DECLINE OF THE DIRTBAG
Words by Matt Coté There was a time when skiing was different. Not just the actual turns, but the people making them....
Contradiction, they say, is the key to humour. Perhaps that’s why Rob Heule, Bruno Long and I spent so much time laughing on our 84-kilometre, 5,570-vertical-metre traverse from Mt. Norquay to Sunshine Village to Lake Louise Ski Resort in Banff National Park in mid-April. The Canadian Rockies are cold, hard and intimidating. We’re soft, but our eight-day trip was still generally warm and fun. Never once did we cover more than 20 kilometres in a day, and had pandemic restrictions not gotten in the way, we could have spent every night under a solid roof.
For decades, skiers have argued over which of the area’s three unique ski resorts is best. But we were focused on what unites them: their location in a national park, which is both an asset and a challenge. The 6,641 square kilometres of Banff National Park is “protected for all to enjoy,” which sounds like a contradiction, but one we could easily laugh along with as we enjoyed protected powder.
Within the trinity of Ski Big 3 (the resorts’ joint marketing initiative), Norquay is the most accessible and least intimidating. So we ease into our traverse there on a fine spring afternoon by testing its five-kilometre uphill touring loop. The maintained skin track allows newbies to practice touring techniques in a controlled, safe environment, or experts to squeeze in a workout close to town. From the Cliffhouse Bistro at 2,100 metres, we look out over a dramatic mountain landscape and then down, between our ski tips, to the townsite of Banff. All we have to do is descend to our beds to finish day one.
Waist-deep moguls catch our every turn until we hit the old ski-out below the resort. The forgotten forest track descends to the Trans-Canada Highway, and we happily follow along until the snow ends a kilometre short of the valley bottom. Photographer and adventure-partner-to-the-stars, Long, wants to maintain the integrity of our traverse, so we shoulder skis and walk to complete this first leg of the trip. The sun is shining, and our ski boots imprint dirt beside wolf and deer tracks. I resolve to use the ski-out more than my truck in the future, completely unaware that we are poaching this slice of splendour.
We’d learn later that the old ski-out was decommissioned and closed when Norquay swapped the land to Parks Canada in exchange for summer operations. It’s now marked as a closed run from the ski hill to maintain a wildlife corridor. So, to preserve the environment, skiers drive up and down the mountain. No joke.
Blissfully ignorant, we stroll into town for the night while looking west across the Bow Valley. Just out of sight, but within a day’s walk, is Sunshine Village. Perched on the Continental Divide, the mountains around Sunshine strain precipitation out of westerly storms, giving it the largest annual snowfall in the Big 3. With powder dreams, we set a bearing west.
A year prior, a fresh clearcut appeared just outside the town of Banff, right in the middle of Canada’s oldest national park. Focused only on skiing, I’d missed its significance for our mission. In fact, I’d wondered if it might make for good turns. Now, we learn that the entire area along the river west of town is closed while Parks Canada burns the remaining timber to create a fire break.
Laughing at the irony and our lack of integrity, we abandon our goal of connecting the three resorts on foot and drive vehicles around the closure to a trailhead near the Bow River. From here, still in sight of Norquay,we don climbing skins for a day of touring that somehow resembles the local resort.
It’s close to home, and we start with modest expectations. The snowpack is shallow, perhaps only 40 centimetres in the forest. But a buried rain crust keeps our skis off the ground, and the 30 centimetres of fluff on top feels great. To our surprise, we stumble upon an impressive natural halfpipe with deep walls and funky, steep rollovers. As we descend, the tube unfurls ahead of us, revealing more dry, sparkling powder and playful terrain around every corner. From this humble mountain was born one of the best runs of our trip.
Smiling and satisfied, we need food and our first camp spot. Deep in the forest, we’d passed a decrepit lean-to where a poor soul had spent a night communing with nature. Looking for something a bit more comfortable, we turn away from the Bow Valley and push on to Sunshine Village’s parking lot. When we arrive, the gondola effortlessly flies us 4.5 kilometres uphill, and though we do need to walk 100 metres to the Sunshine Mountain Lodge once we step off the lift, staff carry our bags. Once inside, I put on my complimentary robe and order room service from under a duvet. I now believe there are some advantages to allowing development in the park.
There are upsides to less development, though. The entire north bowl of Brewster Rock, otherwise known as Delirium Dive (240 hectares and over 600 vertical metres), has no lifts running up it and is hidden out of sight, only accessed by a short hike and a long lap around the mountain to do it again. That means less traffic and more powder for hardened adventurers like us. Usually.
Rocky and rugged, Delirium Dive is anything but pristine when we visit. It is impressive, though, as are some of the tracks we see. Hiking out Galaxy Ridge, we peer into bold entrances others have used, then back off each and every one of them, choosing instead to walk around to the easiest access point and enjoy the scenic tour. Luckily, local Jemma Capel is here to push us and make the challenging conditions look good. After styling wide-open turns around the edges of the Dive, she plunges into the couloirs of Wild West with textbook short-radius flashes, and the odd snappy jump-turn between vertical rock walls.
On day four, it’s time to quest off into the wilderness, but I’m having trouble leaving the queen-sized bed behind. To reinforce our efforts and keep us honest, Heule has made his way west from the foothills. The life-long Albertan wants to explore the areas between these resorts he knows so well, live the backcountry good life, and bag a couple of classic descents. Over a final latte, I vow to toughen up.
White peaks hang from blue skies and glaciers dangle over black rock walls. Just half a day from Sunshine, we walk through larch trees in lazy arcs connecting the three lakes on the northern flanks of Pharaoh Peak: Pharaoh, Black Rock and Sphinx. Each is 50 metres higher than the last, so we don’t have to fight for elevation. We just casually drift up and over to the next lake, then cross its flat surface. It’s gentle, beautiful and rolling terrain, much like Sunshine Village. And like Sunshine, this valley has fun freeriding hidden around the corner. But we don’t know that yet, so we follow the easy ground to a ridgetop, gobsmacked by the scenery.
Our heavy packs full of camping gear demand smooth, balanced skiing, and on Pharaoh’s rolling north face, we find just that. Long turns his camera to a sparkling slope cloaked in classic Rockies spring snow: consolidated and trustworthy, with 10 to 20 centimetres of dehydrated surface facets. Heule drops in and turns it all into velvety glide, casual speed and beautiful spray down to our camp for the night.
Sleeping bags crinkle before it’s even dark enough for headlamps. Soft down and warm water bottles comfort sore muscles. I fall asleep with the crescent moon alone in the sky and wake hours later to more stars than could possibly exist. A practical joke? This incomprehensible heaven can’t always be there, just hidden behind the glow of modern life. It turns out that preservation, too, has its benefits.
Banff National Park is far from untouched, though, and the next day, we are thankful for the trail cut through the dense forest up to the alpine. But it still feels wild and remote enough that when we find a ridge striped by parallel couloirs, we can imagine being the first to ski them. The discovery has Heule smiling as he stashes camping gear and runs up the nearest chute to play.
Looping turns across the fall line sets him up for smooth, drifting slashes that throw shimmering curtains. The high spring sun hurtles his shadow way down the north face, and he chases it to the bottom. Before dropping in myself, I look far north to threads of white in a green forest—Lake Louise Ski Resort. To the east, I can just see the tip of Goat’s Eye Mountain and Sunshine Village.
I awake on the seventh morning in ski clothes, head resting on a rope piled into a pillow. We’re travelling light now, not because yesterday was the hardest of the trip—a long grind made more taxing by the stress of route-finding in challenging terrain—but because the glory run awaits us, and we want to be free to frolic.
The mountains around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are splattered with grand ski descents, and today our route takes us down the uber classic 3-4 Couloir, which is iconic for both its ski legacy and because it featured prominently on the 1969 and 1979 issues of the Canadian 20-dollar bill. We awake at 2,900 metres, and after coffee, creep to the edge and look down—all the way to Moraine Lake 1,000 metres below.
With the first turns, fear fades, and excitement builds. Up this high, the snow is still dry and inviting. This couloir has been the scene of many epic ascents and descents and its share of fatalities, but today it’s showing a fun side. Heule’s mischievous smile tells us that he’ll be taking all the fun on offer. He’s never skied this line before, but he confidently slices the funnel with low, angulated turns that are equal parts precision and style.
Our laughs of joy, gratitude and relief echo up the Valley of The Ten Peaks. We look across the famous lake to where a million tourists drive up and swarm over each other every summer, trying to take in the grandeur and audacity of this Valhalla. I’m not sure if we should feel smug or spoiled to have it all to ourselves on such a glorious day.
Hours later, we follow grizzly tracks and scurry under the beast of Mount Temple, its hanging seracs overhead. After days of enjoying pristine protected mountains and not seeing another soul, we descend toward the townsite of Lake Louise and our eyes are drawn across the valley to the warm, sunny slopes of the resort. Off to the left, near the base, four fresh runs have been cut through the pine. By summer, the resort will have added a brand new chairlift there, but for now the felled trees lay on snow, waiting to be removed to make way for more skiing merriment.
“Welcome, Mr. Long. Can I have your license plate number?” Chuckling, he explains to the Lake Louise Inn staff that we’ve walked our way here. Having finished the most taxing two days of our trip, through the most demanding mountains, we’re happy to clean up and ditch our camping gear. With the freedom of light daypacks, we’re excited to explore what most consider the most technical ski area of the three, Lake Louise Ski Resort.
Both the new expanse of West Bowl (194 hectares of terrain that opened for the 2020-21 season) and the classic, leg-burning backside laps of Whitehorn II end in long traverses, but we feel uniquely prepared now that we’ve finished what Marcus Baranow and Todd Joyal dubbed the “Big 3 Traverse” back in 2015, when they did a variation of the journey in weekend installments.
Baranow and Joyal finished with a long walk back to Norquay, but our final leg is a simple crossing of the Lake Louise parking lot, and we’ve arrived just after the nick of time. In a mountain range that isn’t blessed with an abundance of snow, we’re greeted by a spring storm that nobody wanted, and it’s battering the mountain as we load the Glacier Express Chair.
Back in cell range now, we scroll through Capel’s Instagram to see that yesterday was all Hawaiian shirts, zinc and slushy landings. Today, the terrain park is closed; its icy sculptures scoured and drifted in. We’d hoped to meet up with her again, but Capel wisely took the day off. We soar uphill, fully bundled and protected against the wind and snow. It pales to the previous conditions we’ve had on this trip, but as we leave early, the parking lot is still full of optimistic spring skiers. Tailgates are down, Calgarians drink beer and wait for the skies to clear. But we march in retreat.
A week ago, we hoped to escape modern trappings and explore preserved wilderness. Today, we just want the hotel, complementary face cream for our sunburns, luxurious baths for sore muscles, burgers instead of freeze-dried dinners and more beer than you can carry in a backpack. One more traverse across the parking lot, and we can have it all.
Ski Big 3 – skibig3.com
Mt. Norquay Ski Resort – banffnorquay.com
Sunshine Village Ski Resort – skibanff.com
The Lake Louise Ski Resort – skilouise.com
Sunshine Mountain Lodge – sunshinemountainlodge.com
Lake Louise Inn – lakelouiseinn.com