Banff (AB), Canada – Go ahead. Tell your friends that you’re going skiing
in western Canada. What will you hear?
"Oh, so is this your first trip to Whistler?"
Be more specific. Tell them you’ll be skiing in the Banff area.
"Yeah, I hear Lake Louise has beautiful views."
Then tell them all about Sunshine Village. After they make their own
pilgrimage to this breathtaking slice of the Swiss Alps right in the heart of
the Canadian Rockies they’ll thank you. Profusely, much in the same way the
snow falls on the three massive peaks that make up Sunshine’s vast terrain.
Thirty-three feet of Canadian fluff per year deposit on a mixture of alpine
meadows, rocky chutes, glacial cirques, steep tree shots, and even groomed cruisers.
Not a single snow gun can be found at Sunshine Village. They’d probably
rust away in some shed anyway, forsaken in favor of Mother Nature’s version.
Sunshine’s season stretches from mid-November to well into May on a regular
basis. April is still in powder season, and while the trails of New England
melt away, Sunshine’s skiers pig out on some of the driest snow in the Rockies.
A visitor to Sunshine must first pick up their jaw and put their eyes back
into their head after ogling the sublime views of rock, snow, and ice that thrust
forth from the valleys of the Banff National Park. Once your stomach has
settled down a bit, a modest but modern gondola base area with simple services
such as a ski shop and food stand greet you. Visitors staying in the unique
mid-mountain village’s Sunshine Inn can also check in their luggage for the
20-minute gondola ride 1600 vertical feet up to the main base area at just over
7000 feet. Once there, the mid-mountain village offers multiple dining
options, a huge day lodge, and no less that six lifts further up the mountain
within easy walking distance.
Sunshine’s skiing is laid out on the flanks of three distinct peaks, ranging
from the 8954′ Lookout Mountain to the milder 7875′ Mt. Standish. The
third peak, Goat’s Eye, was added to Sunshine in 1995 and more than doubled
the expert terrain available. Each peak has its own distinct character
and unique challenges for the best skiers, and even the expert-focused Goat’s
Eye has a reasonable route down from its top chair.
Surveying the entire area from the top of the Continental Divide chair on
Lookout Mountain gives the skier an inner peace of sorts. If the views
are favorable, the 11,870′ Mt. Assiniboine provides an exclamation point to
an alpine valley devoid of human habitation. "The Matterhorn of the Rockies,"
proclaims Sunshine’s brochure, in describing the view of the knife-edge peak
of Assiniboine. Your eyes drink in the copious snow and gentle rolls of
the valley below and then widen as they pan up to the craggy peaks and radical
slides and chutes visible between Goat’s Eye and Lookout. This is the
famed Delirium Dive area, accessed off of the top of the Continental Divide
chair and open only to those who can produce avalanche shovels, probes, and
beacons for the ski patrol at the entrance gate. The average pitch in the cirque
area is an honest 39 degrees, with runs averaging well over a thousand vertical
feet. This is legitimate extreme terrain, and it hosts competitions for
some of the best skiers on the continent.
If such heart-stopping runs are not your idea of a relaxing ski vacation but
you still want a challenge, Sunshine Village won’t leave you wanting. For
the most challenge, ride the Goat’s Eye quad and stay to skier’s right. There
you’ll find Hell’s Kitchen, a masochistic mix of super-steep trees that cliff
out in an avalanche zone on your right and guide you to a narrow bump run under
the chair on your left.
Still a little too harsh? Sample the alpine gullies and chutes to the skier’s
left off of Goat’s Eye chair and feel the freedom of wide open skiing amongst
walls of rock as you view the flea-speck sized skiers across the cirque in Delirium
Dive. If it’s been a few days since the last snowfall, hike a bit higher
from the top of the Goat’s Eye quad and try four more avalanche-controlled chutes;
you’re sure to find fresh snow if you look around a bit. Judging by the
wide open, alpine character of the Sunshine and its copious snowfall, chances
are you won’t have to look far for fresh snow. Each of Sunshine’s three
mountains offers two distinct zones, one above tree line and one below, with
a distinct fusion area in between populated by scrubby pines.
Perhaps the best example of Sunshine’s diverse terrain is found on the lower
and less populated Mt. Standish. Here two chairs and a T-bar deliver you up
a gentle pitch that hosts several green and blue runs, each quite wide with
groomed swath in the middle and the sides left for powder or at worst, chopped
up powder. Hidden between the gentler runs, though, lie gnarly chutes
amongst dense conifers, streambeds, bumped up gullies, and long ridges upon
which a modest traverse can yield fresh tracks days after a storm.
The centerpiece of Sunshine is the vast and open terrain of Lookout Mountain.
Two high-speed quads and a rickety old double serve well over 1,000 acres
of treeless terrain of varying, but never dizzying pitch. Stay to skier’s
left and you could swear you were in Arosa or Zermatt, skiing 1450′ vertical
with nary a tree to contend with to the bottom of the Continental Divide chair,
which actually passes into British Columbia briefly as you travel up its mile-long
length. Stay to skier’s right, however, and you’ll be treated to the seldom-skied,
widely spaced tree runs of the TeePee Town chair. Here there is little grooming,
no shortage of skiable lines, and even a modest cliff or two. The lack
of intersecting trails and the quality of the snow in some of the shady spots
would make the TeePee Town terrain ideal on a day with flat light or heavy weather.
The old double chair and the natural glades even give a old school New England
feel to the place.
Betwixt Goat Eye and TeePee Town, however, lies Sunshine’s biggest drawback:
a rather flat, nameless area criss-crossed with beginner runs that presents
a formidable obstacle to traveling in between the Goat Eye base and the main
village. One solution is to board the gondola at Goat’s Eye where it detaches
from its first cable and picks up a second, and ride it the last eight minutes
up to the village. Other than that you’re looking at a combination of
three lifts and possibly some skating and poling to get back to the village
from the bottom of Goat’s Eye.
Sunshine’s other bane is the dreaded curse of flat light. Lack of any distinguishing
features like trees or rock formations in many areas could lead to serious vertigo
given the wrong combination of conditions. To combat these types of days
most of the treeless areas at Sunshine have groomed tracks leading down and
ample colored markings to coax you down to lower terrain where the trees live.
Local skiers seem evenly divided on the merits and downfalls of Sunshine versus
its major competitor, the mammoth Lake Louise. All seem to agree, however,
that Sunshine really does have the best snow, a result of geography that no
amount of capital investment could change. Some seem to feel that Sunshine
is more a family ski hill, while Louise gives a more corporate feel. Perhaps
such determinations are best left to the individual, but if you are planning
a trip to Banff or anywhere in the Canadian Rockies, take the time to spend
at least one day at Sunshine. Chances are you’ll want another, and another.
After a day of skiing Sunshine Village the long run down to the parking area
is almost an afterthought, but pause on the way down and you’ll be treated with
even more stunning views of towering icefalls and old-growth evergreens. It’s
a decent 15 minute run from mid-mountain village to parking lot and if you’ve
skied hard all day, watch out for those calves and quads locking up on some
of the flats where carrying speed is needed. The upper part of the run even
requires some poling and skating, and if you’ve stashed a sizeable daypack,
be prepared for a bit of a haul. If you’re totally pooped, the gondola
is the other way to get down to your car, but why waste the run?
Getting to Sunshine is quite easy given the number of flights into Calgary.
From there it’s a one and a half hour drive from the plains to the mountains
via rental car or bus. Most folks stay in the glittering resort town of
Banff a mere ten miles away and ferry in each day by shuttle bus. More
cost-conscious skiers should choose Canmore, Alberta, just east of the entrance
to Banff National Park and about 30 minutes away. Several hotels there
offer rates as low as 50$ CDN a night and many offer package deals with Sunshine
including shuttle buses straight from hotel to gondola base. The most attractive
option would be to stay right at the mountain in the moderately priced Sunshine
Inn, complete with outdoor hot tubs, saunas, jacuzzi suites, and other goodies
like live entertainment and gourmet dining. Best of all, you get dibs
on the next morning’s powder. Three-day and six-day packages are downright
cheap, but getting away from the hill and into Banff could present a problem
given that the gondola is the only way in or out. Extended gondola hours until
10:30 p.m. are available on Friday and Sunday.