2013
01/15

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Skiing Alberta’s Rockies: A Vermonter Heads West

By Bill Scheller

Photos by the Author

Atop Saddleback Ridge, 8,300‘, Lake Louise Mountain Resort

Atop Saddleback Ridge, 8,300‘, Lake Louise Mountain Resort

I was standing near the top of Mount Whitehorn, 8,650’ up in the Alberta Rockies, because I was tired of packed powder.

 

That old New England term has always seemed like an oxymoron: once it’s packed, how can it be powder anymore?  This isn’t just a semantic quibble — “packed powder” can also be an outright prevarication, often translated far more accurately, here in the East, as “ice.”

 

I’m not a disloyal Vermonter.  As much as the next person, I’m happy at Stowe or Smugglers Notch on a good day, defined as a day when I’m not about to plunge down a steeply inclined skating rink.  They can pack powder in the Green Mountains as well as our sort of powder can be packed.  But like all but the most provincial Eastern diehards, I’ve always wanted to ski the Rockies.  Higher mountains, drier air, trails way above treeline, powder left blissfully unpacked … it’s a powerful allure, and a New Englander eventually has to give in.

Lake Louise Mountain Resort- It’s hard to keep your eyes on the trail

Lake Louise Mountain Resort- It’s hard to keep your eyes on the trail

 

Lake Louise Mountain Resort, sprawled across Mount Whitehorn and a cluster of lesser peaks and ridges just ten minutes from the eponymous lake and the splendid Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, threads 139 runs (not counting its powdery back bowls) and nine lifts across 4,200 acres of wonderfully varied terrain.  That’s big enough, by any standard, but it seemed a lot bigger on the morning I met my guide, Tracy Bruns, and headed up the Grizzly Express Gondola.  This was because it was uncharacteristically cloudy that day, and I couldn’t get a handle on our surroundings.  Whenever a patch of sky would clear, another peak or pinnacle would drift into view, each loftier than the last, until I had the impression that the Grizzly was a gondola into another dimension.

 

The remarkable thing was that once I got my skis under me and began to follow Tracy down the intermediate-level Wapta trail, I found myself in an altogether familiar dimension, although one that had been spectacularly transformed.  My great Alberta revelation was that you don’t step off a lift at these resorts and suddenly find yourself waist-deep in powder.  There are plenty of great groomed cruising trails, yet with a vital difference: this is powder of a different order, packed firm but with plenty of give, and remarkably forgiving of even less-than-exquisitely executed turns (after nearly 25 years of skiing, spread over the past 50, I still don’t do exquisite; that was Tracy’s department).

 

Temple Lodge, 6,608’, Lake Louise Mountain Resort

Temple Lodge, 6,608’, Lake Louise Mountain Resort

Another revelation was the abundance of intermediate trails that originated at elevations just as high as the start of the World Cup Men’s Downhill Run, a part of the Cup tour’s annual circuit.  This made for cruising runs that were just that – long, looping routes to the base (at 5,400’, loftier than the highest summit in Vermont) with plenty of room for dips, drops, and curves, for open vistas and descents into Whitehorn’s lower forested reaches.  For the first time in my skiing life, I wasn’t counting runs, not even unconsciously – each run was long enough to be several, especially when accessed by multiple lifts.  The seamlessness of the experience was also helped by the virtual absence of lift lines – “five minutes is usually the longest wait time,” Tracy told me, “and in midweek, you can walk right on.”  Lift capacity at Lake Louise is 1,600 skiers per hour, a limit set by Parks Canada as part of its stewardship of the vast Banff National Park which encompasses the resort and more than 2500 square miles of the surrounding mountains and Bow River valley.

 

 

Those beautifully groomed cruising trails were lovely, but I had to try the famous Rockies powder – “champagne” powder, as it’s always called, because of the near-effervescent lightness caused by a ratio of air to water that is far higher than in more humid winter climates.  It was up there, all right, fluffily carpeting an array of bowls and gullies that were, on the resort map, strewn with the black diamonds and double diamonds that indicate routes reserved for the most advanced skiers.  “We’ve got six gullies that we open in sequence, depending on avalanche danger,” Tracy told me.  “We’re very proactive in avalanche control, because the demand is there to ski that kind of terrain.  Our patrol, with the help of Parks Canada, sets off avalanches by firing or dropping bombs from “avalaunchers,” or what we call “potato guns” – the reference being to the hair-spray-powered spud shooters that, we discovered, both Tracy’s and my sons had built.

 

The author, fresh off the Grizzly Express Gondola, Lake Louise                         Mountain Resort

The author, fresh off the Grizzly Express Gondola, Lake Louise Mountain Resort

Parks Canada also takes meticulous care of the environment in Canada’s oldest national park.  Wildlife thrives here, including the bighorn sheep that sometimes appear, early in the ski season, under the 6-Pack Express chairlift.  “You can also see grizzlies on the lower mountain, down below treeline, but not during the season,” Tracy told me.  “The minute we’re closed in the spring, they move right in.”

 

But there was one intermediate run from the top of Whitehorn, tucked alongside an array of double diamonds called the “Ultimate Steeps.”   It was the Boomerang, and the way to reach it was by taking a lift called the Summit Platter, which we had to reach by taking a six-passenger chairlift to a point between Whitehorn’s summit and Saddleback Ridge, then cruising down an intermediate run to the lift loading area.  The Platter is a Poma lift, aka a “platterpull.”  I hadn’t been on one since I was a kid, and I hadn’t missed the experience.  You ride a Poma by slipping a platter about eight inches across between your legs and tightening your haunches around it; it’s suspended from a line attached to a cable, which tugs you along while your skis stay planted on the ground – ideally, within the tracks that everyone else’s skis have made.  Off we went, with Tracy looking back every now and then to see if I was still there.  This seemed nicely solicitous but unnecessary, until I saw the guy in front of Tracy take a dive right off the track, letting go of his platter and flopping out of her way.  The damned things are tricky, and you don’t get a chance to recover if your skis get out from under you.

 

Main Lodge, Lake Louise Mountain Resort, built with logs harvested       during cutting of glades trails

Main Lodge, Lake Louise Mountain Resort, built with logs harvested during cutting of glades trails

The platter is the ultimate thigh workout.  By the time we got to the top, I felt as if I could crack Brazil nuts between my knees. But once we had shuffled over to the lip of the Boomerang, I was thinking  more about getting down that about how I’d gotten up.  The snow was only about knee deep, but powder, I discovered, does two things to you at once: it slows you down on a steep incline, but that same braking action also makes it trickier to pull off a broad turn.  Of course, the trick is not to want to make broad turns, and to check your speed with those tight swivelly carves I was watching Tracy execute as she showed the way down what was less a trail than a suggestion on an open-faced incline, a somewhat-less-than-ultimate steep.

 

I took off, swept through one or two turns I wasn’t proud of, and planted myself into the snow on the third.  Getting up was dicey, since the usual method of planting my poles on my uphill side was useless: the poles just kept going, down into champagne that had probably been uncorked three months earlier.  I more or less flopped upright, and made a lame excuse about my goggles fogging.  Then Tracy gave me a fine bit of powder advice.  “Take your weight off the downhill ski as you go through the turn,” she said.  “And hold your hands out forward.”  It worked – I got down out of the fluff without taking another dive, or having to probe for the bowels of Alberta with my poles.  It was the best and most concise lesson I’d been given since I’d been told to “bend mit die knees” in 1958.

 

Summit station, Continental Divide Express lift, Sunshine Village

Summit station, Continental Divide Express lift, Sunshine Village

Lunch at Lake Louise is one of those “Are we really going to bother going back out on the slopes?” experiences.  The massive base Lodge of the Ten Peaks, crafted of logs harvested during the cutting of glade trails on the mountain just above, harbors not only the usual frenetic ski cafeteria, but a handsome upstairs room with three serving stations – pasta, carving, and soup-and-salad.  After a fortifying bowl of chili and a big Caesar salad, though, I did head back onto the slopes – not up into the powdery steeps, ultimate or otherwise, but down a friendly series of groomers that began atop Saddleback Ridge.  I finished up – Tracy had had to leave, or else her heart might have been in her throat – with a descent of the World Cup Ladies’ Downhill, not so bad if done as a series of gentlemanly (not World-Cup ladylike) traverses.  But that wasn’t what sent me back to my Jacuzzi tub at the Chateau Lake Louise.  No, it was a mid-afternoon cup of tea in the lodge, where a cut from Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” album was piping through the sound system.  Over the course of my skiing life, I’d seen lodge music go from Austrian folk songs to grunge rock, and this was a decided improvement.

 

 

Next day, I took a longer drive to Sunshine Village, a ski resort about 45 minutes east of Lake Louise via the Trans-Canada Highway (it’s actually much closer to the town of Banff, making local accommodations such as the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel – or the inn at Sunshine itself – a more convenient lodging choice if this were to be a visitor’s exclusive skiing venue).  Sunshine is another colossus, with some 107 runs and 12 lifts spread over three mountains – Goats Eye, Lookout, and Standish.  With the weather having reverted to the typical Alberta winter clarity appropriate to the resort’s name, my guide Annie Yoja took me from the base lodge to the village via an eight-passenger gondola reputed to be the world’s fastest.  Unique to the Alberta Rockies – and certainly not all that common elsewhere in the skiing world – Sunshine’s lodging and dining nexus isn’t down at the base by the parking lot, but well up Lookout Mountain at an elevation exceeding 7,000’.  “You can check in when you arrive at the base,” Annie explained, “then head up on the gondola, transfer to another lift, and ski all day before you ever set foot in your room.”  Sure enough, over by the inn I saw snowmobile-riding bellhops unloading luggage belonging to guests who were already up on the slopes.

 

The Continental Divide Express lift straddles the Alberta – British Columbia border

The Continental Divide Express lift straddles the Alberta – British Columbia border

It was a gloriously sunny day, with the skies and reflected snowlight growing brighter still as we took the Angel Express chair from the village to a point just below the summit of Lookout Mountain.  This turned out to be a lift to a lift, indirectly – getting off, we slipped down a combination of intermediate / black diamond trails (one ethereally named “Angel Flight”) to the loading gate of the Continental Divide Express, a chair accessible only by skiing from lifts originating farther below.  This was no flight-of-fancy name: the lift actually does roughly straddle the Continental Divide, and the provincial border as well.  Part way up, we passes a stanchion that bore a placard reading “Welcome to Beautiful British Columbia.”  Another, grander signpost for B.C. loomed to the west – Mt. Assiniboine, nearly 12,000’ in height, dominated a sea of snowy, craggy peaks that ranged in every direction.  Having memorized the horizons at my home ski haunts, I found it a novel problem to have to keep my eye on where I was going at these gorgeously situated resorts.

 

I knew where I wasn’t going.  “It’s about a 15 minute walk from where you get off the Divide lift to the Delirium Dive wall,” Annie told me.  “It’s open when conditions allow it.”  I looked at my trail map; there were two black diamonds on the wall, and the caveat, “Special Restrictions Apply.”  That sounded innocuous enough, like the conditions on an airline ticket sale, but there was nothing innocuous about the powdery plunges I took note of the next time I had a good view from the village.  “Have you done any of them?” I asked Annie.  “Only the one on the far left,” she answered.

 

We took a civilized route, fashioned out of three or four cruisers that took us under the Divide lift and back down to the village; from there, we wandered down to the Goats Eye Express lift to explore the mountain of the same name (for a look at the layout of all of these peaks, lifts, and trails, here and at Lake Louise, visit the websites listed at the end of this article).  Goats Eye is heavy black diamond territory, but with a seemingly endless zigzag cruiser called the Sunshine Coast, a great appetite-rouser just before our lunch – fish and chips, built around a fresh and flaky haddock filet – at the Chimney Corner restaurant in the village’s Sunshine Inn.

 

Ski in – ski out lodging and dining at Sunshine Village, 7.082’

Ski in – ski out lodging and dining at Sunshine Village, 7.082’

There were big comfortable Morris chairs by the fire at the restaurant, but I wasn’t going to be lulled the way Miles Davis had lulled me the day before.  Annie had arranged an afternoon experience that I wasn’t so sure of at first, but that was just intriguing enough to try.  Snow-biking is exactly what it sounds like: you get on an apparatus resembling a bicycle with skis instead of wheels, buckle on two separate skis only slightly longer than your boots, and head down the hill.  Phil Morley, my instructor, started off by giving me what I would have thought was counterintuitive advice.  “You don’t use the skis on your feet to hold yourself up or steer,” he said.  “And you hardly turn the handlebar at all.  Just hold your feet close to the bike, lean into turns, like on a motorcycle, and when you want to stop, arch around sharply and look uphill.”  The damnedest thing was that it worked just like Phil said, and after two runs with him — one on a straightaway where we must have hit 40 miles an hour — I was on my own.  I can’t remember the last thing I picked up so quickly.  The best part was when someone asked, “Where are the brakes?,” and I coolly answered, “There are no brakes.”  It was fun.  It was fast.  If Steve McQueen had had one of these and some snow, he could have escaped the Germans.  But after a couple of runs I wanted to get back on my skis, so I brought the bike back to Phil at the rental station, and went back up Goats Eye, figuring how to link the Sunshine Coast to the Banff Avenue ski-out trail that would bypass the gondola and zip me down to the base lodge and the parking lot.  It was a good way to end the day – just enough drop to keep it enjoyable; just enough smooth straightaways to make it all seem like a quick, effortless stroll to the car.  And, as everywhere in these mountains, the snow was perfect.

 

 

Or my last morning of skiing in Alberta, though, I wanted to head back to Lake Louise Mountain Resort and face the Boomerang once again, unguided this time but with Tracy’s admonitions about weight distribution and hand/pole placement firmly in mind.  I warmed up with a half-dozen runs, all before lunchtime, and in bright sunshine I felt superbly competent, powder-ready, as I sailed down to the Poma and grabbed my platter.  It would be a perfect run, I was certain.

 

Looking toward The Monarch (9528’) from top of Angel Express lift, Lookout Mountain, Sunshine Village

Looking toward The Monarch (9528’) from top of Angel Express lift, Lookout Mountain, Sunshine Village

I was certain about the Poma, too – until one little imperceptible shift sent me off balance, and I wound up, like that other poor devil two days before, scrambling to get upright on the side of the track as my platter swung away and went riderless up Mount Whitehorn.

 

I skied down to the lodge, happy anyway, and packed it in.  I had a snowshoe trip scheduled at the Chateau in an hour.  Besides, that Poma did me a favor: this was the first time I’d been forced to take the tongue-in-cheek conundrum of advice I always give my son Dave: Never Take the Last Run.

 

Next issue: A Sojourn at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

 

 

IF YOU GO:

 

Lake Louise Mountain Resort: www.skilouise.com

 

Sunshine Village: www.skibanff.com

 

Banff Lake Louise Tourism:  www.banfflakelouise.com

 

Alberta tourism information: www.travelalberta.com

 

 

Photographs accompanying this article were taken with a Hewlett-Packard Photosmart R507 digital camera.

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