This article, and distribution, was paid for by the Canadian Ski Council and produced in conjunction with POWDER.
Words by Andrew Findlay
Pulling into the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and being greeted by bell hops wearing lederhosen, it's hard not to get nostalgic. Nostalgic for a time when railways hearkened a new era of mountain tourism in the Canadian Rockies and gave rise to this European-inspired grand hotel as well its sister property an hour's drive east, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The spirit lives on.
After checking in with my buddy Kris, who has joined me on this mini-road trip tour of the steeps at SkiBig3—Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay—we find our way to the underbelly of this majestic hotel and grab a couple of stools at Alpine Social. Soon we're playing pool with a couple of Scottish lads on a working holiday in the Rockies.
Early the next morning, we're riding Lake Louise's ultra-steep Summit Platter, a must-do on a crisp, clear Rocky Mountain morning like this. It's March, my favorite time to ski in the Canadian Rockies, when the northern days are long, the snowpack fat, and the temperatures have climbed comfortably out of the mid-winter deep freeze.
Lake Louise Ski Resort—Ski Louise as it is simply known—has been the longtime baby of Charlie Locke, maverick Albertan resort owner, property developer, oil man, and pioneering mountaineer back in 1960s and '70s. Running a ski resort in Canada's oldest national park, Banff, comes with next-level regulations and environmental standards. On the upside, it's in a national park, meaning you can feast upon unparalleled mountain views without a logging clearcut, mine, or any other industrial operation to spoil the view—just like the one that greets us from the top of the platter.
Across the Bow Valley, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits regally on the shore of Lake Louise, while mounts Victoria and Temple look like gothic cathedrals wildly encrusted with ice. The vista is as breathtaking as the spunky north side of Mt. Whitehorn, the 8,600-foot peak upon which the ski resort is built. We're a few minutes late for our meeting with local big-mountain ripper Kevin Hjertaas, whom we find gazing at a veritable shooting gallery of gullies prosaically named A thru I, an alphabetical selection that quickly gets my full attention.
Across the Bow Valley, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits regally on the shore of Lake Louise, while mounts Victoria and Temple look like gothic cathedrals wildly encrusted with ice. The vista is as breathtaking as the spunky north side of Mt. Whitehorn, the 8,600-foot peak upon which the ski resort is built.
Hjertaas was raised in the flatlands of Red Deer, Alberta, learning to ski on local bumps before heading to the big hills around Lake Tahoe to attend college and get his first taste of the backcountry and real big-mountain skiing. He started competing in freeride, got sponsored, and earned some podium finishes before eventually feeling the pull of home and the great untracked white North.
After returning to the Canadian Rockies, he ran the Rocky Mountain Freeriders program at Lake Louise and worked on the pro patrol while earning ski guide certification. He now runs Banff-based M-T-N Guiding with his longtime ski partner Martin Lefebvre.
"Lake Louise and Sunshine have about the same acreage as Squaw Valley or any big American resort, but with a quarter of the lifts. That means a lot fewer people, and you have wide-open areas to explore and get away from everyone," Hjertaas says. "You can traverse, hike, or sidestep out and away to your own little slice of the mountain. And by most resort's standards there are usually really no line-ups at either.”
Add to those attributes a long November to May season, and Hjeertas needed no more convincing that he made the right decision returning home.
My last name starts with F, so we traverse into the chute labeled F on the trail map. Hjertaas goes first, Kris and I follow. Tight fall-line turns thread through ribs of exposed rock, adding to the exposed high-alpine sensation. Six turns in I pause for a moment to extend my arm and brush the slope with my glove. Yup, it's steep. Hjertaas dispatches it quickly and we soon reunite, opening the throttle on the lower-angled fan below, where the terrain merges with Boomerang, one of the few blue squares on Louise's Back Bowls.
We spend most of the day doing what Hjertaas calls the classic post storm cycle—rip the back bowls, ride the Paradise Chair, ski over to the Summit Platter, and repeat. Now we're GS-ing down the Men's Downhill on the front side with spaghetti legs, gaining new appreciation for this alpine racing discipline.
It had been years—or rather decades—since I had skied Banff Sunshine. My memories were of an old-school resort with spectacular Rocky Mountains views and plodding lifts. This was long before the black diamond–studded zones of the enticingly named Delirium Dive, Goat's Eye, and Wild West were opened to usher in a new era at Sunshine.
Soon we're driving east on the Trans Canada to Banff Sunshine Village—all SkiBig3 resorts share the same lift ticket. A thin mist hangs above the still mostly frozen Bow River, while the layer-cake sedimentary cliffs of Castle Mountain glow orange and pink in the late afternoon light.
With a gondola to catch, Kris and I roll into the Sunshine parking lot 30 minutes after leaving Lake Louise. It had been years—or rather decades—since I had skied Banff Sunshine. My memories were of an old-school resort with spectacular Rocky Mountains views and plodding lifts. This was long before the black diamond–studded zones of the enticingly named Delirium Dive, Goat's Eye, and Wild West were opened to usher in a new era at Sunshine. Since then, Lake Louise and Sunshine have enjoyed a friendly rivalry. At first glance, Lake Louise presents a more rugged face, yet Sunshine locals believe Louise has no reason to be smug.
Hjertaas meets us again the following morning to show us why. For a warm-up we play on Standish Chair, an unassuming lift that offers up some micro terrain like Larynx and Garbage Chutes, gamey drops that funnel into hidden glades. Due south, Mount Assiniboine—the Matterhorn of the Rockies—pierces a blue sky mottled with puffy clouds, begging for a photo op.
Late in the morning, wanderlust gets the best of us. We return to the Sunshine Mountain Lodge to collect our avy gear before making our way to the Great Divide Express. The chairlift delivers rapidly to within a few feet of Lookout Mountain's summit. A turnstile, activated by an operational avalanche transceiver, gives access to Delirium Dive, a zone first opened in 1999. Even though the "Dive" is controlled, the turnstile is the ski patrol's method of weeding out those who don't have at least the fundamentals of safe travel in big-mountain terrain. And it's no joke: Minutes later we're clumping along an exposed metal staircase bolted via-ferrata style to the mountainside. Then the three of us peer down a cleft in the rocks with a narrow entrance through a break in the cornice, which funnels into an alpine cirque bounded by Lookout Mountain and the Eagles. The view makes my ticker skip a beat.
Hjertaas disappears, hucking a small lip of snow, straight-lining the gap then arcing a big powerful turn on the open bowl.
Later as we ride up the Goat's Eye Express, our guide shares his powder-day prescription for Sunshine. "Goat's Eye for the fast, long laps until one of the Freeride Zones opens—Delirium or Wild West. After that, hopefully the super lap Delirium to West," Hjertaas says. "Then hit repeat."
These are the goods that give Sunshine some serious cred, an intricate and massive natural terrain park full of chutes, cornices, cliff drops, and seemingly endless bowls. They also give Sunshine's crack avy-control team much to ponder after a storm. Today, though, we will have to be satisfied by soft moguls and tracked-up pow from the last storm to sweep across the Canadian Rockies a week ago.
That evening, after a Mexican feast at local eatery Magpie and Stump, we stroll down Banff Avenue past iconic Monod Sports, a family name of solid skiing pedigree in this town. Born-and-raised Banff girl Tatum Monod is an accomplished North Face–sponsored big-mountain skier. Her grandfather John was an immigrant Swiss mountain guide who started the retail shop in 1949. Her father, Peter, was a national champion alpine skier who cut his teeth on the precipitous slopes of Mt. Norquay, and that was where Tatum first strapped skis on her feet.
What Norquay—a mere 10-minute drive from Banff Avenue—lacks in comparative size it makes up for with a bounty of below-tree-line steeps and some of the steepest groomers around. It's also home to the region's first chairlift, installed in 1948. (European guides introduced skiing to the Canadian Rockies at the turn of the 19th century, a legendary Austrian guide built a ski jump on Tunnel Mountain next to Banff in 1911, then Banff Ski Club was formed in 1917.)
Kris and I stand atop North American, sizing up 1,400 vertical feet of elevator-shaft skiing. This is the spicy stuff on which the Monods and a long line of other racers first earned their chops.
Before testing my mettle on this Norquay classic, I gaze out over Banff and the sculpted ridgeline of Mount Rundle that forms a backdrop of Rocky Mountain perfection. Overcome with the feeling that my cup is running over, I point my tips toward the Norquay Lodge and slide into North American, a run with a name as epic as the Canadian Rockies are on this winter morning.