As Eastern and Midwestern skiers reach midwinter, we get a persistent itch. It impels us to leave crowded and sometimes icy trails for higher altitudes and unpacked slopes filled with deep powder. That usually means a trip west to Colorado, Utah, Idaho or the high Sierras of California.
An even better choice for the climax of our season lies in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, where skiing often lasts into late May. There three major ski areas along the Icefields Parkway--Marmot Basin, Lake Louise and Sunshine Villageâ€“provide splendid skiing in a dramatic setting. They are surrounded by jagged peaks formed as huge slabs of sedimentary rock were pushed upward at acute angles.
Both the parkway lined with glaciers and much of the front range lies in national parks, leaving the natural beauty of this compelling world largely undisturbed. The three ski areas are untrammeled by the intense development that surrounds most major ski areas in the states. No crowded artificial village surrounds the lifts, no clusters of chalets or condominiums creep up the mountainside. Exploring these three unusual ski areas in pristine surroundings is a great way to end your season. All three have bases above 5000 feet, a vertical drop of 3000 feet or more, and a nice mix of novice, intermediate and expert runs.
Drawing 80% of its skier visits from Edmonton, Marmot Basin at Jasper remains the least known among American skiers. Located at the northern end of the Icefields Parkway, it has a variety of terrain on a single mountain complex with many peaks and ridges. Its relaxed atmosphere. reminds us of the time in America when most major ski areas were relatively fresh and almost totally focused on developing their mountains, not year-round resort amenities. Trails are cut through woods on the lower half, while the upper terrain is almost entirely open snowfields, bowls and chutes. A new high-speed lift installed this year at Marmot is the longest in the Rockies, leading quickly to the higher areas noted for very dry snow.
Lake Louise and Sunshine Village, both near the southern end of the parkway, provide lifts and base facilities within Banff National Park, a UN World Heritage site. Each has a distinctive character. Lake Louise, developed on four interconnected areas surrounding Mount Whitehorn, appeals to skiers who like to explore an extensive and varied terrain, including a string of impressive back powder bowls. Intermediates and novices will find all they want in the South Face and Larch areas, while experts get more double blacks than they need in the ridges and bowls of the back side. Its pioneering program of mountain hosts provides orientation and sometimes much more. One of us recalls skiing with a mountain guide for half a day and reaching terrain known only to locals.
Banff's major ski area is tucked away deep in pristine mountain terrain. When you reach the lift base of Sunshine Village after a gondola ride, you find yourself in a basin of open snowfields above 7000 feet surrounded by high peaks, creating the illusion that everything is much closer than it is. That open space seems to double or triple in size when you reach the top of lifts and start skiing. If you hanker for extreme plunges, you can find famous ones like Delirium Dive or other double blacks below the crest of Goat's Eye mountain, Sunshine's newest area. Some years ago we skied snowfields on the wide open face of this vast upended slab of sedimentary rock by snow cat. Now you get to them by a high-speed lift from the valley below.
Beyond the skiing, this region is filled with visual magic, ranging from one of the most scenic drives in the world on Icefields Parkway to the grand hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway at Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. Those on lower budgets can find much less expensive lodging in town because, unlike most ski towns, winter is low season in this mecca for summer tourists. And if you have a week or ten days to spend, you can make this trip a grand tour as we have done twice. Fly to Edmonton, take the Snowtrain or daily shuttle to Jasper, drive the parkway to Lake Louise and Banff, and fly home from Calgary. Wonderful varied skiing, magnificent scenery, and the grand hotels put together a vacation hard to match on this continent.