Words by Ingrid Backstrom
Despite having been a pro skier for upwards of 15 years, and having been lucky enough to ski all over the world, I realized last year that somehow I had never skied the Canadian Rockies. Something needed to be done to remedy that, so late last March, I put Banff & Lake Louise on my agenda and finally made the journey.
The three ski areas around Banff, Alberta — Banff Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mt. Norquay — comprise one of the world’s classic ski destinations. Each of the trio of resorts has a completely unique personality, and all are located within Canada’s oldest national park and centered around the iconic resort town of Banff. The views are jaw-dropping, the skiing ranges from family-friendly to committing big mountain chutes and there are all the restaurants, shopping and fun anyone could hope for in town.
The whole family (my husband, our 8-month-old baby and our 3-year old) piled in the minivan and made the drive north to Banff from our home in Washington state. We arrived before dinnertime, only one person threw up (me, virus), and we found a natural grocery next door to a burger place for the rest stop where everyone wins. Only one tantrum was thrown, due to us not purchasing green fuzzy monster slippers at a gas station stop in Cranbrook (not me). The drive was a total success!
The impressive crew (snowboarder and photo-video whiz Zak Shelhammer, skier Todd Ligare, photographer and ripper Liam Doran, plus John Rodosky and Patrick Crawford (from Colorado) and local ripper Jamie Robinson) gathered for breakfast at the also-impressive Ptarmigan Hotel breakfast buffet. Our 3-year-old gaped wide-eyed at the huge jar of Fruit Loops. “Mom, what are THOSE?” “Those are called Fruit Loops, honey,” I answered, casually. “I’m not sure you’d like them.” The guy behind me in the buffet line laughed loudly and then stopped when he saw me giving him my best mom glare.
Jamie suggested we ease in at the local family-favourite Mt. Norquay, “Because it’s smaller and mellower. Oh, and we might see some wildlife.” This turned out to be classic Canadian understatement. On the drive there, we saw two bighorn sheep getting Instagram-famous, presiding over an insane panoramic view from a perfect mountain meadow. Then we raced rolling groomers until the off-piste softened a bit and chased some locals down a wide ridge into a long gully of spring bumps. Above the top of the lifts, couloirs and peaks jutted steeply skyward, reminding us that just in case we thought we were cool, we were still only skiing the bottom half of these massive mountains. Touché, Rockies, touché.
Lake Louise sprawls comfortably over A LOT of Rockies. I kept pointing to distant bowls and peaks and asking, “Is THAT still part of the resort?” The resort boats over 4,200 acres of terrain and a 3,250 vertical-foot drop, so the answer was almost always, “Yes, it is.” At the top of the mountain (well, one of the mountains anyways) we found a few north facing powder stashes to bootpack, then we made our way through perfect larch glades in firm snow and high north- facing bowls with chalky, rippable snow. We skied hard all day and barely scratched the surface; I was like a kid in a toy store.
Which, incidentally, Banff has a great toy store. It also has a great library (the free storytime has snacks for the kids and coffee for adults) and excellent parks, so the rest of the family was having a blast too. I joined them for dinner (along with a local family they had met at the library) at Ticino, a Swiss-Italian restaurant, for the most amazing dinner of salad, fondue, and homemade gnocchi with our new friends. That alone would have made my trip. And we hadn’t even skied Sunshine Village yet!
At Banff Sunshine we were greeted with hugs from the mountain hosts and a brilliant sunshiney day. We linked several really fun, playful runs together in the benchy, featured terrain on Mount Standish and then made our way up the Great Divide chair and did the short hike to Delirium Dive.
It’s real big-mountain skiing, the type of zone that people hike up to just to peer off the edge as “those crazy extreme skiers” drop in before they themselves turn around and walk back down to ski the piste. Which is a good thing–this run is no joke. Delirium features a massive, steep main chute with a huge bowl at the top, and lots of smaller chutes and cliffs to navigate. The lines are long, at about 2,000 vertical feet, and an average pitch of 40-degrees. The snow was firm but edgeable, turning to powder further down on the apron.
To me, it was perfect.
We finished the trip with a final day at Lake Louise and then headed home, tired and satisfied. I know I will be making the trip again, powder or not, for what I now understand as the quintessential Banff-Lake Louise experience. It’s wild–big, exciting terrain and gorgeous views within a treasured national park–while still maintaining the friendly, approachable feel of a small town.
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