We encounter a local hunter hefting a well-worn shotgun on the outskirts of the ancient mountain village of Ghebi in Georgia. Obligingly, he offers for us to stay the night in his mountain hut, with the caveat that the heavy snowfall may have caved in the roof. Our guide Oleg Gritskevich asks whether the brown bears are still in hibernation. He assures us that they should not wake until next week and, if of interest, we could hunt them then. I look down and adjust the buckles on my ski boots in preparation for the climb ahead, thinking that this is a far cry from your average ski trip.

In 2022, it seems difficult to find truly wild places - particularly in Europe. But wilderness can still be found among the glaciated peaks and plunging valleys of the Greater Caucasus. The highest mountains in Europe are found along the northern border of Georgia, from Kazbek in the east, running westward towards Elbrus. Standing below the serrated fins and spires of monolithic dormant volcanoes, the eyes wander in contemplation of seemingly endless potential ski routes and variations. Have these lines ever been skied before? In all likelihood, they have not. The terrain is remote, road access is minimal, and the ski routes often require a day-long journey with skins and packs into the backcountry. However, with proper planning and local knowledge, the rewards are immense – peaks above 18,000 feet, a culture, history and geography that straddles Europe and Asia, and perhaps most intriguing for the powder-hungry skier: no tracks anywhere.

It is my second trip to the Georgian Caucasus. This time, I have joined some friends for a ski-touring adventure in the lesser-visited region called Racha-Svaneti, primarily accessible from the village of Ghebi. The quiet village is still home to a couple of the iconic Svan towers, narrow stone structures that served as barns, residences and fortresses in mediaeval times. These towers, along with similarly ancient stone churches, are relics from Georgia’s Golden Age in the 11th and 12th centuries, somehow surviving centuries of earthquakes.

Ghebi has not fully modernised. Cattle and pigs wander freely in the muddy, snow-covered streets. Each modest home has a guard dog of varied size and disposition, announcing your arrival as you wander around the village. The local breed, the caucasian shepherd, can be as heavy as 80kg. Bred to fend off livestock predation from wolves and bears, these massive dogs have their ears neatly clipped to prevent their loss in battle. We find one in our path, gnawing gorily on a pig’s jawbone. She rolls over on her back, and with a few wags of the tail, invites us to rub her belly.

The highest mountains in Europe are found along the northern border of Georgia, from Kazbek in the east, running westward towards Elbrus

While searching Ghebi for cold beer, we happen upon a small shop housed in a rusted shipping container. A babushka and her companion huddle around a wood-fired stove. A few sweets and household staples are on offer, but our attention is quickly diverted to a clear liquid sold in recycled Fanta bottles. Our host obliges us and I have my first encounter with chacha, a fiery home-distilled grappa, sort of a Georgian take on moonshine. A half-litre of the spirit costs a paltry eight lari (£2). This Chacha proved to be an invaluable companion during the cold nights in the mountains and fodder for many toasts while back in the village. Upon requesting a few other seemingly common items, we are told “Oni, Oni” - the name of the regional capital, just a 90-minute drive from Ghebi and home to the nearest restaurant and grocery store. In the Caucasus, you are reliant on the hospitality of your hosts. Thankfully it’s offered in abundance.

We are staying at small guesthouse called Brili, where the hosts Layla and Mamouka, invite you into their living room for home-cooked meals. Every morning and evening we are treated to stodgy and delicious meals made lovingly by Layla and her mother. Our favourites had been the Khachapuri – a stuffed bread made fresh in the woodstove and shkmeruli, a roasted chicken dish smothered in a garlic and cream sauce, both served with ajika, a fiery chilli paste, and a sour-sweet plum sauce called tkemali. Perfect comfort food for long and demanding days in cold mountain weather.

Our mountain guide and friend, Oleg Gritskevich, has arranged this trip. He is a multifaceted Belorussian transplant who has lived in Georgia since 2008, and wears many hats. He is a certified mountain guide, author of a four-volume book series on ski touring in Georgia, owner of multiple bars, tour operator, purveyor of a holiday lettings business and a relentless promoter for the Gudauri ski resort development.

Oleg Gritskevich scouts from a high point

If you pry further, you will find that at various times he has been a soldier, journalist and publisher of his own travel newspaper, and a consummate traveller who has backpacked through South-East Asia, Tibet, India and Pakistan. He completed his guide training in the Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan. Gritskevich’s relationship with the mountains is spiritual, describing the mountains as “his church.” When the scenery is at its most beautiful and the weather perfect, he will often remind our group to internalise what we see with our “minds, bodies and souls”. It can get very introspective.

Gritskevich carefully consults his topographical maps and follows the weather reports. We have a 48-hour clear weather window before the visibility becomes poor and temperatures rise, creating dangerous conditions for backcountry navigation and snow stability. Our chosen objective is an overnight excursion into the Shoda Valley, an alpine basin situated between Lagora and Shoda, two of Racha’s most aesthetic mountains. Racha’s mountains are defined by their inaccessibility. Most routes involve long ascents from the valleys and villages where the pot-holed gravel roads end, often leading to multiple-day excursions. It is a price paid by your legs, but it ensures you have the terrain entirely to yourself. We skin out of the village at midday with the intention to set up camp in the evening and attack the skiing routes the next morning.

After our encounter with the hunter, we spend the first few hours of our ascent carefully picking our way through a forest of ancient oak trees. Our packs are heavy with the supplies needed for the overnight excursion. We take turns cutting trail through the recently deposited 20 inches of snow along a path used in the summer months. The forest is silent and the branches heavily laden. At the entrance to the Shoda Valley we find a small Orthodox chapel, its stone components laboriously hauled up by horseback many years ago. Nearly buried by snow, we stumble in with our ski boots on to admire the images of St. George – Georgia’s holiest figure. As we exit the forest and traverse into the alpine valley proper, we are treated to our first glimpse of Lagora, a spectacularly jagged and menacing peak rising nearly vertically from the valley floor. The sight of it leads to a volley of high fives and an impromptu photo shoot - we had found what we sought in Racha.

As we exit the forest and traverse into the alpine valley proper, we are treated to our first glimpse of Lagora, a spectacularly jagged and menacing peak

Of the four huts in the valley, three had their roofs caved to splinters by the massive weight of accumulated snow. We work to clear the snow off the surviving hut and mend the rusted old stove. The hut is covered in sawdust and debris, but it is big enough for us to roll out sleeping mats and bags. After dark the temperature drops dramatically. We huddle around the woodfire stove and our gas-powered counterpart. Melting snow for tea, we greedily eat bowls of a spicy, garlicky rice concoction thickened with chunks of Racha ham, an extremely fatty local smoked speck. On this occasion, hunger proves to be the best chef. After a couple rounds of Chacha, the warmth of our sleeping bags proves more enticing than continued conversation. Gritskevich retires to a well-insulated snow cave he dug earlier, which turns out to be the warmer and tidier option. It’s a lesson learned, and it will be snow caves for us going forward.

After a chilly night, we move our gear outside and enjoy breakfast al fresco with a 360-degree view of mountain peaks. The sky is blue and cloudless and the sun powerful. Our bodies and ski boots warm in the sun and we pack light bags to continue up the mountains. We aim for couloir near the saddle between Lagora and Shoda and proceed up the valley, prompting the first ‘minds, bodies and souls’ moment of the trip from Gritskevich. It proves to be a relatively hushed excursion as we marvel at the mountains. The silence is sporadically punctuated by the wumpf of natural avalanches releasing, reminding us that this beauty is not without peril.

Encountering deep snow in the Greater Caucasus massif

After two days of touring and a cold night, it’s a relief to be at the top of our objective. Our descent begins with a steeper pitch, exposed to the wind, with grippy yet uneven snow. The snow changes to deep, forgiving powder. The only tracks on the slope are the ones we created during our ascent. We each have room to pick our lines, proceeding to bomb down the mountain with perfect powder and sunshine. We collect our overnight gear and continue down to the village and pause to look at our tracks, perhaps the only ones of the season. The descent through the forest provides some delightful but at times comical tree skiing, with our packs’ size and weight occasionally catching us off guard, forcing a few ungraceful corrections.

We arrive back in Ghebi at dusk, legs sore but hearts full. To our delight we find Layla carefully forming tonight’s delicacy on the dining table. It’s Khinkali, a boiled, meat-filled dumpling landing somewhere between a Chinese soup dumpling and a Russian pelmeni, a testament to Georgia’s silk road past. We are reminded the only appropriate condiment to Khinkali is black pepper. As we tuck into the mound of steaming dumplings, Mamouka returns from the pantry with a jug of homemade orangish-white wine and a carafe of chacha. Our first toast is to our hosts, the second to the mountains, and the third to Oleg. Guamarjos!