Backcountry fun in the Canadian Rockies

May 5, 2004
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Backcountry fun in the Canadian Rockies
Question: I'm an avid cross-country skier and I like to visit at least one great new area each winter. This year, friends and I want to go to the Canadian Rockies, perhaps Banff. Any advice? We like both groomed and easy backcountry skiing. What time of year is best for weather and snow?

Chris Elfring
Washington, DC
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: I'd recommend focusing on three choice, nordic-minded resorts in the Banff area, all of which should more than quench your appetite for groomed tracks and low-key backcountry trails. For sheer ease and acessibility, not to mention 1,400 acres of wilderness downhill schussing if you're looking to get vertical, consider Lake Louise inside Banff National Park. The old-world, 511-room Chateau Lake Louise, facing Victoria Glacier near the base of the mountain, has 60 miles of nordic trails fanning out from its front door, as well as Minod's Rental Shop (full package about $25 per day) and a full schedule of hourly lessons and half-day excursions. Book a room on the premises for $102-$200 per night (403-522-3511), or keep costs down by bunking in the Canadian Alpine Center and International Hostel, where beds are $25-$29 per person per night (403-522-2200) and guided cross country outings cost a mere $5 per day. For a full listing of outfitters that'll guide you into the Banff backcountry, call the Lake Louise Visitor Center at 403-522-3833. The good news is that winter in Banff is off-season (read: Beware the masses in summer!), and prices clearly reflect this. Rates plummet a hefty 25 percent before December 20 (although this might be pushing the season), for three weeks in January, and after the first week of April. The not-so-good news? Snow-wise, February is the best month for the nordically inclined (figures).

For something a little more out there, consider Mount Assiniboine Lodge in the eponymous provincial park, about 60 miles south of Lake Louise. Just over the border in British Columbia, the back-to-basics lodge--12-volt electricity and wood- and coal-stove heating on the shore of frozen Lake Magog and smack dab in the middle of some of Canada's most pristine, roadless wilderness--is reachable only by helicopter or a hefty 16-mile uphill ski. Choose the chopper and it's a quick eight-minute, $135-per person flight from the Mount Shark Helipad, 25 miles south of Canmore, Alberta, down the north slope of Mount Assiniboine, to the Lincoln Log-style inn. Once there, you'll have your pick of cross-country skiing, backcountry ski touring, and snowshoeing. Noteworthy nordic trips include a two-mile, one-way glide along groomed trails to Cerulean and Sunburst Lakes, or the more advanced trek to Nublet Lake, below Nub Peak. Strap on the avalanche transceivers and backcountry pack and head for the top of 9,300-foot Elly's Dome. Mount Assiniboine Lodge (604-344-2639) is open from mid-February through mid-April and charges $90-$110 per person, per night including family-style meals, instruction, and guides.

Much like Assiniboine, getting to Lake O'Hara Lodge in B.C.'s Yoho National Park is an adventure in itself. Opt for either a seven-mile uphill ski, or a more plush but decidedly arctic dogsled ride to the eight-room cedar-and-fir chalet. Spend your days telemarking on the Opabin Glacier or Odoray Plateau, or skiing across Biddle Glacier to the southeast. Don't be daunted by the vast British Columbia backcountry: Experienced backcountry guides are part of the $124 per-person, per-night package, as are all meals and, more important, evening soaks in the woodstove-heated sauna. Lake O'Hara Lodge is open February through mid-April; for details, call 604-343-6418 or 403-678-4110, off-season.

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