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Northern Explosion

Features
posted: 01/29/2001

When the ski areas around mountain-rimmed Banff, Alberta, battle it out for alpha status, the result is a proliferation of steeps, and skiers are the real winners.

The snow is chest deep, the pitch 40 degrees plus, and Longhair Ralph is hating it. Actually, he's hating his skis -- stiff, 223-cm Head downhill racers. Big planks to ski the nearly bottomless snow that has drifted into the lee-side slopes of the 800-acre cirque known as Delirium Dive. Of course, calling Ralph's technique "skiing" is like calling flapping chicken wings "flying." As Ralph skis, his long boards dive -- snow billowing around his thighs, waist, chest, neck -- and his eyes widen with worry as he launches into forward somersaults that return his skis to the surface.

It's one way of getting face shots. The rest of us, riding midfats, get our face shots the traditional way -- turn right, turn left, let the billowing snow slap you in the schnoz. But, hey, this is the Canadian Rockies, and I figure folks do things differently here. After all, they call this ski resort -- which gets far more snow and considerably more cloudy weather than any of its neighboring hills -- Sunshine Village. So watching a guy roll down a mountain strapped to boards a time zone long -- well, maybe that's normal.

Nearly 2,000 vertical feet lower, we look up at our signatures. Greg Ronaasen, a hard-charging skier by day and a Banff chef by night, is basking in the afterglow of the run. "That beats heli-skiing," he pronounces with conviction. Longhair, however, isn't pleased with the worm trough of his tracks: "That was waaaydeeper than I expected. I need to dump the sequoias."

For me, it's old stereotypes that need to be dumped: The new Sunshine is waaaysteeper than I remember.

Only five years ago, huge character differences branded the three ski resorts surrounding the town of Banff, Alberta, a thriving island of civilization in the Canadian outback. Mt. Norquay, a four-mile uphill drive from downtown, was the small but hardcore town hill with wicked steeps, huge bumps, and unfortunately, spotty snow. Lake Louise, 36 miles west, was the international star -- a 4,000-acre behemoth surrounded by world-class scenery, speckled with swanky log lodges, and blessed with miles of terrain for every skier level.

But Sunshine Village, 10 miles west of Banff, was floundering for identity. It was neither local hill nor international destination. It possessed the scenic backdrops to shoot a camera in any direction, and it received meters more snow than either Norquay or Louise, but skiers worth their 223-cm Heads called the terrain lame. Recognizing the curse of the "intermediate" label, Sunshine's owners started developing their vertical axis. They wanted to be on every expert skier's radar screen. In fact, they wanted to be the region's alpha resort.

The transformation of Sunshine Village into a 3,200-acre hill with teeth began in 1995 with the installation of the Goat's Eye high-speed quad, which gave Sunshine a 1,100-acre parcel of advanced skiing: 1,900 vertical feet of serious bumps, fall-away glades, steep cruisers, and off-piste bowls. Then, during the 1998-99 season, Sunshine completely squashed the what's-flatter-than-Kansas jokes with the opening of Delirium Dive, a gauntlet of adventurous drops whose easiest runs broach 40 degrees, whose intermediate options sport 50-degree entrances, and whose baddest lines demand leaps to test the biggest huevos.

Locals had known about this playground, littered with steeps, cliffs, and chutes, for decades. During the 1970s, backcountry types hiked to and skied the Dive, taking their chances in a mile-wide cirque laced with the temperature-gradient snow of the Canadian Rockies. "We'd occasionally hop in even though the park wardens warned it could slide," Greg tells me. "We didn't own transceivers, so we'd stick close to the rock outcrops. It was exhilarating. At the bottom, we really felt ke we had cheated death."

Not everyone who skied the Dive in olden times fared as well as Greg and his buddies did. Enough skiers were hurt that in 1981 the Park Service, responsible for the area's avalanche control, banned skiing here and slapped violators with $500 fines. In recent years, however, the Park Service decided that if Sunshine controlled and patrolled the slopes, the Dive could reopen.

Today, when we reach the gate leading to the Dive (after riding the Continental Divide high-speed quad and making the short hike to Delirium), a patroller, checking that all entrants carry transceivers and shovels, lets us pass. The guy behind us lacks the necessary gear and is turned away. "This sucks," he shouts.

Actually, it rules. Given the pitch of these slopes and the fickleness of the snowpack, it's smart policy to promote avalanche preparedness.

A five-minute hike beyond the entrance gate puts us atop the 9,000-foot summit of Lookout Mountain, where Longhair Ralph, a local artist whose murals decorate the walls of Sunshine's day lodge, drops the midfat skis he's borrowed for this second plunge down the Dive.

Back in the day, he tells me, there was an OUT OF BOUNDS sign here and a sketchy rope for lowering yourself over the 20-foot cornices. "We usually launched -- seemed safer than the rope." I look at Ralph's legs -- both are wrapped with heavy braces to support knees that have exploded multiple times. That must have been one manky rope if Longhair thought it dangerous.

We ski along the summit ridge toward the entrance of Bre-X, a run named after a fake Indonesian gold mine and an accompanying financial scam in which one of the partners, realizing that his collapsing scheme would land him jail, hucked himself out of a helicopter. Back when the cornices capping the mountain weren't controlled, backcountry skiers hucked themselves onto the 50-degree slopes below. Now, with the ski patrol managing the area, we ski the frozen gold without a leap.

Still, with each turn, I'm conscious of how sketchy these slopes would be in firm conditions. A scene from the video of the extreme competition staged here in 1999 replays in my mind: A competitor loses an edge, cartwheels over a 90-foot cliff band, and nearly doubles his body's bone count.

Halfway down, Longhair, who on his borrowed midfats is a darn strong turn-right-turn-left skier, traverses the long track leading to the remote bowls and glades of Eagle Basin. We congregate on a treeless knoll and absorb the surroundings. On one side, the laminated cliffs, so distinctive of the Rockies, cramp my neck as I tilt back to view their half-mile height. On the other side, it's an Imax moment: A universe of white peaks stretches to and merges with the horizon. Greg absorbs the surroundings quite differently. "Listen to that," he comments.

"Don't hear anything," I reply.

"Exactly. More skiers than ever here," he says, alluding to the resort's growing reputation, "but you still find nooks like this that are your own private mountain."

Sunshine feels nothing like a private mountain when I meet Byron Tarchuck at 8:20 the next morning in a long gondola line. This three-mile lift is a unique, but maligned, feature of the resort. From the ski-area parking lot (a 15-minute drive west of Banff), it's still a 20-minute gondola ride to Sunshine's tiny village. The village -- historic log cabins, log lodges, and 20-year-old chalet-style structures -- houses all the normal skiing services, an 84-room hotel, seven eateries, and the base stations of the lifts leading up Lookout Mountain and Mount Standish. Because of this mandatory gondola ride, many Banff locals bypass Sunshine and drive the 45 minutes to the lifts of Lake Louise. People who ski Sunshine regularly, however, use the gondola efficiently to suit up and bagel down.

Byron, an ex-pro freestyler and Banff contractor-developer, has the gondola thing wired. Ten minutes into the gondola ride, when the coffee is finished and the boots buckled, he exits at the midstation, snaps on his skis, and glides over to the Goat's Eye Express, whose base is well below the rest of the village. "Personally, I find skiing Goat's Eye incredibly convenient," he says. "It's not everywhere you get a high-speed chair servicing terrain like this."

From the bottom of the quad, he proudly elaborates. Out to the right are the off-piste runs of Farside; closer in, the steep glades of Big Woody; closer still, the high-speed cruisers of Rolling Thunder. Under the lift, he notes the 40-degree pitch and thigh-tenderizing bumps. And to the left are the branch-thwacking glades of Hell's Kitchen. "I can log 8,000 vertical feet per hour and, after a morning, feel good about going to work."

Byron's not logging 8,000 vertical per hour today, though. The cell phone keeps ringing, and feeling the pinch of a building project that's behind schedule, he takes the calls. Due to its location within a national park, Banff is a red-tape-ridden place in which to build. The town has a citizenry cap of 10,000 people for the indefinite future, and people wanting to live here need not just the bucks to buy in, but permanent work in the area, proving need-to-reside status. Without such status, you can't buy or build a home.

Commercial projects are even tougher: There are no new building sites, so older structures are either restored or leveled. The town can't get bigger; it can only be made better. And that makes the life of a contractor complicated. Nonetheless, Byron believes the rewards justify the regulations. Internationally famous, Banff draws a cosmopolitan crowd. "You walk around town hearing French, Japanese, German, Italian, Aussie, Kiwi. You find high-end boutiques, quality eateries, pubs, museums, art galleries -- amazing for a town this size," he tells me. "And when you're tired of it, it's no more than a three-block walk to trails where you might see elk, bear, wildcats.... The more amazing thing? It will be virtually the same in 500 years."

The phone rings again, and Byron gets cross: "You handle this. Don't call me back." He turns off the ringer, and we start ripping. I ski on his tails, and the dusting of snow streaming behind him swirls around me -- poor man's face shots.

From the top of the quad, we look across the slopes at Delirium Dive. Byron has skied the world, and yet there's plenty of ground in that viewshed -- cliffs, rock-walled chutes, super steeps -- he's happy to avoid. "Delirium is as wild as you'll find at a resort," he tells me. "There's all levels of scary stuff there." When I describe the bottomless powder we bagged yesterday, Byron suggests we ditch his beloved Goat to see what the Dive is dishing out today.

The opening of Goat's Eye and Delirium Dive has created a turf war in the Canadian Rockies. Lake Louise, with 4,200 acres of inbounds terrain, is still Banff's biggest hill. Its newer, grander lodges imbue the resort with greater sophistication. Its very name exudes prestige. So Lake Louise has, historically, commanded the lion's share of business. But in 1998-99, when the Dive first opened, Louise's stranglehold weakened. And last year, for the first time in 14 years, Sunshine's skier visits topped Louise's.

Charlie Locke (owner of Lake Louise) bears little love for the Scurfield brothers (owners of Sunshine Village) and really hates them stealing his business. He's counterattacked, therefore, by opening more adventure terrain of his own off the 8,765-foot back side of Mount Whitehorn, including Chutes A through G.

Today, while riding lifts 3,250 vertical feet skyward to Lake Louise's high point, I grill Rob Vecmanis -- a ripping telemarker and a ski technician who works a few kilometers down the road in the tiny village of Lake Louise -- about his assertion that this is the only local hill to ski. He concedes Sunshine has better snow but pans the expanses of flat terrain and the bizarre linkages required to move around that resort. and the boots buckled, he exits at the midstation, snaps on his skis, and glides over to the Goat's Eye Express, whose base is well below the rest of the village. "Personally, I find skiing Goat's Eye incredibly convenient," he says. "It's not everywhere you get a high-speed chair servicing terrain like this."

From the bottom of the quad, he proudly elaborates. Out to the right are the off-piste runs of Farside; closer in, the steep glades of Big Woody; closer still, the high-speed cruisers of Rolling Thunder. Under the lift, he notes the 40-degree pitch and thigh-tenderizing bumps. And to the left are the branch-thwacking glades of Hell's Kitchen. "I can log 8,000 vertical feet per hour and, after a morning, feel good about going to work."

Byron's not logging 8,000 vertical per hour today, though. The cell phone keeps ringing, and feeling the pinch of a building project that's behind schedule, he takes the calls. Due to its location within a national park, Banff is a red-tape-ridden place in which to build. The town has a citizenry cap of 10,000 people for the indefinite future, and people wanting to live here need not just the bucks to buy in, but permanent work in the area, proving need-to-reside status. Without such status, you can't buy or build a home.

Commercial projects are even tougher: There are no new building sites, so older structures are either restored or leveled. The town can't get bigger; it can only be made better. And that makes the life of a contractor complicated. Nonetheless, Byron believes the rewards justify the regulations. Internationally famous, Banff draws a cosmopolitan crowd. "You walk around town hearing French, Japanese, German, Italian, Aussie, Kiwi. You find high-end boutiques, quality eateries, pubs, museums, art galleries -- amazing for a town this size," he tells me. "And when you're tired of it, it's no more than a three-block walk to trails where you might see elk, bear, wildcats.... The more amazing thing? It will be virtually the same in 500 years."

The phone rings again, and Byron gets cross: "You handle this. Don't call me back." He turns off the ringer, and we start ripping. I ski on his tails, and the dusting of snow streaming behind him swirls around me -- poor man's face shots.

From the top of the quad, we look across the slopes at Delirium Dive. Byron has skied the world, and yet there's plenty of ground in that viewshed -- cliffs, rock-walled chutes, super steeps -- he's happy to avoid. "Delirium is as wild as you'll find at a resort," he tells me. "There's all levels of scary stuff there." When I describe the bottomless powder we bagged yesterday, Byron suggests we ditch his beloved Goat to see what the Dive is dishing out today.

The opening of Goat's Eye and Delirium Dive has created a turf war in the Canadian Rockies. Lake Louise, with 4,200 acres of inbounds terrain, is still Banff's biggest hill. Its newer, grander lodges imbue the resort with greater sophistication. Its very name exudes prestige. So Lake Louise has, historically, commanded the lion's share of business. But in 1998-99, when the Dive first opened, Louise's stranglehold weakened. And last year, for the first time in 14 years, Sunshine's skier visits topped Louise's.

Charlie Locke (owner of Lake Louise) bears little love for the Scurfield brothers (owners of Sunshine Village) and really hates them stealing his business. He's counterattacked, therefore, by opening more adventure terrain of his own off the 8,765-foot back side of Mount Whitehorn, including Chutes A through G.

Today, while riding lifts 3,250 vertical feet skyward to Lake Louise's high point, I grill Rob Vecmanis -- a ripping telemarker and a ski technician who works a few kilometers down the road in the tiny village of Lake Louise -- about his assertion that this is the only local hill to ski. He concedes Sunshine has better snow but pans the expanses of flat terrain and the bizarre linkages required to move around that resort. Lake Louise, he maintains, has steeps on every aspect and lifts that make lapping them easy.

Because I've been inquiring about them, Rob leads me directly from the Summit Platter atop Mount Whitehorn to the new chutes. In flat-light conditions, we make tenuous turns down this tree-free terrain. The skiing is steep, slightly over 40 degrees. I've yet to consume my morning coffee, but the 800 vertical feet below my edges slap me awake. This is fun ground, but because it is lift accessible, it also sees heavy traffic. "Not as soft as Delirium Dive," I rib Rob.

"Maybe we should try Purple Bowl," he counters.

But he is in no hurry to get me there. First we sample the eye openers off the Paradise Chair, like ER 3 and ER 7, presumably so named because lapses in technique may land you in one. We tire of the flat light on these open faces and move lower, where we spend an hour slaloming lines through the steep forests flanking the Ptarmigan Chair.

Eventually, we head up the Larch Chair, then start hiking. Thirty minutes later, we're in Purple Bowl, blasting the shin-deep snow into contrails that billow behind us. The pitch doesn't drain the adrenal glands, but the open terrain lets us unbridle the boards and fly.Funneling back into the groomers near Temple Lodge, I yell to Rob, "How 'bout some lunch?" I'm thinking deli sandwich. Rob pulls an energy bar from his coat and skis into the lift line. "Sure," he says.

He's not the typical Lake Louise visitor who comes not just to ski, but to soak in the ambience of Banff National Park by lazing in the island of a warm log lodge and gazing out over a frozen sea of white-capped peaks. I have some of that typical visitor in me. But I'm also prepared for the Robs of the world: I dig into my sweaty anorak and fish out a bar of my own. We dine with a view no less spectacular on the chair leading to Rob's next stash.By day's end, I'm running on the fructose fumes of that bar. We take our last hurrahs off-piste through the partial powder of West and Maintenance Bowls, then hit Star Wars, a diagonal return track through thick woods with small plunges, blind corners, and overhanging branches.

By the way I've hooted all day, Rob's sure he's made a Louise convert of me. "What do you think? Meet me at the base tomorrow for another day?"

The question chain reacts into a quandary. Kicking around Lake Louise and threading little-known lines with Tele-Man here -- that's tempting. But I still have a date with Mt. Norquay and its bumps on steroids. And then there's the matter of the predicted snow: If it comes tonight, I'm skiing Delirium Dive.

"Uhh," I stall, realizing for the first time that five days to ski Banff has left me in a serious time crunch. "How early can I call you in the morning?"

Check out more photos by clicking on NORTHERN EXPLOSION: THE PHOTOS in the related links box above.ort. Lake Louise, he maintains, has steeps on every aspect and lifts that make lapping them easy.

Because I've been inquiring about them, Rob leads me directly from the Summit Platter atop Mount Whitehorn to the new chutes. In flat-light conditions, we make tenuous turns down this tree-free terrain. The skiing is steep, slightly over 40 degrees. I've yet to consume my morning coffee, but the 800 vertical feet below my edges slap me awake. This is fun ground, but because it is lift accessible, it also sees heavy traffic. "Not as soft as Delirium Dive," I rib Rob.

"Maybe we should try Purple Bowl," he counters.

But he is in no hurry to get me there. First we sample the eye openers off the Paradise Chair, like ER 3 and ER 7, presumably so named because lapses in technique may land you in one. We tire of the flat light on these open faces and move lower, where we spend an hour slaloming lines through the steep forests flanking the Ptarmigan Chair.

Eventually, we head up the Larch Chair, then start hiking. Thirty minutes later, we're in Purple Bowl, blasting the shin-deep snow into contraills that billow behind us. The pitch doesn't drain the adrenal glands, but the open terrain lets us unbridle the boards and fly.Funneling back into the groomers near Temple Lodge, I yell to Rob, "How 'bout some lunch?" I'm thinking deli sandwich. Rob pulls an energy bar from his coat and skis into the lift line. "Sure," he says.

He's not the typical Lake Louise visitor who comes not just to ski, but to soak in the ambience of Banff National Park by lazing in the island of a warm log lodge and gazing out over a frozen sea of white-capped peaks. I have some of that typical visitor in me. But I'm also prepared for the Robs of the world: I dig into my sweaty anorak and fish out a bar of my own. We dine with a view no less spectacular on the chair leading to Rob's next stash.By day's end, I'm running on the fructose fumes of that bar. We take our last hurrahs off-piste through the partial powder of West and Maintenance Bowls, then hit Star Wars, a diagonal return track through thick woods with small plunges, blind corners, and overhanging branches.

By the way I've hooted all day, Rob's sure he's made a Louise convert of me. "What do you think? Meet me at the base tomorrow for another day?"

The question chain reacts into a quandary. Kicking around Lake Louise and threading little-known lines with Tele-Man here -- that's tempting. But I still have a date with Mt. Norquay and its bumps on steroids. And then there's the matter of the predicted snow: If it comes tonight, I'm skiing Delirium Dive.

"Uhh," I stall, realizing for the first time that five days to ski Banff has left me in a serious time crunch. "How early can I call you in the morning?"

Check out more photos by clicking on NORTHERN EXPLOSION: THE PHOTOS in the related links box above.

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