Banff: Heritage and High Mountains

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It's snowing this morning. Not very hard¿and not in any depth really¿just enough to carpet the streets of Banff with a fine layer of white. Up high, however, among the legendary peaks surrounding the town, the snowfall is real. And my heart beats just a little faster. For I know that at nearby Norquay, they're skiing knee-deep fluff today. At Sunshine, too. And even farther up the highway at Lake Louise. In fact, the skiing in this Northern Rockies' enclave is probably the best it's been all season. And everyone here is saying the same thing: It's Bruno Engler's last gift to Banff.

Someone once told me that a town is only as interesting as the characters who live there. If so, then Banff was lucky to have Bruno Engler. Mountaineer, guide, raconteur, bon vivant ¿"and chief Banff cheerleader" he would say¿Engler was one of those individuals blessed with a big life. He loved mountains. And he loved people. But mostly he loved having fun. When he passed away at age 85 only a few days before my visit¿leaving a stunning portfolio of mountain images and an equally impressive list of offspring behind¿Banff lost more than just an endearing character. It lost a major touchstone to its past.

In many ways, Engler was Banff. A man straddling two cultures, he was a romantic who, as an accomplished photographer and cinematographer, could transform his big-mountain adventures into high art. A born entertainer, he could excite even the most blasé of flatlanders with his alpine stories. His was a life where skiing wasn't about corporate takeovers, public stock offerings and real-estate plays. For Engler, it was all about slapping on a pair of climbing skins and heading into the high country with a few friends for a ski adventure. Banff, to Engler, was the mountain mother lode. A Valhalla on earth.

It's fitting then, say locals, that this unexpected snowfall¿during one of the driest years on record¿should be Bruno's way of giving something back to the place he loved so much. The amazing thing is that this is not just a metaphor. The local people really believe it.

The Swiss-born Engler was no fool. The place he chose to call his own is one of the world's mountain jewels.

Located inside Canada's oldest¿and most famous¿national park, just east of the British Columbia-Alberta border, Banff is the kind of place alpine dreams are made of. No exaggeration. Majestic peaks, imposing scenery, a century-old heritage¿mountain towns don't get much better than this. At least not in North America.

And skiers have long recognized it. For more than 80 years, they've been laying down tracks in the light powder of Banff's high country. Many of the world's best skiers have been lured to its storied slopes. Some tasted of its pleasures and moved on. Many stayed¿from Bruno Engler to Hans Gmoser, Mike Wiegele to Ken Read.

Though skiing and skiers have always played a big role in the Banff story, it has not always been an easy relationship. In fact, Banff's location within national park boundaries has been considered something of a curse by skiers in recent years. Stymied by the glacial pace at which they've been allowed to develop their facilities, Banff's three areas¿Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise¿have had to watch in growing frustration as other, less-regulated resorts have passed them by. In fact, the only ski-in/ski-out accommodations in the park are at the 82-room Sunshine Village Inn, and you must ride a gondola to get there.

As it turns out¿and as Engler would be the first to acknowledge¿the curse is slowly turning into a blessing. For as the current crop of North American super-resorts mutate into ugly, industrial caricatures of their former selves¿bristling with fast-food restaurants, factory outlets and cheaply built condos¿Banff is staying the course.

"It's been slow. It's been painful. It's been frustrating ev," says longtime Banff homeowner and former World Cup ski star Ken Read. "Still, having to deal with park politics has forced us all to take a step back and look at the big picture a little more. It's been a struggle. No question about it. But now, I really believe Banff is stronger because of it."

Engler's snowy gift has completely transformed Sunshine Village. "It's really the first big storm of the year," says my skiing partner Mika Hakkola, with a tang of excitement to his voice that is hard to ignore. "I think we're in for a treat today." A recent addition to the Sunshine management team, the 20-something Mika, in many ways, is the embodiment of the Alberta spirit. He's a straight-shooting, second-generation Canadian¿no guile¿and he's eager to show me around "his" mountain.

But first, we have to negotiate the old gondola, which takes passengers from Sunshine's parking lot to its true base area¿some 1,600 vertical feet higher. The line for the gondola is long today, but not excruciatingly so. "I can't believe it," says Mika as we clamber into one of the antiquated cars. "If this storm had hit earlier in the season, there'd be a line out to the parking lot!"

The area's Achilles' heel, the base gondola has been the source of great angst for Sunshine's management in recent years. "Fortunately," says Fred Bosinger, the area manager, "I won't have to deal with it next winter." The reason: Bosinger has finally landed his long sought-after permit to construct a new high-speed gondola that will whisk twice as many passengers up the mountain in just half the time. The price tag: $15 million. While such an investment might not even garner a second glance at Whistler or Vail, Sunshine's newest capital project is big news in Banff.

No matter how many times I visit this place, I'm always blown away by the vista that awaits me up high. Sitting astride the Continental Divide, Sunshine Village offers the kind of mountain scenery normally associated with the Swiss or Austrian Alps. Across the Sunshine Meadows, for example, beyond Citadel Peak, is the great looming hunk of rock and snow they call Mt. Assinaboine. Often referred to as the "Canadian Matterhorn," 12,000-foot Assinaboine is the stuff of postcards. Regal, imposing¿totally dominant.

But enough gawking. The skiing beckons.

Derided for years for its mostly intermediate terrain, Sunshine once struggled to attract top-end skiers to its slopes. Though its season was long and its snow was deeper and softer than anywhere else in the region, it suffered from its lightweight reputation. That all changed with the opening of the Goat's Eye area in the mid-Nineties. When Sunshine's management decided to allow limited access to the aptly named Delirium Dive area a few years later, the resort's transformation was complete.Today, Sunshine is a much more exciting place to ski than it used to be. And while it still doesn't feature the big-mountain variety of a Lake Louise, you can get a pretty good workout in the bowls and gullies that drop down the nearly 2,000 vertical feet from Goat's Eye Peak. So that's where we point our skis for powder runs down Farside and Goat's Head Soup, Freefall and Hell's Kitchen.

There's a message awaiting me when I get back to my hotel. It's my buddy, Andre Fabbri. "Salut, Michel. Got plans for dinner? If not, let's eat at Coyote's Grill tonight." A pause. "It's kind of different for Banff. I think you'll like it. Call me." I've broken bread with Fabbri before. In Italy. In France. In South America even. I know how high his standards are. I accept without reservation.

An intimate little bistro just off Banff's main drag, Coyote's Grill seats maybe 45 people, max. The clientele is young. Hip. The breakdown between locals and tourists appears to be 50-50 tonight. A couple of profs from the Banff Center for the Arts. A table full of heliskiing guides in town for a break. A threesome from London exchanging notes on their day's adventure. The tone is light. The décor is minimal.

Except for the deeply tanned faces of the chefs working in the open kitchen, the dining experience here is more like San Francisco than western Alberta. The wine list is well-researched and the food is excellent. Fish and fowl¿rather than beef¿dominate. The accent is on light, but intriguing, sauces. Fresh vegetables¿lightly cooked of course¿provide the counterpoint.

It is, as Fabbri suggested, subtly different for Banff. While there is nothing stuffy or pretentious about the place, there is an unassuming sophistication here that was nonexistent in this town 10 or 15 years ago. "No question," Fabbri says, "the town has changed a lot in the last decade. It's taken stock of itself. Grown up." He laughs. "A place like this wouldn't have had a chance to survive in the old days. There would have been no clientele for it. But now, it's one of Banff's favorites."

We repair to the popular St. James Pub for after-dinner scotches and fall into conversation with a couple of big-city businesswomen in town for a few days of R&R. I'm curious about their choice of destination. "We wanted to go to Utah," one of them admits. "But it was so difficult to arrange the trip, and it looked to be so expensive, that we opted for Banff instead. And it was amazing. One call¿and everything was arranged!"

They profess to be quite satisfied with their choice. "I thought we'd miss the ski-in/ski-out stuff," says the other. "But it's turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By having to drive to the ski hill every day you get to see a little bit of the countryside. It's so beautiful here, you don't even notice the drive!"

It's Saturday morning, and Mount Norquay's base lodge is teeming with people. Mums, dads, kids, teenagers, instructors and coaches stand, lounge, talk, shout and generally mill about. Their gear is everywhere. Packs, helmets, shin pads, goggles, gloves and hats sprawl unattended across the tables. Windbreakers and parkas and sweatshirts, too. But it doesn't seem to matter. Everyone seems to know everyone else.

For just a moment, I'm transported back to my youth and the madcap Saturday mornings at the local hill where I grew up. Then I snap out of it. After all, that was more than 30 years ago. That kind of scene doesn't happen anymore. Or does it?

A 10-minute drive from downtown Banff, little Mt. Norquay is a throwback to a gentler, happier skiing experience. It's the quintessential family ski hill¿a place with a lot of heart and not much attitude. "We might not have the biggest vertical around," says Marketing Manager Rob Cote, "but that only means we can groom it a lot more than other places can."

He's not exaggerating. Once the domain of the tough and the fearless, the new Mt. Norquay offers a more accessible personality. Indeed, the expanded terrain to the east of "old" Norquay is as buffed and smooth as anything I've skied on all year.

But it's not just the grooming that sets Norquay apart as a family area. Everywhere I look I see installations built for kids. Race courses, halfpipes, terrain parks, big jumps, little jumps, quarter pipes¿the place is a self-enclosed alpine playground for the young.

"We saw a niche for ourselves," Cote says, "and we decided to go for it. It was hard work at first. But it's starting to pay off for us."

The birthplace of skiing in the Banff region, Norquay's slopes have been crisscrossed by ski tracks for at least 80 years. The first base lodge was built back in 1929; the first lift 12 years later. A legend in its own right, it has played host to a variety of prestigious events over the years¿from the North American championships in 1950 to a World Cup slalom in 1972. Some of the biggest names in skiing¿including Zeno Colo, Franz Gabl, Karl Schranz, Toni Sailer and Gustavo Thoeni¿have graced its slopes.

But in recent years, the place had lost much of its vigor.enture. The tone is light. The décor is minimal.

Except for the deeply tanned faces of the chefs working in the open kitchen, the dining experience here is more like San Francisco than western Alberta. The wine list is well-researched and the food is excellent. Fish and fowl¿rather than beef¿dominate. The accent is on light, but intriguing, sauces. Fresh vegetables¿lightly cooked of course¿provide the counterpoint.

It is, as Fabbri suggested, subtly different for Banff. While there is nothing stuffy or pretentious about the place, there is an unassuming sophistication here that was nonexistent in this town 10 or 15 years ago. "No question," Fabbri says, "the town has changed a lot in the last decade. It's taken stock of itself. Grown up." He laughs. "A place like this wouldn't have had a chance to survive in the old days. There would have been no clientele for it. But now, it's one of Banff's favorites."

We repair to the popular St. James Pub for after-dinner scotches and fall into conversation with a couple of big-city businesswomen in town for a few days of R&R. I'm curious about their choice of destination. "We wanted to go to Utah," one of them admits. "But it was so difficult to arrange the trip, and it looked to be so expensive, that we opted for Banff instead. And it was amazing. One call¿and everything was arranged!"

They profess to be quite satisfied with their choice. "I thought we'd miss the ski-in/ski-out stuff," says the other. "But it's turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By having to drive to the ski hill every day you get to see a little bit of the countryside. It's so beautiful here, you don't even notice the drive!"

It's Saturday morning, and Mount Norquay's base lodge is teeming with people. Mums, dads, kids, teenagers, instructors and coaches stand, lounge, talk, shout and generally mill about. Their gear is everywhere. Packs, helmets, shin pads, goggles, gloves and hats sprawl unattended across the tables. Windbreakers and parkas and sweatshirts, too. But it doesn't seem to matter. Everyone seems to know everyone else.

For just a moment, I'm transported back to my youth and the madcap Saturday mornings at the local hill where I grew up. Then I snap out of it. After all, that was more than 30 years ago. That kind of scene doesn't happen anymore. Or does it?

A 10-minute drive from downtown Banff, little Mt. Norquay is a throwback to a gentler, happier skiing experience. It's the quintessential family ski hill¿a place with a lot of heart and not much attitude. "We might not have the biggest vertical around," says Marketing Manager Rob Cote, "but that only means we can groom it a lot more than other places can."

He's not exaggerating. Once the domain of the tough and the fearless, the new Mt. Norquay offers a more accessible personality. Indeed, the expanded terrain to the east of "old" Norquay is as buffed and smooth as anything I've skied on all year.

But it's not just the grooming that sets Norquay apart as a family area. Everywhere I look I see installations built for kids. Race courses, halfpipes, terrain parks, big jumps, little jumps, quarter pipes¿the place is a self-enclosed alpine playground for the young.

"We saw a niche for ourselves," Cote says, "and we decided to go for it. It was hard work at first. But it's starting to pay off for us."

The birthplace of skiing in the Banff region, Norquay's slopes have been crisscrossed by ski tracks for at least 80 years. The first base lodge was built back in 1929; the first lift 12 years later. A legend in its own right, it has played host to a variety of prestigious events over the years¿from the North American championships in 1950 to a World Cup slalom in 1972. Some of the biggest names in skiing¿including Zeno Colo, Franz Gabl, Karl Schranz, Toni Sailer and Gustavo Thoeni¿have graced its slopes.

But in recent years, the place had lost much of its vigor. Hamstrung by bad business decisions, government interference and a lack of marketing experience, Norquay was a bedraggled relic when Kika Grandi and Peter White bought it in 1995. Few thought they'd succeed in turning around the moribund area. But the new owners knew what they were doing.

Today, Norquay is experiencing something of a renaissance. Consider the base lodge. Built five years ago, the award-winning two-story building features the timber-frame architecture that is virtually synonymous with the national park style. More than that, though, the lodge is spacious, comfortable and unpretentious¿just the way a base lodge should be.

And then there's the "Big Chair." Featuring one of the steepest, most consistent fall lines in North America (with a deceptively long vertical drop of 1,300 feet), the terrain serviced by the Big Chair has virtually defined the Norquay experience since the first lift was built in 1950.

"That's the great thing about Norquay," says Ken Read (whose three young sons are enrolled in the junior racing programs there). "You can ski a few runs on the groomed runs with the kids. And then you can jump on the Big Chair and really challenge yourself for an hour or two."

It only takes me three or four laps on the old two-seater to remind me what a challenge the Big Chair can be. Posers beware: This is honest, straight-talking ski terrain. A hill where every turn counts. Where your legs burn and your breath is labored by the time you reach the bottom. I can only imagine what it must have felt like skiing here 50 or 60 years ago in flimsy leather boots and long, thin, wooden skis....

I wake up this morning and look out the window of my suite. The snow-dusted slopes of Lake Louise beckon to me like the sirens of Greek myth. But I resist¿at least for a few moments. My bed is just too comfortable.

Every now and again, I get to visit a place that really sends me. A place whose style and grace lifts it above the merely great. That's how I feel every time I visit the legendary Post Hotel.

A five-minute drive from Lake Louise¿and totally enmeshed in the region's complex history¿the Post is, arguably, the classiest hotel in Canadian snow country. Run with impeccable taste and old-school charm by the Swiss-born Schwartz brothers, it has played host to the crème-de-la-crème of the world's elite, from British royals to Hollywood stars, industrial leaders to political czars.

The tiny village of Lake Louise is something of an anomaly in Banff National Park. Located 38 miles north of the town of Banff on Canada's main east-west connector (aptly named Highway 1), the village site has been a bone of contention between Park administrators and private entrepreneurs since the first skiers laid down tracks on the slopes above the Lake some seven decades ago. And the Post Hotel has been in the very thick of it.

Originally conceived as a ski-touring lodge in the early Forties, the Post had none of the attributes of its more famous neighbor, Chateau Lake Louise. Essentially a round-log chalet, it featured rough-and-ready accommodations for the small coterie of big-mountain ski enthusiasts who began trickling into the area after the Second World War. There wasn't much there, and it didn't have a lot going for it. But it did stand on one of the only pieces of freehold land in the Park. Little remains of the old Post. In its place is an impeccably designed 100-room post-and-beam structure that celebrates the region's rich heritage in almost every detail of its construction. Even the interior décor reflects the owners' passion for the mountains. Old black-and-white photos grace the walls. Powder shots. Climbing shots. Sunny-day touring shots. Classic ski gear is displayed with pride. Mangled leather boots. Barrel-stave skis. Bamboo poles. The rooms themselves are elegant without being crass¿dark woods and slate floors; leaded glass and thick, comfy duvets. Big windows deliver stunning views of snow-crested peaks as far as the eye can see.

Andre Schwartz joins me for breakfast in the Post's main dining room. A Swiss-Italian from the Ticino area, Schwartz has the distinction of being not only an able hotelier but one of Canada's most distinguished ski instructors. His enthusiasm for the

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