In the early to mid 80s, Calgary and Banff were widely regarded as the epicenter of the Canadian shred scene. While British Columbia and Quebec would usurp Alberta’s influence for future generations of North Of The Border boarders, this part of the Canadian Rockies will forever be cemented in our sport’s canon as home to the first dedicated snowboard store with Calgary’s The Snoboard Shop, which was founded by the Achenbach brothers, Ken, Carl and Dave. Beyond the retail realm, Sunshine Village also hosted one of the earliest must-attend international contests with the North American Championships. Further proof of this region’s riding pedigree can be found on the cover of the inaugural issue of TransWorld Snowboarding magazine, which debuted in the Fall of 1987 and showcased future Camp Of Champions founder Dave Achenbach boosting a rocket air high above a natural transition at Sunshine Village.
The Banff our crew arrived at in March of 2015 was little changed from the small alpine burgh that showed hospitality to North American Snowboarding Championships competitors three decades ago. Once you head up the Trans-Canada Highway from Calgary and pass through the eastern entrance of the Banff National Park, the commercial sprawl of an oil rich economy is left at the gate. Harsh development regulations have left this part of Canada in a largely unspoiled state. While nearly 8,500 people have settled in Banff, this number is void of second homeowners because Parks Canada has famously instituted requirements that must be met by all residents in order “To ensure that a broad supply of housing types are available for those who work and raise families in the community.” Among these guidelines is a mandate that anyone looking to rent, lease or own property in Parks Canada and Banff be employed full-time within the park. This provision has alleviated conspicuous development. Nowhere is this more evident than at Banff’s three nearby resorts, Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise, where there are no base villages, no slopeside condominiums, and perhaps most startling is that there is no mandatory paid parking for visitors.
Equally as endearing as what Banff doesn’t have are the authentic amenities it does possess. Pub style restaurants, steakhouses featuring locally-grown Albertan Beef, a local microbrewery, independent lodging establishments for every budget including the secluded Buffalo Mountain Lodge or the historic Banff Springs, nightclubs like the Hoodoo and Aurora, a half dozen sushi spots and more than enough places to scratch that bloody Caesar itch. While The Snoboard Shop is no longer in business, Rude Boys has taken the torch as the place to go to for all of your riding needs in Banff.
The allure of a town seemingly uncorrupted by the overly-ambitious economic pitfalls that have plasticized other destinations is only part of what drew us to Banff. The idea that a place like Banff—which is a throwback to a time when the high country valued character over commercialization—can be a metaphor to the simple and stylish charms of carving isn’t lost. Nonetheless, the real reason we rallied here is the terrain. What I was looking for was a setting that would be as pure, inspiring and compelling as the riders and action we were here to capture.
Towering above the town to an elevation of 8,040’ is the most accessible and least developed of the Ski Big 3 options. Family run and rustic, Norquay has only four lifts and thirty-eight runs. What this hill lacks in variety it makes up for in challenge as most of its trails are steep and winding with five of them being of the elusive Double Black Diamond grade. Novice riders can still find sanctuary in the base area beginner zone, while the crack-of-five club are able to make turns or go tubing until 10pm on weekends. Our group spent a whole day at Norquay and when we weren’t dodging cones, ollieing picnic tables, backflipping into mogul fields, looking for cellphones on open faces or taking air off of cat tracks we were staring up with our jaws agape at the sheer wall of rock and ice directly across the valley. Unforgettable vistas are common in this part of Canada but at no other resort is the magnitude of these peaks so revealing.
After checking out of the Buffalo Mountain Lodge on the outskirts of Banff, our group set our sights on Sunshine Village. Located a fifteen minute drive west, Sunshine is close to town yet the gondola-only access to the base area gives it a much more exotic feel. The on-mountain lodging provided was posh, with everything you could want or need being available. Staying slopeside at Sunshine is akin to being a guest at a remote heli operation because visitors are sequestered in the alpine once the gondola stops running each day at 5pm. Of course, this proximity to the piste is what made our pre-dawn missions, as described earlier in this feature, possible.
Averaging more than thirty-five feet of snowfall annually, Sunshine Village is the best and possibly biggest resort most American riders have never heard of. A fifteen-minute gondola ride through two sub-stations takes visitors up to the base area proper where more than 3,500 acres of terrain awaits. Twelve lifts including eight quad chairs give riders a choice of virtually half a dozen different peaks with everything from open bowl gate accessed descents to banked gullies separated by loose glades. No two contours are exactly alike at Sunshine Village, allowing for several lifetimes of new lines to be explored and enjoyed. Though we didn’t get a chance to partake in any fresh pow during our time at Sunshine, we could only imagine what the same terrain that we spent two days trenching would be like right after a storm.
Having hosted two of SNOWBOARDER’s Superpark gatherings as well as several other well-documented contests, Lake Louise is the most high-profile of the Ski Big 3 resorts. It is also the furthest from Banff. Situated roughly forty minutes west of Banff, Lake Louise is a rather conventional ski area in that it climbs consistently from a well-equipped and accommodating base area, with an elongated fall line leading visitors down the well-proportioned slopes. This is at least how it appears from the bottom. Once peering from the top over the backside, an open basin of possibilities and a whole other peak emerges. Lake Louise is deceptively large, with multiple aspects to be experienced. While steep groomers, parks and tight glades are the frontside fare, once entrenched in the outer network of trails, The Lake reveals banks, berms, rollers, sidehits and a myriad of other abstract terrain variables peppered throughout more than 4,200 acres.