Wednesday, December 11, 2013

MARMOT BASIN, Alberta, Canada
Simon leading the way at Marmot Basin  

After a wonderful World Cup weekend at Lake Louise, I’m now skiing with my husband, Simon, at magnificent Marmot Basin right in the heart of Jasper National Park, in the wintry wilds of Alberta, Canada.

Here you’re more likely to bump into a herd of elk than a bus full of tourists. On the four hour journey from Canmore we let the only two cars on our side of the road overtake us so they could track out the snow-heaped highway. Just like hiking into backcountry after a big dump, it was easier to let someone else cut the tracks. En route on the Icefields Parkway, we passed weeping waterfalls frozen in mid-torrent, glacier-fed lakes and the colossal Columbia Icefields where toothpaste-blue ice makes even the snow look warm. This has to be one of the most dramatic drives in the world.

Rocky Mountain Sheep always have the right of way
Arriving at Marmot Basin at noon, we launched into an afternoon of skiing over expansive early season slopes: a soft base, few people and a feeling of the beginning of a long winter of outdoor pleasure in the pristine Park setting.

Preferring to ski with a guide at unfamiliar resorts, we were lucky to nab instructor, Dave Morphy for a tour of the mountain first day. Morphy, who lives in Ontario during summer, chose Marmot as his winter wonderland for its community charm, above treeline terrain and incredibly soft, powdery snow. “My wife and I have been coming here every winter for five years since we retired,” he told us. “We love it because it’s a real community, not just a resort.”

He’s right. Jasper is what authentic skiing’s all about – the sport, the snow, the majestic mountains and the time-honoured mountain lifestyle. Everyone is chatty, from the lifties to the shopkeepers to restaurant staff. You feel as though just by seeking out the remote resort you are automatically inducted into their special clique, privy to the secret of Marmot’s glades and bowls, natural environment and teeming wildlife. 

Renowned for its snowmaking, the hill has invested in state-of-the-art equipment, ensuring exceptionally smooth lower runs in all conditions. Together with terrain park and chairlift expansions, Marmot has spent nearly $30 million on upgrades over the past decade and is listed in Condé Nast magazine’s Top 20 places to ski in North America.

The terrain is varied from gentle groomers to steep chutes with 86 runs of which 30% are novice, 30% intermediate, 20% advanced and 20% expert. The wide, white expanse of Charlie’s Bowl above the treeline off the Knob Chair is perfect for powder hounds after fresh snowfalls. And I really enjoyed the soft snowy bumps in the glades above the mid mountain lodge. Doing Jenn’s Run was fun on my first day, especially after interviewing its namesake, freestyle moguls-champ Jennifer Heil for an article recently. She grew up here, nurturing the skills to win Olympic Gold and Silver medals and five World Cup Champion titles.

And, at the end of an exhilarating day, where to stay? There are lots of charismatic choices in the tiny town centre - which is first/last station on the romantic Rocky Mountaineer route - but the bucket list option is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge - a UNESCO World Heritage Site which literally takes your breath away. With its spectacular setting on Lac Beauvert, it’s the height of low-key luxury Canadian-style.

Cabins at Jasper Park Lodge

Picture snow-clad cabins (once frequented by Marilyn Monroe as well as British Royalty), overlooking the ice-covered lake in the heart of the Canadian wilderness. The snow-drenched setting is straight out of Narnia with a five-star rustic vibe. This is where we're staying this week, recuperating from each day’s downhill delirium by basking in the al fresco hot pool overlooking Lac Beauvert and getting marvelous massages in the decadent spa. 
Jasper Park Lodge
In order to get to the main lodge from the cute and cozy cabins, we’ve had to negotiate elk and deer foraging for scraps of grass under the snow. It’s a bit like staying in a safari compound where you watch out for hyenas on the way to breakfast. And last night, after hearing some nocturnal nibblings, we discovered a cheeky, chubby rodent foraging in our waste bin. Chasing it around our cabin I came face to face with it on the mantelpiece only to discover that it really had more ownership rights than us – it was a marmot, I deduced. There’s a capture-and-release trap in our cabin right now but with its impenetrable hidey-hole behind the mantel I feel it is too savvy to be caught. Needless to say, we were moved to another gorgeous lakeside cabin but I must admit I do miss our marmot with the munchies!

This is just the beginning of our adventures in Jasper – look out for more stories in the near future. As I write this, we're just off to sample the bountiful breakfast buffet in the magnificent main lodge overlooking the lake and Whistler's Mountain, followed by another day of serene skiing in the soft snow of Marmot Basin.
Mike Gere trying out drone photography at Marmot Basin 
Great beer and nachos at Jasper Brew Company

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