words :: Les Anthony
Is it any coincidence that Alberta’s best skiing can be found in Alberta’s best places?
I’m sliding across the bottom of an ocean. More precisely, an ocean hundreds of millions of years old thrust some 2,700 metres into the sky. No worries, though, the same sun that once bathed these ancient reefs shines on in a clear blue sky, and the rocky sea floor is nicely cushioned by a generous amount of Canada’s lightest snow—the kind skiers go ga-ga for. Not only that but I have, in a single leisurely run on this treeless expanse, skied from Alberta into British Columbia and back again along the Continental Divide, stitching together drainages that tilt both west to the Pacific, and eastward on a long, convoluted journey to the Atlantic. Add in the vista of an extensive lift network I’ve ridden all day and a plethora of fellow skiers enjoying three adjacent mountains like ants at so many picnics, and clearly there is much going on at Sunshine Village ski area outside Banff, Alberta.
Located as it is in the enduring wilderness of venerable Banff National Park, there is also, paradoxically, very little going on. From my vantage atop Lookout Mountain, no other sign of civilization mars the horizon. Only the serrations of the vaunted Rocky Mountains, with icons like Mt. Assiniboine—Canada’s Matterhorn—punctuate the view. Ascending this morning on a 20-minute gondola ride from the shadowy parking lot below imposing Mt. Bourgeois to a scatter of buildings that include a vintage, log-walled warden’s cabin and the ultra-modern Sunshine Mountain Lodge, I can’t help but feel gloriously isolated up here—the same feeling that has drawn skiers to this aerie since 1929.
“I’m sliding across the bottom of an ocean. More precisely, an ocean hundreds of millions of years old thrust some 2,700 metres into the sky.”
While much of my day has been spent on the kind of wide open, impeccably groomed slopes skiers refer to as “cruisers,” atop Lookout my ski tips hang in space above Delirium Dive, one of the world’s top off-piste descents, a dizzying run that distills ski history, forces of nature, and the trade offs that come with commercial development in a national park. It just so happens that this stew of historic and contemporary, isolated but accessible, is a microcosm of the very best skiing Alberta has to offer.
Discount the small river-valley ski areas edging most of its Prairie cities and skiing in Alberta is all about the Front Range of the Rockies: tilted limestone layer cakes skirted in vast swaths of untouched forest, constellated by glaciers and the robin’s egg lakes gathered at their feet. It’s scenery lauded as some of the world’s most impressive—even by Europeans, who know something of mountain beauty.
Alberta’s top ski destinations all lie within the UNESCO World Heritage collective of Banff and Jasper National Parks, linked by the Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Lake Louise, and the world famous Icefields Parkway joining the latter to the town of Jasper and Marmot Basin, where I’d begun my most recent Front Range ski trip.
Driving north, Marmot spun into view just before Jasper proper, a series of compact ribbons falling toward the broad valley of the Athabasca River. Any notions that it was a small area, however, were laid quickly to rest by terrain unseen from the road. Marmot skis large: a spectrum of broad pistes in the European tradition mix liberally with chunks of legitimate alpine adventure surrounding the Knob and Eagle Ridge chairs. Amazingly, though the last snowfall was many days previous, the treed glades of Eagle East delivered lingering powder, testament to the low mid-week traffic of an area where I never once waited to board a lift.
While the upper mountain deposits you at the hewed-wood warmth of Paradise Lodge, lower runs gather meticulously toward a family friendly base and a spacious new chalet. Despite increasing numbers of international visitors, Marmot still vibes “Prairie folk,” and parking lots stacked with Alberta plates translated to all eyes in the airy Caribou Lounge glued to a televised women’s curling match between Saskatchewan and Alberta.
With Edmonton four hours distant, many skiers stay at historic Jasper Park Lodge, originally of the palatial Canadian Pacific Railway hotel chain. Located on the outskirts of a modest town whose three-story build limit likens it, in some minds, to an early version of Banff, the lodge delivers unparalleled northwoods chic. Outside, steam from a heated pool mixes with mist from the nearby Athabasca, cross-country trails braid the grounds where elk wander uninhibited, and a skating loop circles a small lake. If you had to leave this idyll behind, as I did, the Icefields Parkway offered a perfect exit.
In winter, the Canadian roadway that enjoys more world-renown than any other is spectacular in a different kind of way: gone are summer’s aquamarine lakes, wandering wildlife, and thick tourist traffic, replaced by an empty road, the wind pluming off razor peaks, and a patina of white running to every horizon. The way the high, snow-limned ridges connect to glaciers, the glaciers to treed moraines, and the moraines to valley bottoms speak to the Pleistocene forces that shaped this place. As does virtually everything about Lake Louise Ski Resort.
It’s hard to say which is more stunning: the gaze from Whitehorn Mountain across the Bow Valley to Princess Louise’s eponymous lake, Valley of the Ten Peaks and Mt. Temple, or the battleship ramparts of Redoubt Mountain viewed from the area’s Larch Sector. Either way, you can’t avoid any of this breathtaking wallpaper; awe is part of the ski experience here.
Many of the runs on the frontside of Whitehorn, where the leg-burning Summit platter-lift deposits you on its peak, ski like a winding downhill course—no surprise given the revered World Cup races that take place here annually. But when it snows, skiers and snowboarders are drawn to Louise’s ample backside, where a variety of powdery back bowls and tree runs remind visitors just how big and diverse the resort is.
The village of Lake Louise presents another great overnight destination for skiers, whether its the creaking comfort of Deer Lodge, the opulent hominess of the Post Hotel (featuring Canada’s largest wine cellar), or venerable Chateau Lake Louise with its stone fireplaces, anachronistic animal heads, and walls adorned with photos from the golden age of Canadian mountaineering. As elsewhere in the Banff-Jasper corridor, halls here echo with the names of guides, instructors, and builders whose varied efforts connect all of Front Range ski history: Monod, Brewster, Whyte and others. In the Lakeview Lounge—familiar from colorful Canadian Pacific Railway posters of yore—soaring windows deliver the hanging Victoria Glacier, framed by Mts. Victoria and Farady. On the forest-encircled, ice-covered lake below might be a wedding, skaters, cross-country skiers, or a horse-drawn sleigh ride.
While the winter scene here can strike you as timeless, the skiing at Louise can do so as well. From the resort’s Temple Lodge, it’s an easy but stunning 11-kilometre tour into historic Skoki Lodge, the first facility built specifically to cater to ski-tourists in North America. Buried in a valley beneath majestic peaks, arriving at the snow-covered log structure always feels like going back in time, the interior virtually unchanged from the day it opened in 1931—wooden skis and snowshoes adorn a large stone fireplace and the aroma of fresh bread and soup stirs the air. Operated by Lake Louise, the lodge accommodates up to 22, a region-defining must-visit for backcountry aficionados.
Skoki radiates the kind of authenticity that inspires exploration—and not just the popular pastime of climbing and skiing surrounding peaks. It also makes you wonder what other gems the Front Range conceals, for which you need look no further than the nearby town of Banff. Here you’ll find railroad magnate Cornelius Van Horne’s Banff Springs Hotel, a paean to post-Renaissance opulence first opened in 1888; the historic Cave and Basin Hot Springs, whose discovery kicked off Canada’s entire national park system; and more skiing than you can handle at charming and steep-pitched Mt. Norquay. The Front Range lacks nothing for diversity.
Norquay is Banff’s venerable “local hill,” whose superb overviews offer the kind of orientation no map can deliver. Looking south from the historic Tea House at 2,100 metres, with its undulating art deco roof featured in so many period photos by the Swiss Guide-cum-photographer Bruno Engler, I see the townsite tucked against the hillock of Tunnel Mountain under the stern flanks of Mt. Rundle, from whose notched summit snow-jets stream into gunmetal sky. To my left is Mt. Cascade, a pyramid of offset sediments that frames all views down Banff’s main street; on the right, across Vermillion Lakes, Sulphur Mountain and its sightseeing gondola.
Back in the day, Norquay was one bad-ass mountain; other than beginner flats, it was all steep pitches on forest-covered talus and interconnecting gullies that avalanched with regularity. And though new lifts and a major addition of intermediate terrain have tamed it somewhat, Norquay’s original GS-style pistes quickly remind you of the mountain’s substantive race heritage.
Not to mention freestyle chops—as the massive bumps on infamous “Lone Pine” off the North American Chair attest. This double-black plunge poses serious challenge even to advanced skiers, especially when, like today, those bumps are icy. Descending, I recollect the apocryphal tale that my friends and I gleefully traded in the 1970s of an unfortunate skier who fell at the top and slid and bounced 400 vertical metres in a gold-lamé onesie that was then employed as his body bag.
The silliness of that myth notwithstanding, Norquay doesn’t quite draw the snows of Banff’s other two hills, and though there’s serious steep-and-deep potential when it’s on—typically early or late season—it’s more of a cruiser’s dream. I spin a few black laps on the Mystic Chair, then cool down with a blue: “Monod’s Legacy” celebrates the Banff family whose paterfamilias, Johnny Monod, immigrated from Switzerland in 1947 to guide and teach skiing. He also founded what would become Canada’s most famous outdoor store, Monod Sports; sent three scions to the national alpine team in the 1960s and 1970s; and seeded a third generation in today’s high-profile freeskier, Tatum Monod. Although her grandpappy was instrumental in the development of Sunshine and Lake Louise ski areas, he also helped out at Norquay, cutting trails, moving boulders, and setting up a shop. A family business built on being rad.
Eventually, my wanderings led me to Sunshine Village. After a morning linking turns off popular Standish, Goat’s Eye and TeePee Town chairs, I’m about to experience Sunshine’s true test piece, Delirium Dive, a massive alpine amphitheatre accessed via a metal catwalk staircase. Once thought of as a daredevil’s paradise, The Dive’s nasty reputation for unstable snow saw it closed for several decades until Parks Canada figured out how to make it safer by running avalanche control in its vast drainages. When it reopened in 1998, skiers flocked to The Dive, legitimizing Alberta in the international annals of big mountain resort skiing.
Snow squeaks under my skis as I tip into this latest postcard. I’ll ski some steep terrain, then make the exhilarating eight-kilometre run to the Bourgeois parking lot and drive back to Banff. Along the way will be more views, more powder, and a swim through the deep geology of a limestone canyon. After all, skiing may famously be the closest thing to flying without leaving the earth, but in Alberta, it’s also like diving into an ocean.
Jewels of Alberta skiing
Vertical drop: 914 m
Summit/base elevations: 2,612 m/1,698 m
Average annual snowfall: 400 cm
Number of lifts: 7
Number of runs: 107
Skiable acres: 1,675
% Beginner/Intermediate/Expert: 30/30/40
Vertical drop: 1,070 m
Summit/base elevations: 2,730 m/1,658 m
Average annual snowfall: up to 9 m
Number of lifts: 12
Number of runs: 107
Skiable acres: 3,358
% Beginner/Intermediate/Expert: 20/55/25
Vertical drop: 991 m
Summit/base elevations: 2,637 m/1,646 m
Average annual snowfall: 454 cm
Number of lifts: 10
Number of runs: 145
Skiable acres: 4,200
% Beginner/Intermediate/Expert: 25/45/30
Vertical drop: 503 m
Summit/base elevations: 2,450 m/1,680 m
Average annual snowfall: 300 cm
Number of lifts: 4
Number of runs: 42
Skiable acres: 190
% Beginner/Intermediate/Expert: 50/35/15