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Alberta Unbound

Alberta Unbound

Travel
By Susan Reifer
posted: 10/25/2007

To see more photos from Lake Louise, click here, or on the related link below.

High atop Canada's Lake Louise Mountain Resort, a signpost aims in 20 directions at once. Its wooden arrows are a ragtag lot, pointing to Manila (8,199 miles), Phoenix (1,210 miles) and Flin Flon (1,015 miles), to Zurich (4,961 miles), Lockport, New York (2,308 miles) and even Rhonda's House (183 miles).

Rocket Miller, who is standing near the signpost, doesn't need any arrows. He lives just down the road in Banff, where he plays hockey, helps raise two kids and comes to work at Lake Louise five days a week. But even after some 20 years on the ski patrol, the lanky, green-eyed 45-year-old still pauses on this summit like a breathless first-timer from Phoenix, Flin Flon or Rhonda's House, riveted by the majestic Canadian Rockies.

"You don't see too many views like that, he says after a pause, gesturing at the panorama of the Bow River Valley and the snow-caked craggy giants that flank it. "Notice how green it is? At the moment, I'm mesmerized by the glint of sunlight on huge limestone buttresses, so it takes a second to grasp what he means. But then I get it.

The thick evergreen forest carpeting the valley floor extends as far as the eye can see. Interruptions are few - the rooftop of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, the Trans-Canada highway tracing a line through the green - and little else. There are no massive mountain homes perched on denuded knolls. No shoulder-to-shoulder condos lining the roads. In fact, there are very few roads. Alberta's Lake Louise Mountain Resort may be a big, brawny, international ski destination, but it also sits in the heart of one of the world's most beautiful natural preserves: Banff National Park.

The park spans 2,564 square miles of mountains and meadows, glaciers and grizzlies, waterfalls and wolves - and, yes, skiing terrain. Lots of skiing terrain. Banff's three ski resorts - Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Ski Norquay - deliver 7,750 skiable acres, or about as much terrain as all of the resorts in Vermont, plus Beaver Creek, Colo., all amidst the park's rub-your-eyes landscape of glacial lakes and hulking, castellated peaks.

Established in 1885 as the world's third national park, this celebrated swath of Canadian Rocky Mountain majesty also encompasses historic grand hotels, burnished timber lodges and the bustling one-and-a-half-square-mile town of Banff, where pubs rub shoulders with hot springs, cultural institutions wedge against souvenir shops, and some 3 million visitors pass through every year.

This incongruous mix is one of a kind in snow country, and should earn Banff a spot on any skier's life list. While you won't find second homes, slopeside lodging or pedestrian base villages (development is strictly controlled within the park), improvements in recent years have increased Banff's appeal for skiers, bringing bold new terrain at Sunshine and Louise and upgraded winter amenities throughout the park. Yet despite its appeal, the Banff region remains an overlooked winter delight for most Americans—to the continuing befuddlement of the region's ski resorts. Summer is high season here (63 percent of Banff's annual tourist visits occur during the warm months), but winter defines the spirit of the place.

A recent visitor asked a 92-year-old woman in the local senior's facility why she moved to Banff in the 1930s, and her reply bordered on the incredulous, as though the answer were as obvious as the white-capped peaks outside her window. "For the skiing, of course, she said.

[pagebreak]

Banff may be best known for its vibrant vistas, luxury hotels and unadulterated wilds, but it's also Canada's original ski mecca, predating Whistler by some 75 years. In the 1920s and 30s, skiing here meant trekking to backcoury lodges. The modern ski era arrived when a ropetow began pulling skiers at Norquay in 1941 - six years before Aspen Mountain opened.

Ask locals why they moved here, and the answer is always the same: "For the skiing. Rocket Miller is one of those people. He grew up in Toronto. At the age of 21, he jumped in a car with a buddy and got out in Banff. The buddy left but Rocket stayed, working entry-level ski jobs until there was an opening on Louise's ski patrol. Now he's 45, owns a downtown Banff home styled like a Tyrolean chalet and heads Louise's avalanche-control team.

Rocket is easygoing, but his responsibilities aren't. Lake Louise Mountain Resort is Banff's ski giant. It sprawls across 4,200 acres and four mountain faces. Located five minutes from the small array of travelers' services in Lake Louise and 45 minutes from Banff, it is a day ski area in the classic sense, its huge parking lot fronted by a spacious daylodge. But inside there are as many British and German accents as American.

Outside, there's skiing for all abilities and moods: bunny slopes, groomed boulevards (try Wewaxi or anything off the Larch chair), World Cup courses (like the Men's Downhill, where World Cuppers race annually) and unruly mogul fields (such as Grizzly Gully, which is great for game intermediates, or the runs off Paradise Chair for stronger skiers). While Louise offers days' worth of forested cruising runs, it remains best known for its abundant steeps and undulating, mixed-level treeskiing.

From the Flin Flon sign Rocket and I glide down an access road to a bald face. We piston over moguls, then weave through rolling stands of evergreens and spiny larch before dropping over a steep pitch onto a groomer. We transition with a few super-G turns, then slide into the deserted queue of a platter lift.

The Summit Platter rises to 8,650 feet - Louise's highest lift-served point. Yesterday, I followed Rocket up the platter and out a ridgeline for a few hours of touring in the wilds. The terrain was steadily pitched and dotted with trees - rousing stuff for any strong intermediate with powder skills and a sense of adventure. Today, a sidestep takes us to the entrance of Whitehorn 2, a northeast-facing couloir. Rocket beckons me closer, then drops in. I peek over the edge to watch his tall form as it carves powerfully toward the chute's narrowing throat, spraying chips of wind-pack. He vanishes from sight.

My turn. The clouds have moved back in, and the light is suddenly flat. My first turn hits snow that's uneven and punchy. I cut right and I'm rewarded with snow that's pillowy. I downshift as the terrain tightens, then open up my turns and rocket toward Rocket, who waits far below and off to one side in a zone avalanche experts call an "island of safety.

Rocket points back up at the Whitehorn cirque - a semicircle of some 20 steep descents - and explains that park wardens were in charge of avalanche control at Banff ski areas until the 1990 season and kept most of the steeps closed. Over the next decade, new control programs were developed. The result: Some 1,000 acres of Louise's most exciting terrain - like the pitch we just skied - went from permanently closed to open for business.

Back at the base, the Powderkeg Lounge is bustling with pitchers of beer and hockey on TV. Over at the Chateau, a horse-drawn carriage pulls up to the lakeshore, carrying a confectionary-perfect bride and groom. A photographer hustles close behind. Wedding guests watch from a ballroom window, awaiting the couple's grand entrance. On the lake, skaters holding hands make laps around ice carvings as twilight falls. The scene is right out of a Currier & Ives print.

[pagebreak]

For many, the 550-room Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is Lake Louise. The hotel has held court on the shores of its emerald-green namesake since 1890. Inside, the décor is a mix of elk and caribou trophies, arched windows and curved staircases of polished stone. There are Swiss and Austrian touches everywhere - carved chandeliers of women in dirndl skirts, handpainted floral motifs on room doors.

The Chateau is an enclave of luxury surrounded by wilderness. It is also a huge tourist attraction. Busloads arrive constantly during high season, bringing as many as 16,000 "lookers each day. Service might not be as seamless as that found at Fairmont's city hotels, but after visitors are checked into the quiet preserves of their lakeview rooms, few will notice. Many royals have stayed at the Chateau, and the blue-blooded feeling rubs off on anyone who wakes to the mix of refined comforts and rugged views.

At Sunshine Village, an easy 25-minute drive from Banff, ski patroller Tim Haggerty stands atop a fierce piece of terrain known as Delirium Dive. Haggerty, 28, is a compact man who skis in a full-face helmet and body armor. He grew up in small-town Ontario, skiing the hills of Buffalo, N.Y. He's been in Banff for five years. Wherever he looks - at the steeps he's standing on or at a peak 50 miles distant - he points out a pitch he's recently skied.

There isn't a hint of braggadocio in his voice. This is a matter-of-fact discussion about how Haggerty spends every waking minute. There's no point in asking him why he moved here. This man lives, breathes and eats skiing.

Until fairly recently, a guy like Haggerty wouldn't have found himself at Sunshine. The resort's big, open basins and three interconnected peaks (Goat's Eye, Lookout and Mt. Standish) dish up an abundance of big blue runs framed by even bigger views. Want to feel the wind in your hair as you jet down a 400-foot-wide rolling groomer while gazing at giant peaks? Maybe dip into some ego moguls on the side or try a slightly steeper yet still comfortable slope? This is your place. And this is the side of Sunshine that the vast majority of skiers experience. They cruise down Strawberry Face or wind through the Dell Valley, glide down the Bunkers or through Wawa Bowl. They carve up the queen's corduroy of the World Cup run or maybe get a bit bolder in the moguls and steeper pitches of South Divide or Angel Flight. Then they gather at the long, weathered tables of the rustic Mad Trapper's Saloon (circa 1929) for camaraderie, Kokanees and fall-off-the-bone ribs.

But Sunshine is schizophrenic. On the backsides of its big basins lie don't-even-think-about-falling steeps called Freeride Zones. The (relatively) tamest is Delirium Dive, joined by even more radical terrain in the Wild West (opened in 2003) and Silver City (opened in 2006). To access these ridiculously pitched, truly expert-only sections, skiers must past through gates that open only when triggered by active avalanche beacons. On a day when there are 8,000 skiers at Sunshine, perhaps only 100 of them will be skiing this elite terrain, which has a growing reputation among North America's top freeskiers.

After sliding into the Dive's broadest entrance, I meet Haggerty on a wind-caked spine between two gullies. The spine forms a natural quarterpipe. We drop in, kick turn on the spine, drop in, kick turn again, down and down. We arrive in a quiet meadow, where we turn to look up at the dozen or so routes down the Dive. From here, they all look reasonable - certainly a challenge for experts but nothing spooky. Then we ski down the meadow to look up at Silver City. Its array of pencil-thin gullies, cliffbands and mandatory airs looks anything but reasonable. Suddenly the locked gates and warning signs make sense. "We want to train people to respect these areas, Haggerty says. "It's serious terrain.

Norquay is also serious about its skiing, but in an entirely different vein. It's tiny (only 190 skiable acres) and perched above the town of Banff like a forehead above a face. Its parking lot is less than 10 minutes from downtown. Locals began skiing here in 1926, and now use the area the way urbanites ved staircases of polished stone. There are Swiss and Austrian touches everywhere - carved chandeliers of women in dirndl skirts, handpainted floral motifs on room doors.

The Chateau is an enclave of luxury surrounded by wilderness. It is also a huge tourist attraction. Busloads arrive constantly during high season, bringing as many as 16,000 "lookers each day. Service might not be as seamless as that found at Fairmont's city hotels, but after visitors are checked into the quiet preserves of their lakeview rooms, few will notice. Many royals have stayed at the Chateau, and the blue-blooded feeling rubs off on anyone who wakes to the mix of refined comforts and rugged views.

At Sunshine Village, an easy 25-minute drive from Banff, ski patroller Tim Haggerty stands atop a fierce piece of terrain known as Delirium Dive. Haggerty, 28, is a compact man who skis in a full-face helmet and body armor. He grew up in small-town Ontario, skiing the hills of Buffalo, N.Y. He's been in Banff for five years. Wherever he looks - at the steeps he's standing on or at a peak 50 miles distant - he points out a pitch he's recently skied.

There isn't a hint of braggadocio in his voice. This is a matter-of-fact discussion about how Haggerty spends every waking minute. There's no point in asking him why he moved here. This man lives, breathes and eats skiing.

Until fairly recently, a guy like Haggerty wouldn't have found himself at Sunshine. The resort's big, open basins and three interconnected peaks (Goat's Eye, Lookout and Mt. Standish) dish up an abundance of big blue runs framed by even bigger views. Want to feel the wind in your hair as you jet down a 400-foot-wide rolling groomer while gazing at giant peaks? Maybe dip into some ego moguls on the side or try a slightly steeper yet still comfortable slope? This is your place. And this is the side of Sunshine that the vast majority of skiers experience. They cruise down Strawberry Face or wind through the Dell Valley, glide down the Bunkers or through Wawa Bowl. They carve up the queen's corduroy of the World Cup run or maybe get a bit bolder in the moguls and steeper pitches of South Divide or Angel Flight. Then they gather at the long, weathered tables of the rustic Mad Trapper's Saloon (circa 1929) for camaraderie, Kokanees and fall-off-the-bone ribs.

But Sunshine is schizophrenic. On the backsides of its big basins lie don't-even-think-about-falling steeps called Freeride Zones. The (relatively) tamest is Delirium Dive, joined by even more radical terrain in the Wild West (opened in 2003) and Silver City (opened in 2006). To access these ridiculously pitched, truly expert-only sections, skiers must past through gates that open only when triggered by active avalanche beacons. On a day when there are 8,000 skiers at Sunshine, perhaps only 100 of them will be skiing this elite terrain, which has a growing reputation among North America's top freeskiers.

After sliding into the Dive's broadest entrance, I meet Haggerty on a wind-caked spine between two gullies. The spine forms a natural quarterpipe. We drop in, kick turn on the spine, drop in, kick turn again, down and down. We arrive in a quiet meadow, where we turn to look up at the dozen or so routes down the Dive. From here, they all look reasonable - certainly a challenge for experts but nothing spooky. Then we ski down the meadow to look up at Silver City. Its array of pencil-thin gullies, cliffbands and mandatory airs looks anything but reasonable. Suddenly the locked gates and warning signs make sense. "We want to train people to respect these areas, Haggerty says. "It's serious terrain.

Norquay is also serious about its skiing, but in an entirely different vein. It's tiny (only 190 skiable acres) and perched above the town of Banff like a forehead above a face. Its parking lot is less than 10 minutes from downtown. Locals began skiing here in 1926, and now use the area the way urbanites use a gym, burning laps for an hour on powder mornings or working out during lunch breaks while eating sandwiches on the lifts. The resort even sells lift tickets by the hour.

[pagebreak]

On a typical day, minivans pull up to Norquay's new two-story timber-frame daylodge and disgorge bands of kids. A weekly women's ski group lunches upstairs, then moves to the carpet to learn a few Pilates moves. Outside, race-crazy guys in their 50s and 60s carve with ferocious consistency down a steady fall line run - then do it again and again. "If Banff were an ocean town, says JT Thorton, head of Norquay's patrol, "this would be the town beach.

Brad White, a National Park warden, is the rare local who did not move to Banff for the skiing. He was born here. As was his father and his father's father. His great-grandfather arrived in the late 1800s, working on the construction of the Canadian transcontinental rail line, then opened Banff's first general store. Great-granddad's building - the Dave White Block - still stands, half of its brick-and-lintel structure built in 1894, the other half in 1913.

History runs deep throughout Banff and Lake Louise, but time hasn't stood still. When White was a boy in the early 1960s, Banff's population was 2,802. Now it's 8,352, and chains like The Gap share customers with icons like the Rose & Crown pub and the Maple Leaf steakhouse. Log cabins once called home by White's ancestors stand near multi-level concrete parking structures. "It's hard to measure the change when you live in it. It's incremental, White says.

It's not hard to see that downtown Banff is booming. In addition to the standard mountain-town array of gift, T-shirt, and sports shops, there are cool museums, Irish pubs, Asian gift shops, jazz bars, hockey nights and dance clubs. The central core is classic mountain town, with a main street - Banff Avenue - intersected by several short cross streets, all fronted by two- and three-story buildings that house the town's commercial hub. In high season, the mix of quaint and modern is sufficiently energetic and international to provide a setting that approaches urban buzz. Yet, at is heart, Banff remains a town entirely enclosed by the rugged wilds of a national park.

And that may be its defining - and most appealing - trait. Peace and solitude are never more than a few steps away. In 10 minutes, anyone can be by the Bow River Falls or out in the forest, face to face with a moose.

"It's a great town and a great place to raise your kids, Brad White says. "We can ride our horses for 15 days and not cross a road. He pauses for a second and looks out a window, as if he could see Mt. Rundle dramatically jutting 5,000 feet above town instead of the chatting tourists strolling Banff's sidewalks. "I can walk outside and see the same views that I've seen for nearly 50 years and still be awed by the beauty, White says. "And I get to ski.

SIGNPOST: BANFF/LAKE LOUISE
Vitals: Lake Louise - 4,200 skiable acres; 3,260 vertical feet; summit elevation 8,650 feet; 183 annual inches; 9 lifts. Sunshine Village - 3,358 skiable acres; 3,514 vertical feet; summit elevation 8,954 feet; 364 annual inches; 12 lifts. Norquay - 190 skiable acres; 1,650 vertical feet; summit elevation 6,950 feet; 120 annual inches; 5 lifts.
Lodging: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a must. Lakeview rooms from $230 US (fairmont.com). The Juniper is a boutique-sized property for fans of midcentury design, from $97 (thejuniper.com). Buffalo Mountain's cabins are a cushy option, from $143 (crmr.com). Sunshine Village Inn offers Banff's only ski-in/ski-out lodging, from $135 (skibanff.com).
Dining: The Walliser Stube at the Chateau for Tyrolean specialties; the Deer Lodge for regional cuisine. There are many great options in Banff. Try The Maple Leaf for Alberta Beef or Café Soleil for tapas.
Après-Ski: The Powderkeg or the Lakeview Lounge at Lake Louise. Banff is rich with pubs, such as the St. James Gate. Sunshine's Mad Trapper.
Don't Miss: Skating on Lake Louise at dusk
Getting There: Fly into Calgary. It's 90 minutes to Banff.
Info: banfflakelouise.com; 403-762—8421

a gym, burning laps for an hour on powder mornings or working out during lunch breaks while eating sandwiches on the lifts. The resort even sells lift tickets by the hour.

[pagebreak]

On a typical day, minivans pull up to Norquay's new two-story timber-frame daylodge and disgorge bands of kids. A weekly women's ski group lunches upstairs, then moves to the carpet to learn a few Pilates moves. Outside, race-crazy guys in their 50s and 60s carve with ferocious consistency down a steady fall line run - then do it again and again. "If Banff were an ocean town, says JT Thorton, head of Norquay's patrol, "this would be the town beach.

Brad White, a National Park warden, is the rare local who did not move to Banff for the skiing. He was born here. As was his father and his father's father. His great-grandfather arrived in the late 1800s, working on the construction of the Canadian transcontinental rail line, then opened Banff's first general store. Great-granddad's building - the Dave White Block - still stands, half of its brick-and-lintel structure built in 1894, the other half in 1913.

History runs deep throughout Banff and Lake Louise, but time hasn't stood still. When White was a boy in the early 1960s, Banff's population was 2,802. Now it's 8,352, and chains like The Gap share customers with icons like the Rose & Crown pub and the Maple Leaf steakhouse. Log cabins once called home by White's ancestors stand near multi-level concrete parking structures. "It's hard to measure the change when you live in it. It's incremental, White says.

It's not hard to see that downtown Banff is booming. In addition to the standard mountain-town array of gift, T-shirt, and sports shops, there are cool museums, Irish pubs, Asian gift shops, jazz bars, hockey nights and dance clubs. The central core is classic mountain town, with a main street - Banff Avenue - intersected by several short cross streets, all fronted by two- and three-story buildings that house the town's commercial hub. In high season, the mix of quaint and modern is sufficiently energetic and international to provide a setting that approaches urban buzz. Yet, at is heart, Banff remains a town entirely enclosed by the rugged wilds of a national park.

And that may be its defining - and most appealing - trait. Peace and solitude are never more than a few steps away. In 10 minutes, anyone can be by the Bow River Falls or out in the forest, face to face with a moose.

"It's a great town and a great place to raise your kids, Brad White says. "We can ride our horses for 15 days and not cross a road. He pauses for a second and looks out a window, as if he could see Mt. Rundle dramatically jutting 5,000 feet above town instead of the chatting tourists strolling Banff's sidewalks. "I can walk outside and see the same views that I've seen for nearly 50 years and still be awed by the beauty, White says. "And I get to ski.

SIGNPOST: BANFF/LAKE LOUISE
Vitals: Lake Louise - 4,200 skiable acres; 3,260 vertical feet; summit elevation 8,650 feet; 183 annual inches; 9 lifts. Sunshine Village - 3,358 skiable acres; 3,514 vertical feet; summit elevation 8,954 feet; 364 annual inches; 12 lifts. Norquay - 190 skiable acres; 1,650 vertical feet; summit elevation 6,950 feet; 120 annual inches; 5 lifts.
Lodging: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a must. Lakeview rooms from $230 US (fairmont.com). The Juniper is a boutique-sized property for fans of midcentury design, from $97 (thejuniper.com). Buffalo Mountain's cabins are a cushy option, from $143 (crmr.com). Sunshine Village Inn offers Banff's only ski-in/ski-out lodging, from $135 (skibanff.com).
Dining: The Walliser Stube at the Chateau for Tyrolean specialties; the Deer Lodge for regional cuisine. There are many great options in Banff. Try The Maple Leaf for Alberta Beef or Café Soleil for tapas.
Après-Ski: The Powderkeg or the Lakeview Lounge at Lake Louise. Banff is rich with pubs, such as the St. James Gate. Sunshine's Mad Trapper.
Don't Miss: Skating on Lake Louise at dusk
Getting There: Fly into Calgary. It's 90 minutes to Banff.
Info: banfflakelouise.com; 403-762—8421

f.com/ target=_blank>skibanff.com).
Dining: The Walliser Stube at the Chateau for Tyrolean specialties; the Deer Lodge for regional cuisine. There are many great options in Banff. Try The Maple Leaf for Alberta Beef or Café Soleil for tapas.
Après-Ski: The Powderkeg or the Lakeview Lounge at Lake Louise. Banff is rich with pubs, such as the St. James Gate. Sunshine's Mad Trapper.
Don't Miss: Skating on Lake Louise at dusk
Getting There: Fly into Calgary. It's 90 minutes to Banff.
Info: banfflakelouise.com; 403-762—8421

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