Transformation

In a few short years, Christina Lustenberger, once among Canada’s ski racing elite, became a leading ski mountaineer and guide in British Columbia

PHOTO: Bruno Long

The snow between the rocks on the final approach to Grizzly Ridge is predictably rotten on this clear January day. Our crew is on the final push along the mountain’s spine-riddled shoulder in Rogers Pass, BC. Ours is a slow march between hollow alpine tiger traps that threaten to shear boot buckles against boulders. The couloir we’re gunning for, though, looks to be in fine shape—which is good news. It’s a classic, but committing, and rarely in play.

The open face to climber’s left appears to be the easiest way up, but it demands ultimate confidence in the snowpack. Only one person in the group of four moves on it—Christina Lustenberger. The 32-year-old saunters surely on slope, and lays an escalator to the summit ridge for the rest of us. Soon after, Kalen Thorien, photographer Bruno Long, and I skin the ramp in pursuit.

“In the ski-mountaineering world, I would put her as the strongest,” says Lars Anderson. “It wasn’t out-of-the-box that she was fantastically skilled at all those elements that make you a guide. But the fact that her physical ability is so strong, she can spend more time on other skills.”

It’s an easy call for us to follow. Lustenberger (Lusti to most) is one of the most finely tuned ski mountaineers in North America. She’s spent the last eight years quietly climbing and skiing the biggest lines in this pocket of the world, including a solo first descent of the south couloir of 10,974-foot Adamant Mountain in 2011. When she set out to ski the remote peak in BC’s Selkirk Range, staging out of the Great Cairn Hut, her partner lost confidence, but she didn’t, and carried on. The accomplishment was a self-researched, historical checkmark on her resumé that drew the attention of both purists and sponsors. This after an Olympic-sized self-reinvention from a former career as a ski racer—a transformation she underwent at a dizzying pace.

Lustenberger spent her formative years racing on the World Cup circuit, and represented Canada in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, for giant slalom. But, after a decade of bashing gates, five knee surgeries motivated her to make a big change. A few years later, she is one of Arc’teryx and Volkl’s flagship female ski mountaineers and a fully certified Canadian ski guide. The shift from icy racetracks to gnarly peaks bewildered some, but made perfect sense to those who know her best—those who now say her biggest challenge is still ahead.

Ski mountaineer Christina Lustenberger's professional race roots shine in strong, confident turns in high-alpine environments. PHOTO: Bruno Long
Christina Lustenberger’s professional race roots shine in strong, confident turns in high-alpine environments. PHOTO: Bruno Long

“She’s one of the best young guides in the industry, without question,” says Lars Anderson, one of her mentors, an IFMGA guide, G3-sponsored athlete, and owner-operator of Whitecap Alpine Adventures Lodge in Pemberton, BC.

“In the ski-mountaineering world, I would put her as the strongest,” he continues. “It wasn’t out-of-the-box that she was fantastically skilled at all those elements that make you a guide. But the fact that her physical ability is so strong, she can spend more time on other skills. She has this incredible amount of headspace to spend on line choice, snowpack, how-to approach. Her comfort is remarkable.”

“She liked to race,” adds Peter, in his thick Swiss accent. “But she never liked to train inside that much…So, for a change, she liked to walk up mountains.”

Back at the top of Grizzly Mountain, Lustenberger’s temperament shines as she joyfully dances under a Brocken spectre with Thorien while Long snaps pictures. We’re about to ski a 1,200-foot, 50-degree couloir with no falling allowed, but at the moment, it’s all child’s play. Lustenberger’s comfort here puts everyone at ease. Her mountain confidence, it turns out, is rooted in her race days—but not on the race course.

“She told you she used to always take touring skis with her when she traveled, right?” says Lustenberger’s mom, Jane, who, along with her husband, Peter, has run the rental shop at Panorama Mountain Resort in Invermere for 36 years. The shop bears the father’s nickname (now appropriated by his daughter): Lusti’s.

“She liked to race,” adds Peter, in his thick Swiss accent. “But she never liked to train inside that much…So, for a change, she liked to walk up mountains.”

Lustenberger grew up ski touring with her family around Jumbo Valley (which has since become known for the development proposed there), and acquired appetites other speedsters didn’t. Wherever her race team was in the world, she squeezed in backcountry days in sacrifice of race training.

“I was definitely different,” she says. “I always tried to push my coaches and rebel.”

The requisite dry-land training was never as interesting as time on snow to her, so she didn’t see backcountry skiing as ditching out on training. Rather, freeskiing was a supplement—one that would later become a lifeline. Racing at its highest level came with much collateral damage. Despite being a standout high-velocity force, she was also continually blowing her knees, getting surgery, and recovering. She tore her first ACL at the age of 16, and the fifth and last one at 25. Every time, her recovery took about a year until she was in physical shape to race again. She came to feel she was missing out on other experiences.

“As a young girl, even in school, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a ski racer,” she recalls. “But once it became this super strict lifestyle, there just wasn’t much freedom to explore anything else…I wanted to ski for the rest of my life, and not race for another two years and keep wrecking myself.”

Where racing demands gym time, the best practice for ski mountaineering is ski mountaineering, Lustenberger reasoned, and that left time for a social life, too. So at 25, she made a plan. A friend was enrolled in Thompson Rivers University’s Canadian Mountain and Ski Guide Program, which Lustenberger knew right away was her “golden ticket.” For every year she raced as a “carded” athlete (top-ranked in Canada), she got a free year of school. But she also needed a resumé of backcountry travel, which she moved to Revelstoke in 2008 to build. Renowned backcountry skier Greg Hill noticed her immediately. At the time, Hill was gearing up to break his own record of skiing one million vertical self-powered feet in a season. (He doubled that record in 2010.)

“A big thing in the mountains is just being able to keep up,” says Hill. “She was able to go out with the senders right away.”

Lustenberger put in many extended miles on technical terrain with Hill and, eventually, with Chris Rubens, Eric Hjorleifson, and a host of other local shredders. She also spent time skiing with the late steep skier Dave Rosenbarger in Chamonix, an experience that also helped acclimatize her to exotic high-mountain terrain in South America. Ice tools, alpine climbs, rappels, and glacier travel became a part of her daily routine. And, always a student, she took careful note of everything.

“Those training regiments were something I was used to for a really long time,” says Lustenberger. “So when I left ski racing I just implemented that on myself [in ski mountaineering].”

This training, however, was different than in her race days. She skied pow nearly every day.

Lustenberger pursues the fall line in the Freshfields Glacier, on the border between BC and Alberta.  PHOTO: Bruno Long
Lustenberger pursues the fall line in the Freshfields Glacier, on the border between BC and Alberta. PHOTO: Bruno Long

In between the chossy walls of Grizzly Couloir, Lustenberger’s highly conditioned, fast-twitch muscles fire on all cylinders while she steers effortlessly down the ribbon of snow. When I meet her and Thorien at the bottom of the leg-pounding descent (during which I stop three times), Lustenberger’s already pointing to other options that might be coming into shape: exposed shelves and big alpine faces. They’re the kind of runs that demand confidence not just in a person’s skiing, but their overall mountain acumen.

“She’s done a lot of cool stuff in groups over the years,” says Hill. “But I wonder what her ideas are now.”

“For sure, I’m drawn to risky lines,” she says matter-of-factly. “I think a lot of athletes are, that’s where training yourself physically and mentally and not pushing the elements is important.”

We hit the parking lot, the imposing massif of Grizzly Mountain behind us, and Lusti peels off her layers of Gore-Tex. She knows most of the people also finishing their days, and chats freely, offering congratulations on recent home ownership to one person, making plans for a café get-together with another. Where it’s ritual to ask what you skied in the Pass, nobody does this to Lustenberger. One can only presume because her day typically eclipses anyone else’s.

Lustenberger is young compared to most ski mountaineering guides. She is also hitting her peak maturity as a professional athlete, which puts her in a unique position. “Having an athlete and guide in one person is pretty awesome,” says Long, who’s watched Lustenberger’s prowess grow in front of the lens and on slope over the years, and has photographed her skiing in faraway places.

Echoing her peak days as a ski racer, many in the BC backcountry ski community are keen to see her commit more fully to specific projects. But Lustenberger is still figuring out the balance that suits her. In her previous career, she never had the freedom to decide which races to compete in. Now, the option to choose is a kind of decision-making that presents a foreign challenge.

“She’s done a lot of cool stuff in groups over the years,” says Hill. “But I wonder what her ideas are now.” Chris Rubens shares that sentiment, saying he doesn’t think she’s “even tapped her true potential.”