This story originally published in POWDER’s November 2016 issue (Vol. 45 Issue 3). PHOTO: Ryan Creary
ALONE ON TOP OF THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, we sink forward in our boots and feel the sun burn our faces. We stare out at rows of pyramidal peaks veined with unspoiled couloirs and wide open bowls. I consider counting the mountains, an old habit more about meditation than mathematics. My mind itches. There are a lot of mountains.
My host, 25-year-old Carter McMillan, and I are at Sunshine Village. It's one of three independently owned ski areas operating in Banff, which was established in 1885 as Canada's first national park. Lake Louise Ski Resort is barely visible to the northwest. Mount Norquay is off to the east, obscured by the limestone fins and spires of the Northern Rockies. Banff, population 9,300, sits low in the valley at Norquay's feet.
The Trans-Canada Highway grants access to it all, and somewhere below, there's infrastructure to accommodate over 3 million tourists per year. It only took a few chairlifts and a short bootpack to get here, the summit of 8,954-foot Lookout Mountain. Yet it's quiet. I feel miles and centuries away from humanity's sprawl. The largest town within a Canadian national park, Banff might exist precariously, torn between progress and preservation, if not for a stable identity found in the community's rich alpine legacy.
Skiers have been drawn to Banff since the early 1900s, when park managers began advertising it to European mountaineers as "50 Switzerlands rolled into one." Not long after, residents began building some of North America's oldest remote lodges. The first ascent of Norquay hit the books 100 years ago. In the intervening century, Banff resorts have blossomed into the Big Three, offering 7,748 skiable acres of gnarly resort terrain just 90 minutes from the booming oil town of Calgary.
McMillan, a Calgary-born competitive big mountain skier and student of petroleum engineering, is here to show me Delirium Dive. The bucket-list zone, which requires a beacon and partner for access, clings to the exposed, north-facing backside of Sunshine. We walk along the lip, peering down the Dive's 50-degree gut. I no longer think of counting endless mountains—any line here will quiet the mind. The Dive has over 2,000 feet of vertical, unmarked cliffs, and an icy metal staircase that helps second-guessing skiers skirt the big stuff. It hasn't snowed in a few days, and the Dive opened just before I arrived in late March. Some years, it doesn't open at all. One popular line, Bre-X, is closed, having been scraped bare. But it looks good a few feet to the right.
I drop in first and cut a few tentative moves on chalk. The chute opens up, and I link some looser turns before hooking left to find boot-top powder and spicy exposure. Three more turns, and my mind hums from the rush, a peaceful kind of quiet. I meet McMillan halfway down for a high-five. We slip through two cliff bands, straightline a thin ribbon of snow between boulders, and skate skier's right to pop a hidden pillow line. Then, it's back up the gondola for round two.
SINCE THE BEGINNING, Banff has revolved around tourism, a market removed from the fluctuations of Canada's commodity-based economy. In 2002, the country was swept up in an exhilarating oil boom, with Alberta, home to a massive oil sands deposit, right at the center. Restricted by land protections prohibiting the extraction of natural resources, Banff felt the rush secondhand, as new money flooded into the surrounding region.
Then in 2014, the price of oil dropped. Amid the distress of the following recession, a weak Canadian dollar only attracted more foreign visitors to Banff. The park has been a modest but stalwart economic driver, not to mention incidental proof of the fiscal value of historic and protected wild places.
Which is not to say that Banff is a pristine time capsule. The town isn't immune to fancy restaurants and high-end hotels and big tour buses thundering down cobblestone streets. Housing is expensive, with single bedrooms renting for as much as $1,000-plus per month. The one saving grace: All Banffites must be able to demonstrate that their primary livelihood is tied to the park. Though loosely enforced, this "need to reside" requirement helps stave off gentrification at the hands of second and third homeowners.
"You're not going to get the guy who wants to come in here and expand the ski area by five times because he's got a gazillion dollars," says Peter Monod. "People come to ski and see nature; they don't always want to see development and clear-cutting and radio towers.
Banff is proud of its history, and it doesn't take long to locate its deep connection to the mountains. On Banff Avenue, wedged between glossy newcomers, is one of North America's oldest outdoor shops—Monod Sports.
This ski shop's lineage can be traced from the youngest Monod, professional skier Tatum, back to her Swiss grandfather, John. After World War II ended, he wanted to live someplace with more opportunity and skiing as good as he had it in the Alps. He left for Banff in 1947 with his gear, a Swiss watch, little English, and not much else. He sold the watch for food and taught skiing to the family of a businessman with an extra bedroom. Determined to build a lasting livelihood, in 1949 he opened Monod Sports, which his son, Peter, now runs with his brother, Nick, and their families.
Thanks to restrictions set by Parks Canada, such as fixed boundaries, Banff has developed in its own unhurried way since John Monod's era. The town grows by renovating existing properties and squishing in tight, akin to island-bound Manhattan. As with Brooklyn, development spread to laid-back Canmore, just outside the park boundary. Banff's population, capped at 10,000, has increased by 23 percent since the late '90s. By comparison, Whistler has nearly doubled in size.
"You're not going to get the guy who wants to come in here and expand the ski area by five times because he's got a gazillion dollars," says Peter Monod. "People come to ski and see nature; they don't always want to see development and clear-cutting and radio towers. That's what we have and we're never going to be any different."
The hope is that with careful growth, Banff can stay competitive with the worldwide tourist industry, minimize human impact on the delicate park ecosystem, and maintain an accessible way of life.
"Not everybody wants the latest, greatest car—some guys like the classics," says Monod. "Banff is like the classic."
TO GET TO BANFF, I sped five hours north from Whitefish, Montana, one cold March evening. By the time I reached the small village of Radium Hot Springs on the national park border, the dark was so opaque that I couldn't see the next turn of the windy road, let alone any famously breathtaking mountains.
But morning popped storybook blue, and from my hostel window, I saw Cascade Mountain, the behemoth watching over town in nearly every photograph of Banff Avenue. I rolled out of my bunk bed in a room I was sharing with seven other women and ate breakfast in the dining room, which doubles as a bar that visiting Australians enjoy vigorously.
A 40-minute drive later, I met Rocket Miller, the mountain manager of Lake Louise, whose claim to fame is a starring role in a Kokanee commercial, during which he retrieves a canister of snow from an avalanche-laden slope to make beer. The 54-year-old has also worn nearly every hat at Banff ski resorts—from valet to avalanche forecaster and patroller.
"Folks who choose to visit and then stay for a while, perhaps forever, find a vibe here like no other; truly Canadian without the big hype attitude," Miller wrote to me when I first contacted him. "It's just a feel. Banff has never been known for big snow. Places like Revy, Fernie, Golden, etc., lure folks for more snow, but the seasons are shorter, seasonal work harder to find, and folks always forget the power and positive effects of the sun. Living among spectacular peaks and scenery, and actually seeing them often, has a strong positive effect."
True to his word, there wasn't new snow—the resort averages 179 inches annually—but it was sunny and I definitely felt positive. From bell to bell, we lapped the inbounds back bowls via Paradise Chair and Summit Platter. Where Sunshine's best skiing is concentrated in the Dive, big mountain features are scattered across Lake Louise's entire northeast-facing half. From Summit Platter, we started with one of the Alphabet Gullies, a channel wide enough to cut neat turns. And then we skied up and down the J-shaped backside, hitting gems like Brown Shirt and Crow Bowl. Though you can truly scare yourself with little effort, Miller skied each run like it was no big deal. Meanwhile, I was in awe of the setup, all these knockout lines snuggled up in a row with so little fanfare.
There were few pockets of snow in the usually wind-loaded bowls, but we did find some dry, soft turns. Louise is big enough to attract events like World Cup ski races, yet there's no sterile village at the base, no frills like heated chairlifts, and the place for après is an unpretentious spot called Kokanee Kabin.
At the top of Paradise, we paused to watch a small slough roll down Mount Victoria, a wide mountain ribbed with cliffs that sits across the valley. Miller named the nearby peaks and told me how important it was for him and his wife, Dena, that their kids grew up surrounded by this beauty. A minute later, a second slide kicked off. It picked up speed, trucking toward the resort's iced-over namesake before suddenly dissipating in a puff of white dust. We looked over the silent valley, then dug our poles in the snow and turned into the afternoon sun.
Driving five hours from Whitefish, Montana, to Banff, Alberta, the author spent just over $450 for three days of skiing, food, gas, and lodging.
Best Lift Ticket Deal: The Ski Big Three Tri-Area pass offers skiing at Mount Norquay, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Sunshine Village. Purchased in advance, three days cost $210.
Most Expensive Item: No dollar-beer nights here. These views have pricey booze. Bite the bullet and slurp a sugary fishbowl from High Rollers, a new basement beer hall with six lanes of bowling.
Hostel Tip: A shared bunk room at the Samesun Backpacker Lodge starts at $34 per night. Don't forget your earplugs.
Where to Après: Grab a burger at The Eddie, which also serves up milkshakes and local brews. The Rose and Crown pub is a longtime classic, good for beer and hockey. Park Distillery if you've got a date to impress or a thirst for a nice cocktail. Magpie & Stump for tacos and tequila.
The Elk: There are hundreds of them here. During mating season (thankfully not during ski season), a thousand-pound bull elk will charge you, your mom, your car, your tour bus. No mercy. Keep your distance.
How to be a Local: Your car's ski rack is a convenient place to carry a hockey stick.
For Some Culture: The Banff Centre, birthplace of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, is an arts center brimming with mountain-inspired creativity. There's music, galleries, and retreats for every kind of thinker or creator.