Rocky Mountain Highs

There aren’t many other places where you can see a bear come out of hibernation from the chairlift.

For many Australians, Canada feels like a distant cousin with whom we share a similar genetic history, the same sprawling size, comparable currency value and a certain nonchalant attitude towards dangerous wildlife. Yet the family resemblance is quickly forgotten when Canada’s topographical centrepiece  the beautiful yet treacherous Rocky Mountains  edges into view.

We’re on our way to Banff, one of Alberta province’s most well-known ski towns, which is between a postcard-worthy bend in the Bow River and the equally photogenic Cascade Mountain. Making our way north-east from the west coast port of Vancouver to the mountain range that stretches from Banff in the south to Jasper in the north, we’re here to explore this spectacular area that is guaranteed to appease any skier looking for some serious elevation in their runs.

High-end Downhills

The World Heritage-listed town of Banff feeds into three world-class ski resorts, including the popular slopes of Sunshine Village, the well-known Lake Louise ski area and Mount Norquay’s speedy, short steeps.

This isn’t your usual ski town with rowdy pubs and overpriced steaks. In fact, winter is Banff’s low season. The town offers a truly cosmopolitan hub that balances luxury tourism with a pristine national park, modern sensibilities with old-fashioned charm, and more fine dining, nightlife and shopping than you can shake a ski pole at.

The closest and most popular slopes are at Sunshine Village, which feels less like a village and more like several provinces stitched across three mountain passes. In a land where size is everything and fun is measured in vertical feet, this sprawling resort has another string to its picturesque bow: consistency. Good snow at Sunshine Village is almost guaranteed, thanks to its network of  multifaceted slopes and protected peaks.

“The whole country could be experiencing a blizzard and you’d never know up here,” says our guide as he spruiks his home mountain with a proud sweep of his arm across another picture-perfect view.

Indeed, as we click into our skis and make our way up the steep 2,800-metre rise of Goat’s Eye Mountain, a blue sky appears above tufts of cloud that hug the base. Despite a record five weeks of zero snowfall, the spider web of trails we pick through have a light cover of snow that is easy to ski over.

As I make my way from the fast, ungroomed tracks at the top to the wide, elegant expanses of snow below, it’s difficult to choose between looking for the next exciting tree run and taking in the spectacular view of the valley.

An easy 40-minute drive from Banff’s town centre is another skiers’ paradise, Lake Louise – the unofficial poster child of the Rockies. While many visitors come here in winter to ski, it’s easy to see why some forget about the slopes when they arrive. The aquamarine pool of ice, half a kilometre wide, is wedged precariously between towering mountain faces, with a seemingly innocuous string of ski runs snaking up the opposite side of the valley.

Knowledgeable mountain guides are available for skiers and snowboarders who opt for a human navigator instead of a trail map, and you’ll be thankful to have them by your side because this area offers some 1,700 skiable hectares. 

Almost a third of Lake Louise’s 139 named runs are classed as expert terrain, and with anything close to the 4.5 metres of average snowfall the area receives each year, the rest will likely feel that way to all but the most experienced powder hounds. At the front face of the resort, pushing off from a high-speed quad chair reveals a network of fun runs that are popular with families and learners, but the real action is found on the back side of the hill. Here, deep powder bowls provide windblown stashes and steep, ungroomed terrain all day. My knees ache as I push through turn after turn in the deep snow.

The Moose Factor

As in Australia, crossing expanses of country between one destination and the next in Canada involves significant travel time. Fortunately, it’s all part of the wild ride. “There were some moose on the track last week that caused a slight delay,” explains a friendly attendant on VIA Rail Canada’s ‘ice train’ as it carves a channel through the Rocky Mountains towards the town of Jasper. We’ve spent the night moving between a comfortable sleeper lounge and a glass-topped Skyline carriage on The Canadian, one of the network’s most famous routes.

It seems that every corner gives way to a more breathtaking view than the last. Jasper is one of Canada’s most photographed locales, and when our train rolls into the station, it’s easy to see why. A historical village and a wildlife sanctuary are in the middle of dense Jasper National Park, so we don’t have to go looking for wildlife. Idle mountain goats make the most of their right of way on the snow-lined streets, and as we wait for a fat-bellied elk to move from the road we’re reminded that wildlife is part of the adventure.

Jasper’s closest ski resort, Marmot Basin, cites ‘the moose factor’ as one reason that its intimate, heavily wooded slopes are enduringly popular despite megastar hills such as Whistler in the province of British Columbia.

“There aren’t many other places where you can see a bear come out of hibernation on your way up in the chairlift,” says a guide on a tour of the resort.

Though we don’t encounter wildlife any larger than a squirrel on our half-day of exploring the slopes, we notice the thick tracts of forest that slice through the wide runs are teeming with birdlife and small furry animals, which we struggle to identify.

While it’s marketed as a family resort, Marmot Basin’s slopes are wide and fast and still cater for the hidden racer in all of us. I resist the urge to fly down the hill like my partner does, instead etching a line of wide, gentle arcs in the snow from the top to the bottom, hoping to sight an emerging bear while I enjoy the view.

Carving Up The Road

Back in town, Jasper is the gateway to one of the world’s outstanding road trips, a 230-kilometre stretch of highway  Icefields Parkway  that carves its way through some of the Rocky Mountain’s most magnificent peaks. Tracing a thin line along Canada’s Continental Divide, this sweeping stretch of road from Jasper to Lake Louise offers breathtaking views and treachery in equal parts.

Countless stopovers along the way include Athabasca Glacier, a six-kilometre-wide glacial valley in the Columbia Icefield, and the roaring Athabasca Falls. It’s a blissful four-hour drive that you could take two weeks to do if you had the time.

After our breathtaking round trip, seen primarily through a wide-angle lens, we roll back into Banff in our faithful hire car. The town is in the grip of ice hockey fever as Canada takes on the US in a tightly matched grand final. We know better than to try to check in at a hotel or buy anything more than a beer at a time like this, so instead we stroll along Banff Avenue, absorbing the sights and sounds of Alberta’s urban gem.

In low-lit art galleries, photographs and oil paintings of snow-capped peaks  remind us of the landscapes we’ve driven through to get here. World-class eateries send the mouth-watering aromas of expertly cooked national icons, such as bison and elk, into the streets while the beats of live music tumble out of bars as they slowly transform into nightclubs. All the while, the periodic cheers of a sports-mad nation fill the streets. Yes, it seems we are related.

Words by Lucy Robertson - Published in Voyeur December 2010
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