Hub of the Wheel: Pemberton Nurtures a New Big Mountain Identity

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Delaney Zayac Photo

A road sign along the side of Highway 99, just south of the Pemberton Valley advises, “Adventure begins here.” While it’s tough to imagine the genesis of adventure residing in a ditch beside a set of high voltage power lines — I believe the sign was meant to invoke a broader scope.

The reality is that a certain type of adventure really does begin here. The Pemberton Valley is the epicentre of big mountain riding in southwest British Columbia. Ski builder and Canadian ski legend Johnny Foon likens Pemberton to “the hub of the wheel,” with ridgelines and sub-ranges expanding outward in all directions like spokes, creating a wheel of shred-ability amongst the mountains of the Sea to Sky.

Words: Joe Lax

Sam Cassavan on the ridge of Weart. Delaney Zayac Photo

The large mountain geography and obvious beauty of the Pemberton Valley creates a profound connection for its inhabitants. Historically, the fertile valley soil and large timber that lined the side hills enticed many to a life more aligned with the natural environment. Lately, the snow-capped peaks have been a major draw and many locals hoping to access them frequently have found ways to make a living that allows them to stay in tune with the mountains. The community has a rich cottage industry with graphic designers, screen printers, artists, shop owners, trades, forestry workers and farmers all working and playing amongst these mountains and their powdery offerings.

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Pemby is also home to more than a few professional shreds, including those who grew up riding here, like Kye Petersen, Callum Pettit and Austin Ross. The local scene has also nurtured a tight-knit crew of snow-related companies that are innovating and creating products while living in the shadow of some of the best riding in the world. Born out of a desire to advance the riding experience for themselves and others, companies such as FYi Design Dept. (garments), Cheetah Factory Racing (snowmobile accessories), Billy Goat Technologies (ascent plates), Foon Skis, as well as Hightide Snowboards and Dissent Labs (compression ski socks) all call Pemberton home.

 

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Eric Pehota finding the entrance on Mt. Currie. Johnny Foon Photo

“It’s great to be submersed in an area with like-minded people,” says Tom Routh, owner and lead designer at FYi. “It keeps our design work honest, to be surrounded by people who are living the mountain lifestyle and ripping big mountain descents on a regular basis.”

Routh moved to Pemberton shortly after a “game-changer” heli drop on Mount Currie with local snowboarder Kevin Smith in 2001. The FYi studio now sits at the base of the iconic mountain and Routh draws inspiration from looking up at the lines on its north face. “I grew up in the mountains, but my job had pulled me to the city. It never made sense to me, to be designing and building snow equipment in an urban environment.”

Key components of FYi’s design success are their product’s durability and functionality in rugged terrain and variable weather, which the Coast Mountains near Pemberton have plenty of.

 

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Logan Pehota on Mt. Currie with the Pemberton Valley far below. Johnny Foon Photo.

Cheetah Factory Racing (CFR) evolved into existence in 1999, when pro snowboarder Dave Basterrechea began thinking of ways to carry his snowboard while snowmobiling in the Pemby backcountry and hunting down some of the nastiest lines ever ridden in the area. The standard at the time was to strap your board to your backpack, but Dave B. started tinkering around and invented a customized rack to securely hold his board to the back of his snowmobile.

As sled-accessed skiing and snowboarding evolved, CFR has grown with it. Dave B. tests his products in his backyard, and he is committed to beating down on his prototypes before they hit the market. “The snowmobiling and trails in the Pemberton area are some of the roughest around. We design and test everything we make here. If our product can handle these conditions, we find they hold up anywhere.”

The magic of Pemberton is more than the products created there, however. Dave B. mentions a local bond he calls the “Pemberton Collective,” a group of businesses that support and collaborate with each other. Having the CFR workshop next to Johnny “Foon” Chilton — owner of Foon Skis — has helped keep Basterrechea in check when his work becomes overwhelming. Foon has been known to talk him into closing up shop early so the pair can hit the Duffey Lake Road whenever it becomes obvious they are blowing it by staying in the valley.

 

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Johnny Foon eyeballs his latest creation. Blake Jorgenson Photo.

Johnny Foon brings a very soulful approach to his boutique ski brand. He spent a large portion of the 80s and 90s putting down first descents all over the Coast Mountains and was part of a hungry ski scene that pushed big mountain skiing into a new era, helping get it to where it is today. As one of North America’s premier ski mountaineers, Foon desired a ski that performed better in the mountains he rode.

“As a pro rider working with big ski companies, part of my job was to help design a better big mountain powder ski,” says Foon. “But then I’d consistently be told there wasn’t a big enough market for the ski I wanted to build. I had to create Foon Skis to be able to build that ski.”

Since 2011, Foon has been “shaping” hand-built skis out of his shop in the Pemberton Industrial Park using locally-sourced Yellow Cedar, a high-elevation species that grows in some of the local areas Foon Skis are ridden. It’s a connection Chilton doesn’t take lightly.

 

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Delaney Zayac Photo

“The heart, or core of the ski, is made from wood that lived on the slopes of these mountains and carries the living energy of the land and the forest,” Foon explains. “Then the skis are made by someone who eats, breathes, sleeps, plays, loves and lives on these same mountains. They have all that energy in them, and energy is pure magic. That’s really different from skis that are made in a big factory where someone is just punching a time clock and looking forward to their next lunch break.”

Even at age 54, Foon himself seems to have plenty of that magic energy within — he still frequents the backcountry regularly and skis lines that people his age have typically retired from 20 years ago. Foon Skis allows their creator to stay involved with the sport he is passionate about and close to the endless lines just outside his doorstep. Even as Pemberton’s population grows and the local mountains see more riders, Foon’s not a dude to pine on about the glory days.

 

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Delaney Zayac Photo

“Now there’s this super-tight community of like-minded people who are able to live the dream, get out and just kill it on regular basis. I honestly don’t think anyone in the world has a better scene or gets such high-quality, big mountain riding on a regular basis as our little group of mountain freaks.”

Backcountry use is expanding across the Coast Mountains and the Internet and social media are not easy on Pemberton’s “secret spots,” but this new reality has only pushed exploration to the furthest reaches of the known zones, and out into entirely new zones. It all really puts into perspective just how much terrain is out there, and how most of it remains untouched. And back in the hub of the wheel, an undeniable stoke remains because at the end of the day, it is an inclusive community, one that has each others’ backs, supports each others’ endeavours and above all else, values time spent in the high country.

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