One hundred and fifty years ago, following 28 years of pitching and political gerrymandering, 36 gentlemen—sporting their best sideburns, bowties and tweed jackets—congregated in smoky rooms in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec City to unite three British colonies into the Dominion of Canada. The Confederation formally began on July 1st, 1867 with the support of Queen Victoria, who felt that Canada standing on guard for three would help reduce defense costs and strengthen relations with our Yankee neighbours to the south.
As anyone who loves hockey, Pilsner, poutine, ketchup chips, spelling things with “u,” universal health care and apologizing for anything and everything is well aware, Canada’s 150th birthday has been a big deal over the course of the past nine months. We’ve shelled out for overpriced patriotic clothing and miniature canoe paddles at Hudson’s Bay, forced Canadian Tire employees to work overtime by constantly re-stocking maple-leaf flags, tried (but understandably failed) to outdo America with a coast-to-coast fireworks display, and naturally, drowned ourselves in an ocean of high-octane beer.
But perhaps the best and most Canadian thing we did in droves was the simplest thing anyone not joined at the hip to electronic devices can and should do—we went outside. To help commemorate the sesquicentennial milestone, The Great White North’s 40-plus National Parks extended free entry to the public for one year, which concurrently gave Canucks an opportunity to explore some of the more magnificent vistas in our home and native land, and the Ranger Ricks of the nation a welcomed reprieve from collecting toonies at the pearly gates. So with all of this on the docket, it begged the question: What better way to celebrate 150 years of history than by skiing the three resorts that reside within Canada’s first treasure chest, Banff National Park?
The Great Divide and Mount Assiniboine stand on guard.
The crown jewel of the National Park system lies 109 kilometres due west of the oil-and-gas industry’s towers of power in Calgary. Established in 1885, it’s the oldest National Park in the country, and the 15th largest, encompassing 6,641 square kilometres of equal parts rugged and heart-stirring terrain throughout the foreboding giants that make up the mighty Rocky Mountains. Nestled within its oversized bosom is a duo of the most picturesque townships on the planet—Banff and Lake Louise—which, thanks to Rice Curry, a popular Japanese soap opera that was shot in the former in 1986, is one of the most popular Asian-tourist destinations this side of the Pacific. In total, Banff sees over four-million visitors each and every year.
This is not another shot of Cascade Mountain towering above Banff. We swear.
High above the sea of sightseers, the postcard-producing park is home to three vast, diverse and well-rounded ski resorts: Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise, which collectively make up the aptly named Ski Big 3, and offer over 8,000 acres of skiable terrain in all shapes and sizes.
"I expected them to be a little rockier."
But in the midst of taming these beasts during a generous storm cycle this spring with Liberty Skis athletes Brendan MacKay, Hunter Visser, Cameron Smith and Megan Warrener, we discovered that the pride of the people who prime the resorts looms larger than the mountains they call home.
If these walls could talk.
Nestled next to Cascade Mountain, the looming pyramid of a peak that casts a long but loving shadow over the town of Banff, is Mount Norquay. As the shortest sibling of Ski Big 3, and the least busy, it’s hailed by many locals as the most down-home family and character-driven experience in the park.
Cam Smith scopes the view off the second oldest chairlift in Canada.
Skiers first began sliding down Norquay’s slopes as early as 1926, with a ski lodge opening in 1929 and rope tows installed in 1942. A few years later, in 1948, Norquay became the second mountain in Canada to erect a chairlift, a weathered double named the North American, that still slowly but surely ferries skiers to the resort’s highest flank like the little engine that could. From the top, breathtaking views of Banff are as plentiful as the open bowls, chutes and gladed runs that grace the mountain’s knuckle-like ridges, which filter back to the base area in a way that makes hot laps a must. On the more northern side of the mountain, a mixture of Snakes and Ladders-like corduroy awaits, with the snakes offering a gentle glide through the rich forests that reside at the foot of the Rockies, and the ladders giving way to some of the steepest groomers in the country. It only takes a few turns on these finely tuned elevator shafts to see why Norquay has been a breeding ground for many of Canada’s most legendary ski racers since its lifts began turning. Some of them, including Thomas Grandi, Bruno Engler, the Monod family and the Crazy Canucks, along with heli-ski pioneers Mike Wiegele and Rudi Gertsch, even have runs named after them.
Andre Quenneville, Norquay's everyman.
But while history may matter at Norquay, family comes first. Despite its champion- producing steeps, Norquay successfully prides itself on being a community-focused resort. After convoying up the short but winding road from the Ptarmigan Inn in Banff, our crew experiences this right off the hop, courtesy of General Manager Andre Quenneville. Alongside Marketing Director Simon Moffatt, he greets us warmly upon arrival, suited up to ski with us for the duration of the day. Quenneville, who’s been rolling up his sleeves at Norquay for the past 11 years, isn’t quite what you’d expect from a GM of a significant ski resort. In lieu of pushing pencils and counting beans in an ivory tower, he opts to be more a man of the people. He parks cars, sells lift tickets, cleans tables and grooms runs for guests. His everyman attitude in and around the base area is refreshing, but as we quickly discover, he turns into superman on the hill. As MacKay, Smith and Visser line up one-turners for photographer Ilanna Barkusky and cinematographer Brody Jones’ lenses on Black Magic, one of the more goose bump-inducing groomers on the hill, both he and Moffatt join in, and proceed to unleash a series of Nascar-speed turns on which they carve so hard their hips are grazing the ground. And on the last run of the day, after the forty-something Quenneville proclaims his love for a down rail in the park, to our pleasant surprise, he proceeds to repeatedly trick it—on a set of big mountain skis.
Quenneville proving that Alberta loves pipelines.
“Just another day at the office,” says Moffatt, laughing as he looks on.
It takes a village.
Twenty minutes up from the Bow Valley from Banff, huddled amongst famed mountain-climbing routes and awe-inspiring views of Canada’s Matterhorn, Mount Assiniboine, is Sunshine Village. As the middle child of the Big 3, it boasts all the ins and outs one would come to expect of a world-class ski resort: plush accommodations, fine dining, heated lifts and friendly staff. It also offers a welcome and quaint sense of isolation for anyone who’s looking to get away from it all—without emptying their children’s college fund in favour of a heli-ski trip. For those choosing to count sheep on-hill, skis and luggage are checked-in at the base before boarding a gondola that whisks you away to ground zero, where 3,000-plus acres of sprawling skiing awaits—and the four-star Sunshine Mountain Lodge, complete with your hand-delivered gear.
The contrasting terrain at Sunshine, and idiosyncratic layout of the resort, is unlike anywhere else. One can easily enjoy green-circled shits and giggles on the rocking and rolling cruisers that line the Strawberry and Standish chairs near the base, or brave double-black shits and dribbles in The Wild West on Goat’s Eye or the legendary Delirium Dive off the Great Divide.
But what really sets Sunshine apart is their way of maintaining a solid snowpack. Due to the copious amount of powder that falls on their plethora of plateaus each winter, the resort re-uses it via a process known as snow farming.
Matt Wilson, Sunshine's farmhand.
David Seidel, our hard-charging host at Sunshine, who is braving the bravado of our crew to show us his favourite haunts on the hill in a way that would prompt any good maître d' to brush up on his or her hospitality, introduces us to one of the “farmers,” Matt Wilson. Over an Alberta beef lunch at the Chimney Corner, the soft-spoken Wilson engagingly explains the process with a gratified twinkle in his eye. Before Old Man Winter comes knocking, the farmers pound thousands of pieces of steel into the ground in strategically placed locations throughout the resort, and once the ground begins to freeze, install fences between the pillars. The result is a series of dam-like structures that act as makeshift snow reservoirs to trap and maintain snow. From there, the snow is meticulously moved around the mountain when and if it’s needed, shoring up low-tide coverage, sans snowmaking. This helps Sunshine consistently be one of the first resorts to open in North America, and one of the last to close.
Hunter Visser takes a ride on the wild side.
The proof is in the white-coloured pudding. From the top of the 2,800-metre Goat’s Eye, where Smith and Visser lay waste to Chamonix-style couloirs in Wildside, to the zigzagging and pump-tracking ski-out to the gondola base at 1,600 metres, there’s not a spec of snowless earth to be seen.
Mount Victoria and Lake Louise, sisters in arms.
Thanks to her majesty’s willingness to let Canucks run amok, in one of the first instances of niceties that Canadians have come to be world-renowned for, Queen Victoria was gifted a number of namesakes. One of them, Mount Victoria, towers above the pristine body of glacial water that is Lake Louise. Across the valley is a resort of the same name, and the third and final stop on our Ski Big 3 hit list.
Skyway to the ranger zone.
With 4,200 acres of skiing spread out across three summits, the Lake Louise Ski Resort is Ski Big 3’s biggest brother, and fittingly, the most fully developed. Powder-packed tight trees? Check. Knee-bashing bumps? Check. Boosty park booters? Check. Alaska-like high alpine? Check. Light-year-long groomers that have hosted the annual first ski race on the World Cup circuit for the past 29 years? Check. It’s the type of ski hill where those who ski it are good, and those who keep the peace are even better.
Brendan MacKay in Louise's lurching larch.
Ski patrollers, in some skier’s eyes, can be polarizing figures. They’re there in a pinch if things go wrong, but can be quick to pull passes if things go awry. But the brass tax of those who sport the Red Serge of skiing is this: they’re the unsung heroes of the ski hill, and more often than not, they’re better at skiing than you.
Sean O'Leary & Dave Petch, Lake Louise's friendly fuzz.
Following a Fireball-fuelled night of karaoke at the Lake Louise Inn, we’re a few runs deep on the buffet of back bowls off the top of Mount Whitehorn, the highest point of the resort, where after our first lap saw us skiing by braille due to whiteout conditions, the clouds have begun to part. Ski patrollers Sean O’Leary, a chiseled specimen of a man with generous and attentive eyes, and Dave Petch, whose infectious laugh could lighten the mood at a funeral, have been showing the athletes up all day.
O’Leary suggests a sidecountry jaunt to Boundary Bowl, and like lemmings eager to leap, we follow the mountain man into the high country. Halfway up the boot pack, O’Leary offers to sherpa some of the gear, while Petch, who initially hung back, quickly catches up and overtakes us all. As the cameras begin to roll, MacKay, Smith, Visser, Warrener and a last-minute recruit, Salman Tirmzi, take turns and time picking their way down a more open area of the wilderness, while Petch willingly waits his turn in an effort to allow us first tracks, before straight-lining a steeper shoulder that we hadn’t even considered.
Later, while waiting to board the Summit Platter, a poma lift that provides a thorough inner-thigh workout en route to the top of Whitehorn, O’Leary and Petch are playfully bantering with a local in line. After swapping entertaining stories of their latest on and off-hill exploits, the hilarity gives way to a game of G.N.A.R.
“Hey, Dave!” the local shouts. “I want you to know that I’m the best skier on the mountain.” Petch flashes a full-fledged smile, while our crew laughs under our breath. No you’re not, we mutter to each other. The ski patrol is.
They say you only need three things in life...
They say that big things come in small packages. And while Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Banff National Park certainly aren’t small, it’s the little things that show the true patriot love of the people who help make the area what it is. Perhaps residing within Canada’s oldest National Park is why their glowing hearts rise, and if that is in fact the case, then here’s to another 150 years of celebrating the true north strong and free.
Ski Big 3 – skibig3.com
Banff & Lake Louise Tourism – banfflakelouise.com
Travel Alberta – travelalberta.com
Mount Norquay – banffnorquay.com
Sunshine Village – skibanff.com
Lake Louise Ski Resort – skilouise.com
Banff Ptarmigan Inn – banffptarmiganinn.com
Sunshine Mountain Lodge – sunshinemountainlodge.com
Mountaineer Lodge – mountaineerlodge.com