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Sunshine/Lake Louise 4/15-17/2016

abc

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Here comes another late season special, from north of the border.

I've been eyeing the Banff trio (Sunshine/Lake Louise/Norguay) for some time because it's part of the Mountain Collective Pass. The Canadian dollar is relatively low right now. (though granted, the pass was already paid for and air would be in US dollar anyway, still there's lodging, rental car and beer money, eh...I mean food). But air fare had been nearly double the cost of domestic. The math didn't quite work out. So at late March, when I had a few days off, I went to Mammoth & Squaw instead (and was rewarded with a powder day too). I thought I were done for the season.

But with a successful launch of our group's latest work effort, we were rewarded with a week of "quiet time" before embarking on the next project. (a week that's allocated for fighting fire, no fire! :) ) I checked air fare to Calgary again...this time the flight was quite affordable (~$300). Other obligation was such I could only do 3 days. Oh well, beggar can't be choosers. Off I go, for 3 days of, as it turns out, fabulous spring skiing! :spread:

I've been to Sunshine once before, mid-May, combined with some sightseeing. I had always wanted to go back again in a more "proper" time of the season. Mid-March would have been ideal. But again, beggar can't be chooser, mid-April will have to do. I kept watch on the forecast. It was to be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. Perfect corn cycle awaits! ;)

First, the logistics:

The best air fare was by Air Canada (duh!), which is a mixed blessing. Although there's a direct flight from New York to Calgary, the timing didn't quite work out. All the connecting flights changes planes somewhere in Canada. Minor detail: you have to retrieve your checked bags to clear custom during that stopover! That means skis and all! On the plus side, Air Canada does luggage extremely well. They came out about the same time it took us to walk from the gate to the bag claim area. I mean, each and every time! No waiting for 1/2 hr to get your skis (like in Denver).

Flight from Newark to Calgary in late afternoon, with a stopover at Montreal, arrived at Calgary around 10:30pm, which is our time 12:30 am. Needless to say, I was tired. I knew that would be the case, so I booked a hotel as close to the airport as possible. No chance of getting lost in the dark for example. That worked out. But something else didn't.

Canada is a different country! One of the things it does differently is the cell service. It's all GSM. Now if you're a NOT a Verizon user, you couldn't care less. But if you were like me, well, Verizon uses CDMA, which doesn't talk with GSM network at all! I actually HAD a dual mode phone till about a year ago. But in the upgrade, the phone that has the function I want isn't dual mode. I thought to myself "ok, when I need to travel, I'll just pull the SIM card and put it in my old dual mode phone". Perfect solution, had I not forgotten Canada is a different country and actually DO the swapping! :(

Without a working phone also means I lose the navigation function! Well, almost...

At Calgary airport, there's free wi-fi. By doing the route planning at the airport, the phone now has all the direction and can still yell at me at all the turns! (it can't re-calculate if I got off course though).

(In theory, it's possible to ski Sunshine/LL without renting a car. There're shuttle buses that can be strung together to make it work. But my rental car for 3 days only cost $70 CANADIAN! Add another $30 for gas, that's about US$70! It gives me so much more flexibility)

Next morning (Friday), I got up bright and early and drove to Sunshine, which is only about 1 1/2 hr away. The scenery of the Canadian Rockies are so spectacular, I couldn't resist stopping a couple times to take some picture from the side of the road:



The Skiing, Day 1 (Friday) Sunshine

Arriving at Sunshine around 10 am, parking was easy mid-week. Having been there before, I knew that's still a long way from actual skiing. First, there's a looong gondola ride up to Sunshine village which is the actual base area. (there's another area access mid-way in the gondola, Goats Eye area, but it faces north so not quite the place to be first thing in the morning of a warm spring day). At the end of the day, one can ski all the way down from the very top to the bottom of the parking lot. That's a very long ski I didn't do. The snow this weekend was too slushy down low.

A lot of the locals boot up DURING the gondola ride! (there're lockers at the Sunshine base at the top of gondola to store stuff) But of course I didn't know that. So I booted up in the car, walked the 50 yard to the gondola, no biggie. It's just kind of funny to see these people carrying big bags with all their worldly belongs boarding the gondola!

On the trail map, there's a little "suggestion" section on where to ski for different ability level, AND on a spring day! So I tried to follow the suggestions. Unfortunately, it wasn't specific enough. In each lift, there're still runs facing different direction and thaws at different time of the day. So the first few runs of my day was a mixed bag of hit and miss.

The mountain offers a Free Mountain Tour around noon time. I decided to take advantage of that, which turned out to be a smart move!:dunce: The fact I was the only customer and got a defacto private tour got nothing to do with it, of course ;)

The way it works, the tour technically only takes skiers to blue runs. But when the group is small, the tour guide is simply your "ski companion", in which case he/she can go on any runs! In reality, they only go so far as easy blacks. My tour guide was very knowledgeable with the mountain (duh!). She knows what time of the day each part of the mountain gets soft in that day, so we covered the mountain in a particular order to take advantage of that. Like all good guides I've met in other mountains, she also explain to me the lay of the land so I can find the goods on my own later on. That proved to be extremely valuable on my second day at Sunshine on my own.

Both Sunshine and Lake Louise rates their runs ACCORDING TO CONDITION OF THE DAY! So, there's the more "base color" of a run, which got printed on the trail map. I guess that's how the trail is like during "typical" mid-winter condition. But on days like spring day, when cover was thin, they re-rate some of the un-groomed blue as black, by simply putting a black diamond sign in front of the more permanent blue marker! Definition an interesting idea, but I don't know if it'll catch on.

The cloud were going in and out. A lot of Sunshine's terrain are above treeline. When the cloud came in, it's a bit disconcerting. Can't see the snow under my skis. Normally, there's a lot of below-treeline skiing, but it was kind of too soft in the afternoon on this rather warm weekend. The stunning view of the Canadian Rockies will have to wait till Saturday & Sunday.

 

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abc

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Day 2 (Saturday), Lake Louise

The last time I was in the area, Lake Louise was already closed for the season (mid/late May). I've been told the terrain and scenery is better but the snow isn't quite as good as in Sunshine.

Due to my disastrous choice of lodging, I didn't get out as early as I would have liked. The temperature of the day starting from around -2C going quickly to +12C. Missing the early morning part basically means I didn't have time to do the lower part of the mountain. Though that's not exactly the end of the world, their best terrain were the back bowl facing the north. That doesn't get soft till late afternoon. So the first order of business was to get myself oriented and take some pictures of a blue bird day!





 

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abc

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Lake Louise ski area can be thought of consist of 3 (or 4) sectors: Front side (lower + upper mountain), back side, and Larch area.

Front side lower mountain got soft first, I missed it pretty much. It was kind of slushy by the time I got started. So I head to the upper part of the front side, accessed mostly by the Top of the World chair. The snow was a creamy smooth when I hit it. So I lapped it repeatedly, taking different lines each time (it's pretty much wide open, above treeline).

But in the back of my mind, there's the lure of the Back Side, the most talked about part of Lake Louise. Because it faces north, it's a guessing game what hour of the day to go there to get the best condition. Also, the back side can be accessed by 2 chair from the front, Top of the World & Summit Platter, the latter a very long poma to a point higher than the (ironically named) Top of World chair! Around noon time, I started seeing people heading over that way. My greed got me to go up on the drag lift instead. Once on top, I could see black and double blacks. There's actually a lovely blue, which was hidden by the patrol hut. A couple was discussing which way to go and they seem to know the place. So I asked for a suggestion. They both said, everything should be in good condition and none are really that bad. So I dropped in at a double black... Why? I don't know.

The snow turned out to be a mixture of chunky icy soup, interspersed by slick patches. And soon, it got steep, and then, I found myself boxed in on a steep chute with manky snow... Well, to make a long story short, I wouldn't call what I did "skiing" it. I survived, that's all. I didn't exactly enjoy that part of it.

Though once out of the chute, I was rewarded with the loveliest creamy snow there exist!

So, the gnarly chute was instantly forgotten! Back up the Paradise lift I went, for a repeat. Though the next time, I FOUND the blue run hidden behind the patrol shed and it gave me just as good access to the same creamy snow at the lower half of the back side (increasingly moving higher as the day progressed). But boy, that long poma is a real drag. And the long flat run out at the bottom of the bowl didn't exactly help much. A few runs later, my legs couldn't take it any more. So I continued on to the Temple lodge for some R & R.

A bowl of Chicken Curry Rice soup revitalized my legs. By then, it's past 2. The Summit Platter closes at 3:30. Looking at the map, it would have taken me a good 20 minutes just to get to it from where I was. That didn't give me much time to lap it. Right where I was, the Larch area I hadn't explored yet. So that seemed a lot more logical to stay put and sample the Larch area. It too, faces north so it was just perfect time of the day for it to reached the best creamy state! So I was a happy camper for the next hour, taking the Larch chair at 3:29:30', before the lifty put the cone to close the lift!

Back up to the top of the gondola, I still had nearly an hour before the lower mountain lifts closes at 4:30. But the snow were getting heavy and sticky. So I opted to download on the gondola instead of slogging my way down to the base.

High in the gondola, I was rewarded with yet another gorgeous view: (sorry, can't figure out how to rotate the pic)

 

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abc

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Day 3, Sunday

I have a dilemma for my last day. On day 1, I toured Sunshine with the volunteer mountain guide. She helped me figured out how to get the best of Sunshine on a spring day. Day 2, I figured out by trail and error, how best to see the best of Lake Louise. Both areas have so much I haven't explored. But I have only one more day and have to choose between Sunshine and Lake Louise.

Owing I was leaving that evening (on the red eye), I took the easier option. Sunshine was closer to Banff by a good 1/2 hr. That's 1/2 hr each way on my last day, on top of the 1 1/2hr drive back to the airport. Lake Louise would have to be more fully explored the next time, whenever that would be.

(as I was sitting at the airport later, I read the news Lake Louise just got permission to expand its terrain, probably starting the next season. So after all, it'd be worth the wait till next time)

Sunday dawn bright and sunny, another blue bird day! I got to the hill closer to what I intended.

First up, was Wawa & Strawberry lift, serving many east facing runs, soft cream cheese at 10 am! The day were even warmer than Friday. So I took a chance to get up to the top of the Great Divide chair. As I was riding up, I noticed the "face" was actually curved, with a section at the very edge facing more to the south than the rest of the face. I hugged the edge of the face and, half way down the face, the snow suddenly soften into a deep layer of dense chalk, perfect for holding the edge of skis. It ended sooner than I'd hoped for. But I went right back up. Sure enough, the softening was happening further up as I finished my lap! So each time I went back up, more and more of the upper section of that little corner of the face soften into creamy smooth corn! And when the bottom got a little too soft, I simply move slightly to the side westward... the whole face just like a strange time machine of some sort, perfect corn oven!

I went up and down countless times. It was so perfect. I had initially planned to move over to Goat's Eye area but it's a bit of a schlep. The face was skiing so good I didn't want to leave. That is, until my legs finally gave up.

After lunch, it was more section of the face, further west side of the face that was in perfect corn condition. I also "poached" a strip of untouched snow on the side of a terrain park! More creamy snow that hasn't got a track on it.

Like Saturday, I didn't make it all the way to last chair because my legs just couldn't quite take it all the way. So I treated them to a soak in the hot spring that makes Banff so famous even for non-skiers. It was totally affordable, $10 Canadian ($7 US) for the soak, shower, locker, towel. Jaw dropping view while one soak in the outdoor pool.



Air Canada operates absolutely perfect flights. Relatively un-crowded plane so I could stretch out on the seat and get some rest. Take off and landing almost to the dot of the schedule. Bags at the belt as we arrive. The whole deal.

I can totally see myself doing it again next year!
 

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Cornhead

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Thanks for the TR abc, sounds like you've had quite the traveling ski season, well done. Ski the East? You picked a good year to flee the East. I'm still entertaining thoughts of a visit to my son in CO for some Spring turns at A-basin, they just got 28" over the last three days.
 

abc

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Yep, this is the year to flee the east!

(I'm now in a job that has good vacation)

In your case, the only real expense is the flight. keep an eye on the air fare all season long like I did. Jump on it when possible.
 

abc

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A few views along the drive.

Lake Louise


Vermilion Lake (Banff)


View from Juniper Cafe:
 

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skiNEwhere

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Great TR abc. Good to know about the cell phone service as well.

I may need to leverage my mountain collective and try to get out there for a quick
3 day weekend. You wouldn't know when they usually close delirium dive or goats eye would ya?
 

abc

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I don't know when they close them. Both were open when I was there. I didn't have anyone to go with so didn't try Delirium Dive (you need to go in pairs, with beacon and probe etc)

The guide was surprised that Delirium Dive was open. So it may not be for long. I think they're dictated by coverage. This year is below average in snow depth, according to the locals.

Goats Eye was thinning too. The easier runs (blue) still had full coverage but a lot of the steeper runs one had to pick one's way around bare spots, especially near the bottom. Also, looking from Goat's towards Delirium Dive, it looked very bony, more so than the last time I was there. (that was a few years back, in mid-May) So I don't know how much longer either will stay open. Maybe call them up and ask directly?

Lake Louise closes a bit earlier than Sunshine also (though usually stays open till at least early May, I'm told)
 

abc

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Update on closing. I heard Lake Louise will close one week from today, which is early. Sunshine I'm sure will stay open a bit longer. But how much longer is not clear.

So nice! ...what a view from a cafe8)
The Juniper Cafe is actually a decent sized full fledged restaurant. Food is quite good. And the full height glass windows allows almost all the tables to have a expansive view of the scenery!

The daily special board, with a bit of Canadian humor:

 

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