The Less-Sung and Insanely Gorgeous Bounty of SkiBig3

This article, and distribution, was paid for by the Canadian Ski Council and produced in conjunction with POWDER.

Words by Rob Story.

Deeper In Canada
Lake Louise Ski Resort. Photo: Courtesy of Reuben Krabbe/SkiBig3

Sometimes, skiers overthink things. For the past couple decades, many of us seemed bent on traveling to little-known hills … That are little-known for good reason: They’re hills that are little. Who knows why? Me, I simply can’t understand pulling four-minute-long top-to-bottoms on today’s fantastic gear, a true waste of thoroughbred boards engineered to vacuum 100 vertical feet of terrain in a single turn.

I want to ask my confused brethren: “Did I miss something along the line? Does our sport now have a ‘Quaint Hillock’ subgenre? Because the last time I checked, skiing revolutionized itself and became hands-down the most awesome winter sport on the broad shoulders of the Big Mountain movement, on the glorious act of freeriding the planet’s most magnificent geological giants.”

Follow me, if you will, to Canada’s Banff National Park and its SkiBig3 resorts: Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mt. Norquay. We begin at Banff Sunshine, whose 3,514-foot vertical rise makes it one of Canada’s tallest ski areas. A ride on a Skittles-colored gondola car delivers us to the spine of the Continental Divide and the resort’s upper village, where the unreal beauty of the Canadian Rockies slaps us upside our brains’ assorted pleasure receptors.

Deeper In Canada
Banff Sunshine Village. Photo: Courtesy of Reuben Krabbe/SkiBig3

“OMG!” you might squeal if you spoke like a teenager’s text message. “Great Caesar’s ghost!” you’d shout if you were born in 1916. The rest of us simply exclaim, “Holy shit!” while admiring unmatched mountain views.

Across Sunshine Meadows, beyond Citadel Peak, stands the great looming hunk of Mt. Assiniboine. An 11,870-foot peak boasting a classic pyramid shape and astonishing vertical relief (5,000 feet), Assiniboine is known as “the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies.” Or the Fuji or Rainier of the Canadian Rockies. Whatever. You get the idea.

Banff Sunshine is surrounded by such spectacular, legendary, mind-blowing, spirit-lifting mountains. As ranges go, only Italy’s Dolomites can rival the Canadian Rocky Mountains for drama. Everywhere stand cathedrals of stratified rock: spires, buttes, needles, slabs, and cones. Canada’s Rockies can make America’s Rockies appear old and round and – dare I say it? – Appalachian. The escarpments stun and astound. Mt. Robson, for instance, towers nearly 10,000 feet above Yellowhead Pass! Around Banff, the Rockies burst out of their valleys with great urgency, as if in a hurry to tongue celestial heights. “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky …”

Because 2,564 square miles of wilderness are protected in Banff National Park, the scenery here is never depreciated by mining detritus, clear-cut scars, or rampant development. Instead, skiers and snowboarders bear witness to towering conifers, fulminating creeks, and Banff Sunshine’s four distinct mountains and their yawning alpine bowls.

I’ve always loved skiing here, even though my first-ever Sunshine run, in 1992, put a woman in the hospital with a very intimate hematoma (long story). We move almost by reflex to the Great Divide lift, which soars up towers erected in both Alberta and British Columbia. At the top, we skate toward Delirium Dive.

Unquestionably one of the steepest, most challenging sidecountry testpieces in the North American alpine, double-diamond Delirium Divide hurls skiers off a knife-edge ridge onto a series of 50-degree shots. It runs 2,000 vertical feet.

The couloir-lined bowl is for experts only. In fact, access is guarded by a chain-link gate. To enter, you approach an electronic checker that flashes a red “X” until your beeping avalanche transceiver teases out a welcoming green “O.” In addition to beacons, Delirium skiers require a shovel and a partner.

We hike six minutes above the gate to a line called Bre-X. Though in-bounds, Delirium’s 600 acres are rife with unmarked rocks and cliff bands. Sunshine patrollers bomb it enough to break up monstrous wind-slabs, yet demand skiers watch out for smaller sloughs.

With most geologic pepper covered by a foot of fresh, we hurl off the lip and into, well, delirium. Each giddily weightless turn devours great gobs of Canadian Rockies. It feels wonderful, ecstatic, rapturous to be on top of our game in hardcore ski-mountaineer territory. We’re heading right back to Great Divide chair for another epic lap.

Deeper In Canada
Photo: Courtesy of Lake Louise

So I’m in the parking lot of the Lake Louise Ski Resort when some dweeb in a forgettable sedan, painted a forgettable color, starts staring at me through his windshield. “What’s his problem?” I wonder, shooting contempt out my eyeballs.

I’m meeting my ski partner in the lot to strategize and consolidate gear for our 12 kilometer journey beyond the boundaries of the ski resort, to Skoki Lodge, a cozy, legendary backcountry lodge with a mere 25-pillow capacity. I’d pulled my SUV perpendicular in front of the weirdo’s car and my buddy’s Jetta, preventing both from pulling forward. But no cars are parked behind them. Why doesn’t creep-a-zoid just back the hell up? He’s been staring for two minutes already. Is the perv waiting for me to strip down to my long underwear?

Then, lugging my backpack to the Jetta, I realize a pair of 3-foot-tall concrete bollards forbid McLurker from reversing.

Is this guy – this Canadian – too nice to inform me I’m cock-blocking him in an ultimate act of parking-lot assholery? In similar predicaments, Americans blast their horns nine times in the first three seconds. Or start shooting.

Deeper In Canada
Park Distillery. Photo: Courtesy of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism

Canadians, of course, are renowned for over-the-top courtesy. Which is nice … And at the same time, maddening. I figure Canada’s the world capital of the awkwardness that occurs when some stranger and you walk straight toward each other, then both step to the same side to let the other pass. In Canada, one can mirror the stranger three to four lateral moves before somebody – For the love of God! – steps forward.

Yet the modesty sure plays well in Canadian ski towns. Although SkiBig3 resorts encompass almost 8,000 skiable acres – as much terrain as all the resorts in Vermont, plus a Beaver Creek – there’s little braggadocio here. And it’s a great relief to experience Canadian niceness in an age when far too many U.S. resorts are saddled with attitude and negativity toward visitors.

When you head to the backside of the Lake Louise Ski Resort, for instance, the triple L’s – Lake Louise locals – will likely point out the sweetest chutes. I was there once on a stormy February day that had dumped 10 inches (or 25 centimeters to Canucks) of fresh. I followed some new Albertan friends as they bee-lined off the top of the Summit Platter and the resort’s lift-served apex of 8,652 feet. Our destination: E-R face and the protected folds of the alphabet gullies, A Gully through I Gully – A series of almost ideal couloirs that can be skied aggressively since their tight, billy-goat-turns-required throats soon give way to wide, welcoming aprons that smile on phat, big-mountain Hang 10s.

We sessioned the alphabet gullies for several runs, hitting both consonants and vowels, earning a great fondness for E Gully, thinking it stood for “excellent,” “ecstatic,” “exhilarating,” “exceptional” … And, well, you get the idea.

E Gully is one of 65 black diamond slopes in Lake Louise’s Back Bowls. I like tackling a bunch of Back Bowl runs first thing, then heading back to the front side for great grub at the Lodge of Ten Peaks (if stormy) or Temple Lodge (if clear, because in 2014 Temple added an expansive, sun-splashed deck with a view and vibe rarely achieved in the ski universe outside the European Alps).

Anyway, the joy of Lake Louise’s front side is letting off the brakes and blitzing hairball groomers. Both Men’s Downhill and Ladies’ Downhill – a plummeting fall-line parallel to the Men’s a bit to skier’s left – dare brave skiers to point ’em down aesthetic plunges. Lake Louise has served as the first North American stop on the World Cup circuit for the past 30 years, and no other course in Canada boasts its cachet as a ski racing classic. Should you ever question whether you’re going too fast on Men’s Downhill or Ladies’ Downhill, ask yourself: What would Steve Podborski or Lindsey Vonn do?

Deeper In Canada
Lake Louise Ski Resort. Photo: Courtesy of Reuben Krabbe/SkiBig3

Alberta’s Canadian Rockies are to North America what Kenya is to Africa: a region of insurmountable beauty that happens to contain a wealth of iconic animal species. Most of the Instagram attention goes to what biologists call “charismatic megafauna,” the large mammals padding about the area.

Elk actually stroll down the streets of Banff, perhaps to escape the packs of wolves. Moose and bighorn sheep bang antlers in the backcountry. In the summer, all the locals carry bear bells and yodel a lot to make sure no hungry grizzly bear is up ahead.

The bears of Banff don’t mess around. In 2013, the Rocky Mountain Outlook reported that a 600-pound male grizzly (known to park biologists as “Bear 122”) killed and ate a 100-pound black bear. Apparently, it was the second time in a year that Bear 122 feasted on a smaller ursine cousin. The bears may have been competing for food … inasmuch as a cute little black bear can compete with a ferocious grizzly. “It’s less unique than it sounds,” admitted a Parks Canada biologist, who added that wolves here sometimes munch coyotes.

Banff National Park regulations that keep the area safe for wildlife also preserve the wild character of the townsites. The town of Banff and the village of Lake Louise grew up they way they’re supposed to: like actual, decades-old places instead of purpose-built villages that enjoy nice pedestrian plazas but no authenticity.

Banff and Lake Louise, meanwhile, are stuffed with locals, because Parks Canada maintains a need-to-reside clause. In other words, you must have a job in Banff National Park to live in Banff or Lake Louise. How cool is that? A couple of ski towns where all the locals live.

Evoking the aesthetics of their time, the towns blend narrow, lively streets with humane, small-scale architecture. For their part, visitors can stay in the piney cabins of Baker Creek Lodge or in the magnificent Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, with its gobsmacking views of the lake. And, as always, the standard for ski-country accommodations remains the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. For more than 125 years, the hotel has towered above Banff, proving that, sometimes, manmade beauty can almost match nature’s.

Banff Avenue. Photo: Courtesy of Paul Zizka

Banff really does look like nowhere else on Earth, a truth the United Nations officially confirmed in 1985, declaring Banff a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One hundred years earlier, Banff became Canada’s first national park. The place debuted as an adventure holy-land even earlier – say, the day in 1882 when three railway workers stumbled from Banff (which, of course, was not a town then, only a rail stop called “Siding 29”) toward natural hot springs steaming away on Sulphur Mountain.

Imagine this for a moment. Pretend you’re one of the discoverers. You’re an unskilled lowlife who’s spent far too much time in the company of noxious fumes and other putrid men. You step away from the scorching, smoking hellbeast of a train into a landscape of unbroken woods, gurgling streams, and soaring peaks. You find the hot springs. Then, a spot where you can immerse. All of a sudden, you’re washing off coal-dust and endemic stench in what’s still the most gorgeous setting known to man.

Man, how stoked were those dudes? Perhaps as stoked as the pioneers of downhill skiing in Banff. After exploring the high country, the latter found that forest fires and logging had formed ready-made slopes on Mount Norquay. This discovery became the Canadian Rockies’ first ski run in 1926. Two years later, a cabin was built at the base of the mountain; Mount Norquay became Banff’s first official ski resort in 1928 and held the region’s first slalom race in 1930.

The smallest SkiBig3 resort still oozes adventure. It’s the only place in the park with night skiing, where jibbers can rail well after dusk. Day or night, nonskiers gravitate to Norquay’s Tubing Park, where they whoosh downhill on fat inflatables, finding it impossible not to chortle in giddy laughter.

Mount Norquay. Photo: Courtesy of Reuben Krabbe/SkiBig3

Mount Norquay is located only five minutes from town, allowing residents to bust a few laps at lunch down the double blacks served by the North American lift. Everyone, even beginners, should head to North American’s apex to experience the tasty burgers and ’50s retro vibe of the Cliffhouse Bistro, a revived restaurant with crazy-cool views of mountains and meadows, glaciers and grizzlies, waterfalls and wolves.

Take a slow look around. Scope the elegant sweep of the steaming Bow River as it curves round the quintessential national park town of Banff. Because Norquay sits a mere espresso of a drive away, its skiers are the first to arrive at Bear Street Tavern and the Anglophile pub that never fails to remind you that Canada still prints British royalty on its money, the Rose & Crown.

(I don’t get it. Canada is the only sovereignty that could legitimately feature Pamela Anderson on its currency, yet it prefers that homely Queen Elizabeth II.)

After beating Sunshine and Louise skiers to Banff aprés, Norquay-ites grab a bite, whether tapas at The Block or Alberta beef at Chuck’s Steakhouse.

Better yet, clog some arteries with fondue from Banff’s capital of kitsch, The Grizzly House. The A-frame restaurant opened in 1967, and still looks like a joint where Austin Powers and Jean-Claude Killy score hot tomatoes. The tagline for Grizzly is “For Lovers & Hedonists.” The menu abounds with game meat, Alberta beef, and, of course, cheese. Oddly, a heavy land-line phone sits atop each table, allowing patrons to punk other diners or offer up a quick shag, baby.

An often overlooked benefit of 51-degrees north latitude is the length of winter. The proximity of Calgary – less than two hours away for normals, less than 90 minutes away for owners of radar detectors – allows the economic engine of Banff skiing to chug along deep into spring.

That’s a nice, cold comfort to Americans and other victims of ski resorts that close, dammit, the first week of April. Spring in Banff, meanwhile, takes full advantage of the hardcore residents of, and “never summer” visitors to, the third biggest city in Canada – the one with the superb, easy-peasy international airport.

Banff Sunshine Village. Photo: Courtesy of Reuben Krabbe/SkiBig3

Banff Sunshine, amazingly, doesn’t stop its bullwheels from spinning till Victoria Day, the final Monday preceding May 25. For decades, Sunshine has punctuated closing day with a raucous event called Slush Cup – Earth’s biggest celebration of that once-a-year passion of skiers, pond skimming. The goal: Rip down a slope and get yourself across a bone-chilling pool of 5-foot-deep water. (Bonus points for ridiculous outfits.)

Six thousand spring-fevered crazies attend every May, flashing an astounding breadth of costuming choices. There are hair-band Cinderellas and ornate turtles, pirates and Incredible Hulks. I once saw a guy sporting a speckled rainbow trout outfit flop above the water as a rainbow trout might flop, earning points for authenticity.

The people here are wild all year long, whether snowboarding giant alpine snowfields in winter, kayaking rapids in summer, or ripping singletracks in fall. The SkiBig3 region’s status as a world capital of adventure has led to lots of bumper-sticker aphorisms and knowing wisecracks. Things have gotten to the point that Banff’s postal code – T0L 0C0 – is invariably pronounced “too loco.”

I don’t know about that. To me, the SkiBig3 region is not too loco at all. Rather, it’s just loco enough.

All SkiBig3 resorts share the same lift ticket, and this year, they’re all part of both the IKON and Mountain Collective pass programs.

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