I have never skied the Canadian Rockies. I know people who have skied Whistler, some who have heli-skied there. I knew the Olympics had been held in Calgary some years back and assumed some of the events had been at Sunshine and Lake Louise. I was wrong on several accounts. In the past ten years the Canadian ski resorts have been marketing to the US market to get some of our ski dollars.
I didn’t even know that Sunshine was the name of the resort that is most closely aligned with Banff. Mt. Norquay is closer to the town of Banff—a cool western Canada resort town—the heart of Banff National Park. You have to drive west another 7 kilometers or so to get to the Sunshine turn-off if coming from Canmore.
I discovered a very cool app that I highly recommend if you are driving the Canadian National Parks. GyPSy. It’s a narrated tour of the routes through the parks—activated by GPS. I learned a tremendous amount as I drove to and into Banff, and to and into Lake Louise.
The thing about Sunshine: it’s a big resort—3300 acres–but you can’t get there from the parking lot. From Trans Canada to the parking lot is 7 kilometers. And then there’s a gondola up the mountain to get to the ski base, Sunshine Village. I got on the mountain around 9:30 am, about an hour after I got to the parking lot. It shouldn’t take that long, I just booted up, wandered around the gondola base, and took my time.
Banff promotes the free mountain host tours, and I took advantage of them. At Sunshine, because I got there early, I took Angel Express up the mountain, and then Great Divide to the top of Lookout Mountain. I was lucky (I am lucky in many ways) and it was a blue bird day and the vistas from the top were superlative. The most striking peak in the distance was Mt. Assiniboine at 11,870 feet. It is reminiscent of the Matterhorn in Europe (which I have never seen, but can just imagine).
The runs were wide open, all above the tree line. I didn’t understand the significance of this until later, but what I did like is that the green circle, blue square and black diamond signs were on posts in the middle of the run. They were easy to see and easy to understand where to go. I thought it was great that the signs were in the middle of the run, so you just pointed yourself at a sign and skied.
Sunshine has three main areas and then a couple double black areas that require special avalanche tracking gear. The three main mountains: Lookout, Standish and Goat’s Eye. The top of Lookout is only blue and black, and you can only get there from the Great Divide lift. The Teepee bubble, which is a covered and heated chair, and the Angel Express take you up to the base of the steep side of Lookout, and has green, blue and blacks to ski.
I joined the Mountain Guide tour, the Blue/Black group. These tours are fabulous—it’s not a class, so the leaders/guides are not instructors, but they know the mountain, and they are grouped by ability so you ski with like-minded folks. Their goal is to give a person a feel for the mountain, and for the challenge you might like. As a group, we went to Lookout Mountain. At the top there’s a “short” hike to the very top, where you can see where the extreme skiers can go down Delirium Dive. I started the hike, and decided that “short” was too long for me. I felt like it was ok to bail out of the hike, as I am an old person, but then discovered there was an older guy who made it to the top. He was also from San Diego (0 altitude) so it was all me. One of the guys had childhood memories of Wawa Quad lift off Standish mountain, so our group took Wawa. There was a selfie photo camera at the top of Wawa, but it was glitchy. Standish is a good blue/green mountain with a few black runs.
The tour ended up at Goat’s Eye which is predominately black runs. We took the blue down, and the rest of the group decided to take another run, I decided to go back to the parking lot. The run to the bottom is a nice easy green trail that leads to the base parking lot.
I had commented about the signage and how I liked the green/blue/black posts in the middle of the runs, and that’s when the guide explained Alpine skiing. I never understood it before. Alpine is above the tree line, where trees no longer grow. Almost all of Lookout Mountain, upper half of Goat’s Eye, and the top of Standish are all alpine skiing—no trees, just massive open areas. They say in the summer these areas are full of wildflowers. As I think back on it, when I was in Schruns, Austria, we took the gondola and hiked. This was also alpine terrain. Wide open vistas. And that was why the signage was in the middle of the runs—there are no trees to mark the “sides” of the runs. The runs are wide areas of less or more difficult terrain. On this bluebird day, it was no issue. A person could see for miles and miles.
But on cloudy days, or foggy days, these wide-open spaces become a sensory numbing white. I thought at first there were no trees because of the granite cliffs and mountains. I had always thought the tree line was an altitude thing—that trees couldn’t grow above a certain altitude. Compared to Montana, we weren’t that high. Then I thought, maybe trees couldn’t get a foothold in this unfriendly environment, all granite and rocks. But tree lines vary—from as low as 2,130 feet in Sweden to 12,960 feet on Mount Kilimanjaro. It all depends on temperature, humidity, and convection (whatever that is). Google it, I did.
I had a blast at Sunshine. It was indeed a sunshiny day. Over 15,000 vertical feet and a fun Mountain Guide group. I HEART Sunshine.