Did skiing or snowboarding at Tetnuldi in Georgia, the newest Ski Resort in Europe live up to the promise?
Mestia in Svaneti is a very remote part of the Caucus Mountains which themselves are hardly the most accessible mountains! Named after the imposing 4870m peak called Mt Tetnuldi that dominates the skyline.
The ‘Resort’ itself is about 15kms from Mestia town centre, which is the capital of the upper Svaneti region. It takes from 30 mins to one hour depending on driver or snow conditions on the road towards Ushguli. Leaving the town square everyday at 11am is a free resort bus. This is great for a lazy day but quite a late start if you plan on touring or hiking the slack country options. A taxi/car + driver costs 100Gel or £30 for the day for 1 to 6 people and is the better option as you can return later and head up for first lift at 10.30.
The road up is paved until the pass but was a black ice fest in the early morning as there’s no gritting here. From the pass it gets steeper and rough, really rough. If it hasn’t snowed recently it will be muddy, if it has snowed it will be sketchy. There’s no exposure but you need a high clearance 4×4! Long term the idea is a lift down to the valley level to bypass this road.
The resort opened on 8th February 2016. There’s only one lift open for the moment but it’s totally free! The other lifts are in place and can’t be far off opening and I suspect that they will be ready for the summer or delayed until winter 2016/17.
The base at 2100m altitude has a building that will be the ticket office and a cafe/rental space. There is currently no accommodation offered nearby, outside Mestia. However in Mestia there are countless guest houses and Hotels. We paid about £14 each for bed, breakfast, lunch and dinner in the comfortable Nino Ratianos guest house. Back at the resort there is a snack van for lunch selling random hotdog and meat sandwiches, the friendly proprietor called me over at 10am while I was waiting for the lift. I was given a free glass of ChaCha the potent grape vodka that Georgians love and love to share regardless of time of day! This all day drinking helps explain some of the driving in Georgia too!
The only other ski area in Svaneti is called Hatsvali which is much lower and closer to Mestia. The main issue with Hatsvali is that it has only one lift accessing some fun off piste tree skiing but the long lift goes to the highest accessible point and is still only 2300m. There’s no touring options that go higher up there unlike in Tetnuldi so your options are hugely limited.
This first lift has one, yes only one well-groomed but fun piste dropping about 500m and about 2.5km long. The resort might have just one run so far, but a) it’s currently free (thanks to the Georgian Government who set it up) and b) take a look at the terrain above and below and to the side it’s epic. With the addition of skins or snow shoes this area really becomes an off piste paradise. It’s not loaded with steep chutes or cliffs but for easy access endless untracked north facing preserved powder it’ll make your jaw drop! The first lift whisks you up on the brand new Poma chairlight – French designed and built it looks slick.
The two other new Poma lifts that are in place, but not open yet access a huge north east aspect face that will be epic. The lift open on the picture is called T2 the other two have been built but not finished or open yet. The diagram below doesn’t show the scale of the slack country/off piste options very well but gives an overview.
I had mixed emotions on the new lifts because at the moment that enticing North face is consistently untracked: a splitboarder or ski tourers dream. It’s almost a shame that there will be a lift to the top at 3036m letting all the masses track it out! The face drops almost a 1000m to the third lift that brings you back up to the top of the first lift that’s open making an epic off piste run.
The resort is north facing meaning the snow is generally hidden from the fierce sun and the area apparently receives reliable snow fall. THe base was certainly good when we were there despite a warm winter. The weather systems pick up moisture from the black sea before colliding with the high Caucuses mountains and dumping snow at higher altitudes like here at Tetnuldi. While we were there the temperatures rose pretty high similar to some weeks in the Alps this season. The snow on southern aspects below 2500m was melting quickly but the resort had good coverage still. The terrain is generally pretty safe for touring as the slope angles are generally in the low cruisey 20 degree range. It was pretty wind loaded in spots with a few cornices to note and avoid. Overall the stability seemed good when we tested the snow, despite an unwanted weak layer below the most recent snowfall.
Mestia has an airport but flights into this mountainous valley are severely dependent on the weather so can’t be relied upon. Nearby Kutasi and Batumi Airports offer more reliable options for flights.
The infamous road from Zugdidi up into Svaneti hugs the mountain contours above a precarious drop into a vast reservoir, but it’s now paved the whole way making life far more comfortable.
How did we get there? We flew with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul to the capital Tbilisi. From there we hired a 4×4 and drove for 9 hours. The roads in Georgia are not for the faint hearted: drivers are seriously crazy here, the police have a large presence but seem to be interested in speeding more than reckless overtaking or using indicators/working brake lights! Self drive is probably not most people’s idea of fun, but we knew what to expect having cycled across Georgia and we loved the freedom our 4×4 it gave us to explore. We were advised to get a 4×4 and we needed it at times.
The Picture below shows the access road in fron of the imposing Mt Ushba – it was pretty muddy.
It is certainly the cheapest place in Europe to ski at the moment and even when they start charging it still will be. It really feels like the wild west of skiing as you cruise the main street of Mestia, the apres is interesting with no shortage of bars and locals to drink with just not many other tourists. We only met one other group of westerners during our entire time split boarding. The resort is clearly limited at the moment but when the other new lifts open there’s enough terrain to make it interesting and probably the best advanced resort in Georgia. I still think it will suit those prepared to hike or skin off the lifts as there is so much slack country terrain. When all the lifts are open I expect the crowds of eastern Europeans and Russain tourists to rise but hopefully the untracked off piste will remain. The snow is pretty reliable at this altitude and the north aspect is said to keep the snow fresh into start of April.