The Guardians of the Mountains

The age old formula of a great ski story is well known: skiers fly out somewhere, get some culture, meet the elements, summit mountains, ski some sick lines, fly back with loads of cool footage. This is not that kind of story.

Feature type Story

Read time 15 min read

Published Jan 28, 2021

Author Gonz Ferrero

Gonz Ferrero

Amplifying experience and preserving the safety of their clients in an environment as complex and dynamic as the mountains is certainly not a job to underestimate. Through his own experiences, Gonz Ferrero has developed a deep rooted respect for the work of international mountain guides over the years. The ethos of his brand Klattermusen ‘maximum safety for you, minimum impact on nature’ sees them make a point of outfitting organisations that share this belief. Organisations such as the Georgian Mountain Guide Association.

In 2020, Gonz had the opportunity to embed with aspiring IFMGA guides of the GMGA during their journey.

It’s easy to be seduced by the exoticness of the destination, stories of snow quality or the legendary names of mountain ranges. The age old formula of a great ski story is well known: skiers fly out somewhere, get some culture, meet the elements, summit mountains, ski some sick lines, fly back with loads of cool footage.

This is not that kind of story. I first spoke to Archil Tsintsadze, an IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) mountain guide in 2016, almost by accident. I rang the Georgian Mountain Guide Association (GMGA) with the aim of hooking them up with Klättermusen kit. Archil runs their mountain guide education program as a Technical Leader and at the time, he and the GMGA had the ambition to become IFMGA members. It surprised me that this former Soviet Union country was not a member already. Archil’s good nature came through in our first exchanges and Skype calls and it didn’t take long before we were solid pen pals.

Fast forward to December 2019 and I received an invitation from Archil to join them for part of the training of aspirant mountain guides in January. GMGA was now an official IFMGA candidate member and Archil and his team had been putting Klättermusen gear to the test in the Caucasus for several years. He wanted to host me, have me talk about the equipment we were working on and, as I would later find out, demonstrate the effects of chacha.

You secretly hope it goes by fast so you can do it all again better on the second day

I loved the idea. Embedding myself with these aspiring guides was appealing because I admire mountain guides. I’ve made it a point to always use local guides wherever in the world I am. Firstly, because they are always great fun to hang out with, I’ve made great friendships with guides over years of expeditions. Full of stories, interesting lives, serious in the mountains and not so serious in the evenings. Secondly, because a local guide will know the region, the terrain and the conditions better than I would. And thirdly, because every expedition I’ve ever been in has points where adrenaline takes over and I want to push outside my comfort zone. Having a calm, objective set of eyes in those moments is key.

I then called Peter, a friend and IFMGA guide in Slovenia who’s been testing Klättermusen gear for years and knows Archil and the GMGA first-hand – he was keen. I had also recently met two creative Swedes living in London, they were keen climbers, snowboarders and generally good company. I proposed the idea to them over Skype. “Just pack your split-boards and cameras and let’s see what comes out of this,” I proposed.

All four of us met in Istanbul at the gate of our flight to Tbilisi. Boarding time 2am, landing time 5.25am. Landing in a new place is always magical, no matter what time it is. You immediately feel like a 4-year-old. You see novelty everywhere. Even more so when the passport control officer gifted us a bottle of wine as he stamped our passports – which we dutifully enjoyed as we awaited our skis.

Outside we’re greeted by Tamo, GMGA’s secretary and Instagram influencer, Tamo seems a lot more awake than all of us. We load up the bags on top of a people carrier and start the long drive from Tbilisi to Mestia, in the North West Svaneti region. Google maps reckons almost 8 hours, but it would be at least 12 hours before we arrived. I’m sure our incessant questions made it feel like 24 hours for Tamo, who doubled as a tour guide when we stopped to see the impressive Enguri Dam and also made sure our driver stayed awake at least 90% of the time.

Arriving in Mestia felt good. We met Archil for the first time. As well as Ilia, Bidzima and Lasha, the other GMGA instructors. We would break bread together in the guesthouse that would be our base for the next 6 days and 5 nights. Over our first dinner together I tried desperately to remember names – something I’m terrible at – and to get a feeling for who was who – something I’m slightly better at. Archil as our host, seemed also to be the lead singer in the band. Bidzima, the oldest, had the confident smile of someone who has seen most things. Lasha’s face of mischief made him the fun guy in the crew. And Ilia was nice but very reserved, hadn’t quite figured him out yet. Looking around the table at the GMGA I was darn glad I hadn’t shaved in a few weeks.

The first day’s plan was to join all 20 training participants on a ski tour into Hacvali. It had all the awkwardness first days generally have. The first days of the season and first days in a new area have just about the same vibe. Your body feels stiff. You over pack and over dress because you can’t be sure what you will need. You secretly hope it goes by fast so you can do it all again better on the second day. We set off for a morning tour into the forest, navigating with maps and compasses, then over the tree lines into a sunny day. It really felt uneventful – we were back in Mestia before long. A few wines and chachas later we joined Ilia and Archil at the Buba bar, the watering hole for guides in the town. A short visit this time around, it felt like you had to earn your drink in this place.

You don’t talk about snow unless you have something nice to say about it. Thankfully now I did

The second day we headed for Tetnuldi ski resort. We arrived there just before the lifts opened, except the lifts didn’t open on time due to technical issues. Georgian ski lifts and technical malfunctions are a real thing. It gave us some down time at the bottom of the resort with the guides. In the early morning light, without the pressure of doing much or saying much, a warm and relaxed atmosphere made it easy for us to get to know each other a little better. I took an opportunity to try and put faces to names – not completely successfully. The aim of the day was to get to the summit of the resort where the ridge of the peak gave two sides of over 40 degree angles perfect for practicing rope rescue and rappelling. We were able to capture and learn some of the highlights in what was a perfectly clear day, before getting an epic sunset ride down. I remember clearly how the tiny sharks on the snow made sparks while we carved our way leisurely down the mountain. A few chachas with some locals at the bottom went down like a charm.

On the third day we peeled off from the training group, with Archil making a point of taking us off for a tour in Ushguli, in Upper Svaneti. I had really wanted to get some face time with Archil and this was the perfect opportunity. Barely awake, we made our way from one valley to the next with our now trip theme song Hatsvali’s Gamodi loudly on repeat. For a good chunk of this trip Filip insisted on strapping himself on the roof to film the spectacular views. I was more preoccupied with deciphering the lyrics of the song.

A UNESCO World Heritage site Ushguli is a majestic place overlooked by mountains and peppered with wild dogs, villagers and 8th century towers. It was a short but steep tour with blue skies and mild temperatures up until a summit that gave us the vantage 180 view of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range. It was impressive – and inspiring – hearing Archil humbly talk about training in these mountains, making new routes as part of soviet climbing teams and sharing the excitement of guiding new people into ‘his mountains’. We took our sweet time up in the summit soaking in the mountains. I wouldn’t be going up to ride many of these epic lines during this trip but maybe that made it the more important to appreciate them now. Surely you wouldn’t spend a few days in Istanbul without walking by and admiring Hagia Sophia. We talked about GMGA, about Archil’s ambitions for crew and for mountaineering tourism in Georgia.

The fourth day together was also our last skiable day. The forecast finally offered a snowstorm which started during the night and continued in the morning, greeting us with no visibility. I haven’t mentioned snow conditions before this point because, well, the golden rule is you don’t talk about snow unless you have something nice to say about it. Thankfully now I did, and with fresh hoarfrost layers everywhere we decided to go back up the ridge at the summit of the Tetnuldi resort. With strong winds, no visibility and colder temperatures than any of the previous days this day was real. It was the perfect opportunity to snap some action photos and with fresh powder coming in, learn about snow compaction and layering.

A long night of drinking followed. Because that’s the normal thing to do after a full whiteout day when the sound of wind hitting your hood is still buzzing in your head. There was a civilised dinner in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the towers with all the GMGA instructors. A few rounds of toasts and group ‘thank yous’ and then the gates of the evening slammed opened. My spotty memory of the events that followed, aided by Iphone photos still have me giggling today. Bidzina leading the charge at the bar. Filip and Erik taking chacha shots from a glowing ski. Collectively signing happy birthday to George, a GMGA aspirant. Archil waking us up almost two hours later than planned for our drive back to Tlibisi. A last group photo together before jumping into the car for the long drive back to the airport, largely spent lamenting that it was ‘too soon to leave’. Snow was falling hard as the car made its way out of Mestia and down into the valley. A few hours later it had turned to rain as we drove by more futuristic looking police stations and made several much-needed gas, hydration and khachapuris stops.

An epic trip all around, where we got to meet, live and befriend the humans that make the Georgian mountains. Some ski adventures are about testing yourself – conquering giant mountains or exploring unknown lines. Some are about enjoying family and friends – embracing nature, mountain food and apres-ski with friends in the mountains. And some, like this one, accidentally gives you a welcomed perspective on how important it is to appreciate the unexpected in the moment. These memories always last the longest.

I was sad to hear a few months ago that COVID had postponed GMGA’s IFMGA full membership by a year. During a trip that was as unexpected as it was fulfilling, I saw first-hand the dedication, skills and passion for mountaineering that Archil and his GMGA team share.

Needless to say, myself and Klättermusen will continue being avid supporters of the Georgian Mountain Guide Association and their ambitions. I recommend everyone to do the same and visit these guys in Georgia. And to generally pay as much attention to the people of the mountains as to the quality of the snow and ski lines.

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