The Powder Project Cat Skiing in the Caucuses

A few years back we organized a trip to go cat skiing in Georgia. Since then, Ingo Schlutius’s Powder Project has grown, and is looking better than ever. We thought we’d check back in with him to see what skiing in the Caucuses looks like in 2021. 

Hey Ingo, can you please introduce yourself for anyone who doesn’t know you?
I grew up in the seventies and eighties in the Ruhrpott – far away from the mountains. Anyhow, I was lucky enough to learn skiing as child. When I started studying economics and international business relations, I decided to also start a part time career as ski-instructor in St. Anton which finally led to the Staatliche Skilehrer Diploma in Austria and jobs in Canada and New Zealand.
After my studies, I worked for different international tour operators including managing ski lodges and small hotels in the Alps. After a few years I made a first attempt to found a freeride tour operator in Switzerland. I failed and it took a couple of years to recover mentally and financially, but I stayed in Switzerland where I still live. In 2014 it was time for a new effort, and I began to search for a freeride location in the Caucasus. In 2016 I discovered Bakhmaro on one of my scouting tours with my brother. That’s been the home of our Powder Project ever since.

Flo Preuss © Dirk Wagener / White Hearts

That’s quite a journey! Can you tell us a bit more about how the idea for the Powder Project first came about?
Who doesn’t dream about owning his own ski-area? When I worked in New Zealand in a small resort with just one old chairlift and one used T-bar, I thought that I could do the same, but better. Some years later, I was with Flory Kern in a catski lodge in Sibiria and we talked about the business. He suggested scouting the Lesser Caucasus – so I did.
Although the idea of lifts is still in my mind, snowcats have the big advantage of being more flexible. It is easier to access different slopes, react to snow and whether conditions, and explore new areas.
 
That makes sense. What do you love about the spot where you guys have set up your business?
There is a lot of snow in the Lesser Caucasus in general. That is the foundation for the decision to look in Georgia for a freeride spot. In Bakhmaro we found a lot of north facing slopes, amazing tree-lines and easy accessible slopes. However, the very best are the beech trees. You just don’t find that in the European Alps. Like other trees, they collect the snow like a fence and they keep the wind out, so the snow stays fluffy. But compared with pine trees, the treetop is high up and there is a lot of space in between the trunks. These runs are really something special and for those who like pillows.

© Dirk Wagener / White Hearts

What has the biggest challenge been for you so far?
So many challenges… they are uncountable. The boring truth is that the biggest challenge is dealing with the authorities. To get a property, to build a proper lodge, to get electricity… Electricity has been especially crucial because the rented houses are not made for winter. They have no insolation and no heating system. Now we have our own chalet, with central heating and so we don’t depend on electricity anymore. It’s a huge step forward after 5 years.
 
I heard that you’re using help stones now. Can you tell a bit more about that?
Catskiing is not exactly the most environmentally friendly sport. On the other hand, we bring jobs and income to local families in a remote mountain region. However, to reduce our ecological footprint we decided to use hemp stones for building our chalet in Bakhmaro. The hemp plant grows approximately 50 times faster than wood. A corresponding amount of CO2 is then stored in the hemp stones. This way we can compensate a bit for the diesel we use. As the material is 100% natural and no additional isolation material is necessary it is easy to recycle.
But hemp-lime also regulates moisture, ensuring a healthy living environment and clean air. This ensures a pleasant stay for our freeriders. In the end it is a win-win situation for all involved.

Flo Preuss © Dirk Wagener / White Hearts

I also heard something about a new bivouac bus? What’s the story with that?
We have been looking for an old bus for years. You see these kind of busses in the mountains sometimes as public transport for alpine villages. However, the one we bought was used as rescue bus in a mining town.
For the really adventurous, but also for ourselves, we wanted to set up a bivouac in a neighboring valley – just accessible by touring. A place to stay in the backcountry without any amenities.
The plan is to build in 6 simple beds, a dining table, a fire stove and cooking facilities. That’s it. Each winter, we drive it into the mountains to a nice spot with fresh water and leave it there. In the spring we will drive it back and the next year we will place it somewhere new.

Great idea! How are things going over there with Covid?
Infection numbers were quite low during spring and summer. At the moment, numbers are higher. The government has been handling the situation pretty strictly including a lockdown in spring. International travel is still difficult. In particular tourism is absolutely down. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs. Ski areas will not open before February. However, backcountry skiing with the snow cats is possible…
The inconsistency of regulations and restrictions make any planning difficult and freeriders wait for the last minute to book, so we expect mostly short term bookings. But we are prepared and ready to welcome more skiers any time.
Ingo Schlutius © Dirk Wagener / White Hearts

What’s your plan for this winter?
I will stay in Georgia and we will do a season – even if we have just 12 freeriders all winter. And for myself, I want to ride as much as possible! This could actually become the season of a lifetime, as I do not expect a lot of freeriders to travel. So that means that there will be endless powder for those who go for it.
 
True! Anything else you’d like to add?
To adapt to the Covid-19 situation we offer longterm stays of 2, 3 or more weeks. We offer desks and basic office stuff and Bakhmaro has 4G and as back-up, we have a 35kw generator. Our offer suits the “Remotely from Georgia” program that the Georgian Tourism Authorities have launched. On a perfect powder day, our guests can join us riding the slopes and on other days they can do their home office from the lodge. And as Georgia is 3 hours ahead in daytime, we have already done half a powder day before offices open in Central Europe…

Sounds pretty amazing! Thanks for your time Ingo. And thanks to Dirk Wagener for the photos! Be sure to check out www.powderproject.ch for more info on cat skiing adventures in Georgia.