BANFF — I don’t like to ski. There, I said it. Although I live in Calgary — gateway to a skier’s paradise — I’ve never been too enthusiastic about the sport. Especially this morning, as we drive before dawn to Banff National Park to begin the day trip my family planned. I admit, I’d rather stay home than venture out into the cold of winter.
This will be my first time skiing downhill in the mountains. I’m a bit worried about my lack of experience since I only went down a “bunny hill” many years ago at Calgary’s WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park, or C.O.P, as us locals call it. The park is on the outskirts of the city, so those who are working downtown can leave their offices and hit the slopes within 20 minutes, even at night.
As we drive past C.O.P, my parents excitingly exchange chatter about the famous “Eddie the Eagle” who won the hearts of Canadians, and the world, when he ski-jumped at the 1988 Winter Olympics held in Calgary.
I had the opportunity to speak with Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards from his home in Woodchester, England, and he shared some fond memories of skiing in Alberta.
Above: Alberta's ski peaks don't get as much recognition as those in B.C. and Colorado but they are every bit as good.
“I remember Banff having a good selection of different types of slopes, ranging from blue to double black — perfect for skiers at any level,” he tells me. “The snow was amazing and very fluffy due to the cold temperatures of the mountains. Being able to power ski off cliffs, down steep slopes and glide between trees was a truly wonderful experience.”
As we pull onto the Trans-Canada Highway, heading west, I can’t believe I’m up this early. But seeing the morning sun shine on the eastern face of the mountains is worth it, and I gaze in amazement as the snow caps glow orange.
I pull out my phone and send a picture to my friend, Daphné, who lives in Montréal. She’s an avid skier who has always wanted to run the slopes in Alberta.
“You’re so lucky. I hear Banff is awesome!” Daphné texts back. “Compared to the Relais, a ski resort near Québec City that I love, the Rockies are so much bigger! All of my friends who have been to Banff tell me that it feels like being on top of the world.”
Above: On many days, the slopes around Banff and void of crowds and the skiing is very enjoyable.
Daphné assures me that I will absolutely love skiing the big slopes, but I’m apprehensive at the thought of going downhill. Lately, I’ve only cross-country skied as there are hundreds of kilometres of track-set trails close to Calgary. Bragg Creek is only 30 minutes west of the city, or there’s the Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, about an hour from Calgary, that was created for the Nordic Skiing competitions of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. The Nordic Centre has over 65km of groomed trails that all loop back to the day lodge that offers a fun challenge for every skill level.
Downhill skiers and snowboarders from all over the world enjoy visiting Alberta, with many ski destinations throughout the province to choose from: Marmot Basin in Jasper (approximately four hours south-west from Edmonton), Castle Mountain near Pincher Creek (2.5 hours south of Calgary), or the Nakiska Ski Area — another legacy facility from the 1988 Olympics — in Kananaskis (about an hour from Calgary).
Visitors to Banff National Park love the three ski resorts — Banff Sunshine Village, Mt. Norquay and Lake Louise Ski Resort — and all are within 40 minutes of the alpine town of Banff. Combined, these three resorts have nearly 8,000 acres of skiable terrain, two gondolas and 26 chairlifts. Annually, there is an average of nine metres of feather-light, dry Canadian snow. Snow-making machines might also be used to touch-up the lower elevations, so ice usually isn’t a problem. On a “Pow Day” the locals call the heaps of fresh snow “hero snow” because you float like you are flying, and it’s epic if you fall.
Above: The scenery enjoyed by skiers in Banff and other Alberta ski runs can't be matched anywhere else in the world.
Joanne Elves, a lifelong resident of Calgary who has skied all over the western provinces and the U.S., says that her “backyard” is still her favourite place to ski.
"I'd love to take my kids to Colorado because places like Vail and Telluride are exactly the terrain they love, but financially it's a bit of a stretch. Just the lift ticket can be daunting. The best bang for our buck is the Alberta and B.C. resorts. We can drive to them, splurge on a nice hotel and enjoy après ski activities," says Elves. She admits that it’s difficult to pick a favourite from what’s known as the Big Three resorts.
“It’s hard to compare the Banff resorts, as they all have their own personalities,” she tells me. “I like Lake Louise because of the trails on the backside. Over at Sunshine on a clear day, the views from the top of the Great Divide chairlift are magnificent. Norquay is special because it’s the oldest resort and super family friendly.
"Anybody staying in the town of Banff can wake up, check the snow report and hop on a shuttle to any of the local resorts.”
She is quick to add that beyond Banff, “my kids love Kicking Horse Mountain Resort just across the border in B.C. That resort will challenge even the best of skiers with steep and deep terrain. Powder hounds love those slopes.”
We decide to spend the day at Banff Sunshine Village as it’s known for having “Canada’s best snow.” I find myself surprised that, although the drive from Calgary was a quick one, the resort is surrounded by 360-degree uninterrupted mountain views. We are in the heart of the Rockies!
We wait in line to rent some ski equipment and then take a 17-minute gondola ride from the parking lot to the upper village.
It seems like the experienced skiers are speaking a whole other language as I try to figure out what chutes, bowls, groomers and moguls mean.
Once I’ve mastered the green runs off the Strawberry Chair and start to feel like a pro, we make our way to the Wawa lift to ski Tin Can Alley, a longer and more challenging trail and geez, my legs are starting to get tired.
Maybe next time I’ll be able to take the heated Teepee Town LX ski lift for some even more challenging trails. I can’t believe I’m admitting to myself that there will be a “next time,” as I laugh to myself.
After an exciting day of skiing picture-perfect runs, despite me almost sliding down a double black diamond slope by accident — yikes! — we are ready to head back to Calgary.
I sheepishly admit to my parents that skiing is kinda fun. I reach for my phone, pick my favourite selfie on the top of the world and text Daphné.
“You were right! When you come to visit, I know where I’m gonna take you that has the best pow."
JUST THE FACTS
WinSport Canada Olympic Place: https://www.winsport.ca/
Banff/Lake Louise: https://www.banfflakelouise.com/
SkiBig3 -https://vacations: skibig3.com/products/lift-tickets
SkiBig3 vacation packages — hotel, rentals, lessons, activities and lift tickets: https://www.skibig3.com/vacation-specials/
Look for midweek and non-peak times that are less expensive, flash sales throughout the year, or the grade 4 & 5 Snow Pass program offered through Ski Canada. SkiCanada.org