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.)
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.
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).
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.
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."
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 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.
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.
Spruce Grove Inn
(Banff Avenue, Banff; 800-879-1991; http://www.banffvoyagerinn.com/sgi.htm). 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; http://www.fairmont.com/lakelouise). 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; http://www.fairmont.com/jasper). 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.
(100 Juniper St., Jasper; 780-852-4987 or 800-661-1315; http://www.tonquininn.albertanetwork.com). 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.