Conquering Mountains and Barriers
On March 8, Christina Lustenberger and her frequent expedition partner Andrew McNab, climbed and skied a technical 45-degree couloir on the southwest face of Mount Niflheim in the Monashee Mountains.
Lustenberger is an ex-World Cup alpine racer from Invermere-turned-ski guide and bad ass big mountain skier. For the past several years Lusti, as she is known, has been ticking off a list of striking first ski descents, from the mountains of Western Canada to the remote granite spires of Baffin Island.
She is one of the women carrying on a tradition of female badassery in the mountains of Canada that is worth noting. And she’s doing it with, what you might call, typical Canadian understatement. Of her recent foray with McNab, she posted simply on social media, “Niflheim. Where the bad people go.”
Bad, as in “good” bad.
Georgia Engelhard belonged to a vanguard of affluent Americans who found their mountain bliss in Canada. She was also a pioneering alpinist who helped blaze a path for women on the sharp end of the rope.
The Manhattan-born adventurer visited the European Alps as a teen with her family and climbed Mount Rainier with her dad in 1926. On a trip to the Canadian Rockies that same year, she ascended Pinnacle Mountain above Larch Valley with guide Edward Feuz Jr. The Rockies was her summer home away from home for 15 of the following 25 summers. In 1929 she climbed nine classic peaks, including a traverse of Hado Peak and Mount Aberdeen. In 1931 she summitted 38 peaks, a tour de force summer that included nine trips up Mount Victoria for a 1932 Parks Canada-sponsored film called She Climbs to Conquer.
In addition to mountains, Engelhard conquered gender-defined rules. She thumbed her nose at the Victorian-era conventions of the day demanding women wear ankle-length skirts in the mountains and became one of the first female alpinists to wear wool pants like her male rope mates. A century later, it seems like a ridiculous notion, but at the time it would have taken some courage on behalf of Engelhard to withstand the withering looks of her stuffy critics.
She is but one of many women to break barriers in the mountains. Diny Harrison is among them. She broke a barrier without giving it too much thought when in 1992 she became the first internationally certified female mountain guide in Canada.
At the time Harrison was too immersed in the rigour of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides examination regime to ponder the significance of a woman dancing onto the stage of a then very male dominated show. To her it was simply the pursuit of a passion for mountains that was kindled in her teens. When she was 14, Harrison traveled west from her native Toronto for a 10-day adventure at High Horizons, a mountaineering skills camp started by legendary guide Bernie Schiesser. This experience prompted a move west.
Prior to diving into the mountain guiding life, she worked on the ski patrol at Lake Louise and was an avid backcountry skier. The idea of choosing her lines and “always skiing first” appealed to her. Friends encouraged her to knuckle down and focus on becoming a ski guide. She was used to hanging with the boys, comfortable in an outdoor locker room environment overflowing with testosterone. An energetic, engaging and assertive-as-needed personality served her well.
After earning her guide stripes in ’92 she embarked on a 17-year career with Canadian Mountain Holidays, eventually becoming assistant manager at CMH Revelstoke. She also guided summers with CMH, Yamnuska Mountain School, Banff National Army Cadet School as well as internationally with a number of guiding outfits, while also honing her linguistic chops becoming fluent in French, German and Italian.
Alison Criscitiello, who heads up the University of Alberta’s Ice Core Lab, is another pioneer. Not only is she a world leading scientist in the traditionally male-dominated field of glaciology, she‘s also a bad ass mountaineer whose career blends her profession with a passion for adventure.
There are so many women who have smashed gender stereotypes in the mountains and inspired others to do the same, that it seems unfair to single out just a few for mention. Climbing mountains can strip life down to its simple essentials. Assess the conditions, weigh the risk against the reward, make decisions, and move – or not. Why shouldn’t mountains also strip life of its artificial barriers?
Written by Andrew Findlay – @afindlayjournalist