in • spi • ra • tion
A feeling that occurs most frequently at the top of a huge, snowy peak in Canada’s oldest national park.
When you arrive in Banff, Alberta, just 90 minutes from Calgary airport, something magical happens. Well, lots of magical happens. Striated peaks with couloirs begging to be skied stack up on every horizon. Turquoise glaciers that seem to be lit from within spill down into frozen lakes. A turreted castle waving the Canadian flag appears on a bend on the river. It’s all so big, so unreal, you half expect a talking faun to emerge from the forest and invite you in for a cup of tea.
This place had been on my list for a ski trip for more than a decade, moving up a notch each year as my 12-year-old daughter, Cate, grew out of throwing ski poles and into planting them. With more than 7,660 skiable acres spread across three ski resorts—the town hill of Norquay, rambling Banff Sunshine, and alpine beauty Lake Louise, all within Banff National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site—this place reveals fresh treasures at every turn.
Other selling points illuminated on the web included that all resorts are on the Ikon Pass, liftlines and snowfall are inverse points on a graph of abundance. I foresaw us exploring powdery glades, cozying up at cute restaurants, and soaking in the hot tub while I bribe her with fudge and room service to avoid cold-pool Marco Polo.
What I did not expect, though, was that this place would change us forever, staking claim in our hearts—sandwiched right there between the secret beach we found in Costa Rica and the moments when the cat chases flies—for as long as we’re alive.
“Hello, Norquay,” Cate says on the first leg of our trifecta, looking a bighorn sheep in its one wary eye as it suns itself on the side of the road near the ski area entrance. Norquay is the local’s hill, and the kids are out smashing gates on the main groomer above the base. We explore its steep, winding trails that feel like secrets in the dense woods. This place skis so much bigger than its size; it would be the sneaky place to hit on a pow day if the ratio of people to wolves was ever high enough to cause a queue at its bigger neighbors. (It’s not.)
The following day, we drive 20-some minutes up the valley floor to Sunshine while the responsible member of the family barks at me to stop ogling snowy crevasses and keep my eyes on the road. We ski all of Sunshine’s three terrain pods—Goat’s Eye, named after a huge ski-through hole in the mountain, Lookout, and Mt. Standish—and then I leave Cate in the lodge to see if Sunshine’s famed Delirium Dive deserves its hairball reputation. (It does.) Afterward, we review the trail map over a respective beer and cocoa, and there’s so much we didn’t ski that we decide we must come back. Especially, Cate says, if we get to stay in the castle by the river.
On our final day, we head to Lake Louise, where ten centimetres of reported feathery fresh is actually more like 20, and big swaths of it stay untracked until lunchtime. We ride up to the summit and suddenly transcend the clouds. Being from a Rocky Mountain state in the US, we thought we knew mountains. But these peaks, now haloed in technicolor brilliance from horizon to horizon, are like nothing we’d seen before, and Cate almost catches an edge on the poma track as she twists around to see behind her. At the top, we disembark and stand there for a minute to look back at the lake, a white disc at the base of the glaciers across the valley.
I try to explain to Cate the feeling I have in my chest, the one you get only when you look out at the ocean or the stars or this impossible grandeur. The forces of nature that have shaped this place are so powerful, it makes your tiny life feel like it dissolves into something much, much bigger. And then all that matters is how the sun feels on your face, and how the light ignites the spindrift blowing over the ridge… Our time here is precious.
“I get it, Mom,” Cate says, and though I can’t see her eyes through her goggles, I know they’re rolling. “In other words, this is really, really pretty. Can I go first this run?”
Lunch, after all, awaits. She taps my pole with hers and pushes off, linking her turns beautifully on the mellow groomer. I watch her until she’s just out of sight, and then blink back tears so I can see the way.
Sleep: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a historic castle-like hotel that lords over the land. It has a skating rink, spa, and sledding hill, too.
Après: Located right in town on Banff Avenue, Park Distillery crafts small-batch spirits in-house with fresh glacier water (try the Cascade, made with gin, lime, fruit, and fresh mint). Wood-fired ovens and elevated campfire fare make it a great spot for dinner, too.
Don’t miss: Walk (or ice skate) across frozen Lake Louise, cradled by massive snowy peaks. Warm up at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise with a hot toddy afterward.