Snowboarding In Svaneti | Adventures In The Greater Caucasus

We explore a hidden gem in Georgia, and spend time with the country's first female mountain rescue worker

Featured Image: Rob Stewart

“When I was 16, a lot my relatives, including my uncles who were Alpinists, were planning an expedition to climb the mountain Tetnuldi but they didn’t want to take me. They thought it was only a men’s thing. So, I went by myself and climbed it.”

“They thought it was only a men’s thing. So, I went by myself and climbed it”

I’m sitting in a large wooden hut in the remote Svaneti region of Georgia. Snow is piled up either side of the door, the big windows are atmospherically misty, and I’m chatting to Nata Japaridze, the country’s first female mountain rescue worker. Or at least we’re trying to talk while comically loud trance music blares out from the café’s sound system; to our left a table of Austrian skiers and snowboarders are eating their lunch in bemused silence.

We’re in the ski resort of Tetnuldi, deep amid the dramatic peaks of the Greater Caucasus, a high mountain range which stretches from Europe to Asia, from the Black to the Caspian Sea. Named after the pointed peak that Nata climbed, which at 4,858m provides its backdrop, the resort opened in 2016 with just one lift. It’s since added four more and there are plans for further expansion but for now it’s really known for its backcountry and touring opportunities. It’s also great value, day lift passes cost just over £10.

Photo: Rob Stewart

Tetnuldi is not easy to get to. It took over eight hours to drive here from Tbilisi, though you can cut the journey to five hours if you fly to Kutaisi Airport and skip Georgia’s capital. Plus, perception of driving distances in this part of the world is relative anyway. Queueing for the hut’s one toilet (a sound system good enough to power a small stage at a festival but only one toilet…) I got chatting to a Russian couple and asked if they’d travelled a long way to get here. “No, no it was easy,” they replied, “we just drove for six hours.”

“My grandfather was my teacher, and he made a handmade ropeway for us. He actually lost two fingers to make that”

The last part of the drive was stunning if not a little sketchy at times as we passed through steep gorges with sheer drops beside the road, while other sections were super-narrow. And you definitely need a four-wheel drive for the final stretch up to the resort, as we often saw cars wheel-spinning frantically on the snowy track especially in the mornings.

Nata has lived in the nearby town of Mestia all her life. It’s a UNESCO heritage site thanks to its pretty medieval stone towers, which acted as warrior homes and fortresses during the many battles that have plagued this turbulent region over time. Until the beginning of the last century people still lived in these Svan towers, sharing the lower floors with their livestock in winter. But even in modern times, this was a brutal place to live, especially as the one access road was frequently blocked by landslides and avalanches.

Photo: Sam Haddad

“It was hard for me growing up,” says Nata. “There was nothing. Destroyed buildings, fruit and vegetables in summer maybe but nothing in winter, there was not even a normal shop to buy things, you had to go to the nearest city. But I really liked my childhood, people were working hard by themselves, it was very physical work.”

“I found it harder when I went to study in Tbilisi, it’s very hard for mountain people there. So many people all stressing and stuff, I prefer nature and mountains.”

“It was hard for me growing up. There was nothing. Destroyed buildings, fruit and vegetables in summer maybe but nothing in winter, there was not even a normal shop”

Nata skied from an early age. She says: “We didn’t have modern ski lifts in my day. My grandfather was my teacher, and he made a handmade ropeway for us. He actually lost two fingers to make that!”

Nata has worked in mountain rescue for four years. She says: “I was telling the boss: ‘I want to be a rescue girl,’ but it was like a joke for them. Then when Tetnuldi opened I took the exams and passed, and they said: ‘Ok we have a girl.’ It’s kind of new in Georgia but actually everyone was happy. And for me it wasn’t hard as all my life I was raised with boys. I used to be the only girl doing ski competitions in Guduari and Bakuriani [Georgia’s biggest ski resorts, closer to Tbilisi] so it was not unusual for me and now we have another girl who works in Hatsvali ski resort [very near to Tetnuldi].”

Pictured: Nata Japaridze. Photo: Sam Haddad

I ask Nata how things are more generally when it comes to equality between men and women in Georgia? “There is still a lot of work to do but it’s changing, and in our history, we’ve always had lots of strong women. Tamar the Great, our old ruler [from 1184-1213 in Georgia’s Golden Age] was a woman, and she was so powerful they called her a king not a queen. I definitely got psychological strength from her growing up. And even in Soviet and post-Soviet times the mountain women here were tough, they could do rescues, they worked and lived in the mountains.”

The sheer graft of mountain living in the Svaneti region has seen many residents move away in recent years, as is the pattern globally in remote highland settlements. And you still see more farm animals wandering about than people, but tourism, especially amongst adventure-minded skiers and snowboarders, is bringing a real resurgence to the area.

“That’s why people love this place, it’s quite secret and not so crowded”

“People from Europe really love this place,” says Nata. “Most of them book a guide and come here to freeride. Adventurous skiers and snowboarders, who are mostly a high standard, though we do get some beginner freeriders.

Winter tourism developed as some people came and told their friends who then came here and also told their friends. We didn’t do PR or advertising so it’s developing step by step.”

Nata is keen it doesn’t get too busy though. She says: “The number of people who come here is enough, that’s why people love this place, it’s quite secret and not so crowded. If you suddenly had a boom of people, it could be too much.”

Photo: Sam Haddad

There were certainly no crowds during my time here, and plenty of fresh tracks to be had even on the piste for much of the first day. Once that was done we dived into the deep snow right next to the pistes and under the lifts, whooping our heads off especially through the steep and enjoyably technical pillow-like sections, and dodging between gorse and rhododendron bushes, which bizarrely don’t start growing until 2000m. The resort runs up to 3,160m.

“People from Europe really love this place”

Besides a lift I get talking to two German skiers, who can’t hide their giant powder grins. “Can you imagine this few tracks in the Alps?” one asks, before heading off for another lap. I tell them I can’t.

But it isn’t just the snowboarding, the excellent terrain or the lack of people that makes this place so special. It’s the region’s history and authenticity, but also its food. Bread and cheese are central to many mountain cultures, but the Georgians take it to a whole new level especially in the local Svaneti restaurants. We had Khachapuri, a pizza-style baked bread with oozing cheese, Fetvraal, which is similar with added millet, Chvishdari, cornbread mixed with cheese and eggs, and Tashmijabi, pureed potato and cheese.

Photo: Rob Stewart

All of which tasted amazing and felt like the perfect antithesis of the clean eating craze back home, except somehow, maybe because it was all homemade, it didn’t make me feel rough in the way this much bread and cheese usually would.

Other food highlights included Badrijani Nigvzit, aubergine stuffed with walnut paste, Pkhali, a paste of mixed vegetables and nuts, Khinkali dumplings, like giant dim sum, Ajapsandali, a reworked ratatouille, and Lobio, fava beans cooked in a clay pot. The meals always had great salads too. Vegetarians do surprisingly well here, and even vegans would have an easier time of it than in the Alps. Georgia is said to have the oldest winemaking culture in the world and the organic local wine was very good. The local spirit, called Chacha, less so, though it did its job.

Photo: Sam Haddad

Later in my trip I leave the Svaneti region and visit some of Georgia’s other ski resorts. Snowsports are a big part of the country’s tourism-led development drive. I snowboard at Guduari, the country’s flagship snow centre, its appeal amplified by the fact it can be combined with a trip to Tbilisi, a really cool city to spend time, and I also visit the emerging resort of Goderzi, near the holiday town of Batumi on the Black Sea. They each have their own charm but seem far more modelled on the kind of ski resorts you find in Europe and North America, with nothing approaching the original feel and adventure vibes of Tetnuldi. Here’s hoping it can stay that way.

Do It Yourself

Wizz Air has return flights from London to Kutaisi from £100 return.

Georgian Airways has return flights from London to Tbilisi from £272 return.

Hotel Chubu in Mestia has double rooms from £36.

For more on skiing and snowboarding in Georgia, visit this website.

Alternatively, Mountain Heaven are running package trips to several Georgian ski resorts including Tetnuldi.

Thanks to Henrys Avalanche Talk for providing us with avalanche kit and wisdom.

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