So yesterday here in Ottawa, it was 15C. Yay…no socks!!!
Today? We’ve woken up to more snow on the ground. Boo, socks. Now, I grew up in Labrador and loved winter. You had to. You wouldn’t survive otherwise. But the last few years? That love has waned — except around Christmas. That said, I’ve refrained from taking to Facebook with weather forecasts every time flakes fall from the sky.
But I feel this captures my mood this morning, minus the Uggs:
At least it’s sunny.
And it doesn’t make this post as off topic as it might have been otherwise.
Last week I set out to find the first travel piece I’d ever written because I knew it had been about 10 years since it had been published. I have the tearsheet somewhere I’m sure…in the Rubbermaids full of 10 years of newspaper clippings…but didn’t know where to begin to find it.
So, it was Jon Willing to the rescue once again. He’s the Ottawa Sun‘s city hall reporter and still has handy dandy access to the online archive. A few search words later and boom, Big Willy had the story in hand…
IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE
Nestled among rugged mountains in western Canada, Big 3 resorts offer spectacular skiing, snowboarding and scenery
Monday, March 21, 2005
BY HOLLY LAKE, OTTAWA SUN
Section: Travel Page: T28
Everything is postcard — but real.
Those were the words of my guide as we sat about 1,300 feet up the side of Mount Norquay in Banff recently, strapping on snowboards and gazing out at some of the best scenery Mother Nature has to offer.
And it’s no exaggeration. Having spent a week atop her mountains, you realize there are no bad views to be had in the Rockies, only breath to be taken.
That’s to say nothing of the ski and snowboard conditions these huge rugged beauties offer.
While the area saw next to no snowfall throughout February, leaving many locals frustrated with the lack of fresh powder and praying for flakes, you really have to keep it in perspective. That’s easy enough to do when you spend most of the year on hills around Ottawa. Conditions deemed to be merely good in Banff and Lake Louise are great by eastern standards. The locals just don’t know how good they have it.
Just six minutes from Banff, Mount Norquay rises 1650 feet above the village. Widely considered the area’s best-kept secret, it’s the smallest of the Big 3 resorts between Banff and Lake Louise, but it’s not to be dismissed.
“We’re known for being steep,” says Cory Deith, a guide and snowboard instructor. “And we’re famous for our fast grooming.”
Ninety percent of the mountain is groomed every night and its half-pipe is cut every other night. Home hill of Thomas Grandi, the first Canadian man to win two World Cup giant slalom races, Norquay hosts many races throughout the season. Fast and steep pretty much sums it up. When there is fresh powder, many say Norquay is hard to beat.
That’s not to say it isn’t for beginner and intermediate folk. As an intermediate boarder myself, I fared just fine — with the exception of one sliding, ass-burning incident on what was likely the steepest run I found myself on all week.
That said, each run is distinct and it’s a mountain you can pretty much have all to yourself. Small and intimate, the family-owned resort is the only one in the area to offer lift tickets by the hour, which leads to turnover throughout the day. Weekday or weekend, congestion is never a problem.
Nor is the weather, for the most part. Because of where Norquay is nestled, it’s protected from the nastiness and never has to shut down due to wind.
However, it’s been a bizarre winter and the mountain did close for three days earlier this year after its winding access road turned into a skating rink. This season, temperatures have jumped from -30C to 8C in a matter of days.
“It’s definitely been a season of extremes. But we’re faring much better than the folks on the West Coast,” says marketing director Robert Cote, referring to resorts in B.C. where rain has washed away much of the snow on the lower parts of mountains. “We’ve actually fared very well though it all. That’s a testament to the area here. We’ll always have snow.”
And they’re confident it will be good snow, as the hill provides a one-hour money-back grooming guarantee, so great conditions are pretty much a given.
Canada’s best snow…
Just a little further along the Trans Canada Hwy., 15 minutes west of Banff, is Sunshine Village. It’s tucked away and for the most part can’t be seen from the parking lot, but once the resort’s eight-person gondola takes you to the village, you quickly realize this place is aptly named. Comprised of three mountains that circle around, its large sheets of white glisten in the sun. With so many wide, walls of snow, Sunshine Village is stunningly spectacular.
It has earned the rating of “Canada’s Best Snow” from both Ski and Snow Country magazines. Not a surprising feat considering it averages 33 feet a snow a year. That allows for a season that stretches from early November to mid-May.This year’s last run isn’t expected until May 23.
Like Norquay, Sunshine is part of Banff National Park. Unlike Norquay, however, it spans two provinces. While riding the Continental Divide Express chair you pass through B.C. briefly, before being welcomed back to Alberta, as you make their way to the top.
From there, the view is a sea of snow-blanketed mountains as far as the eye can see. These are the Rockies in all their glory and there’s nothing like being in their midst.
Jerry Kernen, 88, has been coming here since 1962. He was a ski patroller for 10 years and has skied everything in interior B.C. at one time or another, but Sunshine keeps pulling him back.
“This is my favourite. All you have to do is look around and see how pretty it is,” says the retired farmer from Saskatoon. “Sunshine’s got good people. It’s got good snow.”
Kernen comes to Banff to ski Sunshine for six- to eight-day spans several times a year before heading home for a week. His home hill has about 300 feet of vertical.
“That’s kind of tame,” he says. “It’s quite nice, but it doesn’t compare to Sunshine.”
An eccentric character, Kernen is an institution in these parts — he’s known in Lake Louise and Sunshine’s named a run after him. He chats up and humours visitors and locals alike as they share his chair to the top.
His habit is to ski every run, every day. That includes the Delirium Dive every year on his birthday. Reopened in 1998, the Dive is in-resort backcountry skiing and it’s definitely not for everyone. Spanning 700 acres and 2,000 vertical feet of chutes, cliffs and steeps, access is limited to expert skiers outfitted with an avalanche transmitter, a shovel and a partner. Kernen’s the oldest skier to go down the run.
“The ski patrol, they always draw straws to see who goes in there with me,” he says with a proud grin.
Last September, Delirium Dive was featured in the finale of The Amazing Race. Three teams battled to be the first to reach the Continental Divide by snowshoeing up the slopes near the extreme Dive.
Sunshine is a family-owned resort established in 1928, but $40 million in capital improvements in the last decade have brought it into the big leagues. The largest among them was the super high-speed gondola, which eliminated log lineups at the base in 2002. Sunshine touts it as the fastest gondola in the world with its 13-minute ride from base to village, giving boarders and skiers alike quick access to the longest vertical drop in the Rockies.
Jewel of the Rockies
For Kernen, time in the car is time that could be spent on the slopes. For that reason, he doesn’t make his way a half-hour further west to Lake Louise. But it’s a beautiful drive through the mountains and what’s waiting for you when you arrive is well worth it.
Lake Louise touts itself as the jewel of the Rockies and few would argue with that label. Home to a men and women’s World Cup downhill each year, Louise also boasts 4,200 skiable acres. That’s said to be more than can be skied in a week.
While the resort’s new Grizzly Express gondola opened Feb. 14, it was out of commission the day we arrived. When it’s running, the six-person ride replaces a two-person chair, and takes boarders and skiers up three visually stunning kilometres to the top. Even without the gondola, we had no trouble making it to the top of Louise’s four mountain faces, which let us follow the sun all day long.
As you follow the paths, there’s no shortage of varied terrain. For those who are just beginning to those who like backcountry skiing, there is plenty for all. Novice, intermediate and advanced runs start down from every chair, and for those who love diamonds, they’re here in the doubles.
As was the case with Norquay and Sunshine, a beginner green run at Louise is the equivalent of an intermediate blue run here. Same goes for their blues — many would be black diamonds here. Having said that, there were times at Louise I made my way down blues that were steeper than many of her diamonds — steep but definitely do-able.
Although new snow was scarce in February and powder was anything but plentiful, good conditions were not. Still, on the message board of one lift was a chalk-scrawled plea: Pray for snow. Mother Nature must have pulled some strings as March has seen those prayers answered.
In 2002, Skiing Magazine voted Louise No. 1 for scenery and it’s not hard to see why. While taking a break part way down a long run — they can span up to 8 km — I sat on a mountain face overlooking the lake and the Chateau Lake Louise.
Beautiful? Without question. But all I could think was how majestically tranquil it was.
This is snowboarding and scenery you can’t help but get hooked on. For those who want a fix, luckily, this is a season you can ride into May.