Powder to the people: skiing in Canada’s Rocky Mountains
For a cheap skiing and snowboarding destination with vast empty slopes, why not pay a visit to Canada? Michelle Scavone found that Banff and Whistler give snowlovers plenty of options when it comes to both mountains and wild ski-town nightlife. But which of these two resorts wins out overall?
THE shimmering, powdery whiteness of the Canadian Rockies has to be seen to be believed. An endless stretch of distant summits and jagged peaks surrender to inches of willowy, pearl-coloured snow daily, and if you’re really lucky, sometimes hourly.
The dreaded rear-end wet patch is not an issue here; skiers and snowboarders can fall over a thousand times and still remain dry. On a cloudless day holidaying adventurers smile to each other beneath bright blue skies, making comments about how lucky they are, before skimming down the velvety slopes. One could be forgiven for thinking they were nestled upon banks of heavenly clouds.
One bittersweet problem that crops up when planning a snow holiday to the Canadian Rockies is making the difficult decision of where to go. It really boils down to a choice between two resorts – Whistler or Banff?
It is a question that sparks heated debate from ski and snowboard fanatics alike. These two extremely popular North American winter hotspots offer slightly different takes on the ski-town experience. Choosing the right resort really depends on what you want out of your trip.
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Many holidaymakers fall victim to the common misconception that partaking in a snow expedition to either of Canada’s two prominent resorts requires one to have skiing or snowboarding abilities or experience. Famous for their unruly verticals and professional skiers and riders, the mountain masses in these towns can be daunting for the beginner. But almost all of the resorts in the Rockies are littered with flailing amateur snowboarders and wobbling lanky skiers with their bodies hunched, knees knocking together and jaws clenched. The novices are a prominent and necessary feature of any resort in the Rockies. It is actually said that learning on challenging slopes ultimately makes for better skiers and riders — so don’t be put off!
Now, another important question – do you like to party? This is of utmost importance, as every single snow town in the world is boozed up and ready to rock, and Whistler and Banff are two of the snow community’s chief offenders.
Do you like to wake up, throw on some clothes, walk out the door and be right at the first lift, ready to go? If so, ski-in/ski-out style architecture is what you want, and the infamous Whistler Blackcomb is where you will get it. Home of the 2010 Winter Olympics and approximately two hours from Vancouver, British Columbia, Whistler is renowned for its immeasurable peaks, glamorous nightlife and celebrity sightings.
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Whistler is one of the warmer resorts of the Rockies and will rarely drop below minus 16 degrees Celsius, which is an important factor to consider in cold, cold Canada. The town accommodates two mammoth mountains – Whistler and Blackcomb (funny that), with top elevations of 2182m and 2284m respectively.
With a collective total of over two hundred runs and thirty lifts, Whistler is sheer paradise for anyone with an interest in snow sports. It is also incredibly popular and often cops a verbal bashing from haughty snowboarders who despise the mainstream.
Whistler is famous for its Beaver Tails, a recognized Canadian pastry, similar in shape to a beaver’s tail. It is a bit of a tradition to munch on this tasty breakfast treat while waiting in line for the first gondola ride of the day.
The bases of the mountains are side-by-side in the village centre, making it easy to amble into either the Whistler gondola or the Blackcomb gondola and disappear above the clouds on your chosen peak. The structure of the lifts makes it easy to alternate between the two hills throughout the day, although some believe it is best to stick with one mountain and explore it thoroughly. Blackcomb is commonly thought to be the more challenging of the two, and has several killer powdery glaciers that can be reached by taking the highest lift to the highest point and hiking for about an hour.
Whistler has a particular reputation for temperamental snowfalls, so many tourists formulate backup plans when organising their trips. Luckily, there is no shortage of mountains to visit in British Columbia and transport options between resorts are plentiful.
Bear in mind, Whistler houses an expensive quality of life, and trendy, baseball-cap wearin’ Burton-clad riders; you might incur a few sideways glances if your brands are not up to scratch.
If you prefer having the choice of more mountains to ski but are willing to sit on a bus for half an hour to get to them, the famed town of Banff could be the destination for you. A short drive from Calgary, Alberta, this old tourist town is like the older brother of Queenstown, New Zealand — only with more Aussies and Kiwis on working holidays.
Banff is a bubbly town, nestled deep in the Rockies, and sees some of Canada’s coldest weather – in January temperatures can get to minus forty degrees Celsius. Banff is preceded by its legendary party reputation: it is said to be the STD capital of Canada, so punters, beware.
There are three mountains in the vicinity of Banff but you’ll have to travel by bus or car to reach them. Sunshine Village, at top of the popularity list, is only a twenty minute drive from the town. It’s home to the fastest gondola in the world and has a top elevation of 2730m.
With varying degrees of difficulty, Sunshine is an excellent mountain to learn on and offers an abundance of hidden secrets for more experienced riders who enjoy hiking. If you are up for it, Delerium Dive, rated double black, is a popular chute on powder days that can only be skied with a special avalanche transceiver and shovel. At Sunshine, the music is pumping, the outdoor barbeques smell great, the beer is cold and the overall vibe is superb. It should be avoided on weekends, though, as visiting Calgarian families make for unbearably crowded slopes, long lift lines and excruciating lunch queues.
A little closer to Banff is Mt Norquay, which is smaller and steeper than Sunshine. At 2133m, it is often plagued by icy black runs, strong winds and a short season. On a powder day, the mountain offers unbelievable conditions, although, truth be told, good days are rare. Norquay is definitely worth one visit, especially if you like it steep, and lift tickets are cheapest there.
A favourite among pros and Banff residents alike is Lake Louise. An hour drive from Banff, Louise is a mountain so sparse that even on its busiest days the slopes still appear bare. At 2637m, Louise has over 113 runs not including its back bowls. Its beauty makes you want to chuck in your job, marry the nearest Canadian and succumb to a life surrounded by white gold. The mountain’s terrain park is phenomenal and regularly houses World Ariel Competitions. On any given day, the standard at Louise is Olympic, and fantastic to observe.
Banff is also in the fortunate position of being in close proximity to a number of other resorts that can be visited on day trips. Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, in the vacant town of Golden, has been voted as the best powder resort in North America by many ski magazines and is only three hours from Banff. Likewise, Panorama Mountain Resort, two hours southwest of Banff, is popular for weekend trips and boasts ski-in/ski-outslopeside accommodation.
Bear in mind, there is no rule that says a visit to the Rockies can not encompass all of the above and more. One warning — no matter how approach snow holidays, it is important to remember that they can be expensive. But nothing compares to the feeling you get when you stand atop a peak, take a deep breath, and anticipate skiing down the run. If everyone knew this thrill first hand, the world would be a better place. Go on, try it for yourself.
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