How Pemberton Became a Ski Town Without a Ski Area

Every day feels like a ski movie in this DIY community

This story originally appeared in the November 2019 (48.2) issue of POWDER.

DYNAMIC

Pemberton, British Columbia, doesn’t look like much of a ski destination. In fact, on a blustery March day, it doesn’t look like much of anything. Mount Currie, whose heavily serrated north face lords over the valley, has its head in the clouds. The enormous talus cones spilling from its 7,550-vertical- foot system of dendritic chutes streaked by avy debris is the only sign of alpine action. There’s no hint of ski heritage, no cars with ski racks, no ski shop, no quaint Swiss cabins.

A 30-minute asphalt roller-coaster ride north of Whistler, Pemberton has the look and feel of a small, industrial outpost. Like many mountain towns, the bricolage village is the tiny heart of a disseminate body, its main arteries flowing 15 miles in two directions before climbing vertiginous passes. Driving either—north through the area known as Pemberton Meadows, or east on Highway 99—reveals more of the town’s real character: vast potato fields, farms tucked behind cottonwood palisades, spindle-legged foals cavorting in pastures.

48.2, November, Pemberton
Photo Credit: Blake Jorgenson
The sleepy streets of a DIY ski town.

It’s a place that only adds up in bits and pieces, all of it, today at least, under a gray veil tacked to the sky by massive unseen peaks. And yet those mountains, one of North America’s most dynamic landscapes, define the lives of all who live here. Glacial waters not only fertilize and irrigate the valley, but also threaten it with flooding from a combination of sudden snowmelt and coastal rain. And there are further hazards: In 2010, a chunk of Mount Meager, a not-quite-dormant volcano, thundered down the upper Lillooet River in the largest landslide in Canadian history, triggered by climate-change-induced glacial destabilization. Joffre Peak collapsed for similar reasons last summer. Dusty plumes from constant slides echo off Mount Currie all summer. Wildfires have consumed parts of the Meadows. Despite its bucolic nature, Pemberton is a potential natural disaster theme park.

And yet the same names that portend catastrophe—Meager, Rutherford, Pemberton Icecap, the Hurley, the Duffey—carry another subtext: access and ingress to a ski scene like no other. It may not be a ski town, but its townspeople are skiers—inured to all the life, play, and tragedy the calling carries.

48.2, November, Pemberton
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johnny "Foon" Chilton
Johnny Foon and Lisa Korthals.

MOMA LISA

“I never thought about building skis,” says veteran ski-mountaineer Johnny “Foon” Chilton as he scrapes epoxy from a ski press in a nondescript Pemberton warehouse, “but a friend directed me to a website that showed how to make a capped ski in a vacuum bag.”

Chilton started making skis in his basement in 2009. Right away, he left his job at Whistler Blackcomb in 2012 to dedicate himself full-time to ski wizardry, abandoning cap skis for the press. Like other pioneers of the Whistler scene, Foon gravitated toward the less-developed, less-costly outer orbit of Pemberton, his ski-making an umbilical connection between the two separately identifying communities.

Photographer Blake Jorgenson and Sherpas Cinema are on hand this day to document Foon’s hand-crafted alchemy for a new partnership with Whistler lifestyle brand Gibbons Life; lighting and smoke will create visual trickery to support the trope. Foon poses with dog Max at his feet and a “Moma Lisa” in hand—a ski celebrating his late wife, Lisa Korthals.

A year ago, Korthals, a seasoned mountain guide, mother to their son, Ty, and cornerstone of the Pemberton community, perished in a sympathetic avalanche triggered by a heli-skiing client. She was 49 years old. “Lisa worked with me on my original ski, and then a softer version for herself. So that’s what we made in her memory. Already it’s our most popular ski,” Foon enthuses.

Lights. Cameras. Foon appears from a swirl of mist holding the ski, a winsome ski wizard with a memory wand.

48.2, November, Pemberton
Photo Credit: Blake Jorgenson
The Duffey.

THE DUFFEY/HWY 99

We leave the car to the mercy of the plows and skin west. Shortcutting to an old logging road we fork right, then hitch up through a cut-block into dense trees where the slope steepens. After an hour the trees thin, throwing shadows and revealing the west ridge. We follow dromedary humps to the top, with a view to 8,900-foot Joffre across the valley. Snacks. Water. We drop to the northwest, skiing to a bench and into a long, arcing draw with well-sheltered snow. There’s a slight hazard from above but it hasn’t snowed in a week and stability is good. So is the snow—knee-deep and dry to the valley. And despite a well-worn up-track, somehow this line is untouched. High fives all around. We cross a lake, skirt its drainage, ski a glade, and catch the logging road’s left fork back to the car. We drive Duffey Lake Road for some miles.

An hour later, we’re warming up over lattes in downtown Pemberton.

BADGES

Whether accompanying photos of vegetables, paragliders, or field weddings, the hashtag #pembylife always means one thing: #thisisnotwhistler. Even the town’s most venerable signage holds up a cautionary hand—at least if you have a pocketful of potatoes: “Entering Pemberton Seed Potato Control Area. Planting of Potatoes is Restricted. By Order: BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food.”

The designation goes back to 1945—six years before the town saw electricity. In 1965 it became North America’s first commercial virus-free seed potato control area, renowned for some of the world’s best.

Although it’s “Pemby” these days, the “Spud Valley” identity persists, despite myriad other agricultural, natural, recreational, and cultural waypoints: a proud Lil’wat First Nation presence; abundant organic produce and pick-your-own farms; grazing horses, cattle, sheep, alpacas; a townsite swarmed by dogs, kids and strollers that empties nightly into a movie set begging tumbleweeds; mountain biking, hiking, paragliding; a coastal western hemlock forest on one side of the valley facing opencanopy Douglas fir on the other—a de facto meeting of moist coastal and dry interior climatic zones.

This essential duality extends to Pemberton’s flora, fauna, and human inhabitants, who also straddle two solitudes. If you live in Pemby for reasons of affordability, lifestyle or extreme hippophilia (love of horses), driving to Whistler is a trip to the big city; conversely, returning home offers effective retreat. Whistler vibes with ‘Let’s party!’ Pemberton sighs relief.

Relief is a zeitgeist prescription in an age of overtourism. The good ship Whistler isn’t exactly sinking, but it’s seriously overloaded, and those swimming north to Pemberton are finding some of the same problems they’ve fled: housing shortages and high rents have driven the town into a blitzkrieg of development that’s also changing its very nature. Everyone knows what Pemberton was, but no one knows what it will become.

THE TURN FARMERS

In 2001, pro skier JD Hare and pro snowboarder Kevin Smith purchased a ramshackle fixer-upper on a small acreage outside Pemberton. “We worshipped Mount Currie, and loved the idea of living at its base,” Hare recalls.

JD Hare at his home blueberry farm in Pemberton BC.

You could hire any heli pilot in the area to drop you on a peak, and the boys did just that. “My first time on Currie was with Kevin and Blake Jorgenson,” Hare says. “We hacked our way through a cornice and dropped into Pencil Couloir through the hole.”

Hare reckons he’s now skied Currie 20-plus times, but the initial draw was more prosaic than romancing a peak: cheap real estate. “The whole ‘Pemby’ thing hadn’t really started yet—people ridiculed the idea of living here,” he notes.

Epic skiing and partying ensued for Hare and Smith, but when talk turned to cashing in on their investment, options proved limited: Their agriculture-zoned land didn’t qualify for subdividing. A friend joked, “WTF—we can’t all farm blueberries,” and a light bulb went off for Hare, who bought-out Smith just as the bloom came off his pro-skiing rose.

Plagued by a string of injuries, Hare awoke from femur surgery in March 2009, picked up the phone, and dropped his first $50,000 as an organic blueberry farmer on land-clearing. A decade on, he strolls a verdant plot of chest-high shrubs bent by the weight of fat, sapphire orbs, his long, strange trip distilled in a small roadside sign with blue rabbit ears announcing “Hare’s Farm.”

Not including several green-thumb examples of large-scale marijuana farming, Hare wasn’t alone in flipping the switch from skiing to growing. Delaney Zayac, a tree-planting crew manager with a history of mountain exploration started Ice Cap Organics with his wife, Alisha, in 2008. Andrew Budgell, who moved here to position himself between Whistler and touring opportunities at either end of the Pemberton Valley, now runs Laughing Crow Organics with partner Kerry McCann. Both companies raise myriad crops, run Community Supported Agriculture food-box programs, and sell in markets from Pemberton to Vancouver.

Hare, Zayac and Budgell are now fixtures of the valley’s farming heritage, but skiing is the rootstock onto which they’ve spliced their lives.

Jon Johnston.

SEGGIES

If social media is a reliable voucher, every day in the Pemberton backcountry is a ski movie. Which explains why so many are filmed here. Back in the day, Nate Nash, a Matchstick Productions’ cameraman headquartered in Crested Butte, knew of Pemberton. Former CB residents Jack Hannan, Jon Johnston, and Susan Medville had settled there, and word leaked back of their pioneering sled-ski exploits.

“Shooting around Whistler in the late ’90s, it wasn’t long before we were drawn to Pemby, too” recalls Nash. “In the beginning it was mostly sleds; when there was more money, we went to heli.”

Dozens of athletes’ segments have been shot here because there are so many access options. With the town sitting at 689 feet above sea level and many descents topping 7,000 vertical feet, the terrain is huge but largely safe and manageable, with a tightknit community of guides and local shredders in constant communication. “Sometimes we’d have two different crews out—Guillaume Tessier [also a Pemby resident] might go to Rutherford while I’d head up to the Meadows,” says Nash, who now calls Pemberton home, but not necessarily because it suits a professional need. “People who’ve found a way to make a living here still love to get into the mountains in a safe way with their kids—like any ski community,” he says.

Mark Abma.

When budgets dropped again, filming returned to more costeffective sled-skiing, now vastly improved by technology. “We spend $50 to sled to the same spots we used to fly to for $2,000, and start in the dark to bag more A-grade lines in a day, “says MSP regular Mark Abma, who moved to Pemby in 2007 to obviate the long commute from Squamish.

“We used to waste so much time climbing the sleds high, getting stuck, burning a ton of fuel. Now we just park at the bottom. I love the balance: sled access to reach an objective, then an appreciation for the surroundings from touring.”

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?

In the new millennium, with backcountry zones closer to Whistler constellated by film crews, the biggest descents around Pemberton were being ticked off by a group of die-hards on their own program. “I remember flying around and spotting tracks down lines that scared the shit out of me and thinking, ‘Who are these guys?’” recalls Abma. Banff transplant Tatum Monod had her own ‘Who are these guys?’ epiphany when she started sledding around Pemby, labelling them Seal Team Six for their military precision in entering an area unseen and shralping it clean. Foon calls them The Pemby Posse. Whatever the name, the ultra-skilled pioneers who blazed the backcountry trail comprise the same list: snowboarder Joe Lax, a long-time wildfire fighter and manager; Dave Basterrechea, an ex-pro snowboarder who parlayed tinkering with sled racks into the snowmobile accessory company Cheetah Factory Racing; Chris Ankey, a snowboard photographer who started the successful Mt. Currie Coffee Co. franchise; and soul ski tree-planter-turnedorganic- farmer Delaney Zayac.

Tatum Monod plays connect the couloirs down Mt. Currie.

“There’s a sense of empowerment in putting in effort to get somewhere no one else has been,” says Daryl Treadway, a Pemberton teacher who, with his late brother Dave, spent plenty of time “standing on the shoulders” of these giants while relishing their learning curve. “Being close to these zones is convenient but not easy. It might take these guys only a few hours to work their way to the top of an all-time line, but it took them six years to figure out how to do it.”

Lax once described a typical day out and how things that deterred others—like 3 a.m. wake-ups to sled 60 miles in the dark with a frostbitten face—were key to the special bond The Pemby Posse shares. “We parked our sleds at the bottom of the line in a safe spot, consolidated our boards onto the up-sleds’ trusty CFR racks, and hopped on in tandem mode,” says Lax. “After sending it across the glacier and to the start of our bootpack, we switched to foot travel… At the top we look down onto the face—it’s near perfection, golden light, blower snow, spines and ribs built up and looking prime… a vertical white wave of high-speed slashes… what we’ve built our lives around preserving— time spent in the mountains, at the convergence of exploration, camaraderie, and boarding.”

IMBROGLIO

When a popular outdoor blogger posts details about Duffey Lake Road ski-zone conditions to the South Coast Touring Facebook page, it doesn’t go well. Canadian Avalanche Association bulletins may be frequent and informative, but in the labyrinthine Coast Mountains, large-scale weather models are no substitute for skins on the ground. Sharing safety advice is practicing community, but no mountains seem immune to territoriality. “Hate mail of the day: You’re a douchebag,” posts the blogger of the heat he’s taking. “You are ruining it for everyone. I live 30 minutes’ drive to the Duffey and my closest ski area is [now] overcrowded because of assholes like you from Vancouver… Now fuck off.”

Dave Treadway.

DAVE

Pro skier Dave Treadway lived in Pemberton from 2008 to 2014. He quickly became part of the community fabric through the Christian youth group he and his wife, Tessa, started, yet felt they’d missed their window for making a life there—30 years ago would have better fit their pioneering spirit. The family decamped to Golden, where they recently bought a house.

While still living in Whistler, Dave had skied Pemby more than anywhere else. “The first place I went was a ‘secret’ zone I followed Damian Cromwell into,” he told me in an interview. “I caught up to his group and was like, ‘Oh, wow… so this is where the big kids play.’”

At the time, the big kids were Hannan and Johnston, and snowboarders Lax and Dave B. “They removed their sled seats and replaced them with duffels of mountaineering equipment and shovels; they looked like bad-ass Chamonix transplants riding sweet snowmobiles. I was the young, eager guy looking to join,” Dave said. “They were pretty hush and didn’t make it easy, but I’d do detective work on blogs to see what zones they’d posted photos of. I annoyed them enough by getting out there on my own that I eventually earned their respect.”

If that sounds like trying to work your way into the lineup at a big wave surf break, it’s not far off. Treadway transitioned quickly from joining to exploring new areas. He was particularly proud of off-season trail-cutting as the groundwork for multi-day backcountry ski safaris, some of which became true epics (Google “Let’s Go Get Small”).

“When I moved there, Pemberton was already the sled-ski capital of the world, with the numbers and skill level higher than anywhere else—that was a big draw,” Dave told me. “Also the presence of so many filmers and photographers in the days before social media, when you were completely reliant on movie parts or magazine photos.”

Still, it hadn’t come without emotional cost. On March 31 this year, Dave paid tribute on social media to Jack Hannan, killed in a 2010 avalanche on Mount Currie while they skied with their partners: “Today, I’m camped by the river… angled perfectly so I can gaze up at the mountain, and reflect on how rad a dude Jack was, and the amazing times I was able to share with him…”

At the time, Dave, Tessa and their two boys were visiting, working on a film about their “Freerange Family”—the ultra-ski-dad persona Dave cultivated after dialing back his own big-mountain exploits. The family rolled in from Golden, but didn’t recognize anyone in town or the uptick in pace. Heading to Whistler for three days and what most would call a perfect slopeside vacation, they experienced extreme culture-shock and couldn’t wait to retreat to Pemby. Changing as it was, the town still offered complete respite from resortdom.

Indeed, everything was changing around Pemberton—even the glacial landscapes Dave loved so much. Less than two weeks later, he died, at the age of 34, in a freakish crevasse fall in an area he knew as well as anyone. A second tragedy in as many years, it threw a pall over the community.

Daryl Treadway.

DARYL

On an early May evening, Jorgenson and I sit in Daryl Treadway’s backyard, sipping beer while the white noise of a freshet creek mutes a distant train. He has just returned from a memorial for Dave in Golden, and before that, their hometown of Kenora, Ontario. Talk of his travels leads naturally to Dave’s accident on a mountain the two often explored together.

“It’s a place we always respected and made smart choices in,” Daryl says. “I hadn’t been up in five years, but when I went after Dave died, I felt the same excitement as back in the day—when we’d drive up together in the dark with family men like Joe, Chris and Delaney who always keep us on the safest trail.”

Daryl, long immersed in the pro milieu by dint of high-profile brothers Dan and Dave, well understood that even the best skiers have everything to lose; they can actively manage objective hazards they understand, but when things change it’s a different story.

“It’s not dangerous until it becomes dangerous,” says Jorgenson, reciting his credo for staying on your toes. Dave had arrived in a low snow year following a scorching summer of ice melt, and there’d just been a snowfall with wind flattening the usual telltale tablecloth sag over crevasses.

“I’ve made the mistake of not equating high avy danger with high bridge-collapse danger,” says Daryl, who’s had his share of close calls. “You’re at risk just being there; you have all these skills and do all these things to obviate danger, then the unexpected happens.”

Daryl and Jonah Treadway.

Daryl altered his own equation years ago, after a particularly gnarly descent while his wife, Pam, was pregnant. “It was another all-time run but I was suddenly aware of not needing to do it again. Shortly after, I sold my sled. Now I enjoy the mountains with my family. It doesn’t come with that emotional energy of frothing on a powder day,” he says. “Skiing with the kids and seeing them laugh brings deeper joy which, sadly, is exactly what Dave had also found.”

THE REVERENT

A friend writes in a 2 a.m. fever that she’s not intentionally dodging my questions about Pemby. She allows that the town’s current state of expansion might herald an identity crisis—but no more than elsewhere. “Bigger-world issues—growth, overtourism, hyper-capitalism, time-famine, financial collapse, reconciliation, climate panic, unresolved trauma… are washing up on the shores here, where in the past, remoteness insulated us. I remember all those things pressing in Whistler 20 years ago, and failing to be dealt with, but Pemberton seemed immune … I wonder where I’d have to go to feel buffered now?”

She wouldn’t make pronouncements, pro or con, on the increase in sled-ski visitors, but, being a true ruminant, managed to anyway, citing the human predilection for getting places too quickly, foregoing opportunity to learn how to be a partner there rather than conqueror. “They bring their hunger,” she worried, “but no way of honoring the place… a symptom we all carry. That’s the human condition right now—hungry ghosts without ritual or reverence, consuming, consuming, trying to fill the void. I’m no different. I just don’t happen to sled.”

REQUIEM

Foon leans against his kitchen counter, chatting with Jorgenson about their respective journeys into the Pembysphere. Max barks in the background, and a new puppy, Snow, tumbles underfoot.

Talk centers on Pemby’s DIY-shred heritage, where difficulty managed the volume. Until recently, the required skillset—good skier, ninja sledder, backcountry savant—added up to a discrete, user-managed experience. Both men are heartened that a ski-bum youth community is developing—a second wave of Pemberton-raised shredders behind Logan Pehota, Austin Ross, and the Pettit brothers. They also agree that to be a Pemby skier you have to want it bad. “A season pass at Whistler is $1,400, a new sled $20,000,” Foon begins, “but a perfect day shredding backcountry laps on something you used to need a heli to reach? Well, you’d pay anything for that. Cost is the currency of experience. It means so much to your soul—it sets you free.”

Talk turns to the town’s sudden growth spurt, then climate change, which leads to Dave, and back to Lisa.

“Dave’s death brought back all the pain, not just because it was a year after Lisa, but because there’s nothing you can do,” says Foon. “Life and death are both part of the game. Losing my best friend [Trevor Petersen], other friends, and then the love of my life is all pretty crushing. But I’m not going to stop going to the mountains.”

“There’s some math around skill levels and cumulative hours of experience, and a long season with so many good days, and a safer coastal snowpack,” notes Jorgenson. “So the ratio of accidents to the numbers out there and things being done is very, very small.”

“It also helped that I’d accepted those risks long ago,” adds Foon. “As hard as it was losing Lisa, I was strangely prepared. You don’t think you can be, but deep down you are. We’d done so much high-risk mountaineering together, but the flipside was it was always going to be me—we’d talk about how she’d carry on if I was gone. Those conversations prepared us both.”

“But now it’s changed,” he says. “I’m Ty’s only parent. I don’t want to say I can’t die—no one can— but I can’t leave him an orphan doing something irresponsible.”

He’s considered moving the ski business to Whistler, where there’d be more walk-in traffic and sales. But Pemberton is the best place on earth to do what his skis are made for. “It’s important they’re made here—like saying your surfboards are shaped on the North Shore and not in Waikiki. Pemby is the heart of where I want to be.”

Dave Treadway, Henrik Windstedt, and Athan Merrick eye their line on Plinth Mountain.

Foon’s final ski mission of the year was with fellow Pembertonians Matty Richard and Kye Petersen, with whom he’s developing a new line of skis. “Watching them ski the shapes we’d worked on together was a great feeling. I was OK sticking to ‘old man’ lines and letting them shred the big stuff. I could hear Trevor laughing in the wind. Lisa was there, too. And it all felt very, very right.”

Dave Treadway
Rutherford Glacier

In Loving Memory

Dave Treadway (1984-2019)
Lisa
Lisa Korthals (1968-2018)

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