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Highway to Hell

Goldfish, powder, and fresh herbs in the Republic of Georgia. Sometimes, the best ski trips are the worst ski trips.

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Several years ago, I talked my friend Pete into a poorly conceived ski trip to the Caucasus Mountains in the Republic of Georgia. At the time, the best way to access Georgia’s high peaks north of the capital city of Tbilisi was through a heli-skiing outfit run by a savvy Austrian named Roland who shuttled wealthy Europeans around the mountains in a dented Soviet military helicopter. Roland’s operation was intriguing. But, as we discovered after arriving in Tbilisi, our budget afforded us roughly 10 minutes inside his chopper.

So to hell with Roland. We would access the Caucasian backcountry by driving a rented four-by-four up the 128-mile Georgian Military Highway straight through the heart of the mountains, picking off dramatic lines we spotted through the windshield until we reached the border. If things looked cool, maybe we’d slip north and poach unskied peaks inside the neighboring republic of Chechnya.
Congratulating ourselves on a plan far more swashbuckling than anything Roland peddled, we failed to discern the potential for things to completely derail—a process that started almost immediately.
Upon cresting Cross Pass, the 7,858-foot doorway to the Caucasus, we found ourselves barreling into a massive frontal system moving in from the Black Sea. We holed up in a former bank turned hostel in Kazbegi and woke the next morning snowbound in a valley that might not reopen for another month.

As the storm worsened, Kazbegi’s limited goods and services blinked out. The electricity went on day one, cutting off the heat and only source of entertainment, the Brazilian soap operas on the TV. The town’s grocery shuttered on day two, having sold everything on its shelves. On day four, we pooled our cash to purchase a small cow from a local farmer, butchered it in the kitchen, and stashed it in the trunk of someone’s car in the parking lot.

Throughout all of this, it never stopped nuking. Each morning, the previous night’s load of snow cast itself off the 5,000-foot ridgelines surrounding Kazbegi. By midafternoon, the same recharged features would slide again.

Any attempt to climb and ski those slopes would have been suicide. So Pete and I succumbed to skiing’s version of death-row incarceration. By day, we hunkered in the darkened lobby and stared at a bowl of sclerotic goldfish drifting in a brown haze of stuporous depression—a condition perfectly mirroring our own state of mind. At night, when every dog in Kazbegi converged on the hostel’s parking lot and battled to lick the trunk of the car that stored our dwindling cow carcass, we lay in our beds and counted avalanches as a way of getting to sleep.

One night we got to 130 before drifting off.

On the seventh day, we swallowed the last of our pride and Pete used the final bar of his cell-phone battery to call Roland.

His response could not have been more decent. A group of Azerbaijani traders was stuck on the southern side of Cross Pass with a truck hauling four tons of something Roland called “fresh herb.” Destined for southern Russia, the “herb” was extremely expensive and perishable, so the desperate Azerbaijanis had paid Roland to ferry their cargo over the pass. If we could get to the northern side by 7 a.m. the following morning, we could squeeze onto the return flight.

At dawn, the chopper thundered over the ridge and disgorged four men furiously chucking cardboard boxes. One of the boxes landed with a wet thud and burst open. The contents, an impossibly radiant shade of emerald, spilled out over the snow, and suddenly the helipad smelled like tossed salad.

It was fresh parsley.

As the chopper began its climb, I stood in the open doorway and confronted the undeniable fact that Pete and I had traveled almost halfway around the world for the privilege of staring at goldfish and attending a symphony of barking dogs. But then I breathed through my nose, inhaling the summertime aroma of parsley while gazing out at the greatest stash of untracked powder I had ever seen. And as I watched that frozen sea of untouchable peaks scroll beneath my boots, it occurred to me that, like it or not, we had been treated to a tutorial on the harsh essence of adventure.

I understood that an adventure is not something that can be planned ahead of time. It begins when the train runs off the rails, and much of what follows is unpleasant. But I understood something else, too.
From the chopper’s doorway,
I could see that the small moments of grace that adventure invariably imparts—in this case, the tension between disappointment, desire, and beauty, a tension as crisp and enchanting as a bundle of fresh-cut parsley cast upon uncut snow—are wonders that cannot be purchased by any other means. 

Get There
» Flights to Tbilisi on Lufthansa Airlines are available from London and Munich. []
» Heli-ski the Greater Caucasus with a chopper from Heliksir. []
» Ski at Gudauri Ski Resort, Georgia’s most popular area.[]