Skiing in the Canadian Rockies

Jeremy Wright enjoys pistes of perfection and sensational scenery in Alberta

Banff

 

In the Canadian Rockies there’s one word the locals use more than any other: “Perfect”. Agree to meet your ski guide at a certain time next day… “perfect”, will come the response. Hand in your key at hotel reception and that too is deemed just “perfect”. Everywhere you go there’s that adjective again, on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

And after a pre-breakfast swoosh between perfectly placed pines, through pristine, boot-high powder in a glade dappled by early morning sun, I understand just what perfection means.

Booking an instructor for an 8.30am first-tracks session at Lake Louise is one of the best investments a dedicated skier or boarder can make. In smiles-per-hour terms, getting on the lift 30 minutes before everyone else brings such happy returns that you’ll think it’s your birthday.

By the time we had skied the unpisted World Cup downhill course twice — with only our own tracks to watch for on the second run — I thought the grin on my face might require surgery to remove.

Following up with an early lunch of sliders (three varieties of delicious mini burgers) and an imported draughtflow Boddingtons at the idyllically located Temple Lodge, helped top off one of the most memorable mornings I’ve had in more than 20 years of skiing.

With 139 runs and 4,200 acres of skiable terrain, Lake Louise is a fair-sized beast of a resort with plenty of steeps and vast opportunities for off-piste. However, it’s a beast with a gentler side too, and surprisingly family friendly for all its size.

Key to this are the green-graded beginners’ runs that lead down from the top of every lift, allowing younger or less-confident skiers to ride up with their more gungho companions, while skiing down something more appropriate to their skill level.

Add in the yellow-jacketed Ski Friends — locals who act as free ski partners to visitors in exchange for the resort giving them a pass — and you turn what could be rather an intimidating mountain into a welcoming and relatively stress-free environment.

I have to admit that Louise is a personal favourite of mine but it is far from the only reason to spend nine and a half hours on a plane from London.

The spa town of Banff, roughly 90-minutes from Calgary Airport, is the hub for the three ski resorts of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay — all located within a national park and Unesco World Heritage Site.

Louise, around a 40-minute drive, is actually the furthest from the main tourist centre of Banff, although it has developed its own wide range of local accommodation, including the secluded Skoki Lodge, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent a night of their honeymoon.

Sunshine Village, a 20-minute car ride from Banff, may have a smaller skiable area at 3,300 acres but lacks for nothing in romance and drama.

Most visitors will stay down in Banff town, with ready access to its plethora of bars, restaurants, gift shops, ski stores and trendy boutiques. However, for true romantics, there can be nothing finer than a 13-minute gondola ride at sunset from the base car park to the only accommodation on the mountain — the Sunshine Mountain Lodge.

After a hard day’s skiing, it would take a lot to beat the feeling of relaxing in a giant-sized spa bath, as you gaze across the wooded slopes through your double-height French windows.

The drama for most comes in the form of numerous short but challenging black runs, while the elite will steel themselves for the off-piste terrors of the aptly-named Wild West or Delirium Dive.

No one goes in the Dive without an electronic tranceiver, a probe for finding avalanche victims and, crucially, a partner.

At the other end of the scale, those with younger children, or perhaps grandchildren, will find a ready-made outdoor classroom, with a series of short runs off the cutely named Jack Rabbit chair providing progressively more difficult options.

Banff’s third skiing option, Mount Norquay, is a true locals’ favourite, less than 10 minutes from the centre of town. Far smaller than both Louise and Sunshine, Norquay is where you’ll find office workers on their lunch break taking advantage of the hourly lift tickets, or groups of older friends meeting up for a few runs and a coffee.

In the base station restaurant my instructor, Mike (aged 64) engages in banter with a mixed group of retirees whose average age must be around 70. He grins as he recalls the exploits of Eddie, who at 84 is still giving the youngsters a run for their money in the annual race down the bumps from one of the uppermost slopes.

If small and friendly is your style, then Norquay is definitely worth a visit, especially for those who value a short drive for a half-day’s good, challenging skiing in a concentrated area.

The Banff-Lake Louise ski area certainly provides plenty of options for the experienced and novice skier alike. But for me, no trip to Alberta would be complete without the breathtaking drive along the Icefields Parkway to the town of Jasper and its little gem of a ski station at Marmot Basin.

The 143-mile journey from Banff to Jasper is worth the trip all by itself, as you pass through a magnificent mountain wilderness.

As the highway snakes along the wide, snow-covered floor of the river valley, it is almost impossible to grasp the scale of the surrounding ranges.

We stretch our legs at the Athabasca Glacier, a 3.75-mile long, 100ft thick slab of blue-tinged ice looming next to the road. The scene is utterly other-worldly. The glacier resembles an enormous frozen tidal wave.

Marmot, like Norquay, must rank as one of the most relaxed ski resorts on Earth. It remains small, intimate and queue-free, even though it is home to an international army of black-clad trainee ski instructors from the Rocky Mountains Academy.

Despite its small size and delicate position within the boundaries of the Jasper National Park, Marmot is determined to grow and to upgrade as far as possible.

The ski station has recently installed three more modern chairlifts, while it remains proud of its environmentally sensitive expansion plans, worked out in conjunction with the national authority Parks Canada. Solar and wind power initiatives, careful waste management and the provision of more wildlife habitats all form part of the long-term vision.

The basin is home to some of the prettiest tree-lined runs in the Rockies, but the resort management is acutely aware that humans must share this beauty with nature — from bear, wolf and elk, to the little marmot from which it takes its name.

After all, if you lived in a place like this, you’d want to keep it “perfect”, wouldn’t you?

Facts

For information on Canadian Affairs tours to the Rockies call 020 7616 9933 or visit www.canadianaffair.com

Discover Banff Tours Johnston Canyon – www.banfftours.com : tour lasts approximately four hours.

Jasper Brewing Company – www.jasperbrewingco.com

For more information on visiting Alberta, visit www.travelalberta.co.uk

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