Sam Anthamatten Interview | The North Face Skier on His Quest to Make History on Mount Ushba
"On one side you have huge overhanging cornices and on the other side you have the drop of the whole north face..."
Main photography by Tero Repo
The next mountain. The next country. The next adventure. So often it’s something as simple as a stunning photograph that triggers it all.
For big mountain skier Sam Anthamatten, arriving at the base of the mighty Mount Ushba in Georgia was the culmination of such a journey – from photograph to realisation. It was a journey born from a camera snapshot, and a journey which concluded with the Swiss adventurer scaling the 4,710m mountain in the Caucasus in ferocious conditions, with the hope of becoming the first skier to ever descend from the distinctive jagged peak.
How did reality compare to the photograph? “It was a lot bigger than the photograph,” he laughs.
“It was much more powerful, more impressive but also more intimidating. The whole line we wanted to ski, the first time we saw it, was covered in blue ice. It was completely unskiable.”
Ushba had been in the back of Anthamatten’s mind for almost five years before he finally made the journey to the Svaneti region in Georgia.
It was a dream he initially shared with the late, great freeskier Andreas Fransson, and one that was put indefinitely on hold after Andreas tragically passed away in an avalanche while skiing on the border of Chile and Argentina in 2014.
“The reason the whole project came together was because of a picture that a friend of mine saw in an exhibition in Russia in Moscow,” Sam tells us. “He saw the face and had no idea what mountain it was or where it was, but in the end he showed the picture to Andreas and myself.
“In the end, in the mountains, you have no time for emotions…”
“We wanted to take a trip over there at that time, but sadly it didn’t come together, and then Andreas died two years ago. So all of a sudden the story was missed. I forgot about the mountain, and then last year I saw the picture again and the whole thing restarted.”
Once the ball was rolling, the plan was quickly made. Sam, in partnership with the North Face, would embark on two trips to Ushba along with skiers Markus Eder and Leo Slemett. Their first trip would be a heli-skiing adventure in early to mid Spring, and the latter would be the main event – with the three skiers scaling the north face of the Ushba and becoming the first riders ever to descend from the peak.
Of course for Sam, the trip would be filled with thoughts and memories of Andreas, who should have been taking on the challenge with them. But the Swiss skier also admits that once you’re out on the mountain, you need to make sure you keep your head.
“It was an emotional trip,” Sam says. “Andreas was a friend that we lost in the skiing community. He was a friend who I wanted to ski more with because he was the perfect match for me. Of course there was an emotional story behind it but in the end, in the mountains, you have no time for a lot of emotions. We went over to Ushba to ski.”
But Ushba had other plans.
The mountain is known by climbers as one of the most difficult ascents in the Caucasus due to steepness of the face and the unstable conditions, and this same unpredictable weather would wreak havoc with the skiers’ schedule – and ultimately prevent them from being able to make their planned descent from the top of Ushba.
Sam continues: “The first trip was really only heli skiing. The goal was just to get a little better connected over there and to really scope out the mountain. That was more like the fun trip and the expedition in July was the hard work.
“Over there in April though there was a lot of blue ice. We had to completely change our dates for the second trip and the whole access plan and everything. We went back home and from May till the end of June we were just waiting for the face to get in the right condition… but we’re still not sure if it ever was in condition. In the end it was too icy.”
It’s a brave admission for Sam to make. The skiers planned the expedition for months but in the end weather conditions didn’t allow the descent. It’s one of those scenarios in which walking away from the challenge with your safety in tact is almost the tougher option than taking the risk.
That didn’t stop Sam, Leo and Markus from scaling Ushba with climbing equipment to confirm that the mission was off, though.
As well as being one of the world’s leading big mountain skiers, Sam is an experienced mountain guide and alpinist. He has numerous first ascents to his name, including the now aptly-named Anthamatten-Route up the North Face of the Matterhorn in his home town of Zermatt, Switzerland. This, though, was his first time climbing in the Caucasus.
I ask him to talk me through the climb.
“At the start it involved an easy access route for several hours where we were able to use horses to help us up with the gear, then there was a really steep path up to a big glacier which took us to the first camp.
“From there we did another 1000 metres up to the next camp. We had the Ushba north face right by us with the line we wanted to ski and every second we were looking and discussing if it was possible to ski or not, but then at the same time we were walking over glacial ridges that were super thin and super intimidating.
“It was a tough day. The good thing is that we had the kit. North Face are doing a great job on the style, on the fabric and on everything. We had so many other factors that we needed to focus on to be safe, so you don’t want to be thinking about the gear on a trip like Ushba.
“From the high camp it’s an easy climb for an hour and a half, then it starts to get steep. Really steep. It was more of an ice climb to a ridge line at 4,500m, and from 4,500m up to the summit, the last 200m, it’s like a flat ridge, but it’s super difficult. On one side you have huge overhanging cornices and on the other side you have the drop of the whole face.
“But from moving a lot in difficult terrain you get used to [staying calm], and in that moment we were focused on the safety and every step we took, so you have no time to look down to the void. Everything has to be on point.”
While Sam relishes the climbs though, he normally only makes them in order to then clip into his skis, and this time around was no exception.
“I climb mountains to go skiing,” he says. “But the conditions were not skiable at all.”
While Ushba can be scratched off the map for Sam then, it can’t be scored of the ski list just yet.
“It’s definitely still on the list,” he says. “It’s more complicated than I thought because the whole mountain is exposed to the north wind over there – the face is looking to the north and the access from the north is over really cracked glaciers.
“It’s not an easy target. But it’s definitely still on the list.”
A quick glance through Sam Anthamatten’s credit list and it’s clear to see that just because something isn’t an easy target doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, and we wouldn’t be surprised one bit if we do hear the Swiss skier is heading back to the Georgian giant anytime soon.
Until then, he’ll just have to settle for his memories of the mountain, and the photograph that kicked off the whole thing.
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