August 17, 2023
In March 2023, filmmaker Andy Hardy and photographer Jack Arthur headed to Racha, Georgia for a backcountry ski trip. They travelled to an old Soviet Hut where they spent six nights in the Rachian mountains, surrounded by “untouched snowfields, towering peaks and peaceful valley.
The point of the trip was to go to a place in the middle of nowhere, for adventure and fun, but with geopolitical tensions high in the surrounding areas, the trip took on a more serious tone.
Bert Seaton caught up with Jack to chat about the trip and ask him what he took away from it.
Where is Racha and what was it like getting there?
Racha is in Georgia, a small Eastern European country south of Russia. We flew to the capital [Tbilisi], and after a big layover in Dubai, we were there. I expected more Soviet Union grunge, with big concrete buildings, but it ended up being quite a historic European setup – turns out Georgia is one of the one of the oldest civilizations in the area, with a rich history before Soviet influence.
How did you get to the Soviet hut?
Our guides picked us up from Tbilisi in a four-wheel drive Delica van, and all of us crammed in, putting our board and ski bags on the roof. We cruised through the countryside, through various wine regions (wine is huge in Georgian culture), and naturally, we stopped off at a winery and grabbed five litres of amber wine to take into the backcountry. We drove the whole day and stopped at these cool huts that our guide Tamta called, ‘Babushka stops’ which are stopovers on the side of the road where they cook traditional meals. The drive kept getting more and more remote, and eventually we came into this tiny rural town called Ghebi at the base of the mountains, and we hiked eight hours to the hut from there.
How did you go in the hut with no social media or email?
On the first day I was caught up in what I’d left behind, like, “what have I missed for work… what am I doing?” and then we settled into this nice rhythm of focusing on nothing. Waking up, making coffee, cooking food, collecting water, chopping firewood, looking at the map of where to ski for the day, and for Andy and I, we were thinking about taking photos – and occasionally throwing down some amber wine and shots of Cha/Cha [a wine based spirit]. But yeah, we settled into this slow mountain pace that follows the sun – because once the sun’s down you’ve got nothing to do, so it gives you a reason to go to bed and then a reason to wake up.
What was the experience of confronting the reality of the war?
You hear about the Ukraine war, but until I got to Georgia it just felt like a news item. As soon as we arrived in Tbilisi though, there were Ukrainian flags everywhere, every coffee shop had a flag hanging, they may even have a statement on their door saying, “don’t come in if you support Russia”… Then going to one of the ski towns and meeting some local ‘snow bums’ was interesting. In Australia ‘snow bums’ don’t usually have much to care about – they’re just partying and skiing and stuff, which is a cool lifestyle, but these people were highly involved in politics in their country (out of necessity). One of the guides, who would usually have guided us, was away fighting in Ukraine – it impacted his life enough for him to go and fight in an army, so that was confronting. And the head ski guide Luka, he grew up going to these mountain regions with his father, but he can’t go to them anymore, because they’re now occupied by Russia. He loves the mountains, it’s part of his identity, so it had this personal impact that I don’t know how to describe. It wasn’t like being back in Australia where you just read the news and go, “oh, I’m educated, I’m upset with what’s happened in the world”, to these guys it impacts their lives.
In the film you guys made about the trip, you mention a moment where the skiing felt insignificant, can you talk more about that?
Yeah, well you ski around and you’re in the mountains and it’s great, but you feel silly because these people are dealing with real stuff. You’re often reminded by bits of conversation about some protest or the fact that someone’s lost land. So, it felt silly that we were just skiing around, but… also cool, because the skiing is what brought all of us together. That’s why we ended up finding out about these people’s lives. Without that we’d just have jumped on the tourist train and cruised around without this experience. By doing something we’re passionate about, we ended up in a situation where we were able to become closer with people. We got this real experience from real Georgians about what’s happening and how they feel about it.
Watch trailer here