Freshies, freeride zones and Sunshine…

Can Lake Louise and Sunshine live up to their reputations during Canada’s worst winter in years and with half of Alberta on the mountain? Certainly, with a bit of cunning and local know-how

SATURDAY

18:15 Sitting in Calgary airport arrivals with our luggage while my husband, PJ, queues at the rental car desk, I fall into conversation with a man in a cowboy hat. He’s a skier. “Y’see, I’m a Louise man,” he tells me confidentially. “Just can’t explain it. There’s somethin’ about the place.” Lake Louise is where we’re headed, led by the snow reports, so it’s good to hear.

SUNDAY

08:20 “Why is it so busy?” I say as we pull into the base station, 40 minutes after leaving our $99 room in Banff. “Isn’t Canada meant to be quiet?” The car park is filling fast and coaches and minibuses are disgorging hundreds of purposeful people into the unloading zone behind two giant timber-framed lodges. It’s snowing lightly and the trees are cloaked from the night’s eight or so inches.

08:26 We hurry into Whiskey Jack Lodge to discover a row of automatic ticket kiosks. PJ figures out how to make one spit out day passes while I zip to the ladies. Talk about fancy! Marble surfaces, sleek lighting, stunning mountain photos on the spotless walls… We find out later that the resort owner’s wife and daughter designed them.

08:45 We’re shuffling along roped queuing lanes for the Glacier Express four-man chair, passes attached to zips – no chip cards here; instead there’s a check by seasonnaires who are, in North American style, making sure no chair goes unfilled.

Want to find lines like these? Just chat to your neighbours on the chairlift... | Chris Moseley

Want to find lines like these? Just chat to your neighbours on the chairlift… | Chris Moseley

09:01 Time for the first of many lift chats instigated by friendly Canadians. The reason it’s busy, says a weekender from Calgary, is that high-lying Louise (base 1646m; top 2637m) and nearby Sunshine (a similar altitude) really do have the only decent snow in western Canada right now.

Virtually every other resort is a slush-fest and temps are still rising, and apparently yesterday was even busier (Saturdays are popular with weekenders). We had planned to warm up in Louise before a road trip via Fernie and Kicking Horse, but perhaps we’ll be staying put…

09:04 Beneath us, kids are already training in the massive park. They’re getting serious air and none of them looks over seven years old.

09:12 Turning right off the top, weslide into the singles lane for the Top of the World chair.

09:14 Result! We’re at the front. Riding up I spy a button lift to the left that climbs to the area’s highest point near the ski area boundary. That’ll be quiet, surely, and the map indicates some tasty-looking blacks.

09:30 We’re traversing towards Summit Platter, as the button is known. There are trees between us and it, and suddenly we’re alone, weaving among them, in super-light, knee-deep powder. The pines are getting tighter and as it steepens I chicken out and join the mogulled Tickety Chute – part of the World Cup course.

PJ has stayed in the woods and we meet at the lift, puffing. “Welcome to Summit! Enjoy the use of our olden days texting machine!” proclaims a chalk board scrawled with messages such as “Pow in your face”, “Seth & Eva” and “Summit Platter for breakfast”.

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10:58 We’ve done three laps, finding tracked powder between the button and the boundary, plus two tiny cornices that I’d surely have nailed – honest! – rather than crept over feebly if the light had been better… We realise that the inside lane is fastest for this button. I’m sweltering: it’s zero degrees and the jacket I’ve brought is designed for well below.

11:05 Ski patrol have opened the gates to the back bowls, off the top of Summit Platter. Let’s go! There are three more lifts and dozens of runs over the back (with 4,200 acres, Louise claims to be the biggest resort in the Canadian Rockies). It has stopped snowing and the light is flat, even more so on this north-facing side. Perhaps that’s why only a few folk are heading tentatively down, following the ungroomed, bumpy blue. A wobbly Chinese girl who has already committed asks us which is the easiest way down… We break the news that this is it.

11:07 PJ spots an open gate into what could be Upper Boomerang or Shoulder Roll. The steepish pitch we’re peering at looks good, and indeed it’s twice as deep as elsewhere. Hurrah! That’s the beauty of North America, where you can find fresh tracks inbounds any time, even on a busy day when you don’t know the mountain, simply by chancing upon a recently opened gate. PJ yipps as he makes beautiful turns.

11:15 For a satisfying circuit, advises a woman who has schlepped from Whistler for a few days’ decent snow, merge laps of Paradise with Summit Platter. As this seems the way to get back to that deep slope, this is our plan.

11:26 Change of plan. We have spotted so many brilliant lines underneath Paradise that we make a swift U-turn over Paradise Cornice – not at all fearsome where I drop in – to return to the back bowl.

11:29 A deserted mogul field with pow at the sides opens out beneath us. Where is everyone? Lower down we dip in and out of trees till we land again at the whizzy green, legs on fire. We cruise on to Larch, a chair that accesses another entire mountain.

11:50 Larch, being on a limb, is queue-less. We find sweet glades marked double-black – Tower 12 and Lookout Chutes; they’re pretty straightforward.

12:15 Earlier we spotted a mean mogul run on Larch that we think is called Lynx. I think I am on it. The bumps are colossal. Taller than me. PJ has vanished. Forget about rhythm; purple-faced, I am just trying to make it down.

Lake Louise is situated in Banff National Park, 6641 km² of mountainous terrain |Chris Mosely

Lake Louise is situated in Banff National Park, 6641 km² of mountainous terrain |Chris Mosely

12:25 Cheeky! PJ has snuck down an easier run. He’s waiting at a junction, sweat-free. We make for Temple Lodge, a log cabin round the corner with self-service, a terrace and a smart part upstairs.

13:01 Two soups later and we’re riding Ptarmigan, watching a group of boarders crashing down the moguls on Exhibition, under the chair. Stumps and rocks are catching them on this well frequented line. Time to explore more of the front side while others are eating.

13:15 We pop over from the top of Ptarmigan and traverse skier’s right, chancing upon more fun trees – Upper Grouse, we think – which we hope will lead us to Top of the World quad.

13:21 Funny these glades are so perfect for skiing: our neighbour on the last lift said the trees are only felled here now for lift lines as Louise is in Banff National Park. Therefore recent glading is natural, caused by slides or terrain quirks.

13:35 We’re on Top of the World scoping an east-facing hump to our left, with some disused pylons strung along it, cables still in place. “The old Olympic two-man chair,” says a season ticket holder riding up with us. “That slope gets loaded by the south-west winds.” The map shows those slopes to be Kernahan’s and Grizzly Bowl. Kernahan, we learn, was a ski area manager in the 1970s. Forget joining an official mountain tour here: just ride these chairlifts and the info flows.

13:42 Young dudes are jumping off the wooden fences near the top, which hold snow into a path. Looks fun!

13:45 Our turn. Unsure exactly which fence the dudes were jumping; they look different from above. And bigger. But PJ goes first and we both make it with reasonable style and continue down a field of small, flattering moguls, past an iron weathervane decorated with an old-school skier.

13:50 We’ve made it to the top of the old Olympic lift by traversing right, crossing a piste and following the ridge. We admire the view across to Lake Louise itself – we can see the frozen, snow-covered lake far beyond the Trans-Canada highway across the vast valley. “What’s that fruity smell?” I wonder. Turns out the rickety lifties’ hut is a traditional spot for a pot break and a couple of boarders are sitting there with a joint.

14:55 Three runs later, we reckon Top of the World is the business: runs 33/34 are winners – ideal pitch and length, holding consistent snow. We’ve added another natural kicker to our route and found a nifty way through the trees to the fruity spot without wasting terrain. And either Canadians have long lunches or they prefer to ski early: we get straight on each lift.

15:02 PJ wants to try the park so we ski the lower mountain, keeping to the sides for the best snow – as well as visibility, thanks to the dense pines lining the lower runs. PJ has fun on the smaller kickers while I piste it next to the biggest features and airborne kids.

15:25 There’s time for a final lap of our new fave, Top of the World. In fact let’s try two.

16:10 We’re told off – in a friendly way – by ski patrol for dawdling to take pictures while they’re closing the mountain.

16:45 A wave of exhaustion hits us at Whiskey Jack Lodge. Surely not the Powder Hound lager we’ve just necked? Jetlag? Moguls? As we look for a room online using the handy free Wi-Fi, some regulars sharing our table tell us about Skoki Lodge, in the wilds 11km away, where Kate and Wills have stayed; and Lake Louise Chateau, 7km away by the lake. Clearly both are off the scale budget-wise.

17:00 We’ve booked a $99 room at the Lake Louise Inn. The place is emptying swiftly – no rowdy après-ski here; most peopleare driving.

18:50 We’re installed in the Inn. We’ve strolled round the tiny village, passing other lodges, and finding gift shops, a sweet shop, a sports shop, a bakery and a grocery store at Samson Mall, right in the centre ofLake Louise.

20:05 We polish off a takeaway pizza before fending off sleep becomes impossible.

MONDAY

04:45 It’s dark. It’s snowing. I’m wide awake. But it’s ages until the lifts open.

05:30 PJ checks the forecast. Everywhere except here remains warm. Shall we ski Louise again today – we’ve barely scratched the surface – then explore Sunshine tomorrow? It’s a plan.

06:58 We’re first at the breakfast buffet. PJ has cleared the car. Three inches have fallen overnight.

08:05 We’re on the road to the ski hill, covering the 3km in less than five minutes: no traffic today – everyone’s back to work. As we have time to spare we check out the base station ski shop and I remember that one heel yesterday felt wobbly in my recently mounted hike-and-ride Markers. The technician fixes it without charge and says, “Have an awesome day!”

09:15 As the mountain is deserted we indulge in a warm-up run off the Grizzly Express gondola. Freshly groomed Eagle Meadows is a ‘slow skiing area’ but so empty it seems OK to blast down. 

09:48 Nearby tree-lined Meadowlark and Lowest Meadowlark sound innocent but are teeming with moguls. Being on the periphery they’re largely ignored and there’s still yesterday’s as well as today’s powder.

10:32 The back bowl is open; the sun out. First we lap Ptarmigan’s moguls then inspect the row of double-blacks off the Paradise ridge. On this quiet day nobody has ridden a lift with us yet, so we have no tour guides. However, we can see some of those chutes need deep cover to be open: most are not, but those that are get little traffic; Louise attracts all-rounders more than obsessive steep-and-deepers.

Lake Louise with the gargantuan Fairmont Chauteu on the lake |Banff -Lake Louise Tourism /Paul Zizka

Lake Louise with the gargantuan Fairmont Chauteu on the lake |Banff -Lake Louise Tourism /Paul Zizka

11:25 We’re back on Summit Platter and taking different routes to yesterday in better light. So few lifts yet so many lines to choose from.

12:57 Refuelled by lunch at the North Face Bistro, we revisit the still-deep runs off the back of Summit, lose each other on Larch and find more fall-line routes down Top of the World which, equal with Summit, claims top spot for me for cool lines almost anywhere: in trees, in the open, off fences…

16:10 Jetlag? Physical effort? Probably both. We’ve skied more today than yesterday as there was no queuing. Just enough energy to book a motel room at Banff for two nights, drive the 40 minutes there and flop.

TUESDAY

08:40 We’re on our way to Sunshine, 10 miles from Banff, having been awake for three hours. The windy road leads to a vast car park by the gondola.

09:09 We’re nearly at the top of the first section and the couple in with us still haven’t engaged us in conversation. I’m baffled until I hear them speak. They’re British.

09:23 At the top of the second bubble is a 360° bowl among a cluster of buildings: a day lodge, two overnight lodges, a ski shop, a beginners’ zone. While Lake Louise has a frontside, a backside and Larch, Sunshine has this wide bowl with lifts fanning out, plus a separate mountain called Goat’s Eye, which we passed on the way up. The map shows two freeride zones where safety equipment is compulsory: we’ll save those since only one of us is carrying a shovel and probe (all inbounds areas are avalanche-controlled and surprisingly few people even wear transceivers).

09:26 The slopes to the right, behind the lodges, and ahead, on Mount Standish, look rather easy. Raring to go, we take the Angel Express quad up the steeper Lookout Mountain, to the left. Beneath us is gladed terrain, trees laden with snow. Off-duty ski instructors are making short work of a line of soft moguls near the top.

09:28 We race to follow and steal their route. They pop over the edge of a path into Big Angel, a mogulled black with deep powder at the edge, and disappear into the trees lower down.

11:05 We’re now in the playful terrain of Teepee Town, a creaky two-man chair that shares its top section of slope with Angel, but is more interesting lower down, with steep, wooded lines such as Rock Ledges and Schoolmarm. After a few laps I spot a traverse into the next bowl, which might lead to The Shoulder, a black back-route to Goat’s Eye mountain.

11:09 The way in is tricky but worthwhile. A powder field opens out, then funnels into the woods. Lower down we follow a well-skied, wooded natural half-pipe full of moguls, roots and rocks.

Banff Avenue, with the 3,000m Cascade Mountain behind it |Paul Zizka

Banff Avenue, with the 3,000m Cascade Mountain behind it |Paul Zizka

11:19 There’s a yelp ahead and I slam on the brakes to find PJ teetering at the top of a 15ft cliff mid-gully. Dropping in isn’t an option, with rocks everywhere and a flat landing. He sidesteps to safety and we find a harmless chute further down.

11:35 We’re on Goat’s Eye chairlift, working out how to get to a long, wide, steep pitch we spotted opposite The Shoulder. Up top there’s an open gate to a traverse to Wildside, Farside and beyond. Light is flat in this treeless expanse so we stay near rocks to get some definition. Not sure which run we’re on but it’s a spectacular descent, pretty much deserted. And it meets our gully. Next time we traverse further and rock-hop our way down a couloir into another double-black, perhaps Renegade or Stampede.

13:05 One more lap before lunch?

14:10 Two laps later we’re grabbing a sandwich at the Day Lodge which, oddly, is full of people when the mountain is not.

14:30 We’re steeped out: how about those gentle slopes? The tree runs from Wawa quad are fun, shared mainly with boarders.

15:15 We hatch a cunning plan to avoid a rather boring run to the mid-station en route home by returning to The Shoulder, following our gully, then joining the throngs on-piste back to base. Tomorrow we reckon we’ll tackle Delirium Dive, the higher of the two freeride zones, and explore even more of Goat’s Eye. Kicking Horse and Fernie will have to wait for another year: we’ll just be  too busy. 

Essentials

Travel

Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Calgary daily; flight time just over nine hours; from £645. To get to Banff (90 minutes), hire a car or take the Banff Airporter. Local shuttles go to and from Banff and Lake Louise (37 miles), Sunshine (10 miles) and Norquay (4 miles). From Lake Louise village a shuttle goes to and from the ski hill (three miles away).

Stay

Fox Hotel and Suites, a 10-minute walk from downtown Banff, has comfy rooms, a sociable bar, decent breakfast and cave-style hot-tub.

Lake Louise Inn is a comfy motel-style place within walking distance of Samson Mall and a five-minute drive or free shuttle bus ride to the ski hill.

Both £80-£90 per night for a double, b&b.

Ski passes

Day pass about $90; six out of eight days tri-area pass $592 (£300; skibig3.com) @ skilouise.com; skibanff.com

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