Jim Darby heads to Canada's winter playground and tests his ski legs on Alberta's big three snowfields.
The best ski or snowboard instructors don't just help with your skills on snow, they'll be part entertainer, storyteller and historian. At Sunshine Village in Alberta, James Ordway takes it a step further and brings along a hint of hydrology.
To set the scene, we're on the Divide chairlift, so-named because it borders the provinces: British Columbia to the right and Alberta to the left as you ride it.
But it also takes the name because it runs along the spine of North America, the stretch of the Rocky Mountains they call the Continental Divide. The water sheds to the east or west from this very ridge.
"Just imagine," Ordway says, "in a snowfall, two snowflakes might start out right next to each other, but by the time they drift to the ground, they might be 50 metres apart and when they melt, one will end up in the Pacific Ocean and one will end up in the Atlantic Ocean."
So near and then, so far.
Ordway is one of the many in the Commonwealth's contribution to these parts. He's British, but there are also plenty of Australians and New Zealanders complementing the Canadians who staff the three main skifields of the Banff National Park – Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise – and the towns that serve them.
There are two types of skiing and boarding adventures: those where you stay on the mountain and ski out the door, and those where you stay in a mountain town and have some kind of commute to the snow.
Apart from some rooms for guests at Sunshine, this part of the snow world falls into the latter category, with Banff, nearby Canmore and Lake Louise the accommodation bases. The upside is that they shine in the retail, restaurant, nightlife and other facilities.
If you lived or worked in Banff – and there would be a lot worse places in the world to do so – you could easily have a few runs at Mount Norquay on your lunch break. And many of the locals do; it's within such easy reach.
This is the perfect place to stretch out your snow legs if you've just come out of a southern summer. It's relaxed, the staff are exceptionally friendly and the slope grooming exceptionally good.
Because it's a smaller area (77 hectares), it lives in the shadow of Lake Louise (1740 hectares) and Sunshine (1335 hectares), but don't be deceived; there's some very interesting, entertaining and – if you want to seek it out – challenging terrain. Gun Run and the North American, which hosted World Cup events in the 1970s, are rated among Canada's steepest. It is also the only area in the district that offers night skiing and boarding – 5pm to 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays during winter.
The challenge at Norquay is to avoid the crowds. Because it's smaller, on popular days the pressure is on. The locals ski it early (or over lunch) and, if they can, avoid it on busy weekends when the skiers and boarders head in from Calgary and surrounds.
The name is a reminder that, unlike its sister skifields, this one is unique in the Banff National Park in that it also has some commercial overnight accommodation – the Sunshine Mountain Lodge, the only ski-in, ski-out accommodation in the area.
While it lacks the nightlife you'll find in any of the major North American ski villages, it is an appealing mountain lodge with guest rooms that make the most of the views, as well as restaurant, bar and spa facilities.
It's what's going on outside that matters most at Sunshine, though. It has the altitude and aspect to make it extremely reliable for snow cover, with a season that typically runs from early November to late May.
There's something for all comers on its three mountains, with long, groomed trails for developing skiers and boarders above the tree line on Lookout Mountain or through the glades on Mount Standish. The more accomplished can ride the black runs on Goat's Eye Mountain or take it up a notch in one of Sunshine's two restricted "Freeride" zones: the Wild West and Delirium Dive.
A problem Sunshine had was that people whose ambition outweighed their ability kept trying to ride these areas and getting in trouble. Now skiers are let in through a gate with a lock that will release only if you are wearing an activated avalanche transceiver. You also have to have at least one partner; each person has to have the transceiver, a shovel and avalanche probe.
The terrain is steep, but no more so than say the Summit Chutes of Mount Buller in Victoria or the drop from the Bluff at Thredbo. It's the narrow ridge you need to negotiate to get into the Dive that gives you sweaty palms. I ski it with instructor James Ordway, who walks and talks me over the ridge and then into the Dive itself for some very enjoyable turns.
If Sunshine has an Achilles heel, it is access. From the car park, you need to ride a gondola lift to get to the actual ski lifts, but even that has an upside, in that it gives a long, gentle run back to the car or shuttle at the end of the day.
Wherever you are in the Banff area, you're surrounded by mountain and forest views that are each worth a billboard but, even in an area so spoilt for scenery, for me it comes up a notch in and around Lake Louise, from the drive along the Trans-Canada Highway to the summit of the skifield.
All around are the Rocky Mountains of Alberta with their gnarly ridges and formidable cliffs. Rooster tails of snow fly into the winter sky from sharp summits; it's like being immersed in some huge landscape painting.
High up in the skifield comes that postcard view of the lake, the glacier hanging poised above and the Chateau resort small as a Lego model against the surrounding mountains.
While it has plenty of steep terrain, some glades for powder if you know where to find them (watch the locals or hire an instructor), it is in its long, cruising runs for intermediates that Lake Louise shines.
They wander down from the alpine terrain above the treeline then cruise along through the trees for another case of scenic overload.
I mention to instructor Misayo Nakamura that I'd skied some steep terrain at Sunshine the previous day and her eyes light up. "I can show you some of that here," she says. Even though this terrain is much more open on entry and exit, and therefore doesn't demand the precautions of Sunshine's freeride zones, it lacks nothing in pitch.
With Nakamura in the lead, we ski chutes with a friendly cover of snow but some not-so-friendly names: The Beast, Peyto's Pitch and Wounded Knee.
Lake Louise has a big base area with the Lodge of the Ten Peaks at its heart; built from logs harvested in the area, it has big windows for the views, soaring ceilings and crackling fireplaces, along with a food court for good-value meals, at least in mountain terms.
Out on the mountain, the pick of the shelters is Temple Lodge, tucked away in the trees at the base of the area's Back Bowls.
Air Canada flies direct from Sydney to Vancouver, with connections to Calgary, see aircanada.com.au. Qantas also operates direct flights Sydney-Vancouver over the northern winter. The Banff Airporter runs an excellent shuttle service between Calgary and Banff.
In Banff, the Buffalo Mountain Lodge is a sprawl of cabins and rooms on the edge of a forest with Mount Rundle looming above. I saw elk, heard wolves and loved the 20-minute walk to downtown Banff. Rooms from $185, see www.crmr.com/buffalo/. In Lake Louise, the Chateau is a classic, enough to explore on its own let alone taking in the skiing down the road. Be sure to have the buffet breakfast included, rooms from $330 a night but cheaper in a ski package, see www.fairmont.com/LakeLouise.
Banff seems to have caught and kept some very capable chefs. Recommended restaurants are the Sleeping Buffalo, at Buffalo Mountain Lodge, and in downtown Banff, The Bison and the Maple Leaf Grill, all serving quality Canadian cuisine with some very creative touches. At the Chateau in Lake Louise, try the Walliser Stube for innovative European alpine cuisine.
A hire car will give flexibility, but skiers and boarders who have a tri-area lift ticket giving access to the lifts at Sunshine, Norquay and Lake Louise, also get transport covered between their accommodation and the skifield of their choice. Lift tickets can be bought online. See www.skibig3.com.
FIVE NON-SKI THINGS IN BANFF-LAKE LOUISE
The Banff Recreation Centre has four curling "sheets" and every Wednesday night in winter coaches host learn-to-curl sessions for $16 including equipment. Skating is also available.
A Banff road rule is "give way to the elk"; you don't have to go far to see wildlife around here, but numerous tour operators will take you closer to them. In winter you might also see deer, chipmunks, wolves and mountain goats.
The Banff Park Museum is a fascinating presentation of the way the natural world was interpreted in the stuffed-animal era. In town by the Bow River Bridge, entry is $4 for adults, $2 children or $10 for families.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs gave the town its name and is still going strong, with a big outdoor pool and spa facilities. A bargain at $7.50 for adults and $6.50 children.
TAKE THE SLEIGH
Stay warm under a blanket and let the hay-burners do the work in a horse-drawn sleigh ride out of Banff along the Bow River Valley or out of Lake Louise along its lakeside trail.
The writer was a guest of Travel Alberta and Destination Canada.