With its humble frontier roots and ever-evolving community, Pemberton has seen its share of shake ups over the years. Historically derided as Whistler's northernmost suburb (complete with baby strollers and a daily procession of commuter traffic), one need only dig a little deeper to see what makes this town so special.
There's no lift-accessed skiing (unless you drive south into Whistler to battle with mega resort crowds), so locals looking for fresh tracks tend to rely on their own power. That can be in the form of pure sweat on the skin track, or if you want to really get places, with a snowmobile or helicopter. Add to that a (now slightly) more affordable housing market and you can see why so many amenity migrants, professional skiers and growing Whistler families are choosing to settle there.
It was this realization that brought three Pembertonians together with the idea to celebrate the town's world-class winter recreation opportunities in the form of the Raven Backcountry Festival (RBF). Launching into its inaugural year over two evenings of indoor events and one full day of backcountry clinics, it wasn't hard to stack the schedule with Pemberton's community of shredders, artists and adventure companies.
"We're running on fumes in terms of production budget but we're also incredibly well supported," says Gus Cormack, a local bed and breakfast operator who teamed up with Blackcomb Helicopters' Andy Meeker and Broken Boundary Adventures' Tyler Kraushaur to kick start the festival.
"The Pemberton Valley Lodge has stepped up to become the presenting partner for this first year with a cash sponsorship, we really couldn't have done it without that. Tourism Pemberton gave us some seed funding to help get the marketing and promotion side of it going and we also have awesome sponsorship prizes from Arcteryx and Yeti (Coolers)."
The backbone of Pemberton's winter recreation is its access. With the Hurley to the north, the Duffey Lake Road to the east and Rutherford Creek (one of the access points to the fabled Pemberton Icefield) to the south west, backcountry access routes radiate from the Village of Pemberton like spokes on a wheel. Overseeing it all is the jagged north face of Mount Currie, its couloirs teasing ski mountaineers as they drive through town. All these zones require a laundry list of skills and equipment to gain access, which is where the festival's clinics shine.
"The clinics give people the tools to access the backcountry around Pemberton," says Cormack. "We wanted to showcase the different ways people can access the mountains around here so we thought it was important to have a big snowmobile component as well as a heli component. In Pemberton, motorized access definitely gets you through the treeline and up into the glaciated terrain that everyone likes to ski. That's why you see a sled on every second truck around here in the winter."
On Saturday, Feb 8, Broken Boundary will be leading snowmobile clinics for all abilities, Extremely Canadian will be guiding heli-accessed, ski-touring clinics and Coast Mountain Guides will be guiding splitboarding, ski-touring and crevasse-rescue clinics. Almost all clinics will have women-specific groups. While exploration and learning is at the core of the RBF, the two evening events aim to showcase Pemberton's formidable outdoor winter culture. The welcome event on Friday, Feb. 7 at Big Sky Golf Club will have six local Pemberton presenters; Blake Jorgensen, Tatum Monod, Eric Pehota, Logan Pehota, Kye Petersen and Daryl Treadway.
"It's a really stacked lineup of speakers, but we didn't really have to scratch the surface to assemble that group of influential athletes and artists in Pemberton," says Cormack. "It's really exciting when you start thinking about the festival in subsequent years. There's a really deep pool of talented, passionate people in this community. Everyone we've talked to really wants to be there to support the event."
One of the community initiatives of the RBF is giving financial support to the Lisa Korthals Memorial Bursary, which provides financial aid to women pursuing a career as a mechanized ski guide. Both Extremely Canadian and Blackcomb Helicopters are donating their staff hours and flight time to raise money for the bursary, as will RBF from any profits on ticket sales and silent auction items.
"When we talked about fundraising during the festival it was pretty unanimous when the Lisa Korthals Memorial Bursary came up," says Cormack. "It's a great way to support the guiding community and at the same time, give a nod to a legendary Pembertonian."
If you haven't explored the Pemberton backcountry yet, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. If you haven't treated yourself to a day of snowmobiling or a heli bump in a while, this is a great way to splurge with some like-minded backcountry enthusiasts. For those who yearn for the good old days of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival with a backcountry spin, the RBF brings it back to the core community without the bloat of massive TV screens and bar parties. You may never look at Pemberton with the same eyes again.
For more information on the Raven Backcountry Festival, visit www.tourismpembertonbc.com/ravenfest.
Vince Shuley is a longtime fan of the Pemberton backcountry. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email email@example.com or Instagram @whis_vince.