The Japanese women appeared suddenly, smiling with their cameras and saying “excooz me” while I buckled my ski boots at the base of the Lake Louise ski area. Assuming they wanted me to take their picture, I smiled and said, “Sure,” only to have a woman lean into me with a huge smile and grab my arm like her life depended on it—while her friends took pictures of us. While I looked at the woman with a puzzled expression, another smiling woman came up and hugged me, as a growing throng of female Japanese tourists snapped our picture. Naturally, each of them wanted a turn. Thus began The Morning of 1,000 Hugs.
My smile in their countless photos is genuine—I had no idea what was happening, but I did know it was the funniest thing that had happened to me in years. Especially as more and more of them appeared with cameras, a small army of Japanese women, all wanting to have their picture taken with me—their inexplicably irresistible vision of the archetypal Canadian Skier Guy—on their big tour of the Canadian Rockies. Even if I could have spoken Japanese, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that not only was I not a prominent skier, but I wasn’t even Canadian.
As my friend Ben and I laughingly wiped tears from our eyes on the Grizzly Express Gondola, we told the story to an actual Canadian skier who just looked at me dubiously.
“I’m big in Japan,” I explained.
He clearly didn’t believe me, nor could he tell us where the best skiing on the mountain was, so we turned our attention to the trail map. It took about five seconds to realize that Lake Louise’s famed back bowls, a series of alpine faces draped with an enticing variety of double-black pitches, were where we wanted to be. After a platter lift ride to the summit of Mount Whitehorn, at 8,765 feet the highest point in the resort, we stood in crystalline mountains sunshine and assessed the scene.
A row of steep chutes dropped away at our feet. Everywhere were open mountain faces. We were well above tree line and I spent several minutes, as I would for the rest of the day, oggling the bowls, summits, and big lines in the surrounding backcountry and fantasizing about the potential for spring touring. As for the in-bounds skiing at our feet, it was big and steep and stretched away in plummeting pitch after pitch in both directions. I recalled the words of Sandy Best, PR director for Lake Louise, who announced to us, “This is a hardcore ski resort.”
To get started, we thought we’d find a mellow warm-up run to get our legs limber.
“Look at that snow over there,” Ben said, pointing to the farthest reach of the resort’s double-black zone and the lightly tracked powder in the Boundary Bowl.
“That’s a nice-looking bootpack to get to it, too,” I said, about the telltale tracks left by previous powder-seekers that etched a traverse across an alpine ridge.
As soon as these words were spoken, there was no question what would happen. There would be no warm-up run. We were bootpacking for powder.
After some ethereal powder turns into the Boundary Bowl, we stopped at the orange ropes of the resort boundary. On the other side, after a short vertical rock band, lay a glistening run of pristine powder that dropped at least a thousand feet along the resort border. Something else Best had said came to mind: “There is no out of bounds here—this is a national park. It’s not patrolled, but you can explore anywhere you want.”
We checked our transceivers and dropped in one at a time, carving joyous turns through snow as beautiful as the surrounding mountains, until ducking back in bounds at the bottom and zipping groomers back to the chairlift. It was a hell of a first run.
The rest of the day involved going back for more backside bootpacks, exploring some the lesser-traveled corners of Lake Louise’s 4,200 acres of ski terrain (the second largest resort in Canada), grabbing lunch at the charmingly rustic Temple Lodge, waiting in exactly zero lift lines, finding a puckering 50-degree chute in an in-bounds bowl, and ending the day at the Lodge of the Ten Peaks, one of the largest log buildings in the world.
It was there, in a multi-floored world of timber buzzing with skiers, that we enjoyed a round of beers with the inimitable Sandy Best. When we mentioned how much we enjoyed our television-free accommodations at the nearby Deer Lodge, Best pointed out that he didn’t have TVs in the lodge he owns either and exclaimed, “I live in the Discovery Channel; why the #@!% would I need a TV?!”
Early the next morning, hot breakfast burritos steaming the windshield, we headed down the Icefields Parkway through Discovery Channel-land to check out Sunshine Village, the other enormous ski area in Banff National Park. This time we had a posse—esteemed writer Kevin Brooker and his pal John Irvine came over from Calgary, Chris Schermuly joined us from Sunshine, and awesomely named Spanish guide Julian Perez de Camino was our official captain for the day. Given its size—3,358 acres spread over three distinct mountains—and the complexity of its advanced terrain, we were glad for the guides.
Like Lake Louise, Sunshine is a sprawling resort with plenty of runs for every level of skier. But we had our sights set on one area in particular: the notorious Delirium Dive. Long deemed too extreme for skiing by national park managers (it had seen many avalanches and at least one death in its early years as an out-of-bounds side-country zone), Sunshine was able to secure its opening in 1999 as in-bounds terrain through a unique arrangement. Anyone wanting to ski it has to first pass through a gate with an electronic sensor that detects avalanche transceivers. No transceiver, no access. Ditto, shovels, probes, and partners. It’s a smart system that keeps out the skiers who shouldn’t be there—and preserves the powder for the rest of us.
After a few warm-up runs along the Continental Divide—at one point Julian stood across it from us and merrily declared, “I’m in British Columbia and you’re in Alberta!”—we headed for the Dive, which had just opened for the day.
We turned on our transceivers and passed through the gate. A short bootpack led us to a jagged ridgeline, where clouds obscured the peaks and wind punished exposed skin. All we could see were rocks, plummeting mountainsides, and a set of metal stairs leading down into who knows what. After some precarious stair negotiating, we clicked into skis, and, uh, dove in, making jump turns and skiing by braille one at a time through murky light and regrouping at safe spots along the way.
At the bottom, Julian gave me a fist bump and proclaimed, “You are no longer a Dive virgin!”
Now that I was devirginized, I wanted more. When we headed back up the visibility had improved, so Julian led us to Bre-X, a jaw-dropping 51-degree plunge with 2,000 feet of fall line. In a move that assures their future sainthood, the crew offered me first tracks. They didn’t have to offer twice.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Leaping from turn to turn, skis twisting through space, breath pumping in and out, I carved a line between nearly vertical rock bands. Soaring on adrenaline, my mind reached that point of singular focus all mountain athletes covet. I was on crack now. Nothing else existed except me and that strip of snow clinging to the mountain’s face.
At the bottom I was practically jumping out of my clothes with giddiness. As I babbled something about the run being “all-time,” Brooker smiled and said, “It’s like this all the time—and there’s nobody in here!”
It was then that I looked around and realized he was right. We had the Dive to ourselves.
The same was true for the palatial outdoor hot tub at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge that night. North America’s only ski-in, ski-out lodging in a national park, the lodge offers easy access to first tracks every morning. Which we took full advantage of the next day, when the sun came out and Julian showed us some of the picturesque steeps on Goat’s Eye Mountain and Wild West, another transceiver-required zone with its own array of “holy crap, I can’t believe these are in-bounds” chutes. By the time we finally packed up the car at the end of the day and hit the highway, Ben and I agreed that Sunshine had delivered some of the finest expert ski terrain we’d seen, even if it was lacking hugging hordes of Japanese women.”
Trailhead Cafe in Lake Louise makes high-grade breakfast burritos for your pre-ski fueling needs. Deer Lodge, five minutes from the ski area, combines the character of an old-world ski lodge with a high-thread count, rooftop hot tub, and posh dining room. For budget skiers, you can’t beat the deals at the Great Divide Lodge—$130 per night for lodging, lift ticket, and meals.
Sunshine Mountain Lodge at Sunshine Village offers gorgeous on-slope rooms with surprisingly good package deals for spring skiing.If you’re feeling cheated by an anemic winter, or just want to milk the season for every drop of skiing goodness it’s worth, both Sunshine Village and Lake Louise are open into May (Sunshine until May 21), making them good picks for late-season trips.