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Girls' Getaway

A primer to winter outdoor fun in the Canadian Rockies
By Kari Bodnarchuk - December 27th, 2004

Kim Shippam, an instructor for the Fairmont Snow School, at Ski Norquay in Banff. The author and two friends hired Shippam, a former ski racer, to conduct a private ski clinic for the women at different ski areas near Banff. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. We were three overworked women in need of a winter getaway. But what we didn't realize when we arranged a ski trip to Banff was how many other outdoor adventures we could take in at the same time. All of us were advanced skiers, but absolute rookie ice-climbers, snowboarders and dog-sledders. Amazingly, we got pretty good at all that, and a lot more, in just a week. We even discovered the therapeutic properties of a Hungarian mineral pool and drove the famous Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper (one of the world's most breathtaking driving routes). We found that for three women in search of outdoor fun, you just can't beat the Rockies come wintertime.

My friends Hilary and Maribeth met me at the Calgary airport. We decided on the Canadian Rockies because two out of three of us had never been there. It also has some of the best skiing in North America: Sunshine Village is known for its bowl skiing and champagne powder. Lake Louise is known for its stunning views and 4,200 square acres of skiable terrain, with four mountain faces and everything from cruisers to steeps and bumps.

We wanted to do a women's ski clinic, just the three of us, both to improve our moves but have fun at the same time. Since none of the resorts organize special women's programs, we created our own "chicks on sticks" instructional course. Each ski area offers private or group lessons, but we opted to hire an instructor from the Fairmont Snow School and let her be our guide for three days of non-stop skiing. (Fairmont operates the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise, and Jasper Park Lodge.)

Kim Shippam, one of nine full-time instructors for the Fairmont Snow School in Banff, gives a student tips on how to weight her skis and position her body while carving up the slopes. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. We chose the ski resort each day and Kim Shippam, our instructor, met us there. Shippam was just 20 years old, but she'd been skiing since she was two years old and had spent nine years ski racing. Anybody who could go 98 mph on skis, we figured, could advance our skill levels considerably. We trusted her judgment completely, and learned more than we ever expected.

Having one instructor to the three of us for three days provided continuity and other benefits. Shippam quickly learned our skiing styles and "issues," so we didn't have to go over old ground with a new instructor each day. She knew what skills we needed to work on and she could monitor our progress from day to day, offering encouragement when appropriate and tips when necessary. She also knew the terrain and could guide us around all the mountains, bowls and trees, to areas exactly tailored to our needs. We could therefore cover a lot of ground and get the most out of each ski area.

We spent our first morning at Ski Norquay, a no-hassle, locals' mountain on the north side of the Banff townsite. It's easy to access and known for its groomed runs and flexible tickets: you can buy a half-day or even just a two-hour ticket, if you want to ease into it. Shippam wasted no time breaking our old, bad habits, and with some basic tips on proper stance and weighting our skis, she had us cruising that first day.

A momentary break in the clouds during a snowstorm at Sunshine Village. The resort has 3,300 skiable acres and some of the finest powder in North America. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. "Keep your knees bent, so you can absorb the bumps," she said. "And remember, don't lean back or you'll lose your balance."

We spent the next two days honing our skills--learning to carve better turns and stay in balance--while covering more than 35,000 vertical feet at both Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. There was probably no better way to sample some outstanding terrain and advance our skill levels in such a short time.

When we weren't on the slopes, we spent time exploring Banff visiting the Whyte Museum to learn about local history, shopping for anything silver or semi-precious, and eating our way through town (highlights included tapas at the new Cafe Soleil and the most mouthwatering Alberta beef at the Saltlik steakhouse).

Kim Shippam (left) is the instructor for the three, self-proclaimed "chix on stix," Maribeth, Kari, and Hilary. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. One of the best parts of each day was returning to our accommodations. We splurged on rooms at the Banff Springs Hotel, the most famous of the historic Canadian railway lodges. After our daily ski lessons, we'd head to the hotel's three-story Willow Stream spa for its luxurious Ski Performance Treatment--a combination massage--and a soak in the mineral pool.

Banff is ground zero for all kinds of winter sports, so we also took an afternoon to try dog sledding. A local couple, Martha and Doug Hannah, run tours at nearby Lake Louise. The couple has been running Kingmik Sled Dog Tours for 22 years and offers 30-minute Intro to Mushing classes to two-hour tours in western Alberta. We opted for the two-hour Great Divide Experience, during which our mushers and dogs--eight huskies per sled-whisked us 12 miles through forests and along paths to the border of British Columbia (which marks the Great Divide) and back. En route, they taught us the art of mushing--how to maneuver the sled and when to yell out key commands like "gee" (turn right), "haw" (turn left), "whoa" and "let's go!"

After a week of outdoorsy and culinary adventures in Banff, we drove north along the famous Icefields Parkway, a stunning 145-mile route that links the Banff/Lake Louise area with Jasper, a laid-back, frontier type of town. The trip takes three and a half hours, if you drive straight through, but ours took six hours with all the photo stops.

The author prepares to tackle Schwartz Falls-her first-ever attempt at ice climbing-under the careful eye of a local climbing guide. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. The parkway cuts right through the heart of the Rockies, offering views of dramatic, chiseled mountains on either side of the road, more than 100 glaciers and dozens of icefalls, as well as the famous Columbia Icefield. The only sign of life along this stretch were the ice climbers clinging to frozen waterfalls along the route.

I had always wanted to try ice climbing, so when we reached Jasper, I tracked down a local climber, Lloyd Gaskell, who took me to Schwartz Falls just outside of town to give me a short lesson on how to scale icefalls. The Jasper Adventure Centre can arrange ice-climbing instruction with advance notice, and Gravity Gear in downtown Jasper rents good-quality ice-climbing equipment.

"Many of the easy climbs around here require you to rappel down first," Gaskell told me. "But if you can't climb back up, you're hooped. That's why Schwartz is a good one to learn some basics."

The number of female ice climbers has increased 200 percent in the past year. Here, the author is midway on Schwartz Falls, a 40-foot route on hard water ice on the outskirts of Jasper, Alberta. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. Schwartz Falls was a 40-foot frozen waterfall located just a 10-minute walk from the road, so it was easy to access. As we stood at the base of the frozen falls, Gaskell showed me how to use a climbing harness, ropes, ice axes and crampons. Since he had me on a top rope, this was a low-risk adventure. The ice tools and crampons felt awkward at first, but with Gaskell talking me through it, I was able to move rhythmically up 35 feet of ice. By the end, I was feeling comfortable enough to hang back from my ice axes, my front points secure in the frozen waterfall. It was a real thrill, and a highlight of the trip, to finally give ice climbing a shot.

After a 10-inch snowfall overnight, we decided to give snowboarding a try at Marmot Basin in Jasper, knowing that the powder would make our learning experience a lot more enjoyable. I figure every skier owes it him- or herself to try boarding at least a few times, and after just a few hours of instruction, we were linking turns on an intermediate slope and spending more time on our feet than on our elbows and knees.

Before we left for home, there was still one last adventure: a mid-winter hike through Maligne Canyon. Here, Murray Morgan of the Jasper Adventure Centre, guides hikers through the limestone canyon--165 feet deep in places--taking them across a thick floor of ice, below dramatic overhangs, and past tall, frozen waterfalls.

The Chateau Lake Louise (through its Mountain Heritage Program) provides guides who will take visitors on cross-country ski trips across Lake Louise and elsewhere in the area. Skiers can also head out on their own adventure. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. We reached the canyon via a path that wound through forests of Engelman spruce and lodgepole pines. At its entrance, we strapped rubber soles with metal cleats (a crude type of crampon) onto the bottom of our boots before setting off through the canyon on top of a frozen river.

The Maligne River flows through the canyon and slowly freezes on top. Eventually, the water level beneath the ice drops, leaving big chambers of air up to 25 feet deep. The canyon's limestone walls were chiseled and rough in some areas and as round and smooth as a teacup in others, where the river had carved them out and polished them over time. As we walked, we found thick, bulbous icefalls, some of which towered 80 feet overhead and had ice caves near their bases.

The combination of world-class outdoor adventure in many flavors, and four-star food and lodging makes the Banff and Jasper areas unique. As we packed for the trip home, the three of us decided we'd have to visit the Rockies again, to work on our snowboarding moves, take ice climbing to the next level, and see how we fared at heli-skiing.

The 145 mile route between Banff and Jasper-along the Icefields Parkway-is one of the world's most scenic drives. Even in winter, the province keeps the road in excellent condition. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. Getting there:
Calgary's international airport is the gateway to the Rockies. Banff is 80 miles (90 minutes) from Calgary and Lake Louise is another 36 miles (40 minutes) beyond Banff via the four-lane, well-marked and plowed Trans Canada Highway. Banff to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway is about 150 miles; allow five hours for taking in the scenery and for photo stops (people often spend a full day doing this drive). Jasper is 258 miles from Calgary and 275 miles from Calgary International Airport.

Sunshine gets more snow than any other Alberta resort, up to a fluffy 9 metres (27 ft.) a year. It also has one of the longest seasons - mid-November through May - plus it straddles the Continental Divide, meaning you can ski in two provinces in one day. On a clear day you can see for 50 km (35 miles) and the views of Mt. Assiniboine (Canada's equivalent of the Matterhorn) are unparalleled.

One of Alberta's oldest ski resorts, "Norquay" has been around since 1926. Located right on the skirts of Banff townsite, it hasn't lost its loyal local following despite the nearby competition of Sunshine and Lake Louise. Its proximity to Banff. Plus, it's super steep runs like Memorial Bowl (with an average 34-degree pitch) and the North American plus its all-star grooming machines. With its 40-machine hours of nightly grooming, Norquay actually guarantees the quality of its silky corduroy.

Kingmik Sled Dog Tours runs several trips, from a 30-minute introduction to the art of mushing class to the two-hour Great Divide Experience. Photo by Kari Bodnarchuk. Banff Springs Hotel
(405 Spray Ave., Banff; 403-762-2211 or 800-441-1414; This 19th-century Scottish baronial-style castle is well worth every penny--a spot of luxury and charm, with a down-home feel. Plan a day to explore the hotel's spa, shops, hot springs, gallery and grounds.

Spruce Grove Inn
(Banff Avenue, Banff; 800-879-1991; Cozy, affordable ($85 to $225) accommodations in a new lodge located within a 10-minute walk from downtown Banff; includes access to an outdoor heated pool (open year-round).

Chateau Lake Louise
(111 Lake Louise Dr., Lake Louise; 403-522-3511 or 800-441-1414; One of Canada's grand hotels, which opened in 1895 following the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and became the destination for outdoor adventurers (Lake Louise is known as the birthplace of Canadian mountaineering). Arrange guided hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and other adventures through the Mountain Heritage program. Located about 55 minutes from Banff. Jasper Park Lodge
(Old Lodge Road, Jasper; 800-441-1414 or 780-852-3301; JPL, as it's known to locals, is located in Jasper National Park; it overlooks an emerald-colored lake, blends in with the countryside and offers clear views of the Rockies. Main lodge has native d'cor and a warm feel; luxury log cabins and cedar chalets (with stone fireplaces) make you feel like you're in a cozy mountain home.

Torquin Inn
(100 Juniper St., Jasper; 780-852-4987 or 800-661-1315; Offers everything from rooms with kitchenettes to large family suites with fireplaces and saunas; includes access to outdoor hot tubs. Prices range from $60 to $160.


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