Braving Banff |

Braving Banff

Tim Mutrie

BANFF, Alberta Locals here have a name for the skier whos in way over his head, the backcountry braveheart riding without a self-rescue pack, the foolhardy or unprepared: punters.Ski patroller Rowan Harper introduces me to the term as we peer over a cornice into a jagged cirque, 1,250 feet deep with chutes and cliffs cleaving otherwise steep and shadowy faces.The place commands respect, and I begin to wonder whether the punter just might be me.Big, raw and intimidating in places, Sunshine Village is one of three Banff-region ski resorts, 10 miles from the town of Banff and seat of Canadas first national park. Spiny ridges and peaks crash into valleys quilted in lodgepole pine, and nearby 11,870-foot Mount Assiniboine holds highest court. The morning I was there, the view from the dirt parking lot revealed a tiny climber, clinging to a massive pillar of ice near the base.On such a bluebird day, a short hike to the summit of 8,954-foot Lookout Mountain, one of five peaks in the Sunshine crown, affords 360-degree vistas as well as near-vertical ones.Lookout Mountain is also the jumping-off point to Delirium Dive, an extreme area with special rules and serious punter-potential.When it wasnt controlled, there were accidents, there were incidents, says Harper, the snow safety supervisor and a 20-year Sunshine vet. Luckily, there were no fatalities. But people went for rides [in avalanches], got turfed over rock bands, and it became a real hassle for the park service. So they closed it. That was in 1982.Prior to the formal closure, the Dive was a gray-zone Never officially open, never officially closed either, Harper says used mainly by locals. But in 1998, the long-dormant Dive opened to the public, with stipulations. Skiers and riders must carry avalanche beacons and shovels, and ride with a partner. A punter-filter, Harper says.The policy used to be enforced by patrollers, but now Harper says locals police the gate, which opens only when an approaching rider emits frequency 457, the standard wavelength for avalanche transceivers. Theyll be damned if theyre going to lose this place over some tourist breaking the rules, he says.Apart from extreme-skiing contests staged in the Dive, Harper says, Our accident rate in this area is next to zero. Traditionally, well see maybe one accident a year … But they tend to be pretty good.Beacon switched on, praying I dont punt on my inaugural run in Canada, I follow Harper down a metal-grate stairway to the easiest way down, Delirium Proper.The town of BanffOn Feb. 19, one week after receiving an unusual e-mail (Would you like to come to Banff … Sincerely, Travel Alberta.), I find myself in the warmth of the Chinooks in Calgary, heading west on the Trans-Canadian Highway.The 1988 Olympic ski-jumping complex appears on the horizon when you hit the foothills; then, after entering the Bow River Valley, the Canadian Rockies smack you in the face at Canmore, the hometown of mountaineer Will Gadd, just outside the Banff National Park boundary. An hour-and-a-half from the airport, wedged between soaring peaks like Mount Rundle, the town of Banff sits on the southeastern edge of a vast network of national parks Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper. Collectively, the parks comprise an area the size of Switzerland.Busiest in the summer, Banff National Park sees more than 4 million visitors a year. Founded after three Canadian Pacific Railroad workers discovered the Banff Hot Springs in 1883, the government claimed it as a national park to encourage tourism along the railway. Owing to the more recent discovery of the rare Banff Hot Springs snail, however, no bathing is now allowed in the original pools.The winter, locals say, is the offseason, with chairlifts and backcountry options within easy striking distance from Banff, a town of 8,000 residents. With downtown streets aligned on a grid under the frown of Rundle, looming overhead at 9,488 feet, development within the park is limited to towns like Banff and Lake Louise, the Sunshine Village resort and, of course, the Trans-Canadian Highway. Elsewhere, the land along with the resident grizzlies and wolves is entirely wild and protected.I dont know a single soul in the area, but Ive got two pairs of skis with me and all my gear, a rental car, a hotel in Banff on Tunnel Mountain and connections at Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Ski Banff @ Norquay.So I do what every self-respecting Aspen ski bum would do. I go skiing.I start at Sunshine with Harpers brisk introduction to the Dive.After a rocky, sketchy and steep prelude, the pitch mellows lower in the basin. The famously dry snow, even in hard-packed areas, can be attributed to Sunshines high elevation, abundant snowfall (nearly 400 inches) and favorable winds. Sweet, windblown powder greets us in pockets as we make our way down. After the Dive, Harper shows me the new Wild West area, another stash of cliffs, chutes and draws. Harper plans to open it for the first time in n see Banff on history, with the same restrictions as the Dive, as soon as the next dump arrives to pad the base.”Im a big proponent of getting stuff open, he says. What used to be extreme, every 12-year-old is skiing now. Give the people what they want.Already at 3,358 skiable acres with 10 lifts and 3,514 vertical, Sunshine Village has plans for improvements to its outdated base area. And if Harper has his way, Sunshine is going to get even steeper, with expansion possibilities that include the most technical, committing chutes of the Dive.Lake LouiseJim Mckinnon, the head of the Ski Friend program at Lake Louise, grew up in Rutland, Vt., and played football for the (now-defunct) University of Vermont Catamounts. Retired after 25 years of service as a high school phys-ed teacher and coach in Calgary, Mckinnon oversees 135 Ski Friends, who lead visitors on free tours of the sprawling 4,200-acre resort located about 40 minutes of awesome highway from Banff.Mckinnon met me in the morning and proceeded to set an unexpectedly blazing pace. Every run bumps or cruisers or the steepest chutes off Mount Whitehorn (The Lakes summit, 8,765-feet) or Eagle Ridge, Id give Mckinnon a three-second lead, then chase. The whole day, I never passed him.Stopping occasionally to survey geography, landscapes that perennially earn Lake Louise best scenery in skiing accolades from ski magazines, I gather pretty quickly that Mckinnon is at home on this mountain. Every peak, lake, saddle, ridge and glacier that he points out the famous Mount Temple, soaring some 7,000 feet above Lake Louise to 11,626 feet; Victoria Mountain and the Victoria Glacier, also above Lake Louise; the Valley of the Ten Peaks, a vista so grand it was printed on Canadian $20 bills for a while comes with a story.Once you see that mountain, he says, pointing across the Bow River Valley to Mount Temple, with its hanging glacier doffed like a rabbit-fur hat, you see its shape and the way its stratified, whenever you see a picture of it, youll say, I know where that is. Thats Lake Louise.The average person, anyone in good shape, can climb it; theres no rappelling involved, he continues. You can just climb right up the backside. The front side, of course, youre getting into a greater degree of difficulty.There is too much terrain to cover in one day at the Lake. But by the time were through, a run down the World Cup downhill course already under our belts, Ive seen pretty much the whole place, including some interesting hiking-access terrain in Purple Bowl, home of the Canadian Powder 8 Championships.When I get down, a band is playing on the deck of the Kokanee Kabin in the cozy base area no condo-crawl up the slopes around here with skiers soaking up the sun.Even years ago, before they had all the high chairs, we used to hike the upper bowls, says Mckinnon. And every time I come up here and Im on my own, I go someplace that I havent skied before that year, just to see how it is. This place never gets old to me.NorquaySki Banff @ Norquays most popular lift-ticket is the three-and-a-half-hour pass.Located just seven switchbacks up Mount Norquay and across the highway from the town of Banff, The Quay is a midget of 200 skiable acres compared to Sunshine and Lake Louise. Its perfect for an hour or two or six, as it turned out for me.Kids racers and freestylers, mostly seem to have hold of the place, a tribute to Norquays large youth program.Brian Tobin, a Calgary carpenter and Norquay ski host since 1996, tells me that Ken Read, of the famous Crazy Canucks and now the head of the Canadian National Ski Team, has his kids in the Norquay race program. And Thomas Grandi, whose mom, Kika, owns half of the resort, scored Canadas first World Cup mens podium in a technical race in 30 years, with a second in Kitzbuehel in January.Like Mckinnon, Tobin skis fast, leading me on a tour-de-force of Norquay terrain, tracking the sun as it moves across the slopes. We ski high-speed groomers, tight avalanche chutes and even some corn in the Sun Chutes area.Then, not long after Tobin mentions Ken Read, we actually bump into him a national hero. Hes skiing the same run were headed for, Gun Run, off the North American double-chair. Tobin asks if we can follow, and Read nods.Its good youre skiing all three Banff areas, Read tells me. Theyre all unique. I think they all complement each other pretty well.Before he skis off, he adds, Make sure you hit Kicking Horse tomorrow.Kicking HorseMy itinerary is free for the fourth day. But even before Read offered his parting advice, Id already been kicking myself about this place called Kicking Horse, located about two hours west of Banff in Golden, British, Columbia. Just about everybody I encountered bartenders, waitresses, lifties, tourists, Mckinnon, Tobin and now Ken Read, a former Hahnenkahm downhill winner, urged me to make the trip to Kicking Horse.I call the front desk of my hotel and reserve a spot on the daily Kicking Horse shuttle. I could drive, but everyone says Ill be too bushed by the end of a day at The Horse. So I bus it. Too many hours later (I was the first pickup on the route rookie move), I get off the bus knowing only what Ive gleaned from a trail map. Ninety-six trails and only three black double diamonds; it strikes me as odd. (Read serious punter-potential.)After the 4,133-foot ride up a shiny, 4-year-old gondola, it makes sense. Lisa Jenni, a 22-year-old snowboard instructor from the Yukon, fills me in.Everyone whos here is here to ride or ski. Nobodys here to wear the right kind of goggles or the right kind of boots. Thats why Im here, she says.One of only two-dozen-or-so skiing/boarding instructors at a resort with more than 2,750 skiable acres, Lisa led me on another extreme reconnaissance mission.It was only four seasons ago that a Dutch company overhauled the resort formerly known as Whitetooth, adding to the tiny slope a top-to-bottom gondola that unlocked a whole lot of big country, in-bounds and otherwise.After a few runs off Feuz Bowl (pronounced foos) and CPR Ridge, down steep, narrow and rocky chutes made even more interesting due to a lack of recent snow, Lisa has to catch up with a class at 1 p.m.On my own back at the top, I am still keen to explore more steeps but a little tentative. With big exposure and lots of rocks in the some of the chutes and alongside all of them, its not the kind of place to tear around willy-nilly.Then I meet Curtis Belsham, a ski patroller whos refitting a worn-out ski brake to his custom Volkls made for a nearby heli-skiing operation. A minute later Im chasing him out CPR Ridge, down a perilous, hard-packed chute that Lisa explicitly told me to avoid, through a rock-spiked choke and out onto and over an exposed rib.Welcome to Kicking Horse, he says as I catch my breath.Then hes off again, his eyes all aglitter.Belsham came to Kicking Horse because he could see it blossoming, he says.Kinda like a firecracker thats been lit and hasnt gone off yet.This mountain is hard on skis. Thats the worst thing about it. Lotta punters, too. Lotta people getting themselves into really big terrain that they really shouldnt be getting into. Scary.Down to the Stairway of Heaven quad we go and up again for another crack at Feuz Bowl. This time, we continue farther and farther out on Redemption Ridge. I duck a rope in pursuit, and seem to recall a gone-by sign reading closed.Belsham, 29, a three-year Kicking Horse patroller, tells me he has taken it upon himself, a personal challenge of sorts, to ski the areas that dont get skied. Part of the snow safety program, he grins. Gotta beat down all this faceted snow.By now, Ive gathered that Belsham is something of an extreme skier. Kicking Horse has yet to host an extreme-skiing contest, but Belsham has the event already mapped out: Qualifiers on CPR Ridge, the semifinals in Foos Bowl, and off of Terminator Peak is where youd have the finals, he says.I ask him whether he would enter such a contest and he nods. No more big cliff hucks for me, though, he says. Gave myself a pretty good rock enema dropping that one, pointing across to a rocky chute.Then, he cuts short the talk. This is the Red Light District, he says, dropping out of view.Theres other options over there if you want … , I hear as his voice tapers off.I follow him again, down and over to a narrow rib. Then he motions over farther, pointing to the Porno Pocket.Its a tricky air-to-turn passage and after a few deep breaths I imitate his line. Now were just below the Dutch Wallet, a ridiculously steep tongue of snow that licks at us from a little notch above. Tough to get into, and its really tight, he chuckles.Below us, finally, its just skiing no more punter-potential in largely untracked but faceted snow. I watch him swoop out of the chute and into the runout.I take a fresh line farther right, snaking through a couple avalanche-stunted evergreens and the rock wall that lines the edge of the Porno Pocket.Nice line, Aspen, he says when I pull up. Nobodys been in there all season.Well, it is kinda closed, I reply.Later, he sums up the Kicking Horse portfolio.Its all relative, right? What we get used to here is a far cry from what somebody gets used to in Saskatchewan. They ski on garbage dumps.Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is