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Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open 1

Revelling in the majestic, yet humble, lake louise and the elegant post hotel

STORY: S-Media
BY: Claire Challen PHOTOGRAPHY:  John Evely & Frankie Miller

Taking in the unmatched beauty surrounding me, I breathe deeply. Wide open, not a soul to disrupt my turns, I point my tips downhill. With stunning mountain foreground and background enveloped in blue sky and a perfectly groomed piste under my skis, I slice the grippy base. My edges dig deeper with each turn, the snow holding me with that perfect resistance every serious skier loves. The pace quickens, and I feel myself awakening with each arc. A flash of red to my left triggers a defensive right turn out of harm’s way. The intruder hurtles by in what, strangely, appears to be slow motion. He’s one of the smoothest skiers I’ve ever seen. I realize I must have hindered the flow for my lodging host, who also appears to prefer his runs wide open, nobody in front. The intruder is none other than ski instructing legend and Lake Louise fixture André Schwarz – part owner of the magnificent Post Hotel & Spa.

Two days earlier, I arrived at Lake Louise, an easy two-hour drive from Calgary along the Trans Canada Highway, to find a compact, easy-to-navigate village with all that was needed within a few select stores, coffee shops, restaurants and a few choice accommodation options. From here, Canada’s second-largest ski resort beckoned just a couple of kilometers up the access road.

Tucking in behind André on Upper Wiwaxy the next morning, I’m amazed at the incredible turning power of this 67-year-old Swiss Italian. I thought I was generating speed up high, but this guy is doing it turn after turn. No wonder he has been tagged the “Father of the Modern Ski Technique” in Canadian ski instructing circles, having had a profound influence on the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance (CSIA) in the early 80s, and becoming the first inductee into the CSIA’s Hall of Fame. Yet despite influencing the technique of thousands of ski instructors and uncounted skiers, Andre has honed a style that is distinctly his own. He earns my respect within a couple of turns, not that he needs it. Today he sports red ski pants, a grey jacket and – speaking of his own style – no helmet or eyewear. “Using any kind of glasses or goggle lenses weakens your eyes,” he tells me with confidence as teary waterfalls stream down his face. Hmmm, I think to myself, interesting theory.

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We were joined by S-Magazine editor Gordie Bowles and esteemed photographer and chiseled Banff veteran John Evely for the day, as we cruised over to the steep Men’s Downhill run. Soon we’re back near the base, four colourful specks dotting the snow outside the massive Lodge of the Ten Peaks. Remnants from the Ice Magic Festival mingle with the ski racks. With no mad dash for the lift lines required, we cruise up to the Glacier Express Quad and ride above the world-class snow-cross course and World Cup downhill finish area.

It had been years since I’d skied at Lake Louise, and I was eager to explore its 4,200 acres and four mountain faces. Shooting off the Top of the World Express six-pack, Andre leads the charge with Gordie in tow. We stop mid-run to take in still more incredible views. I can see why this resort is internationally recognized as one of the most scenic ski destinations on the planet. The low-angled January sun is barely above the rugged spine of the high Rockies across the valley, the small white oval of Lake Louise enveloped by a ring of rising peaks, the near-vertical Victoria Glacier forming a white wall. To the left, Mount Temple, a frequent destination of hikers in summer. Farther on, the successive square cliff tops of Mount Quadra. Incredibly, its 60-plus degree couloirs have been skied.

André tells us that he skis mostly on piste nowadays, about 35 days a year, far less than in his pro skiing era, but still more than most recreational skiers. There may be fewer off-piste challenges in his skiing these days but I can’t imagine he’d be mistaken for a man who has slowed down. In the 1970s, skiing was in full swing throughout Alberta and André made the Rockies his home. He was entranced with the sheer magnitude of available space. “In Europe, millions of people live in close proximity,” whereas in the Rockies, he found ski runs shared by fewer people. He muses philosophically that in Europe, “systems are sacred and they come ahead of humanity.” Here he discovered not everything was established; there was room for growth and new voices to develop a stronger skiing technique and thus establish Canada as a force in the ski industry. Topping off his list of positives, André says with a smile, “here in Canada, people are much nicer.”

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In my experiences, André was dead-on. You can expect to be treated with hospitality on and off the mountain at Lake Louise. Its clientele is largely local, leaving room for you, the traveller, to be seen as something special rather than resented as one of the tourist hordes. You can explore the resort alone or take advantage of the many yellow-jacketed Ski Friends for a tour. Skiers enjoy access to the protected wilderness of Banff National Park, impressive terrain variety, beautiful lodges and restaurants rivaling nearly any high-end ski resort. Crowds are light, except during peak vacation periods like the Alberta Family Day long weekend in February.

Lake Louise is something of a paradox. There is genuinely high-end lodging and dining, with legends like André zipping by, conjuring up images of Bogner suits, overpriced meals and snooty attitudes. But as soon as you’re on the mountain you’ll realize it isn’t your typical large-scale resort. Marketing director and telemark expert Dan Markham recounts the Lake Louise vision instilled by owner Charlie Locke: “Imagine a family of mom and dad and two kids. They show up in an old truck and bring their own lunch. Having saved up for a family pass to spend quality time together, they expect little but that the lifts will open and close on time.” Yet Lake Louise also receives thousands of skiers from around the world whose expectations go far beyond those of the local family in the pickup truck. And those are met through the mountain’s natural assets – dazzling scenery and terrain variety. The hill’s renewed focus on grooming, snowmaking and on-hill dining, and the luxurious accommodations and dining available just minutes from the lifts. Most lifts here offers beginner, intermediate and expert terrain choices, creating opportunity for mixed groups to enjoy the whole mountain together.

Lake Louise is like an old-time ski hill but with world-class terrain and modern lifts, grooming and snowmaking. During après in the Powderkeg Lounge I meet a few 50-plus locals in the crowded bar queue, including Al, Stu, and Tom. “We love it here for the terrain and consistent ability to ski from early November to May,” Al tells me. “Some of the earliest skiing in North America is right here.”

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I rarely work up an appetite from actually skiing, but today a little chill in the air makes me yearn for extra layering via a three-course meal. We’ve been skiing long runs of big vertical. Forever the instructor, Andre has been dispensing tips all day. Over in the Ptarmigan Glades we find terrain that’s a little steeper, and with a few more early-season variables. I slam some short-radius turns down a couple of pitches that roll over, drop steeply and then bench out, with nice turning lines through the bumps. André follows the same path. I can imagine him in all his glory, a group of instructors hanging on his every word and turn, exclaiming as he pops over features and slices his way through the run. We could head up the Larch Quad back to some of the resort’s nicest (and most sheltered) cruising terrain, but André has other ideas, and we ride back up the Ptarmigan quad. Now he leads us down the fast pitch of Eagle Flight onto Lower Flight and we quickly dive to the left over a roll-away that drops us neatly in front of the resort’s latest project, the major reno of the mid-mountain Whitehorn Lodge. I feel lucky to indulge in upscale menu items like arugula, pear and prosciutto salad, seafood chowder and the Rocky Mountain game platter.

With the layer successfully added by a delicious lunch, I ride the steep Summit Platter lift alone (as one can only do on a former T-bar converted to single platter). It’s a steep lift, with a 38 degree-pitch that keeps me alert. To re-energize, I pop off natural features along the upward path. Lift towers are encrusted from nights and days of snow blowing wildly atop Whitehorn Mountain, with its over 2,600 meter summit. I have a vision of riding up through the gates of heaven. Uncountable peaks marching in every direction and endless terrain beckon me ever-upward, just so that I can soar downward again. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

At the top, we can just about see everywhere we might like to ski, within resort boundaries and beyond. I’m eager to try some of the legendary double black- diamond terrain. Much of it was permanently closed in the old days but was progressively opened as the extreme skiing and free ride revolutions stoked demand for ultra-steep terrain. One of the very best, Whitehorn 2, beckons just beyond a row of red signs “Closed – Avalanche Danger”. Too early in the season, too little snow cover, too high a hazard. I gaze and wonder, recalling the words of Steve, a local I met during après, who told me how superb the Lake can be later in the season.

Early one morning, Steve had made it into several key zones right after the patrol. He’d walked the length of Boomerang Ridge to the ski area boundary to earn the right to shred an entire face to himself, with close to a foot of late-winter powder over a friendly base. Quickly circling back via Paradise Chair for another lap, Steve had hit Whitehorn 2 – the run I had been dying to ski in January. Bragging shamelessly, Steve had continued to tell me what I’d missed. “All of these parallel couloirs are great, but I think my favourite is the ‘D’ gully. I love the way it hourglasses in the middle, so that as people shred its upper bowl they send loose snow billowing into the throat of it, keeping it soft right until closing time.”

As much as Steve loved Whitehorn 2, his top choice – a great insider tip for those willing to walk – was Elevator Shaft, the couloir spilling down alongside the big cliffs above the top of Larch Chair. Steve had been on a roll, chugging beer as he told me the boot pack was about 1,800 steps to reach the Batcave at the top. But well worth it as his descent was epic. “After the upper couloir, I ducked beneath the cliffs where the patrol has a rope line strung, taking me out into the untracked bowl. I ripped about 25 fat, round, satisfying and joyful turns in over-the-knee powder that’s as close to blower as anyone has a right to expect at the end of April.”

Steve knew I’d been unable to ski any of the double-black-diamond terrain at the time of my visit yet he kept revelling in his epic memories. Recounting these stories from my new pal I wondered, would a true friend cut the knife so deep? Perhaps it was merely his ploy to get me to come back here. If so, he’d succeeded, for my mind was on one thing: ripping up the steeps, chutes and bowls I had seen and heard about. Although Lake Louise’s very best terrain would have to wait for that anticipated future visit, it is an absolute luxury to ski here at anytime of the season.