Ski mountaineer Christina Lustenberger is blazing a smoking trail of first descents with a quiet but effervescent style that makes the terrifying look easy. Words :: Kevin Hjertaas.
Getting your hair caught in a pulley is the opening of a good comedy scene—unless you’re dangling from a rope halfway up an ice cliff in the remote British Columbia interior. Christina “Lusti” Lustenberger laughs when she retells the story now, but it’s only funny to other twisted alpinists.
“That was actually really fucking sketchy. I was fully schnitzeled,” she admits.
Lusti and her ski-mountaineering partners had been on the go for almost 12 hours at that point. They were trying to move quickly through a dangerous part of a radical first-descent route when her long, curly brown hair went from flowing in the wind to jamming between her rope and mechanical ascender. Unable to move up or down, she was completely stuck in a bad spot. “I was putting my full body weight on my hair, and it wasn’t coming out,” she recalls.
It’s comically rare for hairstyles to impact mountaineering, but before anyone could chuckle about it, Lusti would need to find a way to get free.
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Ski mountaineering at its outer limits—the edge defining what is possible to ski and survive—has always been celebrated for what it is: a serious pursuit. The heroes climbing and riding impossibly steep and dangerous mountains have become a large part of skiing lore. In North America, characters like Doug Coombs, Chris Landry and Doug Ward will have their stories recounted for generations. Collectively, these tales create an image of what this type of skiing looks like and what type of person leads the charge. It all looked very solemn, hard—grim even—until Christina Lustenberger.
A grizzled hardass pits themselves against a cold, unforgiving mountain, battling the elements upward until the climax when the hero sets their jaw, risks it all with a grimace and points their skis downhill. That cliché looks nothing like Lustenberger’s photos and videos. Those depict her and her friends smiling and laughing while skiing with impeccable style and high-fiving in matching, colourful, puffy jackets. Of course, behind the pretty pictures is the same gruelling training regimen, deep motivation and all the requisite cold-mountain suffering; skiing bold first descents demands this of its practitioners. And over the past few years, no one has put up as many impressive ski lines as Lusti. She has earned the figurative crown worn by those past heroes, but there’s a subtle difference in how she wears it. Her combination of uncompromising alpinism and giggling irreverence makes that cutting-edge look fun.
“It’s supposed to be fun, right?” she says with a shrug as she paces the Revelstoke, B.C., home she shares with husband Mike Verwey. She’s packing for an August ski trip to Chile and trying to explain how, when paired with the right partner, a team’s capabilities and attitudes can align in a perfect synergy to expand their comfort zone. “With that [skill and experience] comes a lightness while moving through the most difficult terrain,” she says.
Her most recent first descent, the Polar Moon Couloir on Baffin Island, highlights that phenomenon. Lusti and favourite ski partner Brette Harrington (see the recent movie, The Alpinist, for an idea of her climbing resumé) saw the line from a plane last spring and were instantly drawn to it. The 1,200-metre chute that cleaves the Walker Citadel looks like death on a stick to most skiers, but it’s also alluring in a haunting way; a deep, vertical ribbon of white framed by dark rock walls, interrupted at its midpoint by a 160-metre ice cliff.
“We were so far away from any type of rescue or help. We were out there,” recounts Lusti. “It’s a gnarly line, but things were going well. We climbed the ascent couloir, built an anchor to rappel in, and skied the hanging face above the serac ice. When we got to the ice, it was business time. Then on the second rappel, our rope got stuck, and all of a sudden we felt this huge blow from the weight and reality of where we were and how cruxy the situation was.”
They still had another 45 metres below them to get to the exit couloir. Their solution to the tension? Smile at each other and break it down into little steps. “We cut our rope into two 10-metre sections and did four mini rappels,” says Lusti. “Stuck on this crazy chunk of mountain, exposed to a lot of risk, we were just hanging off this anchor we’d built and laughing at each other. We were hour-whatever into the effort and out of water, and just giggling and getting through it.”
They were smiling but they recognized how critical the situation was. “For sure, we have to be proficient and get ourselves out of the mess we’d gotten into, but together we make a strong team. And I think with that sort of trust you can add an element of fun in these crazy landscapes. It’s serious, but if it’s not fun, why would you go back and do it over and over again?”
When one spends 30 years dedicated to a sport, they earn the confidence to enjoy such challenges.
Born in Invermere in 1984, Lusti grew up ski racing at Panorama Mountain Resort where her parents owned the ski shop known to everyone as, of course, “Lusti’s.” From that little local club, she trained and worked her way right to the Canadian National Team and the 2006 Turin Olympic Games—adding a top-ten finish at a World Cup giant slalom in Germany. She’d reached the upper echelon of the racing world, but Lusti was just getting started in skiing.
Having accrued multiple knee injuries, she retired from racing and moved to Revelstoke, where she turned her focus to backcountry skiing. Freeski icon Eric Hjorleifson recalls Lusti’s early backcountry winters: “I remember hanging out in Revy and watching her ski her way through all the core skiers in town.
She’d go out with these people and ski them into the ground. Then they’d have to take time off to recover, and Lusti would move on to the next group. She’s relentless. She loves the grind.”
Lusti’s pace was relentless but also measured. She knew not to rush it when absorbing the lessons of safe mountain travel. Six years after leaving racing behind, Lusti earned her ACMG ski guide qualifications, another career path for most skiers that includes avalanche, first aid and guiding courses, work practicums and exams spread out over a few years. At the same time she was preparing to start a new career as a guide, the ski media had also started to take notice of her smooth, capable and impressive skiing.
Many ex-racers try freeskiing for the cameras, but their style, developed on icy slopes, doesn’t always translate well to film. Hjorleifson watched Lusti master this aspect of the sport. “She has a polished technique, very strong with a lot of power, but she’s been able to adapt that and become efficient and very smooth. She still maintains the strength in her turns, but she doesn’t look like a racer—she’s adapted to the environment.”
Sherpas Cinema saw the same thing and featured Lusti in their film Children of the Columbia. It earned her a nomination for Female Athlete of the Year at the 2019 Powder Awards, the kind of recognition sponsored skiers build entire careers on. She’s also become a staple in Teton Gravity Research’s annual ski film, cementing her place as one of the sport’s best and most recognized athletes.
Most pro skiers would be content putting out a film segment every year that keeps sponsors happy and fans watching. But Lusti has always been drawn to ski mountaineering, where rope work and technical climbing are required. Hjorleifson admires that. “She’s so motivated on her own goals and ambitions with ski mountaineering that she doesn’t fit into the mold of a normal pro skier. She just does exactly what she wants to do, and in a way, that’s why she’s the best.”
So, in what seems to be a fourth act after racing, guiding and movie skiing, Lusti is combining her fitness, mountain skills and skiing technique and taking it to where her heart is—amongst steep, rocky, glaciated peaks. In recent years, she’s teamed up with professional climber and closet skier Harrington to push steep skiing into bold new realms; the duo can climb things skiers can’t, and ski things climbers can’t, collectively blowing minds in both worlds.
One of those blown minds belongs to freeskier Cody Townsend, the biggest name in backcountry skiing these days with his The Fifty Project. “Lusti is one of the best ski mountaineers in the world; in North America she might be the best,” says Townsend. “The lines she’s skiing first are aesthetic but with such a high degree of difficulty that she’s leading ice climbing pitches with skis on her back. Only a few people in the world are doing what she’s doing.”
A perfect example of this cutting-edge ski mountaineering was Lusti and Harrington’s 2021 descent of the Gold Card Couloir. The line dangles between Mount Burnham and Mount Grady in B.C.’s Monashee Mountains like an ice-age, mountain-sized snotsickle. It’s a line for skiers to fantasize about but never actually ski. Just to reach the base of the 800-metre couloir, the team—Lusti, Harrington and Andrew McNab—had to drive 45 minutes up logging roads, ride snow machines for more than an hour with all their gear, then ski tour for two hours. Their first attempt ended halfway up when spooky ice conditions turned them around, and they had to reverse their efforts to get home by 7:00 p.m.
After a day recovering and eating massive amounts of cheesecake, they again left early, determined to make the descent a reality. The subsequent pictures and videos—seen across all major climbing and skiing media outlets—could trick one into thinking it was easy: Lusti smiling at the top, coiling a rope around her leopard-print neck tube with light reflecting off her Oakley goggles and shiny North Face down, or her powerful, perfectly balanced turns on the narrow snow between jagged rock and blue ice. Lusti’s Instagram caption only adds to the image, “Cute and Cold. In that order.”
Which returns us to the moment when “cute” had a cost that left Lusti dangling from her hair and that rope. Stalled halfway up the couloir and struggling to find a way out of the jam, she wracked her brain for a solution. “I was really stuck, and we had no time. So, I took out my V-threader with the little knife blade on it and cut three inches of hair out of my Micro Traxion.”
The ordeal put the crew further behind on what was already a dangerously long day. “We had to redline the upper pitch and push on the descent. When we finally skied it all down to the lake, it was time to turn on headlamps. We still had to ski out to the sleds and ride back to the trucks in the dark.”
The Gold Card Couloir was a significant accomplishment, but it was just one of five notable first descents that season for Lusti—the kind of annual output that has become standard for her. But more than the volume of descents, it’s how she makes the terrifying look easy that has earned her the respect of her peers.
There’s no gold medal handed out for skiing the scariest, most impressive lines, but those involved in the sport seem happy to pass the proverbial crown to Lusti and see where she’ll take it.
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