Exploring the backcountry in a variety of sports
When I ventured to Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country—just 40 minutes outside of Canmore—for an early season ski tour, I didn’t expect a crowd. I expected untouched snow shared only with my touring partner. There were 35 cars in the parking lot. I’d estimate at least 100 people beat us to the trailhead.
In Banff, Skoki Ski Lodge is setting itself up for another busy winter. Located 11 kilometres into the Lake Louise backcountry, Skoki Ski Lodge has been open for business since 1930. This winter, they’re already fully booked through the holidays.
“January opens up pretty good,” says Dan Markham, media relations specialist for Ski Lake Louise. “But as you get into February and closer to the Family Day weekend, Skoki is practically booked solid right up until the end of the season.”
In Jasper, Parks Canada is busy building a new cross-country skiing hub west of town in the Decoigne area. This winter, the area will have a warming hut and fire pit at the trailhead of more than 15 km of new skate and classic ski trails.
Backcountry skiing is booming in the Alberta Rockies.
If you’re interested in diving in for a wilderness experience this winter, here is a guide to figure out which sport might suit you.
Ski Touring and Splitboarding
“Backcountry skiing is a unique experience where you can feel the ultimate freedom in mountain travel,” says Matt Reynolds, who is certified with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG). “If you enjoy backpacking and hiking, you would love backcountry skiing. The tour up is a rewarding experience similar to hiking, but without being confined by trails. The ride down is typically the highlight with great snow and a more intimate experience with close friends rather than the hectic and busy environment found at a resort.”
Unlike at the resort, where skiers load chair lifts to reach the top in mere minutes, backcountry skiers use climbing skins and alpine touring bindings. Backcountry snowboarders can choose between conventional boards and split boards, which work just like touring skis, and snowshoes for the trek up.
It is important to remember that heading into the backcountry is nothing like skiing at a resort. The experience doesn’t begin with an avalanche- control team ensuring the slopes are safe. While an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe are essential tools for companion rescue (everyone venturing into avalanche terrain outside of the resort boundaries should know how to use this important equipment), an education is far more useful.
“Knowing you don’t need to accept any avalanche risk at all to ride in the backcountry is important,” Reynolds says. “Being able to assess how much risk you’re taking if you choose to ride more aggressive terrain is equally important. Whether it’s snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing or anything else you may be doing in the mountains in winter, an avalanche course will start you on the right path towards comfortable decision making.”
Mechanized skiing—the general term for heli- and cat-skiing—is a blend of both the resort and backcountry experience. Both genres tend to yield epic ski days often hyperbolized as the best day ever.
Groups ski with a professional guide, complete multiple runs and, almost always, find deep, fresh snow. Most safety considerations and run choices fall to the guide.
“The idea of skiing with a guide, in the mechanized world, is to find the best skiing out there,” says ACMG guide Max Darrah. “We have a daily process that evaluates the type of group, the weather conditions and the snowpack. There’s a big behind-the-scenes process that the guest doesn’t always see.”
At Caribou Snowcat Skiing, just outside of Jasper National Park in Valemount, BC, guests ski on Mica Mountain. The small group sizes coupled with the area’s frequent snowfalls mean visitors never cross another skier’s tracks. The skiing is unlimited; groups can squeeze in as many laps as time allows.
At CMH Valemount, one of Canadian Mountain Holidays 11 heli-skiing lodges, heli-skiing’s distinct—and somewhat more expensive—advantages are on full display. The terrain choice grows exponentially. The group size, limited by the available helicopter seating, shrinks to a maximum of 10 guests.
Consider mechanized skiing like a private ski resort; it’s like repeatedly riding the first chair on a powder day. Nobody will be competing for tracks, but the experience comes with a hefty price tag.
While both backcountry skiing and mechanized skiing come with inherent risks, it is possible to get out and enjoy a wilderness experience without crossing into avalanche terrain. This winter, Jasper National Park is set to open a new cross-country skiing venue at Decoigne.
“The idea is to build a hub,” says Rogier Gruys, product development specialist for Jasper National Park. “It’s for visitors who might be used to a few more services. Right now there is a parking lot, warming hut, outdoor fireplace and a privy. There are 15 km of trails, set for both classic and skate skiing.”
Built near the park’s west gates on Highway 16, these new ski trails shouldn’t be compared to venues like the Canmore Nordic Centre. These trails offer a quieter experience and they’re in prime moose, wolf and deer habitat.
“Generally, if you go to any of our cross-country skiing areas you’ll find a laid back wilderness experience,” says Gruys. “Even if you don’t see any animals, you’ll definitely see tracks.”
The lines between ski genres isn’t black and white. The Tonquin Valley is typically considered a ski-touring area, but the main trail to Amethyst Lake crosses few avalanche paths and it requires only basic route finding.
“It’s unbelievable,” Gruys says. “I think it’s the best experience in the Rockies. The Tonquin Valley is a true backcountry-ski experience, but by March, there is a well-set track that allows visitors to visit the valley with minimal avalanche experience.”