Category Archives: Canada

My first trip here was 2011 – why did I wait so long?

4/2/14 – On camera at Kicking Horse

 

Kicking Horse

Up high at the Horse

After months of bloglessness  it’s time to start posting again, as I’m back doing something worth writing about ski-wise. (I haven’t been idle since my last post by the way: I have got married, left my job and been settling into a new house/district 300 miles from my old home.)

Right now my ski-eenite husband, PJ, and I are on a fortnight’s road-trip in Canada, with a few days’ heliskiing along the way. Heliskiing! It’s on lots of people’s wish-lists and we are lucky enough to be about to do it, as a kind of winter honeymoon.

Powder highway

On the powder highway with two sunroofs

I’ll tell you more about the heli part later. For now, more about our warm-up, following the “powder highway” of British Columbia.

Not as powdery as sometimes (we have heard there’s more mountain biking than skiing at Whistler at the moment; luckily we are further inland, where there’s good cover), but first impressions were good: we disembarked at Calgary (Air Transat from Gatwick, 399 GBP each, including ski carriage, booked a fortnight in advance) into a blizzard.

Kicking Horse ski resort, Canada

Fresh snow at Kicking Horse, BC

We picked Kicking Horse (three hours’ drive from Calgary in easy conditions) as our first stop, cruising there in a rental car (4WD, about 500 GBP for two weeks) with two sunroofs.

KH has a reputation for nice, steep terrain and quiet slopes, many ungroomed. There’s a telecabin, rather than chilly chairlifts: a bonus when Jan/Feb temperatures are typically in the minus-teens.

Vagabond Lodge

Vagabond Lodge, a lovely welcoming place to stay, close to the lift

At the small base station – a handful of lodges, apartments, shops and restaurants – we checked into Vagabond Lodge, recommended in guidebooks and through word of mouth.

It turned out to be a winner. [Here, added later in February, is my review for the Telegraph.]

Ken and Lori Chilibeck, our hosts at Vagabond, arranged for us to take a mountain tour with Don, a seasoned local. He took us to his favourite spots and we all enjoyed making the most of the great conditions – 10cm of fresh snow on a decent base.

Kicking Horse

Yet another long mogul run. The mountains opposite are the Rockies

We explored more by ourselves on day two, dropping off the ridge into Feuz bowl (pronounced “fuse” by the Canadians), where the snow was in excellent shape after a rocky entry, and taking the “goat track” into Superbowl.

By day three we’d recovered from the time change and our legs were getting used to the “foreign” snow (lighter, colder, lots of moguls).

Vagabond Lodge lunch

Lunch at Vagabond pre-climb was make-your-own sandwiches. Another day it was Thai curry

At lunch, back at the lodge, Ken asked if we’d like to join him on a hike up a peak known as T2.

It’s within the ski area boundary, but the half-hour climb means it’s even quieter than the super-quiet other slopes.

What a privilege!

Climbing T2 at Kicking Horse

A little wobbly in places… It was easier not to hold onto the rope

The scenery was spectacular, the climb challenging enough (for me, a heights-o-phobe), the ski back down fantastic.

But pictures say so much more than words, so below is a link to the film Ken made of our adventure…

http://tinyurl.com/kulbxo2

Ken Chilibeck

Ken Chilibeck, once a star television reporter who covered Canada’s most important sport, hockey

Can you tell that Ken was a star sports reporter in a previous life? I hope heliskiing will be as much fun as our afternoon on T2.

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Filed under Canada, Link to film, Off-piste

17/12/12 – Flow State, the latest Warren Miller film: the verdict

Powder skiing in the Bernese Oberland

Powder skiing in the Bernese Oberland

It wasn’t the outrageous big air, the fearsome steeps, the 1,000ft rag-doll falls or the ravishing powder turns that will stick in my mind from the ski film I saw last week.

During the 90 minutes of Flow State, the latest Warren Miller release (the man himself is in his 80s and someone else makes the films these days), there was footage from Alaska, Hokkaido, Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley, Kaprun, Utah and California. Even modest little Murren in the Bernese Oberland, where I usually go in January to race the Inferno, got a look-in.

None of these was as mesmerising as the closing five or so minutes, shot in Svalbard, in the far north of Norway, during the 24-hour daylight of the Arctic summer.

The view that made me catch my breath was shot from high up the mast of the Arctica II, a heavy-duty, 62ft sailing boat, showing the bow moving slowly and deliberately through intricate slabs of sea-ice.

Jackie Paaso and Aurelien Ducroz go boat-skiing in Svalbard

Jackie Paaso and Aurelien Ducroz go boat-skiing in Svalbard

This was a more intrepid version of the Norwegian boat-skiing trip I went on in April quite a few degrees farther south.

For Flow State’s pair of ski tourers (Jackie Paaso, the only female pro skier in the film, and Aurelien Ducroz), on the agenda were Polar bears, walruses, first ascents and skiing under the midnight sun as well as climbing on skins from fjord to peak.

Give me snow, any day

Give me snow, any day

The footage was unmissable, and I wanted to join them – though I might not have been brave enough to leap into the sub-zero sea or go water-skiing on a pair of K2s.

Flow State (see the trailer here) is a mixture of brief clips of astonishing daredevil footage, some of it frenetically jumbled together, and around a dozen five-or-so-minute “stories”, when the pace slows and two or three skiers or boarders go on some kind of mission.

Apart from the Norway foray, my favourite missions were:

  • The current and former World Cup racers Tommy Moe, Daron Rahlves and Marco Sullivan fishing, rafting and heliskiing in Alaska.
  • Another trio blasting down the powder-laden avalanche barriers in Niseko, Japan, to the soundtrack of a Japanese drumming band.
  • Vintage footage of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division learning to ski and survive in wintry Colorado – and fascinating interviews with some of the original members, who became lifelong ski fanatics.
  • Travis Ganong, another World Cup skier, demonstrating perfect, effortless powder technique while heliskiing in Alaska.

It was also great to peer through the stone arches of Murren’s Allmendhubel funicular  and see a local guy, Sascha Schmid, and a Canadian big-mountain skier, Hugo Harrison, sashaying down in powder.

At one point the commentary inferred that they were skiing down the Eiger. Maybe they were, but I wasn’t convinced, and I think I spotted another tiny error in this section: something or someone was said to be “more local than Lederhosen”, but as far as I know, that Alpine suede legwear really belongs in Austria and Germany (Swiss traditional men’s clothing looks more like this).

The soundtrack was excellent, and high-energy, but those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I’d have liked to have seen more Swiss music, which did feature in the film for a few seconds – I’m not sure where they found it in midwinter in Muerren, but it looked like, possibly, the Alpenruh, where the pair seemed to be staying.

I also loved seeing the old-school freestylers, Jonny Moseley and Bob Howard, dressed up in crazy technicolour 80s garments, complete with big hair to go with their big air and ballet moves.

Aurelien Ducroz in Svalbard (picture by Alex Witkowicz/WME)

Aurelien Ducroz in Svalbard (picture by Alex Witkowicz/WME)

In fact most of the skiers in Flow State wore bold, bright clothing, which, I hope, means I am on trend this winter with my own pink trousers and orange jacket (to be revealed in a future post, I expect). Just a shame I’m not quite up to those double back-flips and vertical faces…

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Filed under Canada, Gear, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland, Transport, United States

6/2/12: Ski Sunday – an uplifting episode

If you missed Ski Sunday yesterday, try to find time to watch it on BBC iPlayer. Not for the coverage of the men’s World Cup downhill at Les Houches, Chamonix, on Saturday – though it was exciting, with three Canadians pushing most of the Austrians and Swiss out of the top five – but for the visit made by the presenters to the Hospice du Grand St Bernard.

Graham Bell and Ed Leigh hiked up on skins to the hospice and monastery, near the Swiss-Italian border at 2,500m, with a guide, stayed the night, and skied down into the Aosta valley the other side (in great-looking powder – but this wasn’t really the story).

Ed Leigh and Graham Bell, the presenters of Ski Sunday

I was a little surprised they made the ascent in such obviously risky-looking conditions, as the place – they were explaining – is known for avalanche danger: in fact, the camera crew was narrowly missed by a ‘minor’ sluffy-looking slide and everyone had to get a move on as the wind was whipping up more potential danger.

Their excellent report includes fascinating black and white footage of the hospice and olden-days groups en route up to it. People have been crossing this pass for millennia: the hospice was originally built in 1050 and since then, its doors have been perpetually open to travellers.

Graham and Ed were in awe of its history, its magnificent interior (we glimpsed frescoes on the vaulted ceiling), and of the monks themselves. By the end of the programme, both of them looked uncharacteristically pensive and serene, and Graham went as far as saying it was the “most inspiring trip” he had ever made.

Was it touching or cheesy? In my view, the former: it was excellent to see Ski Sunday diversifying to cover facets of life in the mountains that are just as thrilling as high-speed action.

See the episode by clicking here. To read more about the men’s downhill here is a report.

Also (in French): http://gsbernard.ch/

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Filed under Canada, Italy, Off-piste, Racing, Switzerland

31/10/11 – Here’s something that could get annoying on the slopes

Yesterday, en route back from the Alps, approaching Dover on Seafrance, I saw something that made me go, “Gggrrrrr!”

On deck, as the white cliffs loomed closer, a family was enjoying the view. The mother was pointing to the horizon behind the vessel, right to left, saying, “It goes Holland, Germany, Denmark,” – she paused, and gesticulated further north-west, “then Norway is over there.” She had clearly paid attention in Geography and her young children were satisfied with the correct explanation of what lay where. Her husband, though, looked doubtful.

Out came the iPhone, and he began squinting at it through his spectacles and fiddling with it, calling up an appropriate app to prove his wife – who looked rather Norwegian or Danish herself – wrong. Ten minutes later, their children bored with his gadget-gazing and his wife increasingly irritated, he was still peering at the wretched thing and muttering that he was going to find out. By the time they filed down to the car deck, his wife was fuming.

Is there an app that would make sense of this? Photo by Nick Lowe

Oh no, I thought, this sort of thing has probably been happening on the slopes. Resorts and organisations have been falling over themselves to produce clever apps to track speed and altitude, check snow reports and see where you are on the lift map, but have they thought properly about how maddening these things will be for people like this sensible woman on the ferry?

I’ve had just one brush with an app on the slopes. A Swiss friend told me about one called Ski Tracks (here’s a useful discussion about it http://tinyurl.com/5wqyncs), which tells you things like maximum speed and gradient, and I decided to try it out in the Inferno (http://tinyurl.com/3m5xjxs).

I borrowed an iPhone, turned on the app and wedged it down the front of my catsuit – then couldn’t resist getting it out to take a photo near the start. As my turn approached I struggled to re-find the app, then couldn’t work out if it was still running. Off I went, and at the finish, the gadget revealed that my top speed had been 509kph.

No doubt a user error. Still, I can’t help thinking it’ll be a shame if, every time people stop for a breather, they whip out the gadget – possibly also taking time to check texts and emails as well as route and location.

At least technophobes can take comfort in the possibility that multiple blasts of winter air might drain the batteries and allow everyone a few carefree hours of exploring by using a few pairs of eyes and that nifty pocket-filler, the traditional fluttering paper map…

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Filed under Canada, Gear, Racing, Ski touring, Transport

31/8/11 – This new lift should be a cracker – but how to choose between the 22 ways down?

Fernie's ski area, which is due to expand this season with a new chair lift to the top ridge

I heard this week that a tasty piece of terrain is due to open up this winter in Fernie, my favourite Canadian resort. Well, I admit Fernie is the only mountain I have skied so far in North America, but that’s by the by: the place is known for its steep, gladed ungroomed slopes and when I was there it lived up in a big way to its slogan of ‘legendary powder’.

The new chair, apparently a three-seater, is being built on Polar Peak, a mountain locals already hike up when conditions allow, to give them a steep, open descent. I believe this is also a route up to the headwall, an extreme descent for the seriously intrepid and for freeskier competitions.

Polar Peak is peeping out on the horizon, behind the 'fingers' of Stag Leap, Skydive and Decline on the wooded hill

The top of Polar Peak rises behind Currie and Lizard Bowls, beyond the top stations, and will provide those crucial extra feet of altitude that will allow Fernie – which marks its 50th anniversary as a ski hill this season – to boast that it has biggest vertical in the Canadian Rockies, at 3,550ft. For Europeans the extra feet are probably no great shakes, as plenty of Alpine ski areas have a far greater vertical drop (measured in metres in Europe).

What is intriguing to me, though, is that the new Polar Peak lift is due to provide an extra 22 runs. This is something that amazed me on my visit to Fernie: there are only a handful of lifts (five meaningful chairs and one t-bar) yet the lift map details something like 117 runs.

The slope in the background rises up to Polar Peak - at least I think this is the one. PIcture by Chris Johnson

I thought this was a gimmick at first, but most, I was surprised to find, are identifiable and merit their status as individual runs, even though many are not groomed and marking is patchy. (As is usual in North America, all are avalanche-controlled.) Of course some of these runs are short and some lie close together, but I defy a mountain in Europe to have anything approaching this ratio of lifts to runs – sometimes it’s the other way round.

As I never made the hike up Polar Peak during my stay in Fernie, I’m looking forward to riding up next time I visit. I’ll leave you with a blog post by a man who knows Fernie better than anyone, Brit-turned-local Bill Handley, describing a day spent hiking up Polar Peak (three times…) http://tinyurl.com/3rzf5lq

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5/8/11 – My his-and-hers collection, part two

It's a nice touch that his teensy rucksack matches her shoes and hat

Welcome to the second instalment of pictures from my his-and-hers library. If you’ve read part one (http://tinyurl.com/3pbzz37) you will know what it’s all about. Twin-suits roaming the slopes a deux, attracting a chuckle from people like me.

I was lucky enough one day when ski hosting for Inghams in Obergurgl (perhaps in 1997) to have my very own his-and-his in my group – a father and son in identical pale blue jackets. I remember them being very nice chaps and I think they had the plausible excuse that the coats were something to do with the family firm.

Matching Inghams guests, a father and son, around 1997

I wonder if hitting the slopes clad in his-and-herses makes couples more harmonious on ski holidays. Common is the sight of a bored husband waiting impatiently at the bottom while his wife slides nervously down.

Last winter a friend and I came across a classic on St Anton’s Rendl slopes: the husband fed up, planted in the middle of an icy red run and bellowing  unhelpful instructions at his poor near-beginner wife edging her way down. She would have been happier in ski school; he would have been happier on his own (and could probably have done with ski school himself).

A shame this Bogner-style pair didn't complete the look with identical trousers

There is an entertaining thread I found a few weeks ago on the Snowheads forum about skiing with ‘other halves’ – follow this link to read it http://tinyurl.com/3cesfpc. I am very much with the school that says be patient, encourage and wait for your slower loved-one – and it will pay off because you will eventually be able to enjoy skiing together.

Follow-my-leader, a great formula for patient couples

I met two couples who are brilliant examples of this approach this February in Fernie.

One is an expert skier who was repping there for the Ski Club of GB before me, whose wife only learnt in her 20s and can now easily tackle anything he can. It seemed to me his patient, kind and positive attitude had been a big factor.

Another couple I met were a complete beginner and an out-and-out expert living in a mobile home for the winter, with the express purpose of transforming her into a ski-fanatic. By the time I got there in February, she could ski virtually all Fernie’s off-piste runs – and many of them are seriously steep. Her husband-to-be got the balance just right between taking her down new slopes and letting her get her confidence on familiar ones.

Having said that, I also met a great family in which the mother stuck happily to the green runs near the base station and the father and sons ventured off to the steeps. All seemed perfectly happy to ski separately – there was no martyred husband being deprived of his fun and no bullied wife being told to turn on a patch of ice by a husband who had sailed on instead of giving her a patient lead down the tricky bits…

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Filed under Austria, Canada, Gear, Off-piste

18/7/11 – Is it too soon to dream about powder?

Well, there are a few blue runs - picture by Nick Lowe

Last week I found out where the Ski Club of Great Britain plans to send me as a leader next season. I’ve been asked to return to Fernie in British Columbia, Canada, where I spent three weeks earlier this year. I’m delighted as I had a great time there. It means I’ll be able to re-use not only the several unattractive serious-sub-zero neoprene masks but the map that is still in my head of hundred-plus runs (most of which are ungroomed: see previous posts such as these http://tinyurl.com/6g6p9l6 and http://tinyurl.com/6knhh5y).

Fernie has extra appeal for Brits this year because you can fly much closer than you could in past years, to Cranbrook an hour away rather than Calgary nearly four hours away, with Inghams. I hope to give this a try.

This was the weather we liked

The resort’s slogan is ‘Legendary Powder’ and last season, it certainly was. When a New Zealander friend of mine, Chris Johnson,visited me there in February, it snowed every day – and on average every other day of my entire stay. I soon loved the trees as they make for good visibility in all conditions and the snow stays better among them for longer. They are almost everywhere, as the top station is at less than 2,000m. See what it was like here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VECeNhuTLc.

When I spoke to Matt Mosteller (read his blog at www.skircr.com/matts-blog) from the tourist board a month ago, he said there was still four metres mid-mountain, two months after Fernie’s lifts had closed. When I go next year I’d also like to visit nearby Red Mountain – another ‘steep and deep’ spot – and White Fish, just over the US border in Montana. I also want to buy a ‘ski skirt’ of the kind worn by locals to stop them getting a wet behind on chair-lifts.

Just to explain, Ski Club leading works as follows. Competent, confident skiers and boarders can apply to enrol on the two-week Ski Club of GB leaders’ course, which is held each December in Tignes, France. Applicants need two references who will attest to their ability  on two planks (or one), as well as to their off-piste experience, and they must attend an interview. The course cost me around £2,000 once I’d paid fees, travel and extras. It involves tuition on and off-piste, snowcraft, avalanche essentials, basic rescue, leadership, Ski Club policy and so on. Some of the teachers are respected names, such as mountain guides Nigel Shepherd and Kathy Murphy and technique guru Phil Smith.

From a skiing and social perspective it’s a highly worthwhile course, whether or not you plan to ‘lead’. See the blog posts of December 2010, starting with this one – http://tinyurl.com/69mgah9 – to find out what goes on. If you pass, you may be sent for a few weeks to one of the Ski Club’s 34 resorts that host leaders. Each leader appoints a skiing meeting time and place six days a week, plus a daily ‘social hour’, and members in those resorts can join the leader for free – at a specified level each day, from intermediate to advanced, including ‘near-piste’ off-piste some days. Non-members can sign up for a free taster day, and sometimes the leader will organise a group to go out with a mountain guide.

During my time in Fernie, between one and half a dozen members came along most days. Only on three days in the three weeks did the members want to ski on piste, which illustrates the sort of skiers who love the place – and the ‘in-bounds’ and ‘out-of-bounds’ system, plus the very clear closed signs, made it easy to choose safe powder routes. I was glad I had no days with no ski buddies at all, as I’m not a fan of skiing by myself.

The system and leaders’ course has been around since the 1960s and it works pretty well – although the club has plenty of leaders at the moment so beware, if you sign up to this year’s course I gather they may not guarantee you a ‘slot’.

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Filed under Canada, France, Link to film, Off-piste, Transport