First Descent of the Caucasus's Mt. Shkhara

By Leah Miller ,

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With the help of a ski exploration grant from the Hans Saari Memorial Fund (HSMF), Jason Thompson, 27, Seth Waterfall, 33, and Tyler Jones, made the first (known) descents of Mount Shkhara (17,063 ft.), the highest peak in the Republic of Georgia, early this summer. Leaving the U.S. on May 16 and returning June 7, the three-man team spent a total of 15 days — seven of those skiing — on Mount Shkhara in the Svaneti region of Georgia, which is home to the Caucasus Mountains.

“When we first saw Shkhara from the village of Ushguli [at the mountain’s base] I was amazed at the size and complexity of the South Face,” says Waterfall. “I thought, ‘Wow, what have we gotten ourselves into?’… I'd never tried to ski anything that big, that steep or that had big hanging glaciers all over the route.”

Arriving right during the time of the spring avalanche cycle, the team had to spend six days stashed away from the foul weather in their tents. Periodically, they would rotate going out for a few hours to dig themselves from the snow. Finally, the sun came out for the team to have seven stellar days of skiing in perfect powder.

In the Svaneti region, “there is a rich mountaineering history, but after the fall of Soviet Russia there has been a steep decline in tourism,” says Waterfall. “There is a newly formed non-profit agency called the Svaneti Mountain Tourism Center… We met with the president of the Tourism Center and he was impressed with our trip and wondered if other people might come to Svaneti to ski. We sure hope that people will discover this area for themselves, but of course tourism presents it's own problems for the local population.”

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“It was really an honor to have received this grant from the HSMF and to have the opportunity to represent the fund,” says Thompson.

The HSMF is “dedicated to the memory of Hans Saari, his passion for skiing, his desire to learn, and his belief in careful planning and safety,” as stated on their website. “Hans was a unique combination of skier / climber and one of the few people who have truly pushed ski mountaineering in recent years,” says Waterfall.

“We wanted our project to have been something that Hans would have been psyched about if he were around,” says Thompson. “We were after a very immersed cultural experience as well steep un-skied descents. We found both, well beyond our expectations.”

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The ski exploration and education grants awarded to teams across the nation are meant to “support mountain education, innovative ski expeditions, and progressive exploratory projects in alpine environments while also encouraging the creative documentation of the experience through film, photography, writing and other media.”

Sources: Jason Thompson, Seth Waterfall,,

Date of expedition: May 16–June 7, 2008

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