When you’re riding the chairlift at a ski resort, do you ever gaze longingly beyond the boundary ropes to the slopes of untouched powder? Now there’s a way to ride those pure lines safely: for the second year, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures has partnered with Lake Louise to offer lift-assisted backcountry ski experiences.
Sidecountry skiing—skiing out of bounds from resorts—is a growing trend.
“Over the last several years we noticed that many participants on our Avalanche Safety Training programs were people looking to ride out of bounds at the ski resorts,” explains Yamnuska marketing manager, Sylvia Watson. “With our exclusive relationship with Lake Louise Ski Resort we thought this would be a great opportunity to allow more people to enjoy the excellent terrain found in Banff National Park just outside the ski resort boundaries. It allows resort skiers to experience backcountry skiing under the supervision of a certified and skilled Yamnuska guide.”
On the Road
My husband, Mike, and I packed up our backcountry gear and drove the David Thompson Highway toward Lake Louise. We love this more remote driving route—an alternative to Highway 2— because it gives us more natural inspiration. We have time to shed our city skin and get mentally prepared for skiing.
By the time we turned onto Highway 93 and approached Lake Louise, big snowflakes were drifting to the ground, making us giddy with anticipation.
We were to meet our Yamnuska guide, Grant Meekins, at Lake Louise Ski Resort at 8:30 am. Walking from the parking lot, I spotted a gaggle of glossy ravens in the evergreens primping and preening and nipping at each other. It was a warm welcome; my skis have raven graphics, and ravens are my good-luck sign. So even though I felt a little nervous about our upcoming day, I took it as a good omen.
Meekins handed out transceivers, probes and shovels, and our small group of two couples—Mike and I plus Mark and Kath, a couple from England—got to know each other on the gondola ride up.
Meekins took us to the avalanche-testing area near Paradise Chair, and we practiced searching for hidden transceivers. Once we found the buried objectives and felt comfortable using our gear, it was time to climb. We put on our skins—directional fabric that sticks to the bottom of backcountry skis, ensuring you can climb up without slipping down—then left the ski area boundary. That’s when the magic started.
Into the backcountry
The avalanche bulletin at avalanche.ca noted considerable risk, so we headed for the Corral Chutes.
These runs are less exposed than some and offered safer conditions.Other options to explore include the West Bowl, Speed Run area, Hidden Bowl, Redoubt Bowl, Purple Bowl, Wolverine Ridge and the Tylenols, depending on conditions and fitness levels.
To access the unblemished backcountry first demands penance. My heart was pumping, my body sweaty and my breath fast in the clean air as we skimmed toward our first run. As we arrived below the first chute we saw a newly slid avalanche. Above was a high ridge where the wind had loaded a cornice with snow, then caused what Meekins classified as a class 1.5 avalanche. It gave him information, he said, because it hadn’t triggered the rest of the slope to slide. And that meant we had more room to safely play.
To say there was fresh powder would be an understatement. As soon as we took off our skis to remove our skins, our legs sunk into seemingly bottomless, airy powder. It’s a whole different style of skiing when the snow’s that good: you float on top and the mountain moves you. Lean forward. Feel the snow. Surrender.
We did four laps and got untouched lines every time—in fact, there were no other tracks to be seen. By day’s end we’d climbed over 800 vertical metres. The terrain was open, slightly gladed near the run’s end and teaming with snow.
Skiing with a Yamnuska guide who is certified with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) is a great way to get a taste of the backcountry. You minimize your risk by going with an expert. I’ve taken my Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course, and Meekins kindly let me pick his brain about the conditions, what we were seeing and the scale of the recent avalanche. It was good to be with an expert while testing out my own personal knowledge.
Skiing the Corral Chutes was special for me because it’s on the mountain flanks of the trail into Skoki, the location of a beloved summertime backpacking trip. I could see the trail below, the passes that lead to Skoki Valley and the terrain I’d crossed in my hiking boots. But now I was on skis, and making fast, flowing turns felt oh-so-good.
“Guests are really enjoying the experience, though not everyone is as prepared for the fitness that is needed to run laps or go back uphill using skins,” Watson says. “Our guides and experienced ski tourers set a steady, comfortable pace that minimizes sweating and keeps a steady heart rate. The exertion level should be no more difficult than hiking with a pack, however, guests need to be aware that a higher level of fitness is required to gain the elevation on foot versus taking a standard ski hill lift.
“Participants are realizing the incredible terrain that can be accessed in the backcountry either with an experienced guide or once they receive adequate backcountry skiing and avalanche safety training,” Watson continues. We strongly encourage any winter backcountry enthusiast to take an avalanche course and a wilderness first aid course.”
Stay in a snowy wonderland
After our ski day we retreated to the snowy sanctuary of Baker Creek Resort, which is a short drive down Highway 1A. There’s a group of log buildings, lovingly kept, with a restaurant that kindly catered to my vegetarian needs.
Even though our legs were exhausted, we headed out into the snow for an after-dinner walk. Snow hung heavy on the boughs, causing them to bend low, and the earth looked more like a pile of white pillows. In the moonlight that seeped through the falling snow we followed a trail along Baker Creek to find train tracks, then walked alongside them. We were surrounded; snow was under us, around us, muffling the creek and returning from the clouds. And we knew what that meant: day two would be another powder day.
Items for your ski pack:
There are the critical items to include, such as a probe, transceiver and shovel. Make sure your transceiver has good batteries. Add to that a first-aid kit, headlamp and a Thermos of warm tea or coffee. I also like to bring a set of hand warmers. Then think layers: a down jacket for when you’re resting, a waterproof shell and a mid-layer such as wool or a soft-shell. Bring lots of snacks, too. You’ll be burning energy, and eating also helps you keep warm. You might want to consider a communication device, but be careful as some interfere with avalanche transceivers.