Christmas 1999 Skiing in Banff & Lake Louise

Patricia Daniels

This was the third Christmas trip to Canada for Paul and myself but this year Paul’s sons would be coming too. In the interests of ensuring plenty of ‘après ski’ activities for the boys, we decided not to return to Jasper this year but to go to Banff and Lake Louise instead, with a view to achieving a more ‘Ibiza with snow’ style of holiday. This plan failed in as much as Adam (16 years) was too exhausted after a day on the slopes to be bothered to go out and boogie and Gareth (15 years) didn’t want to be out on the raz alone. Paul and I suffer from an age exaggerated problem similar to Adam’s and have to be asleep by 9.00pm every night if we are to contemplate skiing again the following day. This factor and others to be recalled hence made me for one wish we had revisited the resort of the two previous years’ holidays. However, let’s begin at the beginning.

Personally I can think of better things to be doing at 3.00am than standing around at Gatwick Airport waiting for a plane that isn’t due to take off until 8.30am, but that’s just me I guess. The reason for our more than premature departure from home was to ensure ourselves the comfy seats on the plane, ie the ones by the emergency exit with no one else sitting immediately in front. Thankfully our early start achieved its objective, especially as take off was delayed by over an hour (something to do with extra rations being loaded) and we were flying via Manchester (another hour on the tarmac there). Thus we spent the best part of the next 14 hours.

Picture of Banff street with Brewster Mountain Lodge on right
Banff street with Brewster Mountain Lodge
on the right

Arrival at Calgary and the collection of our hire car was uneventful and we set off on the next leg of our journey, the 2 or so hours drive to Banff. The car was one of those people carrier jobs with masses of room for everyone and all the accompanying luggage (including two pairs of skis). Having checked into our hotel which was comfortable but well short of extravagant (the term neat but not gaudy springs to mind) Paul and the boys went to investigate ski/boot hire for them and something to eat. I preferred to go straight to bed and was asleep by 7.00pm local time, in less than eager anticipation of the following day on skis. Skiing is not one of my gifts given by God and the feeling of trepidation would have been overwhelming had I not been so exhausted from our journey; a total of 25 hours from home to hotel room!

The next day was the first of our hols and nothing was going to mar my joy. After a good night’s rest I was eager and keen to be first in the shower. Feeling refreshed and having read and inwardly digested the hotel’s instructions not to waste water, or any other utilities, I made my first big mistake by rather overzealously turning off the shower in an attempt to stop it dripping. In my enthusiasm, I managed to not only disengage the tap from its moorings but extricate the moorings from the wall. Paul, ever the longsuffering and loving husband that he is, merely shrugged and went next door to ablute in the boys bathroom.

Lake Louise

Picture of me in front of Ski Lodge at Lake Louise
The ski lodge at Lake Louise

After breakfast and Paul’s apologetic explanation at reception as to why they would be requiring the services of a local plumber, we set off for Lake Louise, a matter of some 45 minutes drive away. We had decided to make it our first port of call of the three resorts we were due to visit, as the Club Ski School met there the following morning and we thought it best to organise lift passes etc there in advance, to avoid any hassle that might render us late for class. The boys and Paul, without a moments hesitation, donned their skis and went up the mountain. I was considerably more cautious, preferring to dabble on a nursery slope with small children and the infirm, on an incline marginally steeper than Camberley High Street, serviced by a T-bar half the length of same. For my first day back on skis after a year, this was ample excitement. Pottering quietly on my own, I was rather alarmed to find myself joined by Gareth. Anyone who has ever seen Gareth skiing would be equally alarmed at the thought of being in such close proximity to him on skis, but he felt that Adam and his father were going too fast for him and he’d rather keep things simple for a while, until he got fully back into the swing of things. I rather apprehensively agreed, but as it turned out we got on just fine. He didn’t run me over at all and managed to miss most of the small children and infirm. Our first day on the snow thus passed happily and without incident.

Ski School

Our second day on the slopes of Lake Louise and our first day of school. Paul had already decided how the four of us should be graded in terms of ability and instructed us to join groups accordingly. Ever hesitant, I chose to surreptitiously drop to a lower level but was spotted. Fortunately, the friendly instructor I had attached myself to, agreed that I would be best to begin at a lower level and move up a class later, should the necessity present itself. Paul grudgingly agreed. We all set off on the chair lift in our various groups, I with a big smile and a confident heart. On reassembling at the top of the lift, our group set off down a patch I considered manageable, if a little sharp for starters. Confident that the worst was over though, we carried on to our first little pause, for the purposes of admiring the view and a few words of encouragement from our leader. I was marginally less than encouraged by her few words, which brought to our attention the rather ‘steep bit’ ahead but how ’we would all be fine’! This did not prove to be the case; there were several minor casualties before the next little pause. Following further admiration of the view, a few of our number were showing signs of being unnerved by our leader’s mention of the forthcoming rather ‘steep bit’. Having conquered the last two, in a manner far from elegant, I was starting to lose my sense of humor ever so slightly, but at least I had managed to stay on my feet which was more than could be said for some of the others. With best ski forward, down we continued, but to compound the issue, this particular ‘steep bit’ was extremely icy. This was the last straw, there were bodies everywhere and I was close to tears. We were at the top of a large sweeping slope, at the just discernable bottom of which was base camp and I couldn’t get there quick enough. Our leader approached me and asked if all was well. I shook my head, verbal communication was beyond me. She enquired whether I would be able to get down to the bottom unaided, I nodded. She left me to retrieve another member of our group with a dustpan and brush. Happy that an end to my ordeal was in sight, I descended the hill at what seemed like break neck speed. The rest of my day was spent back with the small children and infirm. As the afternoon drew on, I decided I’d had enough. That’s when I found Paul. He had had rather more than just enough; I have never seen him look so exhausted! He and Adam had joined the highest level group and whilst Adam had got on fine, the altitude and sudden change from a relatively sedentary lifestyle had proved too much for his father. After continually falling over in deep powder snow, which is extremely difficult to get up in, he had fallen behind the others, making him feel down hearted and hopeless (which he most certainly is not). It was late in the day and he was quite ready to go back to the hotel and I was of the same mind. By way of apology for holding his group back, Paul had offered one of them a lift back to Banff but we had to find Gareth first. This took considerably longer than anticipated and to save any more loss of time the poor chap resorted to getting the bus back in the interim. Gareth eventually found, we went home and I couldn’t have been more pleased when Paul suggested that we give the boys some cash and let them find their own supper that evening so we had a seriously early night, and gave the meal a miss.

Sunshine Village

Sunshine Village was the venue for the following days activities.

Me on the gondola ride to Sunshine Village
Trish on the gondola ride up to Sunshine Village

A very pretty resort with the car park only about 10 minutes from Banff and the ski-area then accessed by a 4.3km gondola ride up the mountain. The gondola is a small cable car, carrying up to 6 passengers, and the ride takes about 20 minutes from the car park. After the disasters of the previous day we were assured by all we spoke to that Sunshine Village was just the place for us. Lots of gentle green slopes (with no steep bits) to suite me and an abundance of more advanced/black runs for the boys. After Paul’s over-exertions the day before, he decided to give school a miss in the morning, choosing to follow along behind my class to take some photographs of me skiing. I had been assured by the School that none of Lake Louise’s idiosyncrasies would manifest themselves here and in any case our class had two instructors and, if push came to shove, they would give me one to one attention. With Paul never far from view how could I refuse? By the time we broke for lunch I had regained my lost confidence; Paul rejoined Adam and his group and I carried on with mine. I fell during the afternoon (my one and only during the holiday) but was in no way daunted. Skiing was great after all!

The Canadian Continental Divide runs close to the Sunshine Village resort. Rain and melting ice on one side of The Divide runs into the Pacific Ocean and on the other side eventually finds its way across the North American continent to the Atlantic Ocean. Have a look at the panoramic view from the top of the Continental Divide chairlift.

Mount Norquay

So on to our third day of school, at Mount Norquay. This is the closest resort to Banff, being just 10 minutes away by car and no gondola ride to increase the traveling time. At our regular breakfast haunt, Mein Host, having heard reports of each of the previous days’ proceedings, advised against Mount Norquay, especially for those of a nervous disposition (!). However, we were booked in for the three day, three resort package of Club Ski School and felt we’d better stick with it. Suffice to say the man was dead right and was only too pleased to say ‘I told you so’ at breakfast next day (never really liked him). At the time of our visit, Norquay had had very little natural snow and the snow cannon was going at full pelt, churning out what I can only describe as ice gravel. This is a very different customer to ski on than the soft powdery stuff we’d encountered at Sunshine Village, and it was not to my liking. We all joined our respective groups, I of course on the green runs, part of which had been cordoned off for a slalom race, which each class would complete later in the day, matched against themselves, according to group ability. Needless to say, Gareth came top of his group, with flying colours. Adam and Paul raced against one another, who won is debatable given Paul’s obvious handicap of age and, dare I say it, weight! I never got that far. After my first assault of the green run, which I considered less than user friendly, the relevant lift was closed for maintenance, necessitating a long traverse along the top of a precipice, followed by the descent of a blue run. Well, that was it. No more of this for me and and the whole thing ended in tears. The one to one instructor allotted to me at this point could do little to pacify me, and when Paul broke for lunch he decided to give up school himself and we would go together back to Sunshine Village. But the damage was done and my nerve was not to return. I vowed never to ski again EVER! We returned to the hotel and the boys came back from Norquay on the bus. That evening we all attended a dinner for everyone at the Club Ski School, held at The Banff Park Lodge. A most enjoyable occasion, good food and very well organised, with entertaining speeches/turns given by various instructors. The opportunity availed for joining up for another session of three days school at the three resorts, which Paul and I declined but the boys signed up for. Gareth would move up to join Adam in the top class this time. We also had chance to buy the photos of the boys taken by a local photographer at the slalom race. Pretty flash, eh?

A Day Off

Me in front of frozen Lake Louise with glacier in background
Trish in front of frozen Lake Louise
with glacier in background

Wishing desperately by now that this holiday would soon be over, I was only too delighted the next morning when Paul suggested we have a day off.

The pretty scene facing away from Lake Louise
The pretty scene facing away from
Lake Louise

So we drove the boys to Lake Louise, for their first day of the second session at school, and we continued to the town itself for a walk about. It didn’t take long, but was picturesque enough. We then got onto the Icefield Parkway for a short drive until we came to the Bow Lake and Glacier and a lodge called Num Ti Jah (Stoney Plains Indian for ‘Pine-Marten’ - a small weasel-like animal), where we stopped for some hot chocolate and to admire the view, which you must admit is pretty spectacular.

Having made this slight diversion onto the Icefield Parkway, we started giving serious thought to a trip to Jasper. We figured it would only be about 2 hours further from the Num Ti Jah and with a break there for breakfast after an early start from Banff, it was doable. The boys were very reluctant to make the trip but Paul and I managed to convince them it was a good idea. The decision was made to go to Jasper on the following Monday.

Christmas Eve and for Paul and I the day’s skiing was uneventful and enjoyable. As I have already mentioned, Sunshine Village is accessed by a gondola but it is possible to ski all the way down to the car park, which the boys decided to do. On our way down in the gondola, our co passenger noticed an accident below featuring much blood on the snow. As you do in such circumstances, we looked down. "That’s Gareth" said Paul. "Wouldn’t you just know it" said I. We were not in a position to do anything from the gondola so continued to the bottom to find a very concerned Adam who had taken 10 minutes to complete the run and who had been waiting for his brother for the last 40 minutes! Paul made enquiries that confirmed the injured party we had seen was indeed Gareth. He had fallen on his face, smashed his goggles, cut the bridge of his nose, had a severe nose bleed and had been rescued by the ski patrol on a skidoo. He would be sent down on the gondola in due course. Crisis over we returned to the car and Gareth returned to us, very shaken it must be said but otherwise OK. He had been fully checked out at the medics who suggested we watch out for any signs of concussion, none of which manifested. On putting the skis away Adam noticed that the edges of Gareth’s skis were severely damaged and on returning them to the hire shop, we were not best pleased to find they were complete write offs (insurance claim pending!). Gareth’s injuries proved to be sufficiently minor that he skied the following day without so much as a plaster and won his group’s slalom race!

The four of us. Left to right, Gareth, Me, Paul, Adam
The four Musketeers!

Boxing day brought the only achievement of the holiday for me. Much encouraged by a very good time on the snow that day, I suggested to Paul that we might ski all the way down the hill at Sunshine Village. It was supposedly a green run all the way and an earlier class mate of mine had made it OK in less than half an hour. I did make it, I am very pleased to say but it took me more like 45 minutes to complete the run (you will recall that Adam did it in 10) . Howsoever, it gave me great pleasure to be able to say to Gareth that I made it without the assistance of the ski patrol and thus rather faster then he had done (YES!!).

Marmot Basin, Jasper

Another early start for our trip to Marmot Basin, Jasper. As planned we broke our journey at the Num Ti Jah for breakfast and arrived at our destination just before midday. I found Paul at the Ski School booking me a private lesson with my instructor from previous years, the wonderful Ilselore Brink. Whatever had gone before, apprehension, lost nerve, even terror, was now forgotten as far as I was concerned. Izzy is the one person in the world I would follow anywhere on skis and I knew that an hour with her would be all I needed. Faith in her was enough for me follow her straight down a blue run, albeit with apprehension even in her capable hands. We spent the rest of the afternoon together and Paul and the boys found her husband, Heinz, who is a Ski Host and they spent a happy afternoon together too. We were all able to meet up for a drink in the early evening and then were joined for dinner by Paul’s instructor from previous years, John Griffiths, his wife Suzanna and one of their sons, Ian.

Dinner at the Sawridge Hotel with the Griffiths family
Dinner at the Sawridge Hotel with the Griffiths family

All this joviality took place at the Sawridge Hotel where we had stayed the previous two years. It took us 4 hours to drive back to Banff that night. The boys and I slept all the way.

Our last full day of holiday (after the Christmas exertions and before the New Year festivities) was scuppered by sheer weight of people! We were rather later starting out, having a longer than usual sleep after the Jasper trip. We chose to disregard a warning at breakfast that Sunshine had been exceptionally busy the previous day, with queues an hour long for the gondola. We should have heeded this warning - we were only half way up the road to the car park when we hit the traffic jam. Adam wasn’t with us, preferring to spend his final day shopping, which we all ended up doing in Calgary. There was no point persevering in the traffic. If we had made it to the car park we would then be in the line to the gondola and the slopes would have been packed when we got up there. Paul was very disappointed to have missed his final day of skiing and Gareth missed a rendezvous with a ‘bird’, but he is over her and on to the next one (or two) now.

The Journey Home

With all our bags packed we had breakfast and set off for Calgary. Our flight was due to depart at 2.00pm but with an eye on the emergency exit seats for extra leg room, we left ahead of schedule to enable us to check in and take the car and tour around Calgary for a couple of hours before boarding the plane. Great theory, but it didn’t work of course. Paul dropped the boys and I, plus luggage, at the departures terminal and we joined the queue, such as it was at that stage. We asked the lady in front of us if this was the right place for London and she nodded. Paul, leaving the car in the short term car park joined us and we waited. Eventually the gate was opened and we started the checking-in procedure. It seemed rather more lengthy than usual, problems with computers etc but we got there finally. Paul enquired why ‘MAN’ featured so much on everything but we were told not to worry. The only problem was that the flight was delayed until 6.00pm! We weren’t happy about the delay but at least we still had the car and even more time than we had anticipated to tour Calgary and do any last minute shopping. We were assured that the flight was direct but what was not immediately apparent was that the flight was direct to Manchester (MAN?). This discovery was made in the very nick of time as our bags were about to disappear along the conveyor belts onto the Manchester plane. We had by now been at the airport for some one and a half hours and as you might imagine, the queue for the London flight by this time was extensive, but join it we had to. The good news was that the flight was not delayed so we would indeed be taking off at 2.00pm. We expressed a desire for seating with extra leg room;   perhaps now would be a good time to mention that Adam is 6’6”, Gareth 6’5” and Paul 6’4” (I’m 5’3” but very ‘thingy’ on planes) so extra leg room is rather more than just a luxury. Yes, we were assured, there would be plenty of leg room. So, after Paul hastily returned the car (no time now for touring or anything else) we boarded the plane. Alas, we did not have the seats with extra leg room, no indeedy. They had long since been allocated to the bright sparks who had found their way to the right departure desk. Instead however, we had two rows of seats to ourselves, which did at least allow us the privilege of stretching out across a full row per person.

Paul has the embarrassing habit of asking to visit the flight deck and this trip was no exception. It must be said though that on this occasion it was well worth a look as there was a display of the Northern Lights visible from the cockpit. I had never seen the Northern Lights before and if the opportunity every presents itself to you, take it.

Back at Camberley we regrouped and the boys returned to their mother and braced themselves for the partying anticipated on New Year’s Eve. We repaired to bed, followed by unpacking and days of washing and ironing.

In conclusion, yes it was a good holiday. Canada is a great place, the people are wonderful and the scenery magnificent. If you’re after a skiing holiday and you’re a nervous candidate, Lake Louise and Mount Norquay are not the best resorts for you, Sunshine Village is fine. If you’re intermediate and above, you’ll have no problems anywhere.

Eating Out

You’ll have serious trouble finding a bad meal in Alberta, I’ve never seen one. Without doubt our best meal in Banff was at Earls, very closely followed by Giorgios. Paris’ was very good and the Mount Royal Hotel restaurant excellent. The diner on the main road, great fun and very good value for money. We also tried the Magpie & Stump, a fondue place and a Greek restaurant, no faults with any of them.