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A Gravitational Force: Remembering Lisa Korthals

BC ski pioneer and adventurer killed in avalanche in Whistler, BC, on March 28.

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Ten weeks before Lisa Korthals was killed in a sympathetically-released size 3 avalanche while heli-ski guiding in Whistler on March 28, 2018, she gave an interview to Mountain Life magazine about her historic first female ski descent of Alaska’s burly University Peak, completed in 2002 alongside husband Johnny Chilton.

During that conversation, she reminisced about an early “date,” her first major rock-climb with Chilton.

“We climbed Yak Peak on the Coquihalla Highway. That was our first 12 hour day together. It’s a long climb—16 pitches, plus getting off. It’s probably the best day of climbing I ever had, because I wanted to impress him, so I was trying not to show fear. Then while he slept in the car, I drove all the way home and had to get up and go to work landscaping the next day for 6:30am.”

Korthals climbing Thin Air, at Smith Rocks, Oregon. Photo: John Chilton.

Dry-humored, humble, and hard-working, the 49-year-old Korthals was a trailblazer—a gravitational force and an exuberant and open-hearted person. She was a preternaturally gifted athlete, in every field—from canoeing and softball to skiing, mountain biking and climbing.

Korthals had been introduced to rock-climbing in the mid-1990s by friend Lee Anne Patterson. Her first route ever was Squamish’s classic multi-pitch, Dierdre, and she loved it.

Over the next decade, she would climb in the Needles, Smith Rock, Joshua Tree, Red Rocks, the Rockies and Squamish, often with Patterson, Jia Condon, Nadine Nesbitt or colleagues from her stints guiding at Outward Bound, where she introduced students to climbing at Smith Rock and J-Tree.

Drawn to Whistler to ski, in 1988 the Toronto-raised Korthals joined the Whistler Ski School at the age of 19, and went on to compete on the freeski circuit, win several Powder 8 championships with Patterson, and feature in the documentary film Ski Bums, before transitioning to ski guiding in 2000.

Photo: Lisa Korthals.

Korthals later became lead guide and operations manager at Coast Range Heli-skiing. She was one of only a tiny handful of women at that level.  She felt proud of the team environment she created there, replacing the industry’s more prevalent top-down decision-making hierarchy with a collaborative process. In the Mountain Life interview, she said, “I like to think that everyone who was part of our team for those two years felt very included and a big part of the decision making. Ultimately, the calls were my decision, but I always made sure everyone voiced their opinions.”

She said of breaking into the ski guiding industry in the early 2000s, “One of the hardest things as a woman is having to prove yourself to the clients. Clients just assume that a guy can ski. But when a group of aggressive male skiers get a woman as their guide, you can almost see [the suspicion] in their faces. So you have to prove your ability to them, to make them turn around, so they know they’re going to have a good day.”

While friends commented on her positive energy and fun, her adventure partners knew her toughness, too. “You have to be [tough], to ski some of the things she skied,” says Patterson.

Among her notable descents, in 2001 she made the first women’s ski descent of the central couloir on Joffre’s north face, in the Coast Range north of Pemberton, and in 2004, with Chilton, skied Queen Bess, a peak in British Columbia’s Waddington Range. The couple skied down the route by which Don and Phyllis Munday had first climbed it.

Such ski exploits demanded Korthals’ intensity of focus. Off skis, she tapped into it to climb the north face of Edith Cavell in the Adamants with Chilton. “When you’re moving up that thing, you’re fully focused, especially at the top when you’re simul-climbing after being on the mountain for hours.”

She recalled belaying Chilton on a chossy, traversing pitch of Edith Cavell. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy fuck, I’d hate to spend the night out here.’ It’s such a massive piece of terrain. And then he put his hand in a cupped crack and pulled out a bag with doobies in it. He said, ‘I guess we’re on route!’

After giving birth to her and Chilton’s  son Tye, in 2005, Korthals continued to ski-guide, developed a real estate practice, and shifted her summer focus to playing with gravity and a great posse of Pemberton-based friends on mountain bikes.

Korthals climbing Ancient Art in Utah’s Fisher Towers. Photo: John Chilton

In recalling her career highlights for Mountain Life in their “Ladies First” issue, Korthals wrote in an email: “I was so lucky to always have a pool of strong women around me in the ski world. Diny Harrison, one of the first female UIAGM Mountain Guides was a mentor. I skied with Helene Steiner, the first female UIAGM mountain guide back in 1992 with Lee Anne Patterson, and it was then that I realized the possibility of becoming a ski guide. Many of the other strong confident women I skied with over the years have continued on and done great things.

“It’s been a privilege to have been part of that culture,” she wrote.

Her loss is felt keenly throughout the mountain and snow communities, and most deeply by family in Toronto, Ontario, Whistler and Pemberton, BC. A heli-ski run near Mount Currie will be named after her and a bursary for upcoming female guides is being set up in her honor by the CSGA.

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