“Pea soup up here, hey?”
Our photographer Dan Evans looked back at me with a smirk as he skied into the fog—the pea soup—and two questions came to my mind: “Do Albertans say ‘hey’ and not ‘eh’?” And, “Why the f#ck is Dan smiling as he skis into that sketchy abyss?”
I stood atop Lake Louise Ski Resort musing, but there was no time to waste. Dan and the five other locals I was skiing with were nearly out of sight in a place totally foreign to me. So, down I went—bouncing off each and every hidden inconsistency in the snow like a wind-up toy, trying my best to keep up with this crew of Albertan rippers.
“Got a bit of vertigo up there!” Dan said with a chuckle as he straddled the Summit Platter poma—en route to another bowl of pea soup. Garrett Capel, one of the other locals, chimed in agreeance with another term I’d soon become familiar with: “Hooo-ly.”
As I glided uphill, holding tight onto the poma and watching my orange skis slither through the fog, I recalled something Dan had mentioned in the car that morning: “If you don’t like the weather in Banff, just wait five minutes.” By the time I arrived up top, the sky had cleared and my eyes were set upon a magnificent scene. Towering, rocky peaks soared into the sky like shark teeth, each of them laced with unique and gargantuan ski runs. The air was calm. Powder stashes revealed themselves everywhere. All was well.
This beauty, though mesmerizing, made sense; Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine Village and Mt. Norquay—collectively known as The Big 3—are all situated within 2,564 square-mile Banff National Park. In other words, these three ski resorts are in a wilderness that’s bigger than the Grand Canyon and over twice the size of Yosemite. That’s not a setup you find often, so I was humbled to ski it for myself.
After the fog cleared, my tour guides Mikey Hall, Noah Maisonette, Garrett Capel, Michelle Brazier and Alex Armstrong got the chance to show me exactly why they call Banff home. They took me to their favorite lines, restaurants and bars throughout my brief stay—allowing me to utilize my time wisely instead of aimlessly searching for fun on my own.
In sum, the initial bowl of pea soup transformed into a family feast—highlighted by genuine conversations, insightful hang-time and, of course, wildly-good skiing at Louise, Sunshine and Norquay. Spending time with these folks—hearing their stories—was nothing short of a blast.
Mikey, for example, grew up in England and, on a whim, worked at Banff Sunshine Village as a janitor/Jack of all trades for a winter via a foreign exchange program. That season completely changed his life; he lived at the base of the resort, skied every day and became intrigued with the idea of improving his skills enough to shred any terrain he wanted—including the countless backcountry lines in the area. “I got paid $6 an hour to mop floors, clean toilets, bus tables and shovel snow,” he says. “But it gave me three-to-four hours to ski every day, which is all I cared about.”
Upon returning to England, Mikey experienced strange, recurring dreams about not being able to ski. “I was always on the verge of skiing but I’d never quite make it onto the slopes with skis on my feet. Something would always go wrong,” he says. “Either there would be trouble getting to the resort, or there would be trouble with the gear, or I’d be waiting on people… Or countless other delays would come up.”
Fast forward to today and this kind skier manages a hotel in Banff full-time, is happily married to his wife Jessica—who he met in Banff—and checks off local backcountry objectives regularly.
Noah has an entirely different story. His family’s been in Banff for three generations and has thus achieved local legend status. Eddie, Noah’s grandfather, is the same age (90) as Banff’s oldest ski area, Mt. Norquay, and still shreds there almost everyday with the utmost pride. Side story: Alex told me that, one day, Eddie showed up to a local big-mountain contest and she asked him, “You here to watch the show?” He replied, “I am the show,” then skied away with a big grin.
Noah, while humble, has the same hard-charging approach to life as his grandfather. This guy never goes slow or small; in fact, his skiing style recently lost him his two front teeth after sending a massive cliff in Revelstoke, British Columbia and taking a couple of knees to the face. A local dentist recently provided Noah with removable, fake teeth to solve the problem but he doesn’t ski with them. “I’d probably just break those, too,” he admits.
Garrett is another born-and-bred Banff local. Him and Noah shred together often, and team up in the summers to work demolition jobs so they can fund their winter habits. Watching this kid ski is something else; he’s smooth-as-can-be, but still charges incredibly hard—nonchalantly pointing it off the biggest cliffs in sight and usually spinning off of them for good measure.
This winter, Garrett won the Wrangle the Shoot 2* event at Kicking Horse, one of the gnarliest big-mountain competitions in Canada (watch the winning run, below). And at just 19 years young, it’s safe to say he has a promising road ahead. Just check out those bleached locks, for goodness’ sake; the look alone will surely take him places.
Michelle traveled to Banff from her home province of Ontario in search of deep pow and big mountains, with plans to stay for just one winter. Her family used to vacation at the Albertan skiing haven when she was a kid, and the idea of posting up there for a few months was a no-brainer.
Nearly nine years later, Michelle’s still in Banff with zero regrets—making a living as a yoga instructor and server who never stops smiling. In the winter, she skis nearly everyday between the area’s three resorts and endless backcountry. In the off-season, she’s typically found hiking or rock climbing—utilizing those Canadian Rockies to their full potential. She sums it up best: “The mountains and the sense of community in Banff and the Bow Valley have kept me here… This place has everything I love.”
Alex grew up ski racing on ice in Quebec and is immensely thankful for that sometimes-brutal upbringing. But, now, she calls Banff home and has done so for five years without looking back. “I came for the epic terrain, fun night life and sweet powder,” she says. “I stayed for the long seasons, ski touring and mountaineering and the really supportive community.”
In the winter, Alex ski patrols at Lake Louise and teaches a local freeride club how to shred Banff’s mountains like total champs. In the off-season, she’s a tree-planter who travels around Canada and beefs up malnourished wildernesses. Believe it or not, this means planting upwards of 3,000 baby trees per day, which she sums as “basically the best worst time ever.”
Outside of the aforementioned core crew I hung out with in Banff, there are various other folks I encountered that I’ll never forget. Take Rudy Brown, one of the most fascinating human beings I’ve ever come across. On our first lap together at Banff Sunshine Village, the scruffy shredder explained that he’d slept at the base of the resort in a snow cave the night prior (video below) because he lives in Revelstoke and didn’t have a place to crash in town. “This is the most quintessential ski bum ever,” I thought to myself. Then, he told me he’s a chemist and works part-time at the University of Calgary as a research assistant. My mind was blown—then blown over and over again as I watched him launch off Sunshine’s burly terrain in the Delirium Dive zone.
These are just a few of the unforgettable people I met during my short trip. Everyone else—from the servers to the bartenders to the lifties to the ski bums—proved to be have similar, contagiously-positive attitudes. And, sure, I was lucky enough to have personal tour guides, but other visitors can benefit from the locals’ wisdom, too. Ask a ski patroller where the snow’s good. Ask a passerby on the street where to eat and drink. Ask a bartender or server what kind of cool, off-the-beaten-path adventures await. I bet they’d be happy to help because, seems to me, the beautiful surroundings just have a way of making people happy in Banff—and, in turn, they share that happiness with anyone who’s open to it. Isn’t that what this whole damn skiing thing is about anyways?