A March 2004 trip
to Banff by Josh S
Quote: An account of the incredible off-piste skiing opportunities at Lake Louise and Sunshine.
Just an hour-and-a-half drive from the Calgary airport lie two full-on ski areas with some of the best lift-serviced terrain in North America: Lake Louise and Sunshine Village. Both resorts are within easy driving distance of the world-famous mountain towns of Banff and Lake Louise in the heart of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
Lake Louise: Chutes Galore
Lake Louise doesn’t waste any time getting the show rolling. Minutes after stepping out of the rustic coziness of the massive Lodge of the Ten Peaks, I stood 3,000 feet higher on a ridge, overlooking a vast, powdered expanse bending out of sight toward a valley far below. After a few quick warm-up turns, my season officially began.
Lake Louise resembles a Vail on steroids: both share the magnificent vistas, breathtaking back bowls, and first-rate on-mountain dining experiences, but Lake Louise adds to that the muscle of a plethora of challenging terrain that Vail lacks. But there are also plenty of greens (25%) and blues (45%) that conveniently link up with every lift, allowing skiers of different abilities to ski together easily. That’s right—your novice ski partner will be totally content while you rip some serious vertical alongside.
Lake Louise packs a huge 4,200 skiable acres in a layout strikingly resembling Vail—an 1,100-acre Front Side of glades, bowls, and trail skiing; a Back Bowls area encompassing 2,500 acres of chutes, glades, and powder fields (equal to the entire size of Snowbird); and finally, a back-back side called the Larch area holding 600 acres of choice bump and glade runs. Included in the Larch terrain is a hike-in up to the top of 8,902-foot Lipalian Mountain, offering dedicated powder hounds fresh-track opportunities even late after a storm.
There’s no question that the Paradise Chair and Summit Platter (a tough go for snowboarders, but well worth the effort) offer up the sickest terrain on the mountain. Tight lines, cornices, and drops dot the landscape and pose an unending assortment of thrill-rides. The ER chutes accessible from the Paradise Chair afford some of the steepest drops down the backside. The Whitehorn 2 Gullies from the Summit Platter present a sequential series of challenges—skiing all eight in a day is a local challenge.
Perhaps the gnarliest chute of all drops away in the Jewelry Box, accessible only after a short hike along the ridge of Mt. Whitehorn. And then there are the unending Ptarmigan glades, where life slows down and fresh lines never falter… I could go on and on. At Lake Louise, bountiful hidden treasures lie in wait—the exploration is up to you.
Sunshine Village: Extreme Banff
Although it’s rare for one location to possess two great destination ski resorts right next to each other, the Banff area is a stunning exception. Only 15 minutes from the town of Banff, Sunshine Village boasts 3,358 skiable acres and the most extreme expert terrain in the area. Add to that an average annual snowfall of 264 inches (significantly higher than Lake Louise’s 179 inches), and now we’re ready to go skiing.
Over the last few years, Sunshine has transformed its image from "the family mountain" to "the steep-skiing center" of the region. Ask any local ski bum where they skied on their last day off, and chances are, they’ll say "Sunshine." With 42% of the mountain’s terrain rated Advanced and 5% Expert, the experienced skier will feel right at home.
The most famous run at Sunshine is unquestionably the Delirium Dive (known simply as "The Dive" by locals). A true in-bounds backcountry experience, the many lines of the Dive offer a variety of challenges (such as jumping an impossible ice waterfall—not recommended) before converging into a powder bowl below. Be aware that transceivers, probes, and shovels are required to ski the Dive, but other than that, you’re pretty much on your own. Only take this plunge if you know what you’re doing.
In addition to the Dive, major expert terrain expansion since last year has bolstered Sunshine’s status as the undisputed home of Banff steeps. In total, 158 acres of Expert terrain were added to Goat’s Eye Mountain, including four double-black chutes and the "Extreme Skiing – Experts Only" Wild West area. Unfortunately, the Wild West chutes never officially opened to the public this year, due to lack of snow coverage. Ski-patroller Troy Leahy skied us down to the closed boundary edge of Wild West and showed us the new historical signage dedicated to early Banff-area mountaineers, including "Wild Bill" Peyto. Peyto’s name distinctly sticks out in my mind…
…Because Troy simply lifted the rope and said, "OK, let’s go." Off we descended through untracked powder fields until we reached the narrowing confines of Peyto’s Chute. Here things got a bit tricky—a few rocks under the surface here and there, but overall, a classic jump-turn sequence down the two-ski-length-wide chute was exactly what I’d been craving for so long. "Not bad," said Troy at the bottom. "Other than ski patrol, the only other guy out here all year was [extreme skier] Chris Davenport." Not a bad way to end the season.
Now, back on the East Coast, my thoughts turn to summer and warm weather again. My ski cravings for the year have been totally satisfied. But now that I know what lies waiting up in Banff, I’m sure my cravings will be that much more severe come winter.
Ski area info
Although independently owned and operated, the Lake Louise and Sunshine Village resorts (along with the smaller Norquay) offer a multi-mountain lift ticket deal that provides lift access to all three mountains. Free shuttle bus service to and from the towns of Banff and Lake Louise to all three mountains is also included in the ticket deal.
More information on the lift ticket packages can be found at www.skibig3.com.
For info specifically on Lake Louise, visit www.skilouise.com.
For info specifically on Sunshine Village, visit www.skibanff.com.
Located in the heart of Banff village, Brewster’s Mountain Lodge provides the perfect base for your ski adventures at both resorts. The wooden-beam lodge feel and consistently themed log furniture add a Western flavor to the place. Amenities include a hot tub, sauna, exercise room, underground parking, restaurant, and separate ski storage.
Great eats abound in Banff—some of my favorite places for food/drinks were the steakhouse/bar SaltLik and the Irish restaurant/pub St. James’s Gate.
San Francisco, California