Significant firsts on one of Sea to Sky’s most iconic mountains. Words :: Feet Banks.
For any rational skier or snowboarder, daydreams of sliding down Mount Currie command the imagination much in the way the mountain itself dominates the southern skyline from almost anywhere in the Pemberton Valley. More so than the actual height above sea level, much of Currie’s visual allure comes from its web of steep chutes and couloirs and its prominence—the sheer drop from summit to base.
“Mount Currie is 2,596 metres or 8,517 feet high,” longtime local Pemberton photographer Dave Steers writes in one of his many odes to the mountain. “It rises 2,300 metres or 7,546 feet above its base. What’s rather amazing is that Mount Everest—while 8,848 metres or 29,029 feet high and consequently a whole lot higher than Currie—rises only 3,500 metres or 11,483 feet. Thus, Mount Currie’s rise is over two thirds that of Mount Everest!”
The altitude is, of course, vastly different but many a big mountain tale has been written beneath (and on) the storied slopes of Mount Currie. It was officially named back in 1911 after John Currie, an early settler to the area. For thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years before that, however, the Lil’wat people had their own name for the steep, towering massif: Tzśil, meaning “slides on the mountain” after the numerous avalanches and rockslides that tumble down its face throughout the year, almost as if the mountain itself is alive.
The Lil’wat people have legends of massive serpents carving up the rock chutes on the mountain’s north face, and of two mischievous hunters turned to stone up on the western ridge by the Transformers. Since the mid-1980s, skiers from Whistler, Pemberton (and beyond) have added their stories to the mountain, climbing and skiing the same chutes and gullies that helped give the peak its original name. And yet, for all those descents over all those years of steep, deep, and sometimes harrowing ski and snowboard action, there remained a few stories untold…
> chapter 1
Slides on the Mountain
In 2022, Lil’wat snowboarder Sandy Ward rode the mountain she grew up under—a first for the Lil’wat Nation. Last spring, she returned with two teenaged Lil’wat skiers—Talon and Riki Pascal—and a film crew, to share and capture the experience of Riki and Talon rediscovering and reconnecting to their territory through sport. The resulting film Slides on the Mountain will screen at the Whistler Film Festival in December with a public release planned for later this winter.
“Ever since I started snowboarding, I’ve looked at Tśzil in a different way. I had heard of a couple kids skiing it when I was younger, but how would I ever get the skills to do it myself? It took me almost 20 years—the snowboarding part was easy, but the backcountry knowledge took time. It wasn’t until I met my partner, Morgan Fleury that I began to learn those skills. He taught me how to stay as safe as possible in the mountains. It was him that told me I could ride the mountain I grew up under.
After years of planning and scoping, our weather window came one sunny day in March 2022. We wanted to show the mountain the respect it deserved, so we decided to hike it. Also, we couldn’t afford a helicopter. At first it just seemed like a regular thing, a snowboarder riding a big mountain. I didn’t realize that I was the first person from the Lil’wat Nation to ride that mountain. What’s the significance? People come from all over the world to challenge this mountain, yet not one local has been given the opportunity. I had to fight my way up through the snowboard industry—finding a mentor, sponsors, opportunities—and I started working with the Indigenous Life Sport Academy (ILSA) because I wanted to help ensure the youth didn’t have to face the same industry hurdles I faced.
It was Morgan’s idea to take Riki and Talon up Tzśil for the first Lil’wat ski descent. Working and volunteering with ILSA for years, he understands and sees firsthand the importance of Indigenous people reconnecting to their territories. So, starting in September of 2022 and running throughout the winter, we began teaching the boys everything they’d need for this mission—days, weeks spent skiing steeps, touring, learning to use ropes, harnesses, avalanche gear. Practicing, practicing, practicing. The day finally came in March 2023.
Gathered at the Pemberton airport that morning, I could feel the excitement, the nerves, the fear in everyone. From the heli drop atop the mountain, we had to descend down a bit then transition to skins and tour, then boot pack, then rope up and climb to the entrance of the couloir—all the skills the boys had practiced coming into play. And then, as we reached the top of the couli…Poof!! The cornice dropped, sliding down the mountain taking all our fresh pow with it. Things just got real.
Faced with a 50-degree slope of chalky avy path, we rappelled in one at a time and gathered in the central couloir 1,800 metres above the valley floor. The only way out of this was down. Thinking of a calf injury I’d sustained six weeks earlier, I breathed through my adrenaline and dropped in first. Would my leg hold? Was it strong enough?
My leg gave out on the second turn. Tumbling, accelerating, I frantically grabbed at the snow and finally clawed to a stop 70 metres downslope. The pain was quickly replaced by sadness, by realization. I could sideslip out of the couloir, but I’d need a heli evac off the mountain. I wanted to stay, I wanted to see the boys, I wanted to make sure they were going to be okay.
Watching them drop, then those first hopping jump turns, then linking turns…my sadness turned to joy. Not only were they doing it, they were doing it well. They didn’t need me there, they had this on their own, with Morgan to encourage and witness this achievement. I let them go, realizing that this is not about skiing a gnarly mountain for a significant “first”, or about “reclaiming” our land. It’s about getting back out on the land that we never gave up, reconnecting and enjoying it on our own terms. Knowing that it’s there whenever we are ready for it.”
> chapter 2
Top of the Hit List
Paralympian and big-mountain sit-skier Alex Cairns doesn’t make definitive winter goals, but he definitely keeps a “hit list,” and according to perennial Mountain Life contributor Jimmy Martinello, Mount Currie was “one of the bigger ones on the list.”
So Martinello, who’s been skiing big lines with Cairns on Whistler Blackcomb and the adjacent backcountry for a number of years, made some calls and assembled a crew. And on March 30, 2023, Cairns loaded his sit-ski into a heli and joined Martinello, Mountain Life publisher Jon Burak, Valtteri Rantala, and Tzśil descent veteran John Johnson to make an attempt at the Diagonal line on the mountain’s storied north face.
“Almost everything you do on a sit-ski is a first these days, so it’s kind of funny, but a big one was before we even left the ground, we learned that the sit-ski fits in the cheek [side storage compartment] of the heli without disassembly—that’s important because anything that makes it easier for me to load and unload is a big win as far as efficient use of time for the team and the pilot.
We got dropped right on the edge of the couloir. Some years there is a cornice and you have to rappel in, but this year the wind was in our favour. The decision was to put me on a rope, and I could take a look and drop in on the left side if I felt it was fine. The crew was so dialled, by the time I got into my ski they had an anchor set and the rope ready. Luckily, a glacier harness is low-profile enough, I can keep one on while in the sit-ski.
I got to the edge, realized I could ski it no problem, untied and dropped in. Conditions were tough—some crusty boot-top pow on the left, but the right side had been pulverized by a cornice drop. The conditions changed from turn to turn, so that was a bit spooky but it was too beautiful to really give a shit about the snow—easily the prettiest line I have ever skied.
Getting out was what I worried about the most. When would we lose snow and I’d have to walk? I am fortunate in that I use a sit-ski but can still “walk” with crutches without help. If I was a full paraplegic, someone would have had to carry me and my sit-ski. That’s a different ball game, especially in avy areas. The team still had to rope me up and lower me six times over ice and rock in some of the melted-out gullies, but John really had our exit route dialled. Straying off course, even 50 metres would have meant I’d have get out of the sit-ski, scramble up, then clip back in—that could easily cost us 30 minutes or more.
Down low, we ducked into the looker’s left-most avy path, which meant I could slide/sidehill down and stay seated. Knowing that the bottom was doable in less time than I’d imagined gives me ideas and something to base conversations around as far as what worked and what didn’t. I can share what I learned with other sit-skiers and use the knowledge from this mission as I look at my own future days in the mountains.
Mostly though, I want to acknowledge and thank Jimmy, Jon, Valtteri, and John. I had previously only ever skied with Jimmy but the whole team was ready for anything and not afraid to give it a try. It takes a special crew that will do a big heli drop like this, knowing it could potentially turn into an epic by bringing me along.”
Flashback: The First Time
In May of 1985, Beat Steiner and Peter Chrzanowski climbed straight up that towering, prominent rise of Tzśil, set up a basecamp at 5,500 feet, then skied two separate chutes, including the now classic Diagonal, over the next two days. It was the first known descent of the north face.
“I don’t want to call it a ‘race,’ but Trevor Petersen had been up there a week earlier trying to ski another line and had come back because the avy hazard was so bad. It must have been colder when we went because Peter and I didn’t have any issues. Back in those days, there used to be a lot more snow in May. There was avy debris to the valley and we hiked straight up the belly, falling rocks kept coming right past our heads.”
“We were pretty lucky on the way up to not get killed by falling rocks. We set up camp on the fan where the rock bands and the couloirs started, overnighting on a small ridge with a spectacular view of the Pemberton Valley below.
The next morning, after a wrong turn and a dead-end chute, we found the entrance to what is now known as Diagonal Chute, an amazing run 30 feet wide leading to the summit ridge. It was not as steep as it looked from the valley, but the climb was long and tiring. We climbed left around a sizeable cornice and, after another 45 minutes of ski touring, reached the summit. Protected by the shadow of a rock outcropping, we skied back down the chute in thigh-deep light powder, in May, the town of Pemberton directly below us. I always thought Tzśil resembled a little Eiger of sorts. Perhaps that’s why some of the area’s first non-Indigenous settlers were of Swiss origin. Maybe they settled at the foot of it because this mountain felt like home.”
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