Having spent a lot of time on skis over the past 4 years in Georgia, it's easy for me to say that the region of Racha has captured my heart. Nestled between the famous region of Svaneti in the West of the country and North Ossettia in the central North, Racha is a hidden gem, a network of valleys and remote villages that calls to those in search of genuine adventure.

One of the main attractions for Racha is the multitude of North Facing valleys in Upper Racha, which provide great snow conditions. During the Spring it's also possible to head up higher to the glaciers on the border with Russia.

North facing valley in upper Racha
North facing valley in upper Racha

Here are a couple of videos showing off what's on offer in the area:

My love affair with Racha began when Ryan my alpine climbing partner began to tell me about his business Snow Vigil which he started with another friend Adam. Snow Vigil operates with the idea to bring people into Racha to experience the unique culture and excellent terrain and snow conditions that are on offer there. He described to me the challenges they faced operating in the area which has almost no tourism infrastructure, and the amount of unexplored terrain which remains for those who are willing to put in the hard yards. Many of the interesting zones benefit greatly from camping, as the approaches are long, and sometimes arduous, but, importantly, compared to Australia or New Zealand, they can be done with skins on from the road.

Exploring 2020/2021 Season

After Ryan's introduction I was immediately sold on the idea of skiing in Racha. It was 2020, and it seemed likely that the tourism season would be a write-off due to COVID travel restrictions, so instead, our group of friends, consisting of Snow Vigil and Vagabond Adventures team members decided to make a mini expedition of sorts and spend much of the 2020/2021 season in Racha.

We negotiated to rent a house in the town of Oni, so we could base ourselves there to explore more of what was on offer in the region. I strongly remember Taylor texting us the location, with a vague description about how to drive there, we managed to navigate the rough roads at the back of the village to find a beautiful Georgian style Summer house full of our friends preparing their gear for the trip the next morning.

House in Oni
House in Oni

For the first tour we organised was a 3 day trip up to the Shoda Valley. Just South of the town of Ghebi in upper Racha, the Shoda valley is a North facing valley, with large peaks looming on either side of a striking headwall at the end of the valley. Getting to Ghebi in Winter is always an adventure in itself. We travelled in Ryan's Delica, and my Subaru Outback, the road at that time was fairly bad, however we made it into the town of Ghebi without a problem, but traversing the narrow ice covered streets and laneways inside the town proved to be the biggest obstacle! We've since learned that it's usually faster to start a tour here from outside the town and ski through the streets.

The Shoda Valley Crew (πŸ“· Arina Abbott)
The Shoda Valley Crew (πŸ“· Arina Abbott)

Crossing the stream and heading up the trail towards the church, our group of about 14 people eventually reached the traverse where the trees open up and the impressive peaks are unveiled above the valley. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the location, and we placed our tent next to the old summer herdsmen huts as the sun began to set.

Traversing up the Shoda Valley
Traversing up the Shoda Valley

The next morning was fresh, with a clear sky, we made our way up the bench on the West side of the valley, and dug several snow pits as we ascended. There was an average of more than 3m snow coverage, which was stable in every test result. The apparent stability, and the lack of any evidence of recent avalanches, or recent snowfall, encouraged us to proceed up the headwall at the end of the valley, which is fairly steep, up to 45 degrees. On the next morning, some members of the group who had elected to rest the previous day also wanted to head up to the headwall, so we once again ascended in our tracks again.

Shoda Valley Headwall
Shoda Valley Headwall

This time I decided to also give one of the beautiful benches on the West side a crack, but the snow was still very soft there, and it is very steep, maybe 50+ degrees, so I only made enough progress for about 2 turns before we needed to head back. While I was climbing I also discovered a large glide crack which was entirely covered by snow, for a second my heart stopped and I thought I had stuck my leg into a crevasse!

Traversing out of the Shoda Valley
Traversing out of the Shoda Valley

We made it back to the campsite in the afternoon quickly packed up the tents, and began the traverse over past the church to the top of the descent. It was clear that we were in for an interesting evening, the sun was already beginning to set, and the snow at the lower altitude had developed the worst possible breakable crust. Combining this with overnight backpacks made for slow/tricky downhill progress between the trees! I was worried someone might break a leg. Anya had a run in with a tree and hurt her arm, so we decided that walking would be safer and faster. Somehow everyone got separated and it was a bit of chaos because we didn't make a plan to stick together. I eventually began carrying Anya's backpack too to help her, and then while climbing over a fallen tree managed to punch through to a hole and fell on my face in the snow and got stuck!

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When we made it back to the cars, the last ones to arrive, everyone had taken shelter in one of the village homes, the owners had kindly invited them inside for some chacha and hot food. We said goodbye and started preparing the cars to leave, when Ryan discovered that one of his tires was flat, necessitating a change, we spent quite a while searching and asking nearby for a suitable base for the jack to stop it sinking into the snow. By this point we were certainly exceeding the COVID curfew hour for our return to Oni and we began to worry about getting in trouble on our return. We did not want to stay in Ghebi that night because a snow storm was coming that might leave us stuck for several days, if not the entire season for our cars on that little laneway. Eventually we figured we a legitimate excuse to return, Louis needed to top up his insulin supply!

Flat tire in Patara Ghebi
Flat tire in Patara Ghebi

We spent a couple of days back in Oni, eating lots of Shkmeruli, Lobiani, and Khinkali from the cafe, while dancing and waiting for our gear to dry next to the fire. The next trip was planned as a camp at Shkmeri, which lies on the new road between Tbilisi and Oni. The road had not been completed at that stage, so the road was not being cleared of snow. We decided to leave the Subaru, with it's lower clearance, down at the bottom of the mountain, and do a car shuttle with the Delica to get everyone to the start of the skin track.

Recharging with delicious food from the cafe in Oni (πŸ“· Anya)
Recharging with delicious food from the cafe in Oni (πŸ“· Anya)

The walk in was pleasant, mostly flat, between some trees for a few kilometers to reach a cozy camping spot next to the creek, just below the mountain facing North East on the South side of the highway. The snow began to dump, and by the second day we were having some fantastic powder laps! In the afternoon eeveryone was pretty well soaked and the stoke for camping another night was not high, we decided to head back home. When we got back to the car it was clear that the drive out was going to be an ordeal with almost 50cm of new snow on the road. Additionally, someone had decided to steal Ryan's jack and traction pads from the roof of his car!

Snow camping near Shkmeri
Snow camping near Shkmeri

Not everyone was going to fit in the Delica, so we decided to split up, half going back in the Delica and the other half skiing out along the road. Levi and Eva took up ropes to surf behind the car all the way down. I stayed with the walking group, and as we passed the township of Usholta, Louis, a diabetic, informed us that he was feeling unwell and that he had run out of sugar, the rest was with his backpack which had been sent down the mountain with the Delica! With no opportunity for us to retrieve it, luckily Kačka had some spare snickers bars, which kept Louis going until we caught up with his backpack down the hill.

Powder surfing on the back of the Delica near Shkmeri
Powder surfing on the back of the Delica near Shkmeri

Having only had a small taste, it was time for Anya and I to leave, and we drove back to Tbilisi to drive and fly to Kamchatka for the Spring, while the rest of the group continued the season exploring in Racha.

Here is a video that I made from this time in Racha:

Shkmeri Crew
Shkmeri Crew

Volunteer Tail Guiding for Snow Vigil 2021/2022

Summer in Racha

We returned to Georgia in the Summer, with the borders now open and travel seeming possible once again, Ryan and Adam were making plans to run some Snow Vigil trips in the upcoming 2021/2022 season. I decided that I would help them by volunteering as a tail ski guide on some of their trips.

The first time we visited Racha on a honeymoon trip with Anya, first we stayed at an "eco" accommodation near Ambrolauri which was definitely special. We visited a nearby canyon which was extremely pretty, and gives me a lot of hope for finding many more similar such sights in this region if the time were spent to go exploring. We continued on into Upper Racha and stayed a cute little guest room in the village of Glola and went on some day walks in the area around Shovi.

Canyon near Ambrolauri
Canyon near Ambrolauri
Valley near Shovi
Valley near Shovi

After the mountaineering trip on Tetnuldi with Ryan in the Summer, we headed to Racha and spent some time car camping and hiking with our friends Jaimo and Tako, and Snowy the puppy near Glola and Shovi. Shovi has some magnificent and haunting abandoned soviet era buildings, one of them is rumoured to be Stalin's Dacha (country house). Our friends Oliver and Natia, as well as Ryan were all going to be in Oni soon, so we drove there to meet them and all hung out on the grass together next to the river. Following this, Oliver, Natia, Jaimo, Tako and ourselves decided to re-enter the realm of upper Racha, and we found ourselves pulling into the village of Ghebi in the late afternoon, and began searching for a place where we could stay.

'Stalin's Dacha'
'Stalin's Dacha'

Unfortunately all the guest houses were full but the kind folks over at Brili Guest House suggested that we could camp on their lawn. We got to know the family of the owners (Mamuka, Lela, their daughter Tamar and more), who had recently arrived in Racha from another region of Georgia, and they were planning to spend their first Winter there. Their guest house cottage was new, and another was under construction. After exchanging numbers, I was confident that we had found a place to stay for our Snow Vigil trips in the area for the season. I organised to rent one of the cottages for myself for the season, as I intended to stay there for a longer period of time, while Anya was going to stay with our friends at Vagabond Adventures in Gudauri.

Brili Guest House
Brili Guest House

We went for a day walk up the valley to the village of Gona, got permission from the border guards to walk a little further as I wanted to get a view of the Kirtisho glacier with an eye for future trips. On the way back we hitched a ride with a logging truck and sat on the back above the wood holding on for dear life. We stopped briefly at an isolated cottage, for the driver to share some Chacha and bread with the grandparents occupying it. It was at this moment I witnessed something very funny, a calf managed to tip a bucket on its head, and it went absolutely beserk for about 1 minute before hitting its head on a tree and coming to a stop!

Summer in Racha
Summer in Racha

Turkey Interlude

It was soon time to leave Racha, and go back to Tbilisi. As November rolled around we found ourselves back on the road again, this time in a van convoy with our friends Jaimo, Tako, Taylor and Arina. First stop was an abandoned ski field above Tbilisi, which no longer gets enough snow to be a viable business. We spend an hour exploring the abandoned hotel building.

After this we headed West, to reach an interesting village by the stunning waters of Lake Paravani famous for its live grass thatched roofs. The rolling grasslands nearby stretch out into the distance, and the lake is overshadowed by a group of picturesque extinct volcanoes. Lake Paravani itself is reported to contain some archeological treasures from the 4th Century BC. Life here appears to be rough, there is an interesting article and video about it:

There is also an interesting film on Netflix called "The Trader", which I think is also set in this area:

Members of the Doukhobors ethno-religious group settled here after fleeing from Russia almost a century ago.

Grass roof on a house near Lake Paravani
Grass roof on a house near Lake Paravani

The nearby volcanoes are still very much on my list of places to visit on skis during the winter, and the lakes in the region freeze over, and are sure to be a beautiful and desolate sight, I caught a glimpse of them from the back of Bakuriani in 2020/21 season.

Onwards we cruised until we reached a village near Akhaltsike famous for the production of Tenili cheese. The Vagabond Adventures had an idea to bring some of their guests there as a cultural experience during their ski safari trips. We were informed that this cheese was originally invented to be easy to dry and store for long periods so they could take with them when fleeing their homes from invaders across the border and survive.

Tenili Cheese
Tenili Cheese

Finally we reached Batumi via Borjomi (famous for its mineral waters), and crossed the border with Turkey to enjoy our first Pide's and Kunefe. I loved walking through the streets in the towns on the shores of the Black Sea and observing the crowds of locals playing backgammon by the cafe's. We crossed the divide and plunged inland to the deservedly touristic Cappadocia for a balloon ride and exploration of the extensive and incredible underground city of Derinkuyu. Anya, Tako and Jaimo were all teaching langauges online, and we had great fun juggling their lessons and the occupancy of the vans. When we stopped we would dock the side doors together and step between them like boats in the mooring.

Baloon ride in Cappadocia
Baloon ride in Cappadocia

Here we waved goodbye to the others, as Anya needed to reach Antalya in time for her flight home back to Kamchatka for a brief visit to her family. We paid a visit to the ancient ruins of the city of Perge before Anya boarded her flight. I continued on in the Antalya region, doing a little rock climbing at Geyikbayiri, some paragliding at Γ–lΓΌdeniz and finally my PADI advanced open water scuba diving qualification down in Kaş.

The city of Perge
The city of Perge

Pre-season Preparation

The ski season was approaching rapidly, with significant snowfall already on the forecast it was time to return to Georgia. I joined Ryan to sort out the gear in the warehouse in Kutaisi and perform some repairs on the car roof boxes.

We soon departed in the Delica for our first pre-season scouting/prep mission out of Ghebi. We had organised to rent the team house from a man named Nodar who had a house in the village of Chiora, just down the road from Ghebi. Nodar and his brother invited us into Nodar's small heated room on the side of the house. We at some fried Pork, were plied with Chacha (a strong alchoholic beverage) and chatted in broken Russian together about the upcoming season and plans for the house.

Later we met up with the folks at Brili guest house to see how they were getting on in the snow, and I got plastered with the Chacha on offer with the good company! I can say it's the most drunk I've ever been.

Ryan and I attempted (unsuccessfully) to reach the Shoda valley with some supplies, but were foiled by deep fresh snow making progress extremely slow! We spent the next day scouting another route near Ghebi.

Lots of snow in Patara Ghebi
Lots of snow in Patara Ghebi

On our return drive to Kutaisi, we gave Nodar's brother a ride, and we met up with some residents in Tvishi, friends of Nodar's brother on the banks of the Rioni river (which incidentally finds its source in upper Racha). Ryan had spent much time in this area during his efforts documenting/helping the protests against the Namokhvani Hydro Power Plant. On a whim they decided to invite us up to their home on the top of the hill overlooking the town, it was a brilliant unplanned evening in traditional Georgian setting drinking wine and making new friends. The next morning the view of the Rioni Gorge was spectacular with everything covered by a light dusting of snow. We entered Kutaisi with palm trees covered in snow, there can't be many places where that would occur!

Rioni Gorge
Rioni Gorge
Snow covered palm trees in Kutaisi
Snow covered palm trees in Kutaisi

Following this I returned alone to Tbilisi where I met Anya and her mother and brother who had come to visit for a short holiday. We travelled to Gudauri together, Bakuriani (where we happily spent the New Year), and to Batumi.

I had planned to meet the vagabonds in Goderdzi, and made the then arduous 7 hour Marshrutka and 4WD journey from the Batumi side alone without my skis, the others would come from the other side via snow cat. This journey was extremely entertaining, the state of the road was atrocious, and many times we stopped to see locals performing feats of incredible driving in their 2WD vans in deep snow.

Action on the road to Goderdzi
Action on the road to Goderdzi

Unfortunately the Vagabonds all got COVID so I spent the time making new friends and a day skiing in the resort with some rental skis. I decided to try to hitch a ride back to Batumi, but ended up walking almost half the distance as nobody seemed to be driving perhaps due to the shocking quality of the road (which I hear is being renovated!).

Clearing snow in a village near Goderdzi
Clearing snow in a village near Goderdzi

Waving goodbye to family at the Batumi Airport, Anya and I returned to Gudauri just in time for me to assist Manu Greer in running an avalanche skills course for the Vagabond instructors.

There was still some tasks that needed to get done to prepare for the upcoming trip with guests in Racha. We had so far failed to stock the stove/fuel or food at any of our proposed campsites due to the snow conditions on the previous visit. Ryan and I headed out again from Tbilisi in his Delica.

There had been a recent storm, and we were very excited about the approaching snowline. While we were driving up the new road to Oni towards Shkmeri, the Delica transmission started acting funny, with a strong burning smell and the occasional clunk. There was debris in the transmission fluid. The timing couldn't be worse! Fortunately we managed to limp into Oni where we met up with Adam who was able to take us the rest of the way to Chiora in his Delica.

The first task was to deliver the stove, fuel and food to the first campsite we had chosen for guests up in the stunning Mukhameshi valley. Here we were joined by our friend Ilya on the trail who was spending time living in Ghebi and powder surfing by himself amongst the trees. The conditions were spectacular, and we were looking forward to a fantastic ride down, when Ryan realised he had forgotten his downhill splitboard bindings, but he managed to ski down in good style anyway I think! While Ryan made his way down, Adam and I continued up to the treeline, where I dug a snow pit and got an interesting result on a layer of what appeared to be surface hoar, this would prove significant later in the season.

Mukhameshi Valley
Mukhameshi Valley

The next morning Ilya, Adam, and myself headed out for a scouting trip to try to find a safe way up the ridge towards the point Sarkine above the village Glola in order to make a traverse over to Notsara. The standard route/track up to the phone tower is exposed to significant overhead avalanche hazard, so we wanted to see if there was a way we could avoid it. On the climb we passed through some zones with very large and beautiful pine trees, with the sun poking through the branches it was enchanting. Upon reaching the ridge top we quickly discovered that travel was impossible, it was extremely sharp and large trees right in the center of it which were very difficult to negotiate.

Our day was cut short, and to keep things interesting we decided to drop off the steep side down an avalanche path that appeared to have already slid. And so ended our season prep, we stopped for a little Chacha and bread with the local plow driver by the bridge and then drove back to Oni and then Tbilisi to meet the guests for the first trip.

Valley North of Glola
Valley North of Glola

Trip 1

Anya went to the aiport to pick up one guest who arrived from Finland, and took him to his hotel. The next day we all met at Fabrika (a hostel and trendy collection of cafes). Ryan was a little late due to troubles getting his car, and truck repaired. Here I met Fede, our lead IFMGA qualified guide from Italy. The group itself was diverse and interesting, we figured we had people on the trip (including guides and volunteers) from something like 14 different countries!

On the first day we had organised to make a stop in Chiatura, a mining town close to Racha. The weather was overcast, we tried to make a visit to the mine, but somehow that didn't work out as planned we spent a lot of time standing around in the mud! Instead we went up to the Church, which happened to be closed. Defeated we made our way to the hotel. I turned in for the night, but I think some of the group managed to make an outing on one of the many soviet era cable cars which hang above the village which make it a fascinating place. I think maybe some people still live there in places only readily accessible by cable car.

Fede leading the group out of Shkmeri
Fede leading the group out of Shkmeri

The next morning we loaded up the cars. There was some trouble leaving the hotel, as the staff had "apprehended" Adam or Tamta waiting for their bank transfer to pay for our stay to go through! With that sorted we were soon standing above the village Shkmeri doing some avalanche tranceiver practice with the group. The conditions were excellent, and starting here turned out be be a great idea. After a couple of powder runs from the top of the mountain above the town we all found ourselves in the house of some Shkmeri locals who were weathering the Winter, they decided on a whim to invite us into their home, feed us some delicious local produce (and Chacha of course!), and show us their semi-automatic rifle.

While we were ski touring, we realised that the group lunches and snacks were forgotten back in the hotel at Chiatura, so Tamta and Adam travelled there again to pick them up, I can't remember if there was some more drama there!

Imprompteau feast with Shkmeri locals!
Imprompteau feast with Shkmeri locals!

As the sun was setting we pulled into Oni where the group met Ryan's Shishiga Gaz 66 truck for the first time, we were all amazed! It was the first time I had seen it myself, and I jumped in the cab with him for the drive up towards Glola, where there was a guest house we would spend the night.

In the back of the Gaz 66
In the back of the Gaz 66

That evening we had a debate among the crew and guides as to what the plan would be for the next day. We had not yet found a route with an acceptable level of exposure to avalanche hazard up towards Sarkine. We were also worried about the fitness of the group. Eventually we decided that the best option given the conditions and the state of the group, was an overnight trip in the Mukhameshi valley.

In the morning we drove the truck over to Ghebi (over the rather scary sloping bridge entering the town, that was a mistake we'll come back to later!) and I stayed at the back and helped Ryan in Chiora to prepare the sled of sleeping bags, and other gear, while the rest of the group explored the valley ahead of us. Together with Tamta we pulled the sled up the valley behind the group, we made it to camp and started setting up just as the others were coming back from their final run for the day.

A lot of snow near Ghebi!
A lot of snow near Ghebi!

The heated tent worked fairly well, and provided a convenient communal space, but it definitely took some time to get started! The next morning we had an amazing powder run between the trees, able to ski pretty much back to the door in Brilli Guest House. Along the way we had some great friendly interactions with Ghebi locals. Adam brought the Delica round to deliver the clients bags, and managed to get bogged in the narrow laneway, the entire group joined forces and we eventually managed to dig and push the vehicle out backwards.

Extracting the Delica from the laneway in Patara Ghebi
Extracting the Delica from the laneway in Patara Ghebi

After a rest day in town, and some laps on the hill behind, the group were ready for the next overnight trip out to Gona. We had negotiated with the owner of some of the small huts there to allow our group to stay. We walked up the valley past the hydro construction site (and some incredibly cute puppies), and up the valley to the town of Gona, which is unnoccupied during the Winter. The cottage with the grandparents (and the crazy calf) was empty, the yard covered in snow. The empty village of Gona was amazing covered in snow. We weren't exactly sure of our plan for riding around Gona, we had some ideas but it was an exploration for everyone. We had an idea to take a small road leading up towards Dombitsveri, a nearby peak. We scouted almost up the ridgeline along the road where the track (probably used for firewood logging in the Summer) disappeared, before dropping through the trees to get back. Adam and Ryan had brought all the client sleeping gear in the sled on the slog up the valley.

Staff accommodation in Gona!
Staff accommodation in Gona!

The next day was perfect weather, we retraced our tracks and gained the ridgeline with a superb view of the entire region above the treeline. A neaby feature looked almost like a building or castle, there was a debate among the group and eventually I was sent out to investigate, it turned out to be a rock! From the summit of Dombitsveri after getting Olya's shot with the drone, we decided to split up, the clients would return on the ascent route, Adam, Ryan and I were to explore a new descent opportunity, which turned out to be a very fun run with a half pipe feature finishing in a steep and tight descent between the trees.

Freeride on Dombitsveri
Freeride on Dombitsveri

After a second night in Gona it was time to head back to Ghebi, and the comfort of the guest house was calling. We headed once again up to the Dombitsveri ridge line, but this time we made a descent in the South direction, dropping down to meet the road back to Ghebi where it crosses the river on a bridge, the riding here was fantastic.

Tomi enjoying a little stash of powder near Gona
Tomi enjoying a little stash of powder near Gona

That evening we decided to celebrate Ryan's birthday at the team house in Chiora. The fateful decision was made to drive there in the Gaz 66. Unfortunately the icey, sloping bridge over the river had other ideas, and left us hanging with one wheel over the edge, and everyone jumping out the window with the door hanging over a 5 meter drop into the turbulent water. Cars arriving in the evening began to back up, and people flocked, stumbling through the snow from their houses to see what the commotion was about. I ran back to the guest house to inform them, Mamuka our guest house host was greatly moved, and he decided to come down and see for himself. From my limited understanding of Georgian, I think he advocated to the town leaders to help with the Snow Vigil truck, and one of the excavator drivers working on the local hydro project was called up and arrived in the morning to extract the truck while half the town looked on as the only road in or out of Ghebi was unblocked. Some new railings were subsequently welded onto the rusty old bridge, but I can't help but wonder how helpful they will be!

And so ended the first Snow Vigil trip for the 2021/22 season, the clients drove back to Tbilisi. While it did end on a slightly shocking note, all-in-all it was a very enjoyable for everyone I think, the clients were all fantastic, up-beat and excited to explore, it felt like a trip with good friends, and it was! A special shout out to Tamta who made the trip extra special with her translation abilities, local knowledge, and generally fun character facilitating an amazing experince for all of us in many situations and salvaging a number of awkward situations for the team!

Group 1 on the summit of Dombitsveri
Group 1 on the summit of Dombitsveri

A couple of days later I boarded a Marshrutka back to Tbilisi with Tornike (Mamuka and Lela's son), he was heading to Germany to continue with his music career as a singer. At a couple of points along the road we jumped out to move stones or push the van to get it unstuck, there's something charming about jumping into a bus with strangers but by the end of the trip you all have your boots muddy and hands dirty, having all worked together to make it possible. At one point the front fender got ripped off reversing in the snow, the driver pulled a bunch of cable ties out of the glovebox and it was back on in a couple of minutes!

Trip 2

The second trip was approaching fast and I found myself back in Racha a few days early to scout a route we intended to use on the trip. With our previous route-finding failure out of Glola, we elected to try another path. Ryan, Bernabe (a visitor from Chile) and myself soon found ourselves on a promising looking cut trail heading steeply up a small gully on the side of the valley. As we cleared the treeline we stopped for lunch next to an enormous glide crack on ground that was almost flat! The rest of the way looked fairly easy, but retrospectively it was not without some avalanche hazard, especially if one follows the easier route instead of sticking strictly to the ridgeline, something that Fede the guide pointed out when we arrived, however I still feel like it may have less exposure than the most obvious route up the valley. The bigger problem turned out to be that getting clients (even with the small backpacks they had) back down the trail if required would have been a large challenge and probably would have involved walking to do so safely, this led to a sense of commitment, with no pleasurable plan B if the conditions turned out to be unsafe.

Monster glide crack
Monster glide crack

Rerturning to Ghebi with Adam, a couple of days later the clients arrived, a large group from the Czech Republic. Friends of Adam's father. We did a day trip up the Mukhameshi valley and quickly established that this was a fairly fit group. After some debate we decided to proceed with our plan for the 3 day traverse from Glola to Chiora. It was a glorious morning, and I was at the head of the group route-finding our way up the path we had discovered previously between the trees. In some places the trail was narrow and steep, and the clients had trouble keeping their grip, but it was difficult to find an alternative shallow path with the thick trees and steep slopes.

Steep on the trail out of Glola (πŸ“· Fede)
Steep on the trail out of Glola (πŸ“· Fede)

Just as the trail began to ease and we broke out of the trees I was struck by nausea and stomache pain, I went from feeling 100% to 20% in about 10 minutes. The thought of returning through those trees by myself in that condition was not something I was willing to consider, so I plodded on slowly behind the group. The group were travelling quickly, and they were waiting for me at the top of the hill with the guides, while Ryan accompanied me, he was hauling a heavy backpack with gear for the clients. We wanted to get a drone shot, and I also wanted to quickly get a photo of a bothy shelter that had been given to us by my friend Evan at Terra Rosa Gear, however we were also feeling the pressure to get down and find the hut on the other side before it got dark.

Bothy + Drone photo rush!
Bothy + Drone photo rush!

The descent turned out to be quite enjoyable, there was a river to negotiate at the valley floor, we managed to make it over without mishap. As soon as we arrived, I dumped my backpack and ran behind a hill to drop my guts! When I eventually made it inside, it turned out that some of the supplies hidden in the roof had been ransacked and there was broken glass and a big mess inside, someone during the Autumn had paid the place a visit, it was not the arrival we were hoping for, and the clients were understandeably upset. We tried to make the best of the situation, but the stoke was not high to stay another night, so the next morning we decided to continue the traverse out to Chiora.

The hut in Notsara Valley (πŸ“· Fede)
The hut in Notsara Valley (πŸ“· Fede)
The hut in Notsara Valley (πŸ“· Sofie)
The hut in Notsara Valley (πŸ“· Sofie)

The clients left early with the guides and I stayed a little longer to collect my stomache and recover a little before heading off with Ryan and Adam, stopping every 30 minutes or so by the road to relieve myself! As we kind of expected from the map, the traverse out turned out to be quite a sketchy route, with a large amount of avalanche exposure, which, given the conditions at the time was acceptable, but it would certainly not be a place to come if their was avalanche danger on the South aspects. I got my glimpse at the famous spine wall, and was sad to feel so sick in such an amazing place, I zig zagged my way down the easiest slope. The rest of the traverse out was fantastic, it's a great adventure in a very scenic place.

Scenic ride out from the Spine Wall
Scenic ride out from the Spine Wall

Going Home (to Australia)

After that experience I was absolutely drained, and stayed in Ghebi to recover, missing out on some of the best weather and snow for the trip. A couple of days after the guests had departed, news began to filter into the remote vallies of upper Racha, it seemed unbelievable, Russia was invading Ukraine, with forces on the doorstep of Kyiv. Plans for the season went out the window, COVID experiences with travel restrictions were coming back to haunt me, and we decided that we should not take any risks with Anya's visa status in Australia with the final entry date looming. So we rebooked our flights (at great expense 😬).

Part of me was feeling empty given the sudden end to the season, looking for a good way to close it, I made a solo day trip back up the Mukhameshi valley making it almost up to the headwall on a beautiful spine that stands in the middle. Unfortunately I lost my photos on my old phone from that day, all I can say is that riding that spine was the best way to finish the season for me! I'm a little sad I didn't get to share it with anyone, to the Snow Vigil team and guests if any of you are reading this, I look forward to meeting you all again one day out there!

Anya and I said a hasty goodbye to our dear friend Tako in Tbilisi, and arrived in Australia a month earlier than we originally planned. I was glad to see my family again after such a long time away from them, and Anya finally got to meet them all too!

And so our stay in Georgia was over before we could comprehend it. It has taken me almost a year to complete this blog post, so much happened in such a short period of time. It felt like we were living our life in Georgia (and Kamchatka) at a standstill while the rest of the world was travelling at the speed of light adhering Einstein's theory of relativity. Returning home to friends and family in Melbourne who had been stuck inside during the lengthy and strict lockdowns exagerated the effect, and at times we didn't feel comfortable talking much about it.

In 2022 life slowed a little, but it also turned out to be a very interesting year, for significantly different reasons, as we are now a team of 3! I made a return to New Zealand and finally managed to complete the prerequisites for the NZMGA (New Zealand Mountain Guides Association) Ski Guide Pathway, enrolled, and completed the first course Snow and Ice Guiding in November. I volunteered to create a website for avalanche forecasting in Georgia avalanche.ge and I started an exciting new software engineering role working mostly remotely for Partly in Christchurch.

2023 is shaping up to be an interesting one too, with a baby on the loose and guides exams this Winter! I'm hoping to write more about the guiding course and exam later this year, as there is not much information available online about other people's experiences participating in it. For now we're chilling in Brunswick and making plans for the Winter!

Great memories car camping in Racha with Snowy!
Great memories car camping in Racha with Snowy!
NZMGA Snow and Ice Guiding Course in November 2022 (πŸ“· Jamie Robertson)
NZMGA Snow and Ice Guiding Course in November 2022 (πŸ“· Jamie Robertson)

Snow Vigil

To organise a personal trip to Racha is a large logistical exercise, especially for those who are only coming to Georgia for a short time for a holiday, or if it is their first visit to the country, it could be very difficult. Snow Vigil combines knowledge of the area, professional guides to provide a level of safety in a remote area without an avalanche forecast or fast rescue services, and logistical support so you can spend more time on your holiday skiing and less time shopping, cooking or searching for transport and accommodation (which can be very difficult to do online in Georgia!). They also can provide a lot of the equipment necessary for doing the trips such as sleeping bags, tents, etc, reducing the luggage you need to cart around.

All that being said, what Snow Vigil currently offers in Racha is not a style of trip for everyone, one needs to embrace the spirit of adventure, and accept the lack of infrastructure in the area. There are no luxury hotels in upper Racha, and comfortable guest housing is limited. You may be spending some nights in tents, perhaps the power might cut out and you'll be eating dinner by candle light, perhaps the running water supply will be frozen and you'll be having a wonderful bucket bath next to a steamy hot stove instead of a shower (can confirm it's nice!). On another night perhaps you'll be sleeping in a creeky old abandoned summer hut at the head of a remote valley surrounded by fresh pow surrounded by beautiful lines with first descents on offer.