I was torn between focusing this post on the surprisingly great conditions at Louise yesterday, or how we were able to avoid one of the biggest crowds of the season. In the end I thought the crowd avoidance piece would be most useful to our readers. The Christmas hoards, some decent snowfall, or even unseasonably warm temperatures could change conditions in a hurry making any report on conditions largely irrelevant. (Note: post featured image is from the Lake Louise photo gallery, taken on Dec 21st.)
But I’ll start with a short report on conditions because it was a surprisingly excellent day on the mountain. A little over a week ago I was at Louise and conditions were hard pack, not too icy yet but I could see it coming. When we checked the snow report Sunday night and saw 6cms in 7days, I was decidedly underwhelmed. If Bern wasn’t visiting from Toronto I probably would’ve pulled the pin. That would’ve been a big mistake. When I was last at Lake Louise I was with a group of intermediate skiers so most of our runs were on blues on the front side. Yesterday, we spent 95% of our day on the back side with only our last run down the front.
Our first run was down to the platter where the snow was much softer than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, it was well trampled but still carv-able like crumbly styrofoam. We then went straight up the platter and skied Brown Shirt where the snow was very soft and there was a skiff of fresh snow on top (maybe 2-3cms). It was super fun and with that run my day was already made. We did several more runs on the platter, skiing Outer Limits and popping through the fence to encroach a little out of bounds into West Bowl. The snow was fantastic! There were a few rocks to avoid but no ice at all. I also dropped into Whitehorn 1 and easily skirted the rock piles and found some fantastic snow. It wasn’t powder but you could still float a little and carve hard turns that kicked up plenty of snowy rooster tails.
The other area that surprised were the glades between Old Ptarmigan and Ptarmigan Chair. We lapped this a few times because it was so much fun. Eagles Flight was another run where we found great snow. At the end of the day we skied Meadowlark and all the big moguls from the week before had been groomed out so the surface was soft and snowy. There were some moguls on Lower Meadowlark but instead of being icy boiler plate they were soft enough to ride with enthusiasm. This was a testament to how good conditions were at Louise this December. With virtually no new snow during the busiest period of the year I was expecting blue ice, exposed rocks, and generally uninspiring conditions. Instead, we had a blast and felt thoroughly satisfied at the end of the day.
OK. Let’s get to crowd situation. We left at 7am and the highway to Banff was a steady line of tail lights separated by no more than 5m, in both lanes, for as far as the eye could see. Rather than tangle with the type A’s in the fast lane I resigned myself to cruising along at 80km/hr. It was snowing lightly and visibility was poor at times but the highway was mostly dry. It was mainly the volume that kept the speeds down. As we passed the Sunshine turn off, I wondered why there weren’t as many people exiting as I would normally expect. I found out later that the Goat’s Eye chair was broken down so that may have resulting in more people opting for Lake Louise. In contrast, the Lake Louise turn off was backed up onto the trans Canada for a few hundred meters and we slowly crawled of the highway and up the road to the parking lot.
At this point it was very clear that line ups were going to be a factor. In these situations I head up to the Skoki Lodge parking lot and ski down to the village. It avoids the parking lot gong show and a long walk back to the lodge with ski boots on and skis on your shoulder. Once you’re at the lodge, always head for the automated ticket windows they’re much faster. Then grab the quad chair as opposed to the Gondola – it always loads faster even if the line looks big. We went for the singles line and with a very short wait we were heading up. Within 20 minutes of parking we found ourselves boarding the near empty Top of The World chair. We’d just slipped past thousands of people swarming the base area and were on our way to a day that was eerily free of crowding. I say eerie because there must’ve been 10,000 people or more on the mountain. We encountered them at times but at other times we were the only people on a run. Bizarre!
My next tip covers when to stop for lunch. We hit the Temple lodge at 10:30 after a couple runs and found it pretty empty. We’d stopped to warm the toes and adjust the boots but decided to have a coffee and eat half our lunch. We discussed staying clear of any lodge until after 2 because the lines would be ridiculous. An agreement was quickly reached. We were back out at the Ptarmigan chair by 11:30 just as it was starting to fill up in the Temple Lodge. The lift line was minimal. For the next couple hours we lapped the Summit Platter and Paradise chair if we went into the back side.
For the entire time we were skiing right onto the lift. I attribute this to a couple things. The lifts lines always get a little shorter around lunchtime – that’s why it makes so much sense to stay out of sync with the masses. But even so, when the best skiing is off the summit it’s unusual for the platter not to be backed up and have at least moderate lines. My theory is that the majority of Christmas skiers are families, tourists, and people who only go out a few times per year. The powder hounds stayed away because there was no new snow and the people that ski 20 to 40 times a year really don’t like the Christmas crowds. I have a self employed friend in Canmore who often speaks disdainfully of weekend skiers like myself. That’s the kind of person who goes backcountry skiing over Christmas.
By two our legs were getting fried and we popped into the Temple Lodge to finish our lunch and have a beer. To our surprise it was still packed in there. But it was the last remnants of the lunch rush because by 2:15 the place was empty. After a very enjoyable break we were putting the skis back on just before 3. The Ptarmigan line up was insane – as long as I’ve ever seen it – and the Larch chair was as bad if not worse. We scooted up the singles line to pass hundreds of holiday visitors who had just finished the lunch time debacle, looking for a free table, lining up for 30 minutes to get their lunch, and even lining up to go to the bathroom. I’ve been there many times so it’s always a treat when I’m skiing with someone who gets the crowd avoidance strategy.
We could have done a few more runs after our second lunch but again we decided it made much more sense to get a jump on the conga line back to Calgary. In December, that also means driving most of the way home in daylight as opposed to being in the dark. The highway was relatively clear until we hit Banff and then it began to thicken up. Snow was still blowing and the highway became slicker as we approached Calgary. We counted 6 vehicles in the ditch and we were at the front of the crowds returning from a day in the mountains. My guess is that the emergency crews were kept very busy last night.
That’s it. It’s a very simple formula for making the best of a day that could potentially involve frustrating line ups, crowded runs, and dangerous skiers and boarders who think they can rip through the waves of people covering every inch of the most highly trafficked runs. Many of you will already be well aware of this technique and maybe have a few tricks of your own. But for those of you who typically don’t make the effort to take the road less travelled, I highly recommend that you give it a try.