Review of Banff

27th August 2007 by Chris Miller 


There were two reasons why I decided to ski in North America for the first time. One: I had a friend who, rather handily, was living in Banff, and two: I had to find out why so many people were enduring long flights across the Atlantic when we have superb skiing just an hour and a half away.

I flew to Calgary from Heathrow, which cost £420 booked on (I booked the flight a fortnight before I was due to depart), Banff was then an hour and a half transfer away with Rocky Mountain Sky Shuttle, which cost only $96 return and then dropped you off and picked you up wherever you specified in the resort. I was on the minibus with a British couple so I questioned (or perhaps interrogated) them - why have they come all this way to ski? “No queues, great snow and everyone is friendly”, they even told me that Europe was now out of the question in their minds when picking next years destination. I couldn’t wait to get started!

The snow was perfect. I was exceptionally lucky as it had snowed overnight so I skied fresh tracks in the morning. There was no slush at the lower ends of the slopes, and no ice on steeper parts - never did I have to worry about one leg being slowed dramatically while the other shoots away at terrific speeds towards a ski school group. My friend told me, or she thought, that the light, powdery snow that falls in copious quantities is due to Banff’s location in the Rockies, but it truly is the finest snow I have ever skied on!

There were also no queues. At every lift there seemed to be a small army of ‘lifties’ - people who would hold the chair so it didn’t whack into the backs of your knees, put your skis in the gondola for you, tell you where to go and i’m quite sure if you asked them they could find you an English paper. Most importantly however is they made sure that if there was even the slightest hint that a queue was about to develop, every chair would have a bum on it and each gondola carried six pairs of skis. It is all very well the European mega resorts claiming to have uphill capacities of several billion people an hour, but when there is only one person on a 6 pack chair it doesn’t really make sense.

But what about the people, were they friendly? They weren’t just ‘friendly’ but pretty much everyone I met apparently already was one of my oldest friends. The bus driver would ask how my family was and people on gondolas would ask how my university course was, even though I am sure I didn’t tell them I was at uni! Everyone said thank you, please and excuse me, strangers pointed you to the right slopes - it was a world away from a French person barging past you grumpily while an Italian pointed you toward the nearest cliff face. This sums it up: local people volunteered (do the French even have a word for that?), i.e. without pay, to show skiers around the mountain, town or just have a beer - what a brilliant idea!

So the British couple were apparently right, this was a skier’s haven. Or was it?

Yes, the snow was perfect to ski on; however, the fluffy white stuff in Banff was perfect at temperatures never higher than -20C. I was so cold on the day I went to Lake Louise that after skiing just one run I had to go inside, have a hot chocolate, buy a balaclava and put an additional layer on. Every time I went on a lift my hands froze up - and I bought expensive new gloves prior to the holiday! The majority of the pistes at sunshine are above the tree line - so the wind whips accross them sending the temperature ever lower. The slopes here aren’t amazingly well sign posted, with piste markers and signs few and far between, in the end, I just gave in occasionally and skied whichever and whatever direction without looking at a piste map - ok if you are a confident skier, not brilliant if you are a timid intermediate and find yourself on a mogulled double diamond! The tree lined runs though were excellent slopes (pretty much all of Lake Louise is tree lined - head there if windy!), with big wide motorways for carving down, and mogulled ones if you fancied a challenge. Skiing amongst the trees was also possible if you are a little more experienced.

None of the ski areas at Banff or Lake Louise were actually next to the towns. So whereas in France the majority of hotels are ski to door, all of them here were a 20 minute bus journey. The buses were very efficient and on time (although they do get crowded at peak times) but getting on a bus just isn’t the same as skiing straight into the ‘wellness’ area of your hotel.

For me, the point where Banff / Lake Louise (and I think this can be said for most N.American resorts) don’t even compare to Europe is apres-ski and catering. At Banff (Sunshine area) and Lake Louise everyone goes to the day lodge for breaks and lunch, situated at the bottom of the lifts. This is a very commercial enterprise serving food and drink comparable to Mcdonald’s or Pizzahut; perhaps some people prefer this, not me. In resorts in Europe I have visited every now and then dotted along the piste, or at the top of some lift is a little hut, usually family run, serving hot chocolates, gluhwein, schnapps, and delicious food, in a great atmosphere: skiers from several different countries all drinking huddled together in a wooden shack - it may not sound glamorous but it is a brilliant experience whether you want to warm up with a quick hot drink, or down schnapps with the Austrians until the sun goes down!

Apres-ski also was more like a night out at university, loads of young people binge drinking in bars and clubs (which Banff has plenty of!). Don’t get me wrong, this is a favourite pastime, but when I go skiing I want something different. In Austria, you don’t get changed into smart-casual and drink away vodka lime-lemons or jack daniels coke; no, you ski straight into a bar and down beer and schnapps with your ski boots and salopettes on for the rest of the evening - this may sound crazy to new skiers, but I’m sure experienced Austria-goers will know exactly what I mean!

So did I answer my question - why do people go all that way to ski? Great snow, empty pistes and lifts, friendly people who speak English sums it up in brief. Would I make the trip across the pond again - certainly, as soon as my student debt is paid off; however I shall still be going to Europe frequently. With its proximity, an excellent quality and unrivalled variety and number of destinations with each resort unique in terms of skiing and atmosphere, people should still seriously consider going to the Alps! Now I have heard some people are making even longer journeys to ski in Chile…

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