reconnecting with the
romance of ski travel...
|Every snowflake is different, but all airports are the same. Calgary too at first. All glass and chrome and right angles. And then we follow arrows down an escalator, under a small flock of Canadian geese, stuffed birds flying at the end of invisible wires. Their recorded honking makes us smile as we walk down sterile corridors, background music to our chat with an absurdly cheerful Canadian customs agent. Welcome to Canada. We change money in the arrival hall at a Thomas Cook kiosk next to a dancing cougar stuffed mammals surround us and relish the sensation of getting more dollars back than weve tendered. Welcome to Canada, one of the few ski destinations in the world where U.S currency is still worth a lot.. The calendar says its early March, but outside, the icy air says its still winter, each breath visible. We steer our rental car down a snowpacked highway through snowdrifted suburbs that look all too familiar, stop at a gas station to buy a road map and stare in disbelief at a big two-pull Italian espresso machine under the Esso sign. Two cappuccinos, comin up, the grease monkey rubs his hands together to warm them up. Welcome to Canada.|
|.A wall of mountains rises out of a winter haze, almost an ice fog, on the western horizon, as we speed across the last of Albertas wheat country, golden stubble and white drifts the Rockies. And these are only foothills! Already theyre starting to look like the Alps. These Canadian Rockies are not the Rocky Mountains that Colorado skiers know. Theyre bigger, much bigger. Somewhere up ahead, in this jumble of rock walls, snowy peaks and glacier ice is a whole ski region, Banff/Lake Louise three ski areas, a vibrant mountain town, a romantic lone chateau on the shores of a frozen lake, beneath a hanging glacier. Our rental car creeps forward into the Rockies at a snails pace. I want to see it all, ski it all, right now.
Right now becomes tomorrow which slowly becomes today as salmon-pink dawn clouds burn off the flanks of Mt Victoria, so close we feel we can lean out the window of our room and touch the raw ice cliffs of the Victoria glacier. A different scale, a different place. Our room is in the Chateau Lake Louise, one of the Grandest of the Grand Hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway across the country to promote tourism.. Here we wake up with a glacier in our faces. We walk out on the frozen lake in front of the Chateau, a mile-wide ironed sheet or whit. The thick carpets of this fin-de-siecle grand hotel absorb small talk in three or four languages. We share an elevator with a German couple. The skiing? The snow? Fantastic, but you know, it is very very cold here, especially for Europeans like us.
Not a problem. An hour later Im slicing through numbingly cold air on squeaky skis, with a frozen smile hidden under my neck gaiter. True, spring does come late to these northern Rockies but then, skiing is a winter sport. The cold is the last thing on my mind. Im skiing down a new mountain and I feel like a new skier. Something is terribly right here:
The Lake Louise ski area, five minutes across the Bow River valley from the Chateau and its glacier backdrop, is big, 4,000 acres big. The top half of the mountain climbs above timberline, way above, open and inviting on crisp sunstruck days like today. Did I say mountain? Theres more than one. From the top of the front face already two high-speed quads into the sky we look off the backside into an Alpine cirque ringed with snow and rock, a white-on-white stage-set for a Wagnerian opera with skiers in the lead rolls. Dizzy from the view, we slip easily onto the tilted planes of a sublime skiers playground. Long steep steady pitches of winter snow, the steep white roof of a giants castle. It hasnt snowed for 12 days, but on our first run, my wife Linde and I find enough left-over powder to figure-eight each others tracks. Yesterday, Lake Louise hosted the Canadian figure-eight championships, up there in Purple Bowl. Okay, Purple Bowl is a 20 minute walk above the lift but, yes, it is in bounds and worth the walk.
I find myself making short turns that leave an elevator-dropping-away tickle in my stomach. This movie has a sound track: the whisper of big-mountain wind and the inimitable high-pitched whisper of bent skis bending even deeper, cutting into the slope, then cutting to silence as legs relax and skis float out from under me, drop out from under me again, and again, and again. The steady big-mountain, steep-slope rhythm of acceleration, deceleration, acceleration, decelerationturns without end on slopes that dont end for quite a while. There are moguls too, in unlikely places, chutes and walls and gullies. Bumps not bimpsbig and round and steep, bumps to play with, not do battle with. And always, on all sides, a merry-go-round of postcard peaks fights for my attention, an alpine panorama that, like the skiing, just doesnt quit.
Already after one morning, Ive figured out that Lake Louise is one of the biggest ski areas in North Americaso far Ive only skied a corner of it, Already Im starting to suspect that this week in the Canadian Rockies could be the high point of this or any ski season. That Banff/Lake Louise may be a perfect example of why a great ski trip is better than just another great day, no matter how good the conditions, at your local mountain.
We plan on spending a few days here at Lake Louise before driving down the Bow River Parkway, 40 minutes of dark lodgepole pines and dizzying rocky peaks, to Banff and its two other ski areas. (That's nother story) But one could easily spend a whole week at Lake Louise with no danger of boredom or burn out. It gets better and better. And the better a skier you are, the better it gets.
Today were skiing with Charlie Locke who owns the place, a helluva guy. I meet Charlie in his tiny cluttered office looking out over the slopes, very un-corporate, no corporate decorator has ever been turned loose in here. Relishing an excuse to get out of the office Charlie grabs an old pair of navy blue bibs, slips on boots, and grabs a racy looking pair of red Völkl skis. Traded the German Team for em this year. he allows as we slip through the maze toward the first quad. (We are told that at Lake Louise, if it ever takes more than 10 minutes in a lift line before you get out of the base area, theyll refund your ticket price!) Charlie skis well, the steeper it gets, the steadier he looks. Which is not surprising, considering he made his reputation as a climber and mountain guide before he made his fortune in the Calgary boom and began collecting ski areas. (His holding company, Locke, Stock and Barrel, owns three others besides Lake Louise). We ski hard, talk on the lifts. Ridding the Paradise chair, swinging our skis back and forth above mouth-watering steep terrain, I cant resist a question: Charlie, how can you manage to charge two-thirds of what the large US areas charge for a lift ticket? His answer is disarming: Were making plenty of money. We dont need any more Im speechless. On the next run we follow one of Charlies henchmen, an athletic Scotch-Australian wild man named Sandy Best, around the lip of a cornice into Soul Bowl, and down into a tight line through Pika Trees. Charlie doesnt miss a beat, or a single turn through those dense trees. Bravo.
There were a lot of bravos as we explored Lake Louise, but very few trees. Mostly my memories are full of white treeless slopes, steeps, long open ridges diagonaling down out of a cool northern sky. I found the temptation to leave the beaten path ever present, and irresistible. These big shapes, and an enlightened management style (i.e. very few closed areas) encourages off-piste skiing. I didnt need much encouragement. Every few runs I would consciously drop off a different side of the mountain, changing my views and my range of skiing options totally. In search of better snow, or better visibility, or in my case, of simple novelty, one can ski on virtually any exposure at Lake Louise. And this far north the snow quality doesnt seem to suffer very much on sun-blasted slopes.
My private version of Lake Louise skiing is full of half-packed snow, around-the-corner excursions, and long traverses back to a lift from virtually unskied lines only a few minutes away from popular pistes. Lake Louise gives you as much space as you want. Later in the week, on a foggy snowy morning, Linde and I traverse into Rock Garden off the Larch chair. Clouds muffle skiers voices behind us, bare branches of scattered Larches provide all the relief we need, and we ski a snowy roller coaster of rocky shapes, threading our way down a giant white pinball machine in the clouds, characters in a surreal dream. In a word, skiing at Louise is the opposite of dull.
Lake Louise by night is quiet, romantic, soulful; more National Park than international resort. The Chateau plays its 19th-century role to perfection, a self contained cruise-ship of a hotel in the middle of a frozen sea of peaks, snow, winter. Big chandeliers and high high ceilings, bars and shops like any grand hotel; and of course its own restaurants, from formal to fondue stube with discreet Canadian service.
A few days at Lake Louise expands our après horizons. The high log rafters of Deer Lodge are vintage National Park Gothic and the wild game platter memorable. One night we eat at the old restored train station, bravely sampling wine from British Columbia while freight trains rumble by in the dark. Finally we hit the jackpot at the Lake Louise Post Hotel. A hunting guide built the original lodge from logs he floated down the river. It was bought by an English lord after the war, and today is owned and run by a Swiss family that must have inherited generations of hotel-keeping magic. Dinner is a work of art: arctic char fillets in philo pastry with Noilly Prat sauce, caribou striploin on chanterelle mushrooms. The gods are smiling, the fire crackling, the chef a genius.
As we leave the Post Hotel, a cheerful owl, carved into the blond wood of the newel post of the staircase, is winking at us. As we fall asleep under a down comforter, the full moon above the Chateau is painting Mt Victoria with its midnight milk and honey. As we dream of longer runs, longer ski vacations, subversive clouds are beginning to infiltrate the Rockies from the west.
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|I wrote this story for Skiing Magazine a few years ago. I still think Lake Louise boasts one of the greatest ski mountains in North America. For more information, visit their web site at:|
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.