During the long, powdery winter in Alberta, Canada’s cowboy country, trade your horse for skis and hit Banff’s famed Big 3.
We’ve always had an up-and-down relationship, heights and I.
There have been happy times. Lounging on a securely flat mountaintop taking in the view. Idling at a Beverly Hills traffic light in a ’97 Honda Passport beside a Ferrari Testarossa (talk about height advantage). Gazing analytically down at Rorschach test-sized lakes from a 747 window with seat belt dutifully fastened. These are chummy moments with heights I’ve welcomed.
Then there are those other times. The down times (as in, “Don’t look down”), when heights and I can quickly get on each other’s nerves. Changing a floodlight at the top of a 24-foot extension ladder. Switchbacking beside a 2,000-foot abyss on a questionably narrow canyon trail. Standing on a glass-bottom bridge (who would design such a thing?). Or — latest encounter — hanging tenuously by an ice ax and toe crampon from a giant frozen waterfall in a magnificent but precipitous corner of Banff National Park while trying (too hard, apparently) to do something useful with my other dangling arm and leg.
“Trust your equipment,” Tak hollers from below. “You want to hear the thunk, not the plink, when you’re swinging into the ice. It’s all in the wrist. Like darts. Do you play darts?”
I swing my other ice ax into the wall like a high-stakes darts loser.
And again. Plink! And again. Plonk?
It holds. Barely. Now if I can just attach my other spiked foot into this ice cliff, all four limbs will be squarely fastened, and I won’t need to move until spring.
“Heel down, toes up, feet apart,” Tak coaches. “You want to swing your foot up just a little bit so that it bites.”
I swing my foot up. Ow. It bites, all right.
“Sweet!” Tak says. “See? It works. It can hurt when you’re kicking the ice. First time I did it, I got black toe.”
Takeshi Tani is an ice-climbing guide and instructor with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, one of the largest climbing and mountaineering outfitters in Canada. Affable, patient, goateed, meticulous, capable of spidering up a 50-plus-foot face of rock-solid water in wild Western Alberta, and armed with an inexhaustible supply of monosyllabic encouragements (“Sweet!” “Nice!” “Yes!” “Good!”) to match his nickname (“Tak!”), he inspires every hard-won millimeter of confidence any first-time student of ice climbing could hope for here in Banff’s magnificent Johnston Canyon. On any given sunny, freezing Saturday morning in late January, this otherworldly gorge system tucked just off of old Highway 1A in Canada’s first — and arguably foremost — national park draws a crowd of hikers to its frozen-waterfall-flanked trails — along with the odd pair of fate-tempting winter warriors donning helmets, ropes, ice screws, axes, and foot spikes.
Tak is great. It’s the other dude I’m concerned about. The one voluntarily pinned to an icy wall like a giant Gore-Texed insect with flare-up height issues.
“Take a break,” Tak needlessly tells me. “No rush. Ice climbing isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. A meditation.”
I hang in there, literally. Breathing. Sweating. Hugging ice. Then, against all better meditative judgment, releasing my precious axed handhold and pushing on. Up, of all directions, on this crazy pitch. Here’s the swing.
And a miss. Too heavy-handed.
“Darts,” Tak says.
I try again. Plink! Strike two. One more time. Clear your head, I tell myself. Marathon, not a sprint. Meditate. All in the wrist.
And the crowd goes wild. “Good,” Tak says.
“Rare jewels set in a soft velvet of forest green.”
If ever there was a pithy phrase about a spectacular Western mountainscape that’s as spot-on today as it was over a century ago when it was penned, it belongs to (sorry, John Muir) the keen observations of Arthur O. Wheeler.
In his short but surefooted opus, The Alps of the New World: Pleasures of Climbing the Canadian Rockies, the seminal land surveyor and Alpine Club of Canada co-founder makes a persuasive case: Until you’ve laid eyes and feet on those ridiculously gorgeous mountains draped across western Canada’s Alberta-British Columbia provincial border and beheld them in all their wild regalia — gaping gorges, idyllic icefields, impossibly blue-green glacier-fed lakes — you really haven’t yet seen everything that overambitious geology has to offer.
“A question that is often asked is, ‘How do the Canadian Rockies compare with the European Alps?’ ” Wheeler raises in his essay — before immediately settling the argument. “There is no comparison.”
You get the picture. Early 20th-century Canadian alpine gloating at its finest. But understandable, I’m thinking while gazing down from above 8,000 feet at a stunning slice of Banff National Park more than a hundred years later. Established in 1885, Canada’s oldest national park (third in the world) remains the vast, famed epicenter of Wheeler’s mountainous wonderland — where words will never come close to doing this whole place justice.
“I still have to pinch myself when I’m standing in front of all this, and I’ve been here for nearly 30 years,” ski instructor Gord Fielding says, marveling at the view through ski shades from the upper reaches of Mount Norquay, the oldest ski hill in these parts.
Fielding and I are perched at the top of Norquay’s North American Chair, one of the first chairlifts on the continent, built in 1948. Directly before us, steep and bumpy black-diamond runs plunge a few thousand feet to the ski hill’s homey base. Beyond that, the famed town of Banff is huddled in a broad river- and railway-lined valley like a Tolkien set piece, further dwarfed by a trio of massive craggy summits to the south, and beyond that enough mountains to reach Montana.
All bonus ice-climbing intro lessons aside, Mount Norquay is the first stop on my main three-prong mission during a whirlwind swing through Western Canada’s Banff National Park in late January.
The rough-sounding assignment: Experience each one of Banff’s Big 3 downhill ski areas — Mount Norquay, Banff Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise Ski Resort — tucked in various corners of the 2,564-square-mile park and cram as much sublime Canadian Rocky Mountain skiing into four-and-a-half days as possible before retreating back home to snowless, traffic-choked, not-quite-as-picturesque Los Angeles.
From a cozy hotel room in the historic town of Banff, the park’s gateway hub and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mount Norquay is the shortest commute to ski nirvana. A quick 5-mile serpentine drive up a neighboring pine-studded mountain leads to the compact six-lift hill, which bills itself as “the original ski resort in the Canadian Rockies.” Mount Norquay features a surprisingly broad range of terrain, a tubing park, weekend night skiing, and zero lift lines for a small weekday “crowd” of what appears to be a handful of longtime regulars.
Separately owned but co-marketed with Banff’s bigger, better-known Sunshine Village and Lake Louise ski resorts under the SkiBig3 banner (which lets savvy ski-pass shoppers experience all three hills on one all-inclusive ticket), Mount Norquay exists in its own rarefied corner of prime ski country. The kind that’s retained about as much mom-and-pop charm as one could ever hope for less than 15 minutes from a world-famous mountain town serving a national park that sees more than 4 million annual visitors.
“Powder magazine ranked us as one of the top five local secrets in North America,” says Fielding, Norquay’s ski school director, who tours me around a mountain he knows like the back of his glove. “We get all skier types here. Beginners to Olympians. And they all look pretty darn happy. So, I’m thinking, small can be just as good as big — maybe even better sometimes.”
Over the course of a comprehensive run-stuffed morning covering much of the mountain with Fielding — a perma-youthful Toronto transplant in his 50s who outgrew Ontario skiing and restaurant managing a few decades ago before gravitating to the real peaks of Western Alberta and never looking back — it becomes increasingly clear that small is a relative term. Sometimes it’s anything but small.
“Sharp-enough-looking diamond for you?” Fielding quips as we glide up to the edge of Norquay’s signature black run, a long, steep mogul field called Lone Pine.
Away we go, bouncing down Lone Pine, and an assortment of other sufficiently pointy black diamonds, many of them named after various folks — Henderson’s Turn, Rudy’s Alley, Robinson’s Return, when this hallowed hill got the whole ski thing going in one of the West’s top winter recreation zones. Traversing over to the Mystic Chair, Fielding leads me down a set of fast blue-intermediate cruisers with more local hero names — Bruno’s Gully, Monod’s Legacy, Toni’s Trees. When we hit a run called Crazy Canuck, my curiosity gets the better of me.
“So which Crazy Canuck is this run named after? I know there’s lots to choose from,” I ask my local host, who has greeted virtually every skier we’ve passed this morning by their first name. Norquay is that kind of place.
“Podborski, Brooker, and Read,” Fielding replies. “They raced each other down this run a while back, just for kicks, and so of course we had to name it after them.”
Steve Podborski. Todd Brooker. Ken Read. They’re three of the biggest names in Canadian Olympics and World Cup men’s downhill racing lore — collectively branded the Crazy Canucks — and famed for some of the most aggressive, badass, Nordic European-defeating skiing in the history of the sport, familiar names to anyone who grew up in Toronto in the late ’70s and early ’80s like Fielding and me (less than a mile away from each other, it turns out).
“Yep. The Crazy Canucks were racing right where you’re standing,” Fielding says, reading my impressed expression with a proud twinkle.
It turns out, Norquay is that kind of a place, too.
By 4 p.m., my own crazy knees and sea-level lungs have logged so many runs that I’m rethinking my ambitious plan to return here this evening to partake in another Mount Norquay bucket-lister: night skiing.
“It’s the only night skiing you’ll find in the Canadian Rockies,” Fielding says, back down at the base. “If you get a second wind, we’re always just up the hill from town.”
Back in Banff, I recharge my limbs in a clawfoot tub on a heated slate floor at the comfy Buffalo Mountain Lodge and lounge in the property’s cherrywood-decked lobby bar, where a giant bison head presides above a roaring stone fireplace. I wander downtown along Banff Avenue, where early 20th-century heritage buildings from Banff’s formative years are interspersed with Patagonia, North Face, and Smartwool storefronts, a happening new boutique gin distillery, and just about every kind of retailer name you can stick Rocky Mountain in front of (Chocolate, Flannel, Yoga, etc.).
Ducking down a side street, I admire a giant illuminated snow sculpture of a cowboy showcased during the town’s annual Snow Days event and warm up on vegetarian curry, chocolate chile chai, and live music at a crowded New Age-y spot called Nourish Bistro. I cross the iconic century-old Bow River Bridge and make the requisite pilgrimage to the palatial Fairmont Banff Springs (formerly the Banff Springs Hotel) — a National Historic Site, Canada’s closest thing to a castle, and the touchstone of Canadian Pacific Railway head honcho William Cornelius Van Horne’s famous quote in the 1880s, when ground was strategically broken here to support CPR passenger revenue: “Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”
Then, as Fielding predicted, I drive back up a winding forested road to Mount Norquay in the pitch black to go night skiing with what I assume will be just a few other diehards on a chilly Friday evening. Then I pull up to the ski base, where — surprise! — nearly 70 other cars are already here on a booming, 16-below, after-hours weekend ski fest.
“Tonight’s perfect,” says a burly bearded guy jumping on the Cascade chairlift with me. A local Albertan from nearby Canmore, he got off work an hour ago and decided to squeeze in a few hours of moonlighting on the slopes.
I’ve been a skier my whole life, but I’ve never done this activity after sundown. The mere novelty of clicking on my boards, riding up a short quad chair beneath Orion the Hunter, and coasting down a floodlit run framed by the silhouetted Rockies and an invisible alpine valley sprinkled with the faraway lights of Banff is — well, how does one qualify that? Better than your first drive-in movie.
At some point during my 15 or 20 or 30 runs (they float by in the dark like countless shivering sheep), the whole experience crosses from night skiing into something even dreamier, the closest I’ve ever come to skiing in my sleep — with wide-open eyes, icy lungs, and ears treated to a looping soundtrack of howling mountain wind and small talk with friendly strangers on moving metal chairs. Now who wants to wake up from that?
Longest vertical. Steepest terrain. Deepest bowls. Fastest gondola. Lightest powder. Tastiest mountain grub. Coolest ski school instructors. Sexiest après ski scene. Etc. If there’s one thing any mountain resort can’t help plugging to treasured ski vacation audiences, it’s an irresistible — measurable or not — superlative.
The holy grail of quantifiable stats, of course, is snow. As in how much of it in inches (preferably, feet) can be expected to fall here, a variable number at best from day to day and season to season. Still, what skier’s ears and adrenal glands don’t perk up when a mountain can consistently claim to get the biggest dumps of snow in the neighborhood?
In Banff National Park, that honor goes to Banff Sunshine Village. Straddling the Continental Divide on the Alberta-British Columbia provincial border in its own fortuitous micro-snow-belt about 10 miles southwest of the town of Banff, Sunshine proudly harbors its fair share of superlatives across a broad expanse of terrain covering three separate peaks. Among them: the longest non-glaciated ski season, highest-altitude ski resort in the Canadian Rockies, first covered chairlift with heated seats in the country, and some of the most extreme “freeride zones” in North America.
Top of the best list here is the snow factor. Sunshine’s higher elevation and situation generally assure the lightest and the most snow (30 feet in a good season) of the Banff ski resorts. Which naturally leads to the question: How can a place claiming the snowfall trophy also be called Sunshine?
During my short drive from Banff to the mountain’s base, it snows, then shines, then snows, then shines like a deranged faucet, seeming to answer the paradoxical question. The mercurial weather continues as I pull into Sunshine’s parking lot (scattered flurries), board the Village Gondola whisking me up to Sunshine’s lofty ski area (sun), and then jump on the toasty TeePee Town LX quad (Canada’s first covered chair with heated seats) in what promptly becomes a brief snowstorm, followed by patches of sun and then more lightly falling snow.
“When it’s clear out, you get these incredible views of Mount Assiniboine from the top of this lift,” I’m told by a Sunshine authority while heading up the Great Divide Express Quad chair, which momentarily crosses a provincial border. “Welcome to Beautiful British Columbia” reads a sign on a chairlift tower, followed two towers later by another sign: “Welcome back to sunny Alberta.”
From Sunshine’s highest point on Lookout Mountain at nearly 9,000 feet, neighboring Mount Assiniboine — aka the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies — is obscured by clouds and scattered snowfall. But apparently the iconic peak could show up at any moment, so stay tuned. “You’ll probably get a chance to see it later in the day when the sun comes out,” I’m assured. Sure enough, a few runs later, I spy its unmistakably Matterhorn-ish outline.
Conditions and skills permitting, the backside of Lookout is where adrenaline junkies can access Delirium Dive. One of Sunshine’s two restricted freeride zones, it features daunting vertical drops, heli-skiing-style snow, and — here comes the superlative — an unofficial title as “Canada’s most extreme off-piste.” Skiers and snowboarders here and at the resort’s other freeride zone, aptly called the Wild West, must be furnished with avalanche-ready packs, requisite skills, and a reliable buddy.
Enough said. I turn in the opposite direction, content to challenge myself on the steep-and-deep-enough runs off of Lookout’s wide-open front face above the treeline (my favorite area here), where an entire day could be spent on several diamonds and dark-blue runs accented with pockets of terrain parks. Eventually, I tear myself away to get blissfully lost on Sunshine’s two other worthy peaks — Mount Standish (the resort’s original hill, a great place to warm up or cool down) and Goat’s Eye, where some of the toughest runs, including the Wild West, are hiding.
With more breathtaking panoramas than you can easily orient, a newbie could get turned around. “It takes a little while to figure out your way around this place,” says a friendly Aussie lifty, watching me decipher Sunshine’s three-mountain-face map at length from the lower village area while enjoying the sun’s transitory arrival for the 15th time today.
On my last run of the day here, right on cue, it begins snowing again.
What do you do for an encore after a full day (and night) on the slopes of Norquay followed by a brilliantly bright ’n’ snowy adventure at Sunshine?
Easy answer: Go west. Specifically, 35 miles west on the Trans-Canada Highway to Lake Louise.
The biggest name and ski hill of Banff’s Big 3, Lake Louise Ski Resort is equally famed for its namesake lake perched at the base of neighboring mountains across the highway from the slopes. The polestar of Banff National Park and one of the country’s most photographed spots, Lake Louise has likely inspired this-can’t-be-real reactions for however long humans have cast eyes on its frozen-white (in winter) or deep turquoise (in summer) hue idyllically framed by giant pines, mountains, glaciers, and, since 1911, the magnificent Chateau Lake Louise — now a four-star, 550-room Fairmont property still dwarfed by its unbelievable whereabouts.
Originally named Ho-run-num-nay (“Lake of Little Fishes”) by the Stoney-Nakoda who settled in the area, the lake would soon gain a bigger audience: In 1882, the Indigenous inhabitants showed it to a Canadian railway worker, who in turn promptly renamed it Emerald Lake and put the word out by noting, “As God is my judge, I never in all my explorations saw such a matchless scene.”
Within two years, it was officially renamed Louise after the daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria — and, by 1890, the CPR hotel network would construct its first property here, a log cabin, followed in 1911 by its grand chateau.
All names aside, it is indeed a matchless scene. If the edge of Western Alberta had an official wish-you-were-here postcard, look no further than this Canadian Mecca. There is a price to pay for its incomparable beauty: It’s here at Lake Louise the visitors to Banff National Park are likely to encounter their only real traffic jam. Summer is far and away the busiest time, when 15,000 daily visitors snake up from lower Lake Louise Village to the main attraction set like a jewel in a fold of mountains. During the winter, the cars and tour buses are still in high gear — idling along, cramming into tiered parking lots, and then trudging up the final yards (with or without skates, hockey sticks, and cross-country skis) to the lake, its myriad trails, and that view.
For skiers, the other mandatory and slightly hazardous view of Lake Louise is from way across the valley on the facing slopes of Lake Louise Ski Resort. Hazardous, I conclude, because even from a distance it’s nearly impossible to tear my eyes from that view while cruising down the front side of this massive mountain with a dumb, preoccupied, this-still-can’t-be-real grin on a cloudless bluebird day.
Thankfully the four mountain faces and nearly 150 runs at what many consider Canada’s top ski destination provide ample opportunity to plunge wholeheartedly into the immediate foreground, through just about every type of ski terrain you could crave. Groomers off the populated front face, including a sampling of the men’s and women’s World Cup Downhill circuits. Tree-pocketed glades off the Larch Express Quad. And — Lake Louise’s highlight dropout zone — massive back bowls off the Paradise Chair where, I’m told, the most reliably untracked powder is hiding.
Ducking into the bowls over Eagle Ridge (nicknamed “ER” by locals, but let’s not go there), the double-diamond chutelike entry is exactly what you’d expect. Kinda harrowing.
“Get through the first few turns and you’re laughing,” assures an optimistic skier on the ridge beside me.
I stare down, not laughing quite yet.
Ice walls. Night skiing. Blizzards and sun. I’ve made it this far through greater Banff and haven’t lost either my sense of humor or my tibia yet. What’s one more exhilarating, coldly calculated risk?
On the other hand — yeesh. Steep.
I hang in there, literally. Breathe. Bowl skiing isn’t a sprint, I tell myself. It’s a marathon. A meditation. It’s like darts, right? And who doesn’t know how to play darts?
One last breath at the top, and then against all better meditative judgment, I push off. Down, of all directions, on this crazy pitch.
Here’s the swing.
For more to do in the Rocky Mountains…
Photography: Images courtesy Reuben Krabbe, Noel Hendrickson, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism