Undaunted: Lisa Korthals Recalls Her Historic Ski Descent Of University Peak

It was spring of 2002. Word had trickled out of Alaska that University Peak, in the Wrangell Mountains, one of the largest unbroken faces on the planet, might be set up with enough snow on its south face to actually be skied for the first time. Intrigued, Lisa Korthals and her partner Johnny “Foon” Chilton turbo-activated a plan they’d been cooking up from their Pemberton home.

 

Scouting the line. University Peak looms ahead with Lisa’s line partially shrouded in cloud. Photo: Blake Jorgenson

words :: Lisa Richardson

University’s 14,470-foot (4,410-metre) relief stands as one of the twenty highest peaks in Alaska. Chilton had had it in his sights for some time. An uninterrupted fall-line south face, University Peak would later land on the cover of 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, described as “one of the most challenging, pure, beautiful, aesthetic lines in North America,” “super bad-ass,” and “probably the most burly peak in the whole book.”

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As Chilton and Korthals finished gearing up for their pioneering mission, the quest for a first ski descent had already ended. Lorne Glick, Bob Kingsley, Lance McDonald and John Whedon had made the descent just a few days ahead of them.

But no mixed party had done it.

 

Lisa Korthals, at home in the mountains. Photo: Johnny Foon

Korthals, then a guide at Mike Wiegele Heliskiing, had recently added ski mountaineering to her repertoire. The previous year, she’d completed the first woman’s descent of the central couloir on Joffre’s north face (with Chilton), and the first descent of Mexico’s highest volcano, the 18,619-foot Pico del Orizaba (with Lee Anne Patterson and Veronika Vackova).

University Peak was bigger, consistently 50 degrees for over 7,000 vertical feet (2,000 metres). “The central couloir on Joffre is probably one of the steepest things I’ve ever skied,” says Korthals. “But University was, and still is, by far, the biggest thing I’ve done.”

Had they made a different choice that day, they would have been swept away. 

Korthals and Chilton landed on the glacier and spent the first three days doing short tours and anxiously watching the massive face to see when it would come alive. Every morning, as the sun hit it, the mountain would start to peel and shed itself — point releases turning into massive avalanches. “You can’t be on something that steep when the surface is running,” Korthals says, “and it was running every day.”

So they made their approach as soon as the sun went down — a thirteen-hour bootpack ascent under clear skies at minus 30 degrees Celsius. It was too cold to stop and they didn’t rope up. Korthals shrugs: “We weren’t placing protection on the face, so if one person fell, the other one would have fallen. We just climbed.”

The minute the light began to kiss the summit, they turned around. Now they were really on the clock.

Of all the variables to take into consideration that day – the one thing Korthals (a Level 4 CSIA pro and early IFSA freeski competitor) didn’t have to stress over was her skiing. “The first turn is always the hardest. You can’t fall. It’s not an option. You would never be able to self arrest on something like that. I think I side-slipped notably before I committed, but once the first turn is there, you’re in.”

 

University Peak – One of North America’s most sought-after ski descents. Lisa skied it after a 13-hour bootpack, straight up. Photo: Blake Jorgenson

Skiing down took two hours – physical jump turns from edge to edge. “It’s so steep. It’s not flowy skiing at all. But it’s exhilarating. You have nothing in your head, except what you’re doing in that moment and how that next turn is going to stick you to the face.”

Halfway down, a Class 4 avalanche swept the left face of the wall, scouring it clean. Glick’s first descent team had climbed and skied the left wall. Korthals and Chilton had opted for the right.

Had they made a different choice that day, they would have been swept away.

In the years since, Korthals has retained her knack for choosing the right path – even if it’s a daunting one. She and Chilton were the first husband and wife team to ski the Munday Couloir in the Queen Bess Zone. This winter, she’ll guide short stints with Whistler Heli-Skiing and Bella Coola Heli Sports, wordlessly reminding alpha-male clients to never underestimate a skier because of their gender. Her clients may never know she is the first woman to ski University Peak, or understand even half of what Lisa’s done in her ski career, but once she makes that first turn, they’ll realize they’re in good hands. If they can keep up.

 

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