flakes slowly fall back to the ground like confetti as I fumble with my jacket zipper to reach the buzzing phone in my inside pocket. Sergii, a good friend and splitboard guide, is calling me.

 

“Алло, где ты? хочешь фрирайд? [Hey, where are you, want to go freeriding?]” says the friendly Russian voice in the speakers in my helmet.

“Конечно, давай поехали! [of course, let’s go!]” I reply excitedly.

 

Twenty minutes later, the doors of the gondola creak to a close behind us as we begin our journey up the mountain. The fresh smell of mountain air seeps into our nostrils through the open window. I’ve just arrived to Gudauri, Republic of Georgia, where I will spend the rest of the winter working as a ski instructor. My excitement is undeniable as I open my backpack to check for all of my safety equipment, about to go on my first ski tour of the year. Shovel, check. Probe, check. I slip my avalanche beacon over my shoulder, clip it around my waist, and test it with Sergii’s. Beep….. beep… beep.. beep.. beep beep beep beep. The beeping speeds up as I move closer to Sergii, indicating that we would (hopefully) be able to find each other if one of us was buried in an avalanche. I stretch the skins over the bases of my skis, enabling them to slide forward (uphill) but not back down, and flip the switch on my bindings to hiking mode.

 

Right foot…left foot…right foot…left foot… my heart is already pounding as if I had just finished a marathon and we haven’t even reached the steep part of the hike yet. “I wish I had worked out in the last nine months,” I think to myself. I stop to shed a layer or two as a bead of sweat trickles down my back. My face is numb from the icy wind but everything else is on fire. I shove a handful of snow into my mouth, relishing the soft crunch and fresh taste as it cools me from the inside out. As we start up the steepest section of trail, I have to stop and catch my breath on every switchback.

 

Finally, 17 switchbacks and over an hour later, we reach the ridge on Bidara Mountain. Here we’re faced with a few options: ski down the front side (short), ski down the back side (rocky and already has tracks), or keep hiking along the ridge in search of a better slope. We opt for the third. Soon we reach a steep spine where ski touring is no longer possible, so we stop, de-skin, and strap our skis/splitboard to our backpacks. We spot a perfect-looking slope two peaks further down the ridge and set off towards it. The rest of the hike resembles ski mountaineering much more than ski touring.

 

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Sergii hiking along Bidara ridge

 

The first peak is conquered pretty easily, a simple walk up a steep spine only requiring ski poles for balance. Half covered with deep snow and half with icy rocks, the way back down this peak is a little bit sketchier, but still entirely doable. Luckily, there are several large rocks which provide steady handholds where the footing is unstable and we’re able to scramble down the slope slowly but safely.

 

The second peak is where the going gets tough. Climbing up is always easier than climbing down, so we make it to the top with relative ease, only to be faced by a 60-degree rocky spine with steep, avalanche-prone slopes on both sides. Sergii takes the lead, sure-footed as a mountain goat, scaling this beastly slope with the grace of a figure skater. I’m a bit more clumsy, my skis clanging along on the rocks, hanging awkwardly from my backpack. I shuffle my ski boots from rock to rock, ensuring that I have a stable handhold before taking each step. Finally, we make it past the rocky outcrop to the steep, smooth snow that we had spotted earlier.

 

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Here, we must first conduct an avalanche test to ensure the safety of our chosen route. This is done by digging a pit, using a saw to make a smooth column, and analyzing the layers of snow. If one layer collapses easily under pressure, the slope is not safe to ski on. Sergii began to dig the pit, scooping out snow with the shovel and tossing it down the slope. All of the sudden, “WHOOSH!” We look for the source of the sound, and one of the shovel-fulls of snow has just triggered an avalanche below us. We stand there in a stupor for a minute, unsure if what we had just witnessed was reality. Well, that rules out that slope. The perfect slope that we spent an hour scrambling over icy rocks to reach wasn’t so perfect any more. Luckily, another enticing slope lay just a few meters away on the other side of the ridge. Due to the wind patterns, the snow on that side was much less avalanche-prone.

 

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When your avalanche test triggers an avalanche, you should probably ski somewhere else. Photo by Sergii Potapenko

 

I started down the slope, pressing my skis into the soft powder on each turn. All thoughts of the hike, the cold, the uncertainty about my future dissipated as I flowed into a meditative state. Nothing existed but me and the mountain. My skis were no longer attached to my feet; they were my feet. Turn after turn, the powder rushing over my boots, I gazed in awe at the epic, treeless peaks of the Caucasus Mountains rising up to sharp points in front of me. This is what it feels like to be alive! Adrenaline pumping through my veins, I slow down to a stop to watch Sergii descend; a necessary safety measure in the back country. Several hundred meters lower, we continue down, down, down towards the road on the other side of the ridge from Gudauri.

 

At the road, we hold out our thumbs, but the first car to stop is a taxi who offers us the reasonable price of $3.50 to drive the 10km back to Gudauri. Heart still racing, I get out of the taxi, more excited than ever to spend the next two months exploring every mountain within reach. For now, I’ve found my place in the world.

 

 

 

If this trip sounds like your kind of adventure, book a tour with Sergii here.

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