Lake Louise: The Mountain with Just About Everything

Lake Louise (AB), Canada – Think about your favorite place to
ski or board. Think about why it’s your favorite. Make a list. Good. Got
your list? Lake Louise will likely have just about everything on your list,
maybe. What could possibly be missing from this mammoth resort in the Canadian
Rockies? Read on.

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Lake Louise's south side (photo Marc  Guido)

Lake Louise’s south
side (photo Marc Guido)

So, back to your list. (Still got it?)  If you’re hardcore,
you likely put things down like steeps, bumps, powder, trees, short lift lines,
off-piste, elbow room.  Put Lake Louise near the top of your list of places
to visit.  You’ll find all these wonderful things there in abundance.  If you
like to cruise, love to let ’em run, live to dig trenches in the snow with one
sweeping GS turn after another, you’ll love Lake Loo, too.  World Cuppers stop
here just about every year, and you can live out your finest Hermanator fantasies
here without fear on wide groomers with good pitch.  If you’re a blue square
type, or a greenie graduating to blue, Lake Louise offers you long, albeit sometimes
crowded, runs with real character to keep your interest.  And if you’re just
dipping your feet into the world of snow sliding, LL offers some of the finest
ski school instructors in Canada.  And if you simply love to dine, party, and
drink, I can’t think of a finer venue than Lake Louise and Banff.  How about
you shoppers and sight-seers?  Yup, the area surrounding Lake Louise offers
both world class shopping and opportunities to gawk at gorgeous sights at every
turn.

Something for everyone, a well-rounded resort, a monument
to the success of Charlie Locke and the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies.  Yes,
but…

Lake Louise trail map

Any review of a ski mountain should start with the mountain
itself.  Lake Louise has one of the finest in the Canadian Rockies to call home:
a long irregular ridge, with several sub peaks, climaxing in the dizzying heights
of Mt. Whitehorn at 8,765 feet.  High enough for the frequent powder and for
a season that lasts well into May, but not high enough to make us some of us
flatlanders suffer from sledgehammer attacks on the brain due to altitude. 
Lake Louise’s lifts spill down off about 2/3 of that ridge, both front and back,
and also spread across an alpine valley to ascend much of the way up 8,902 foot
Lipalian Mountain.  This majestic peak is the home to the newest area at Lake
Louise, Larch, a heavily treed and rather consistently pitched area that feels
miles away from the main base area.  Above the Larch Express Quad live Elevator
Shaft and Purple Bowl, wide, hike-to powder reserves that host the Canadian
Powder 8 championships every year. 

The layout of Lake Louise can be confusing to the uninitiated
but you soon come to realize that there is essentially a front side and back
side… and Larch… and Ptarmigan, a wild, gladed area serviced by its own quad
chair, but still part of the main mountain ridge.  Okay, so the confusion about
where you are on the mountain never fully recedes, but one quickly comes to
the realization that there is no possible way to ski all of Louise in one day. 
Even with Dan the Fire Man.  Well, maybe if we had Dan’s legs, lungs, and attitude
we could do it.  It would be fun to try, anyway.

The stratified Canadian Rockies beyond Lake Loo's backside (photo Marc  Guido)

The stratified Canadian
Rockies beyond Lake Loo’s backside (photo Marc Guido)

Dan met us with a smile, and handshake and an “eh” and our
Louise adventure officially began.  Picture a 6’4” cross between Elaine’s boss
on Seinfeld (complete with perfectly cropped gray hair), Dudley Do Right, and
Doug McKenzie.  Dan showed us the finer slopes of Louise and never faltered
amidst the sometimes sticky snow and chopped up week-old powder.  Louise had
definitely seen some freeze/thaw cycles not evident at the geographically advantaged
Sunshine Village we’d skied the day before.  Dan didn’t seem to care much. 
He extolled the virtues of skiing Lake Louise without pretense or even a hint
of elitism.  “It’s an hour and a half from Calgary, always has snow, usually
has powder, and its huge, eh?”  [Note, paraphrasing liberties taken here.]

Dan lives the good life as only an Albertan can.  Dan works
as a career fireman but makes his real money painting the inside of big houses
for rich up and coming Calgarians.  He takes two months off a summer to hang
out at his lake house, and skis for free all winter by being a “Ski Friend.” 
And what a friend.  Dan made us feel like old ski buddies, not even poking fun
at our lagging pace or burning lungs as we struggled to keep up with his tour. 
He even brought us to one of his favorite stashes, and probably despite his
better judgment, guided three east coast types down one of the steeper chutes
off the backside of Whitehorn, in about 15 feet of visibility.  You’ve not lived
until you’ve wondered if the 45-50 degree slope you’re currently skiing cliffs
out, turns, or ever ends.  Dan wistfully described the rope drop powder rush
he’d experienced on that same slope just a day or so earlier even as we struggled
down the thick and murky chute.  Having survived the steeps, Dan took it easy
on us for the rest of the afternoon and showed us some tasty treats on the front
side of the mountain. 

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The Summit Platter at Lake Louise (photo Marc  Guido)

The Summit Platter
at Lake Louise (photo Marc Guido)

Our morning had been spent mostly off the Paradise triple
chair, which essentially bisects the back side of the Lake Louise and offers
consistent pitch, hair raising chutes, and seldom skied glades between intermediate
and beginner switch back trails.  Dan took us into a brief foray of the Ptarmigan
area, where we found tighter, more New England-like conifers and some nice bump
fields.  We even made it up the Larch chair a few times, where we enjoyed an
endlessly wide and expertly thinned glade with limitless line choice.  Our time
spent on the front side of Louise was limited to high-speed cruisers at the
end of the day and some commuting to the main base area at lunchtime, but there
are many interesting choices there as well.  The skiing variety at Louise is
essentially endless.

As our tummies began to growl, we met up with Shauna, a Lake
Louise snow bunny who could ski with the big boys and showed us the fairer side
of the delightful Calgarian attitude.  Nothing seem to really bother Dan and
Shauna, and their enthusiasm prevented our burning legs and protesting knees
from lowering our spirits.  Just like the skiing, the choices for lunch on the
mountain are limitless as well.  You can have the standard cafeteria experience
familiar to any American skier (albeit cheaper and tastier), or upgrade to a
yummy and filling buffet next door at the Northface Restaurant.  Rather sip
a few and enjoy some pub fare?  Just head upstairs to the Sitzmark Lounge. 
Want to dine al fresco instead?  Just stroll over to the Glacier Gazebo or stay
on the backside and try out the food at Temple Beach at the base of the Ptarmigan
and Larch areas.

The Whiskeyjack Lodge (photo Marc  Guido)

The Whiskyjack Lodge
(photo Marc Guido)

The Whiskeyjack Lodge and Lodge of the Ten Peaks comprise
the two main structures at the main base of Lake Louise and are done in a stained
lodgepole pine style that fits very well in the stunning surroundings of Banff
National Park.  It all feels quite new, quite clean, quite, well … antiseptic. 
Believe me, I don’t mean to diss Lake Louise in the slightest way.  It’s got
just about everything you could want, just don’t go expecting a place filled
with that rather intangible and immeasurable quality, character.  Perhaps when
you provide a little something for everyone you run the risk of leaving out
some intangibles, but one can hardly fault Lake Louise for that.  It’s the jewel
in the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies crown, an empire built by local boy made
good Charlie Locke.  It’s loved not only by Canucks but also by a host of others
like Brits, Japanese, Aussies, Germans, etc.  You’ll hear so many accents and
languages at Lake Louise in one day you’d swear you’re in the Alps.  What so
many skiers love about the Alps, though, is the unique character of the hamlets
you find at the bottom of the randomly placed lifts.  Lake Louise is by contrast,
well-planned, well-executed, and lacking a bit of that “je ne sais quoi.”

A top-notch view from Top of the World (photo Marc Guido)

A top-notch view
from Top of the World (photo Marc Guido)

It’s a testament to the quality of the mountain, lifts, staff,
and skiing at Lake Louise that all we have to whine about is the character issue. 
What I haven’t yet mentioned is the scenery.  It’s beyond stunning, beyond words. 
Until you come to Banff National Park the title of ‘World Heritage Reserve”
as bestowed by the United Nations sounds a bit puffy.  It’s not.  The mountains
here are the mountains you picture when someone says, “Rocky Mountains,” only
these are Canada’s version.  They’re high, they’re huge, they’re majestic, and
they’re pristine.  Banff National Park is a highly regulated area and it’s a
wonder that ski areas exist within its boundaries at all.  Lake Louise is very
limited in its expansion possibilities by its address within the park, but what
it gives up to regulatory shackles it makes up for with the finest ski scenery
you could imagine. 

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The verdict on Lake Louise?  Go there.  Take advantage of
the continually depressed loonie and spend some good old American dollars on
several days at Lake Louise.  You may want to wait until late February or March,
when the days get a little longer and warmer, but do not hesitate to put Lake
Louise high on your list of ski destinations.  Don’t forget that with the town
of Banff close by, the nightlife possibilities are many, and the shopping diversions
are world class.  If you’re on a tighter budget than staying in Banff will allow,
look into Canmore just outside the park boundary.  Respectable lodging with
shuttle service to the mountain is available there for about $50 CDN a night. 
Remember, too, that Calgary is really less than two hours away, and flights
are numerous.

So, take a look back at your list.  Was character at the
top of your pre-requisites for a primo ski experience?  If it was, okay, you
might want to look at some of the more spartan or gnarly ski areas in interior
British Columbia as an alternative to Lake Louise.  If not, then start training
your legs and lungs now, because you just might end up with Dan the Fire Man
as your ski buddy for a day.

Chateau Lake Louise (photo Marc  Guido)

Chateau Lake Louise
(photo Marc Guido)

Lake Louise proper (photo Marc Guido)

Lake Louise proper
(photo Marc Guido)

LAKE LOUISE SKI NOTES

  • The Ski Friends program is
    first rate.  You’ll get matched up with a skiing ambassador of Lake Louise
    who skis at your pace and takes you to terrain you’ll like.  And the price
    is right: free! 
  • For the more adventurous,
    Lake Louise began last season to offer guided tours to areas that are avalanche
    controlled but not open to the general skiing public.  No snow cats or helicopters,
    just low speed quads (your legs), but this might just be your ticket for powder
    a few days after a storm.  Inquire at the ski school desk.
  • If you ski the back bowls
    all day, you will tire of the long run out to either the Paradise triple,
    the Larch or Ptarmigan areas, or all the way to the front side.  There’s not
    much way around it, so just accept your fate and build up those quads.
  • The only way to access some of the sickest steeps at Lake Louise is to take
    the Summit Platter to the backside of Whitehorn.  The Summit Platter is rather
    sick in itself, but serves as strong discouragement to novice skiers who may
    not be able to handle the terrain at the top. 
  • If you don’t mind a little
    hiking, traverse skier’s right off the top of the Paradise triple to ER3 or
    one of the many steep chutes along this ridge.  They’re worth it.
  • If you’re into tree skiing,
    Ptarmigan and Larch are the place to ski.  You can choose widely spaced or
    tight, steep or mild, bumped up or not.
  • Don’t miss a novelty run in
    the natural canyon under the Top of the World quad.  Keep your speed up as
    you ski down one side and ski up the other.  You can milk quite a long run
    out of this part of the front side slopes.
  • World class cruising is available on the men’s and women’s downhill courses
    on the front side.  They’re wide enough to let them run but not insane steep
    or overly crowded. 

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