Invermere Locals Ski First-Descent of Mt. Nelson
The morning of March 4th, 2021, Christina Lustenburger and Ian McIntosh skied a near-vertical line down the east face of Mt. Nelson.
A first-ever descent.
Account by local author and travel writer James Rose
I first heard about it from my music pal Tryg Strand. Now, we usually talk music since we jam together once, twice per week. He was over Wednesday night and wow, the demo he showed me of a song he wrote… Anyway, Tryg messaged me yesterday at 11 a.m.: “Christina Lustenburger and Ian McIntosh just did the first descent of Mt Nelson this morning! How crazy is that?”
It’s fitting that the ones to do it both grew up in Invermere. And word sure travels fast in a small town. Tryg’s dad was up at Panorama skiing with Ian’s dad and they were hanging out at Lusti’s. Not Mountain Outfitters. Lusti’s. At Panorama Mountain Resort, the ski shop forever was known as Lusti’s and far as I’m concerned, still is. Lusti handed the managerial reigns over to Pontus Carlsson who I must say really is doing a great job. Good golfer too. But still, I think of that corner of Panorama as Lusti’s.
That’s because Christina’s dad Peter ran the rental/tuning side of the business and his wife Jane (Christina’s mom) ran the cafe side. Lusti’s is a legendary place. Lusti himself is a legendary guy. As a kid growing up in the valley, I spent all of my winter weekends at Pano as a Windermere Valley Ski Clubber. And nearly all of those weekends involved going to Lusti’s for a hot chocolate (before I started drinking coffee), and a bowl of soup. Jane’s tomato bisque was my all-time favourite and her fresh croissants…
And for every core shot fixed, pole basket lost, new edge set, binding mounted… it was over to Peter’s half.
And on the shop’s walls were signed starting bibs from past World Cup events and photos signed by Canadian ski racers like Thomas Grandi and Carey Mullen. Peter and Jane were and are major boosters for ski racing in the Columbia Valley. Before immigrating to Canada from Switzerland, I think Peter even skied world cup… if not world cup, then it was pretty far up in power-house Swiss ski racing…
And five years ago when I was back ski coaching with Team Panorama, naturally it was over to Lusti’s for lunch with the rest of the coaches, Mark and Sigrid and Shane and Shelley…
And did you hear? Earlier this week, the BC government awarded a $850,000 grant to Panorama’s National Alpine Training Centre. In the press release it said: “Panorama is known as one of the world’s premier racing and training venues attracting athletes from across Canada, USA, Europe to the Kootenay Rockies region.
Peter and Jane and many other locals are to thank for helping to create and sustain this reputation.
As most know, Christina used to be a world cup ski racer. She went to the Torino Olympics. But then she was forced to quit due to multiple knee injuries. Christina was one of those racers that either won or blew out of the course. All or nothing, high risk, high reward. Several years older than me, she was a ski racing idol to my teammates and I as we moved up the ranks.
After Christina retired from pro ski racing, with ease it seemed she transitioned to being an off-piste pro. A freeskier. Now she lives in Revelstoke (naturally), is married, is an ACMG guide and… is doing things like sending it down Mt. Nelson for chrissake.
I remember sitting in Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, Fall 2019. It was the big ski movie premiere night. Now I’m not one to really ever watch ski movies. For whatever reason, they just don’t do it for me… but on this night… many of the skiers I KNEW! Nick McNutt, Dane Tudor, Christina, Stan Rey, Ian McIntosh… Dane and Stan are closer to my age. I was in many ski races with those guys… and many of the locations were in the Kootenays! I couldn’t help but think… what am I doing here?
So Peter and Jane were in the ski shop waiting to hear from their daughter. Needless to say, they got the message they hoped for. So Tryg’s dad tells Tryg who tells me. I had just come back to my place after dropping off at moms’ house tick meds for her dog. As I was leaving her driveway, we heard the thunder of a chopper overhead flying east toward the valley from Mt. Nelson. Mom asked me if it was a STARS chopper, and I said no… wasn’t the right colour. When I heard from Tryg, I immediately told mom and then she said… of course… the chopper was for Christina and Ian.
So this morning I called Christina to hear the story…
It’s a peak she’s dreamed of skiing her whole life. Same with Ian. Growing up, you have a view of Mt. Nelson from the valley floor, from the living room, the classroom, from over the shoulder as you slowly make your way up Panorama on the old two seater blue chair since replaced. It stares down at you as you wait patiently in the start-gate before racing down Fritz’ or Old Timer. Towering Mt. Nelson at 10,869 ft. is always just… there.
“Without much travel or filming this year, my focus was on exploring my backyard,” Christina said. “I wanted to put my dream of skiing Mt. Nelson into action.” She thinks it was about four years ago that she began seriously discussing it with Ian. They are both on Team North Face and have come full circle in their skiing careers. Ian, three years older than Christina, left ski racing at a much earlier age and dove right into into big mountain skiing. “Ian is such a dialled in, confident skier.” A key comrade-in-arms to ski a Mt. Nelson.
For the past week and a half, they were busy scoping it out. The telescopes were out. They did a fixed wing fly over. They even skied Mt. Peter which is nearby to Mt. Nelson to get a feel for the snowpack. A few days ago, Christina went up to the trailhead and broke trail so that they didn’t need to route find at one in the morning.
From Invermere, they left at one in the morning. They reached the trailhead on Toby Creek Road and started skinning at 1:45 a.m. From trailhead to the summit, they gained 2,100 metres. It’s one thing just to do that… especially with all that gear and then some: A couple thirty-metre ropes, ice axes, crampons, rappel gear, all of it. No sherpas. I remember climbing Mt. Nelson the summer after I graduated from high school. I did it with my brother and few friends… in the summer it’s not an easy hike. It’s a total grunt. But once you get to the top…oh so satisfying.
The reason they went so early is because of temperatures. A stiff, stable snowpack is crucial to a safe, efficient ascent and descent. East facing slopes get first light and at this time of year, can heat up quick. Spring warming events are prime triggers for avalanche.
Seven hours later, they reached the summit.
“On the ascent, there was little wind and the stars and the moon were out. The snow was stable. Once we got on the south face and started to climb, the sky started to lighten up and the peaks start to glow. It was magic.”
To do a ski like this, there’s such small window of opportunity. Many things out of one’s control have to line up. “We were lucky. We had perfect weather, nailed the window. The snow on our line hadn’t yet sun crusted, we still had dry powder. I bet by now the same line we skied would be sun crusted.” And there was no wind. This winter has been SO WINDY!
At the summit, Ian phoned his dad who was down at the base of Panorama with the binoculars. “I don’t think my mom slept at all the night before,” Christina said laughing.
And the film crew was all set. Look for this footage next fall in Teton Gravity Research’s feature ski flick. The film crew was set up on neighbouring Trafalgar Peak. Brodie Smith (Invermere local and ski guide) was managing the scene. The big camera was set up on a tripod, the drone was out, stills aplenty being taken, and a cameraman followed Christina and Ian up on their ascent (he went down the same way they came up).
To get to the where they wanted to start skiing, they had to rappel a few metres off the summit. Now they were in the arena, so to speak, at the top of their line and about to send it…
“Looking down, it took my breath away,” she said. “I’ll admit in the weeks before and all the years leading up to this moment the mountain did sort of intimidate me.”
And what about the line itself? At its steepest, 55 degrees. “It sees a lot of fluffing because it’s so steep. It’s constantly shedding itself. So on one hand it makes it safer because it’s shedding any instabilities. But as soon as you get out of the gut of the line, any questing off the mainline and you are skiing on sugar-coated rock.” A real concern for them was not clipping or getting hung up on any of that rock. “We avoided the sides and just focused on skiing the main gut of the line.”
And then… they skied it.
At the bottom of their main line, hey weren’t yet done. “We had to do a traverse over a cliff at the end. There was a band of rocks that we couldn’t ski or climb down so we had to do another 30 metre rappel.”
And then the chopper arrived to pick them up. “We heli’d out because by the time we reached the bottom, to get to where we started our ski there were several big south facing avalanche chutes to cross.”
Christina texted mom as soon as she was done. At 10:30 a.m., a proud (and relieved) mom and dad clinked glasses of Schnapps.
“Ian and I went straight over to the ski shop patio and hung out there for a while.” A gathering had formed of friends and family. Celebratory.
“Yesterday I was reminded how amazing this community is. I am so proud to say I grew up here and feel so fortunate my parents instilled a passion in me for the mountains. It’s a life long gift to take with you… the pleasure of being in the mountains that didn’t start and end with ski racing. In fact, I feel like my career as a skier only started after I retired from racing. That’s when I found my path and found something I was meant to be doing.”
Like ski Mt. Nelson for the first time in human history.
Check out Christina and Ian’s instagram for photos:
Photo Credit: Featured & Lead Image: Jeff Bartlett & Panorama Mountain Resort