On a sunny day during the spring of 1973, three employees of Marmot Basin resort were anxious to ski. After a month of hot days and cold nights, the snow had been less than perfect for a couple of weeks, but a late-season storm delivered almost four inches of the region’s light and dry powder overnight. For two lifties and one off-duty ski patroller, it was game-on.
Dave, Terry, and Wilf decided to duck a rope into a steep pitch off the north face of the ski area. This permanently closed terrain was controlled by the wardens of Jasper National Park, where Marmot Basin is located. Due to liability, ducking this particular rope carried some serious consequences. But it was a slow day at the ski area, the snow was phenomenal, and their appetites for powder were enormous.
“I said ‘watch me.’ That’s all the safety equipment we had, just ‘watch me,’” says Dave Feniak, one of the lifties recalling the moment he dropped into the bowl that day. “We had no transceivers, no shovels, no probes.” The snow held, says Feniak, and by the time they got to the bottom, “it was so good we had to go do it again.”
The following day, Hans Schwartz, head of ski patrol at Marmot Basin, returned from a day off to see six beautiful tracks carved into the very much off-limits terrain. He wondered if it had been two guys skiing it three times, or three guys skiing it twice. Schwartz left it up to the Jasper National Park wardens to figure out, since they were responsible for avalanche control in that terrain. Feniak and his crew knew about the consequences and kept their mouths shut. “We would’ve been fined real big, like possible jail time, so for the longest time we had to keep it secret.”
As young men in the mountains are prone to be, however, the boys were proud. They came up with a plan to be able to reminisce about the best lines of their lives without saying a word. “We came up with the code name ‘Tres Hombres’ because that was our beer drinking music,” Feniak says, referring to the ZZ Top album released in 1973 featuring the band’s most recognizable single, “La Grange.” It became the perfect soundtrack to put on at the bar, nod to each other, and enjoy the beers the park wardens would send their way in hopes of loosening lips about who skied the forbidden bowl.
“We held it down for a long time,” Feniak says over beers at the Dead Dog, the local watering hole in the town of Jasper, 30 minutes from Marmot Basin. “Finally, in the last 15 or so years, we figured the statute of limitations should have expired by now.”
During the 45 years since Feniak and his buddies first illegally descended the cirque, Marmot Basin has gained control of the terrain and jumped through all of the bureaucratic hoops of expanding operations in a Canadian National Park—goat surveys and all—to open the area to the public. The ski area named it after the crew’s code name, the final touch on an expansion that took nearly two decades to happen.
The terrain is worth the work. Tres Hombres’ 45 acres consists of a huge bowl for advanced skiers, plus a ridgeline with powdery chutes through young Canadian pine, all accessible via four different gates. Peering over the edge at the top of the bowl, it’s easy to see the bottom, but it’s a long, continuous steep pitch to get there: 1,204 sustained vertical feet, to be exact. It’s cold, even in late March—we’re pretty far north in the frigid Canadian Rockies, after all—which means that the snow in north-facing Tres Hombres is consistently chalky and easy to enjoy. There is a small hike to get to the top gate from the high-speed Canadian Rockies Express quad, but the stunning views of Jasper National Park are more enjoyable when you’re walking anyway.
The new terrain adds to the luster of Marmot Basin, a gorgeous ski area from top to bottom. With seven chairlifts and 1,720 acres of skiable terrain, the mountain is considered “crowded” by local standards when there’s more than a couple of skiers on any given run. Lift lines—or “line-ups” in local parlance—are unheard of on weekdays, and, as I was told by some skiers on the daily shuttle from Jasper to the mountain, rare on all but the busiest weekends of the season.
On my fourth lap in the Tres Hombres zone—never crossing my own tracks—I stand at the top and watch a party of local shredders pick their way through a tight entrance and make swooping GS turns to the bottom. Before I drop in, looking at the massive mountains of Jasper National Park surrounding Marmot Basin, I tell Siri to remind me to apply for Canadian citizenship as soon as I get home.
Tres Hombres is definitely not the only advanced/expert area at Marmot Basin, in fact there is so much I mistake much of the open terrain as “off limits” because there are no tracks in most of the large bowls and tree chutes spread throughout the mountain. Erin Reade, head of marketing for the ski area, politely corrects my mistake during a tour of the sprawling upper mountain. Earlier, she was anxious to show me the view from the top of the hike-to terrain at the summit of the ski area, but our legs are a bit worked from the ample exploration of Tres Hombres all morning.
Instead of hiking, we traverse over to Charlie’s Bowl from the Knob lift—hardly crossing any tracks on the descent—and retreat into the Eagle Chalet. Over a very Canadian meal of poutine and Caesar cocktails, Reade explains her story of finding Marmot Basin six years ago and moving here permanently as soon as she could. Feniak, meanwhile, is going on 46 years since he first took a job as a liftie, and he still skis the mountain every day he can.
While the resorts near Banff grow in popularity, Marmot Basin is making moves by joining the Powder Alliance, updating a number of lifts and facilities, and crowning it off with the opening of Tres Hombres. Nearly everyone I meet moved here from the “crowded National Park” to the south, indicating it’s only a matter of time until more first-time visitors from all over follow Feniak’s lead and end up sticking around for a long time.
Marmot Basin Trip Planning
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is the top spot in town for accommodations, the beautiful cabins have hosted the Queen of England and Marilyn Monroe. Those on a budget can’t go wrong at the Maligne Lodge, where the Marmot Basin shuttle stops before heading to the hill.
The Raven Bistro provides a quiet, pleasant atmosphere for Mediterranean fusion food and an extensive wine list. Jasper Brewing Co. offers Canadian/American plates that match the locally brewed craft beer—Jasper the Bear Ale is a must-sip.
The De’d Dog is the best spot in town to enjoy a drink and meet friendly locals. Make sure to check out the “Dead Wall,” full of historic Marmot Basin and Jasper National Park skiing photos.
Jasper National Park offers a plethora of winter activities for days away from the slopes. Stop by the Jasper Adventure Centre to sign up for guided tours of the Maligne Canyon Icewalk, dogsledding, and scenic excursions.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of SKI Magazine.