An emaciated nation-state set free in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Georgia shares borders with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it’s the northern border with Russia that’s of interest. Here, stretching 1,100 kilometres between the Black and Caspian Seas lies the Caucasus Mountains—and Europe’s highest peaks.

Altitude explains the headache as I slide off a lift on the 3,000-metre summit of the Georgian ski resort of Gudauri. Seeking aspirin, I wander into a tiny ski patrol hut where a dozen mountain-weathered faces stare back through a fog of cigarette smoke.

Articulating my ailment with sign language, an old patroller steps forward. In one hand, dripping with green juice, is a pickle; in the other, a shot glass of clear, viscous fluid.

“Take zees. It will cure you,” he says, in a thick, villainous accent.

 

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Ancient ritual: Audray Ayotte takes tea with the monks at the 1,000 year-old Lomisi Monastery.

 

Disgusted but intrigued, I do what any seasoned traveler would: down both in a fury of dill and ethanol. Five minutes later I’m clicking into my skis. Gudauri lies a couple hours north of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. Spread over switchbacks along the Georgian Military Highway, it isn’t so much a town as a series of hotels to service thousands of eastern Europeans keen to access seven lifts and a mid-station vodka bar. By all accounts it’s big, with miles of perfectly groomed corduroy. But we’re not here to ride lifts.

 

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Audray Ayotte waits for a ride back to the hotel during a snowstorm in Mestia.
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A Georgian woman sings traditional songs after a feast of mutton in Stepandsminda.

UP
It’s dark when we begin skinning from Hada Hut, an alpine refuge high above Gudauri. Robotic movement circulates instant coffee through hazy brains.

Soon, sunrise outlines peaks both gentle and austere. It has snowed, and we take turns slogging knee-deep, rotating like clumsy, slow-motion cyclists. Cold wind and exploding light hit as we crest a final, steep slope. Pink accentuates the hanging glaciers of 5,033-metre Mt. Kazbek with mesmerizing beauty.

 

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Audray Ayotte looks to invade the backcountry above Ushguli in Georgia’s remote Svaneti region.

In Georgian legend, mythical hero Arimani is chained to its cone, punishment for stealing fire from God. There are worse places to be stuck. I’m last to drop in, the backdrop a dozen gentle ridges spread like folds in a bunched white sheet. A lifetime of touring in just one vista. Vertical melts away in big, arcing turns and the temporary blindness of deep, light snow. A thousand vertical metres and I drift to a stop on the highway. Looking back, our turns suggest the cursive font in Georgia’s ancient written language. The trance is broken by an old man in a Lada who offers us a drive.

 

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SPIRITS
Bright ski clothes couldn’t contrast more with the long black robes of orthodox monks with whom we share a fire in Lomisi Monastery. It’s a three-hour climb to this cloister perched on a ridge separating Kazbegi Region from South Ossetia, the Russian-sponsored rogue state that vies for independence from Georgia. Lomisi’s 10th century walls predate these politics; named for Saint George’s bull, who died part way up, it’s an important temple frequented by miracle-seekers.

 

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Two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s upper Svaneti region is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Th e Svaneti village of Ushguli at 2,100m is famous for massive stone towers that date to at least the 12th century.
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Serious car drop: Bob Maudie skis from the summit of Mt. Bidara to Cross Pass on the Georgian Military Highway.

“It seems you spend a lot of time close to God,” Father Nicholei smiles thoughtfully, sips red wine through a bushy brown beard. I can’t argue. In many ways we seek similar spiritual connection on high; only the tools differ.

“Cheers to that.” We raise glasses in Georgian tradition, each noting something we’re grateful for. A few hours later, their robes flapping on a windy ridge, we say goodbye to the monks. Then ski forever to the valley.

 

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WHEELS
The bald tires of the Toyota Land Cruiser in the town of Mestia say one thing: we’ve made a mistake. A fresh blanket of snow covers the 45-km track to Ushguli, a high-valley village deep in Svaneti Region 450 km west of Gudauri. The second time we get stuck, worry turns to anger. The young driver, dubiously named SoSo, ties rope around a tire in a vain attempt at traction.

 

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Rockfall on the harrowing road from Mestia to Ushguli made for slow going.

“SoSo, let’s go back and get chains!” We’re definitely his first clients for Ushguli. How did he even get this truck? The question is answered when “Mama” flashes on the screen of his buzzing cellphone.

Faith sinking fast in this land of miracles and prayers, we reluctantly give SoSo a final chance. Hearts clog our throats as he navigates crumbling rock walls and harrowing switchbacks. Yet somehow So-So’s confidence grows with every kilometre. He has left Mestia a boy, and, four hours later, arrives in Ushguli a man.

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The Soviet-Georgian Friendship Memorial was built in 1983, with colourful murals depicting G eorgian history.
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HISTORY
Debarking in Ushguli is like stepping back in time—or onto the set of a Georgian Game of Thrones. Beknighted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the village is famous for its massive stone towers. In ancient times, villagers climbed atop the towers to rain rocks on invading outsiders— precisely what we feel like as we wander its stony labyrinths.

After finding our guesthouse, it isn’t long before we’re skinning up rolling slopes above town. Two hours puts us atop a 3,000m sub-peak of Georgia’s highest mountain, 5,201m Mt. Shara, whose vertical face looms over town.

From up here, Ushguli’s towers look small. We’re quiet as we drop in, minds already eating the wonderful food our hosts have waiting. Twenty minutes of powdery bliss and we ski right up to our door. That might have been the end, but it was more of a beginning

 

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A young monk readies for the hike down to town from the Lhomisi Monastery.
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Monks descend to the Lomisi Monastery perched on a ridge straddling Russian-occupied South Ossetia and the Republic of Georgia.

 

This feature is from the 2015 Mountain Life Annual, available by print subscription and through digital download here.

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