My name is Ryan and I am a mountaineer, climber, & skier from New Zealand. When I am not in the mountains, I enjoy sharing my experiences through writing and photography.
11 February. En route to Mestia.
“Ga-mar-jos,” Misha replies, raising his voice over the engine of his land cruiser as it carries us along the bumpy snow-covered road. Pirmin, Franz, and I reiterate the phrase before feeding him another word, continuing the language lesson and passing the time on our long journey into the mountains.
Misha is our local guide here in Georgia. Apart from teaching us the local lingo, he has shared history, stories, and jokes with us nonstop from Tiblisi. He smiles a lot, and I sense he genuinely enjoys our company.
The lesson is suddenly interrupted by aggressive-sounding german hip hop. Pirmin is in the front seat and turns up the volume. It’s a banger, and he and Franz start energetically rapping along with every word. Misha laughs and looks back at me, “crazy Germans!”
Three months ago, I was scouring the Caucasus on Fatmap, and a valley underneath the highest peaks of Georgia caught my eye. I could only see the summer profile of Khalde Valley, but I imagined the long grassy slopes and steep mountainsides covered in snow; it was a total skier’s paradise!
What I found most intriguing was the lack of information. Being in between two popular ski areas, Ushguli and Mestia, it surprised me that there were no ski topos, trip reports, guided trips, or even a single photo of this place in winter.
Had no one really been in there? Was it as good as it looked?
Curiosity eventually got the better of me. With nothing more than the summer map, Pirmin, Franz, Martina, and I were in Georgia to check it out for ourselves.
The song finishes, and I look out of the rattling window toward snow-capped peaks in the distance, wondering what lies in store for us in the mysterious Khalde Valley.
13 February, Mestia. Approach.
It was only supposed to snow two centimeters overnight. But I looked out the window and saw roughly eight centimeters on the ground and more falling. I knew our approach passed through avalanche terrain, so this fresh snow wasn’t a welcomed sight.
Over breakfast, we discussed the situation and agreed that we would be okay turning back if things looked too sketchy.
We piled into Misha’s Land Rover again, and after an hour’s drive through cloud and snow, we arrived at the entrance of Khalde Valley. Looking around gave me a sense of why people don’t venture here during winter. The valley starts as a steep gorge with a track cut into the southern wall. Overhead there’s snow, and far below lies a river. One unlucky sluff would send you into the abyss. In the warmer months of spring, this would be quite an undertaking.
As we were unloading our gear, the snowfall had eased off, but the clouds stuck around. This kept the sun off the snow above us and gave me peace of mind.
Misha helped us get our cumbersome packs on. We carried stuff for basecamp, five days’ worth of food, and skiing equipment. The weight was crushing, but luckily the track wasn’t steep, so we could keep a comfortable pace. After an hour of skinning, the abandoned village of Khalde appeared through the fog. I remembered the tragic story Misha told us, which only added to the spooky atmosphere.
When the Russian Empire controlled Georgia, this tiny village and its inhabitants killed their Russian occupants and started a rebellion. This uprising occurred at the beginning of winter, so the villagers were safe as the valley was deemed unapproachable in snow. But as the snow melted, Russian soldiers set up cannons around the village. They bombed everything, killing all of the locals and forbidding anyone from inhabiting the valley.
There are still some old houses intact, and there appears to be a modern guesthouse running in summer. Everyone agreed the town had an eerie feel to it, and we were happy to carry on up the valley in search of a campsite.
The cloud guarded the tops from our view, and whatever mountains we could see looked gnarly. There was almost no ridable terrain. Sheer cliffs and thick forest dropped into the icy gorge below. I knew we weren’t in the zone I had been looking at yet, but I slowly grew anxious. Had I taken my friends into a culdesac of dead ends
Eventually, the valley opened up. We came to two small derelict buildings on a flat piece of ground and got to work setting up our home for the coming days.
Martina smiled and told me to turn around while setting our tent up. The clouds were parting as the sun set on the mountains behind us. After walking through the cloud all day got our first glimpse at the giant peaks of the Caucuses right on our doorstep. The excitement was building!
14 February, Khalde Valley. Second day.
The first morning was the toughest. Putting on ski boots at -15°c ain’t easy! We spent some time drinking tea and admiring the vista of stunning peaks surrounding our camp, which is partly to blame for our late start. But what really slowed us down was the frigid cold.
After warming up in the sun, we settled for a small objective for our first day. With light packs, we left camp and headed further up the valley, through a thick forest, and onto the west-facing slopes of a mountain called Karetta.
Martina had a bad sleep and developed a cold. A short way up the mountain, she could feel her body was working harder than usual and decided to turn around. I stayed with her, and after having lunch in the sun, we got ready to ski down. Those first turns in Khalde were so satisfying. All of the traveling and organizing was worth it after all! On skis and in her natural element, Martina perked up. It was reassuring to watch her slash and jump her way down the slope after feeling shitty all morning.
Franz and Pirmin carried on and skied the north face of Karetta down to the Khalde glacier. They skated into camp hours later in high spirits and wearing big smiles. The snow was decent, and the snowpack seemed stable. Crowded around the warmth of our gas stove, we went through their photos as they told us about their afternoon. It looked epic!
Unfortunately, Martina felt worse and now had a nasty cough. A chest infection out here wouldn’t be much fun, and she was pretty keen to get out while she had enough strength. We agreed to get Misha to pick her up early if things didn’t improve. During the night, she woke me up shivering and unable to warm herself up. It took a long time to stop her from shaking. I messaged Misha on the inReach. He was on standby for a pick-up the following day.
15 February, Khalde Valley. Third day.
It was decided that Pirmin and I would walk Martina out to meet Misha after lunch and then walk back up to camp in the evening.
In the meantime, we could go and ski something close-by until noon. This allowed us time to explore more of the valley, and Martina could get a better rest before the journey back. I woke Martina up, and she seemed happy with the plan. I tucked a radio close by so she could talk to us if she needed it, and we set off.
We wanted to ski a face right above our camp, but the only way up was through a thin gully that separated the thick trees and shrubs of the lower forest. This took a hundred kick turns to climb with about three steps in between. The snow felt excellent, and we were excited to see what awaited us on the other side.
We had to get to the summit to reach the face we planned to ski. This meant sooner or later leaving the protection of the forest and crossing a ridge to gain the upper face. This proved to be much more intense than any of us anticipated.
The snow changed the higher up we went. With each kick turn, it became more wind affected, and I was having trouble bringing myself to cross the ridge onto the face. I started walking slower. Before each step, I tested the snowpack with my ski pole, questioning the layers and stability. I asked what the boys thought a couple of times, but I didn’t want to be a nag, and I didn’t want to make Martina wait longer than she had to.
We spread out, and I continued breaking trail. Soon I couldn’t go any higher without crossing the slope I was trying to avoid. I ignored my intuition and headed onto the face. The snow was softer again and felt less wind-affected, which gave me more confidence. But after a dozen steps, the snow compressed under my skis. Time slowed down as I looked up at the face and watched it crack above me.
I heard a whistle as the air was forced out of the snow, and I felt the whole mountain begin to slide. Luckily I was close enough to the ridge and the beginning of the avalanche that the debris was moving slowly. At first, it was one big slab that I was on top of, and as it broke up, I managed to get my ski pole in the hard snow underneath. I was taken five meters down the face before arresting on my pole and watching the whole face gather momentum and rip down the mountain, over cliffs, trees, and all the way to the valley floor.
My first concern was Pirmin. I looked over, and there he was, standing with Franz, looking up at me. The last I saw, he was directly below me and even further from the safety of the ridge. He had moved fast. With some ninja-like moves, he managed to half ski and half run over the debris to Franz and avoided being carried down.
We took a moment to regroup and gather our thoughts. All pretty shaken, we skied our skin track back to camp. The skiing was fantastic, but I was too skittish to enjoy it as much as I usually would.
After lunch, Pirmin, Martina, and I walked and skied out to meet Misha, who had driven up from Mestia. It was sad Martina had to leave as we had planned this trip together months ago. But we all knew she wouldn’t recover in the cold, and she was already stoked to have made it up here to see this place for herself. She seemed much more relaxed at the car, and I could tell she was pleased to be heading back. We said our goodbyes and got ready for the walk back up.
Once the sun started setting, Pirmin and I marched back to camp. Both of us were lost in our thoughts, walking quickly to keep ourselves warm in the cold darkness. We spotted a wolf track on our way, following our path.
16 February, Khalde Valley. Fourth Day.
We deemed the big spines and steeper lines too sketchy to access with our conditions. But there was still a lot of safe terrain to ride, and on our fourth day, we got back onto the tops and skied some great lines. The boys sampled a long broad ridge and hiked back up to another face. I snapped pictures from afar and rode a fun line through the trees back to camp.
17 February, Khalde Valley. Last Day.
Before leaving the valley, we had just enough time to ski a south-facing slope that caught our attention on the first day. We had low expectations as the snow had been baking in the sun for the past five days. Still, we would be able to ski directly into camp, and it looked like a worthwhile run.
By now, our mornings were pretty slick, and we were on the move shortly after breakfast. The sun was soon warming our backs, and once we gained the ridge, we could see over into Adishi and Mestia, two nearby valleys. We sat for a while, admiring the view from our last summit and reflecting on a good trip together.
Apart from the old farming sheds, the valley was untouched when we arrived. A blank canvas of snow. Now we could overlook a web of messy tracks that disrupted the natural surface. Each track began and finished at the tent. They connected boot packs to ski tracks and the valley floor to summits. It was almost a shame to leave them behind, but they were fascinating to follow.
That last run was my favorite. I filmed the boys skiing away into the distance. Somehow the snow had stayed cold and was still soft despite the sun. I followed their tracks down the perfectly pitched slope to camp. It was nothing extreme, just open fields and endless turns in compact powder. Pure bliss.
After packing up camp, we skied, skinned, slid, and walked to the road. Our big, beautiful Georgian friend, Misha, met us with a beer and a big hug. He was worried about us and was clearly relieved that we were all back safe and sound. We headed back to Mestia for a much-needed shower and celebration. Now we were the ones sharing stories with Misha as we babbled on about our trip.
That night we went to a bar. Some locals heard what we were up to. They asked us some questions and wanted to see photos, especially of the abandoned and snow-covered village. These guys were mountain guides, and while they said there was possibly some heli-skiing, no one had been in there themselves. They definitely hadn’t heard of anyone walking in.
We were in the valley for five days and four nights. Collectively we skied seven lines, predominantly on the northern side.
To be immersed in the immense world of mountains with good people is a genuine and priceless experience. The cold mornings will stick with me for a while, as will the mountains we skied. But the evenings we shared around our flickering stove, laughing, telling stories, and dancing to Staying Alive, were moments I will cherish for a long time. The way nature brings people together is perhaps one of its finest qualities.
Thanks, Martina, Franz, and Pirmin, for a fantastic trip.
Tips for others wanting to visit Georgia:
- The Mestia area often has better snow than Gudari.
- Get a local guide. Misha isn’t a ski guide, but he is a real good sort and was able to organize just about anything. Here is a link to his company: https://www.facebook.com/georgianadventures/
- There are many options if you are looking for small, expedition-style adventures. Climbing or skiing. Fatmap is an excellent tool for finding inspiration.
- Norrona Falketind -18.5 sleeping bag recommended – the nights are cold!
- It is a fascinating country and inexpensive; give yourself a few days to travel around. Tiblisi is like a mini Vegas, swim in the black sea, visit local markets, etc.
- Georgia is thought to be the origin of wine, and there is evidence of its wine culture dating back to 6000bc! The local wine is delicious, and it’s worth saving some space in your luggage for a bottle or twelve.
- A big down jacket (Norrona Trollveggen, Tamok) and down shorts are a must-have for winter touring here.
- Book flights with Turkish Airlines, either they won’t charge you for your ski bag, or it will be very cheap at the airport.
- The snowpack is deep, and the cold can preserve weak layers over a more extended period than ranges in the Alps.
- When offered Chacha (homemade schnapps), proceed with caution 😉
Our trip on Fatmap: