THE HIGHER RACHA

WORDS: David Perez | Translation: Elena G. de Murillo PHOTO COVER: Oleg Gritskevich

Over the past years, Georgia has become one of the main access gates to the Caucasus range. This is the story of a mission in the Upper Racha, one of the most geographically isolated regions in Europe. A trip of contrasts: from the isolation of the mountains, to the hospitality of the people.

Winters are harsh and the small town is usually isolated during several weeks due to the lack of road infrastructure. A place where time seems to have taken a well deserved break.

After a long road trip from Tbilisi, we get into a dirt road that winds through a rugged canyon, which leads us to our destiny. A trip through history, remains from a mining activity past previous to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent independence of Georgia in 1991. Located in the district of Oni, in the Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti region, Ghebi is a small town of barely 200 inhabitants in Winter season, the last village where we can find accommodation before the road dies in the hamlet of Gona. Located in a wide valley surrounded by great mountains, Ghebi is visited mostly by georgians during the Summer season. Winters are harsh and the small town is usually isolated during several weeks due to the lack of road infrastructure. A place where time seems to have taken a well deserved break. That’s where Dato and his family are awaiting us. We’ll be the first guests they host in their house, and probably the first foreigners visiting Ghebi during the Winter season. The night is cold and it hasn’t stopped snowing since we entered the valley.

After downloading the van, we have dinner with our host. Soon we start drinking toasts with Chacha – a grape distillate and the quintessential drink in Georgia- while we chat in a friendly manner. After dinner, Oleg explains the plan for the following two days. A first day approaching until we reach some cabins in the valley of Mt Shoda (3609m) that shepherds and hunters use in the Summer, and a second day to find good terrain to ride. The only references we have are some pictures taken last season by a local skier.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine the potential during a good snow season. Both the West and East faces offer a lot of interesting and stable options; from spines to gnarly couloirs and open fields.

We wake up to a cold morning and the snow reaching the bottom of the valley. Dato observes us curiously while we prepare our backpacks. We start skinning right from the house door and we traverse the village until we find the Summer trail. From there, we start a long ascent through the forest until we reach a first pass where we enjoy spectacular views of the area. Mountains beyond mountains. The snow has fallen abundantly and we take turns to open the track. After 5 hours, we finally see our goal. A short ascent leaves us 15 minutes away from the cabins. According to Dato’s information, one of the cabins has a wooden stove and some mattress bases.

During the morning, the temperature increases gradually and we are able to observe some fusion avalanches on the southern faces. Snow-fall this season has been below average and that is quite obvious at lower elevations. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine the potential during a good snow season. Both the West and East faces offer a lot of interesting and stable options; from spines to gnarly couloirs and open fields. The wide slopes on the North face seem to stash good snow in high altitude, although the approach is pretty exposed to avalanches as the snow layer is not very stable. Besides, there seem to be changes on the following day’s forecast, with snow arriving on the early afternoon, so we decide to take off before dawn in search of a chance to ride on favourable terrain.

The feeling of isolation and exposure under the huge mass of the rock is brutal, while the first clouds start to announce the change in the weather, so once we hit the top of the corridor, we rush to prepare ourselves for the ride down.

The alarm clock goes off at 5:00 am. After a quick breakfast we start opening track under the moonlight. We reach the bottom of the valley with the first morning lights. After shuffling different options, we decide to look for a wide corridor on the West face of a nameless peak. Gerard, Joan and myself take turns to open tracks under a massive wall over 40 cm of cold snow. The feeling of isolation and exposure under the huge mass of the rock is brutal, while the first clouds start to announce the change in the weather, so once we hit the top of the corridor, we rush to prepare ourselves for the ride down.

I find a fast line over a windlip and I wait for Gerard and Joan at a safe spot. We meet Oleg at the bottom of the valley and we go back to the cabin to pick up our gear and head back to Ghebi before the weather front definitely arrives. After making it to the pass, we still find some good turns in the forest. We arrive in the village before sunset, and Dato and his family welcome us with a hot meal, local wine and some Chacha toast on friendship and family. A place of contrasts: from the most jagged, wild mountain, to the warm hospitality of the people. We spend our last night in Ghebi before heading to Mestia. But that’s a whole different story.

I’d like to finish thanking Oleg Gritskevich from Gudauri Travel, for giving us the opportunity to know one of the best kept secrets in this corner of the Caucasus, also Dato and his family for opening their house to us,making us feel at home, and my friends Gerard Montero and Joan Molluna for their motivation and companionship out there.

For more information, contact Oleg Gritskevich.

 

Words: David Pérez

Photo: Oleg Gritskevich

Translation: Elena G. de Murillo

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