Below is a slightly edited version of the ‘Skiing In The Canadian Rockies’ write up by Marcus Baranow from his guidebook covering The Icefields Parkway.
Below you will find information regarding the unique nature of backcountry skiing in the Canadian Rockies. If you are new to the area then consider hiring a local guide for your first day out to better understand the differences found here from other backcountry ski areas. This section assumes that you already have previous backcountry ski training or experience; this is not your one stop source for backcountry skiing education.
The snowpack in the Canadian Rockies can be downright tricky compared to many other places in the world. It is a common mistake to underestimate its complex nature. We live in a dry continental climate which produces some extremely light and dry powder snow but this also causes an overly variable snow pack with deep persistent weak layers that can be problematic for most of the ski season.
The wind can often distribute the snow unevenly due to its light and dry nature. You will likely notice windward areas with no snow beside areas with cornices and deep lee deposits. Slopes that are cross loaded can have multiple deep zones alongside shallow ones. Triggering avalanches while travelling between the thinner and thicker deposits is common and it may not always be obvious when these transitions are occurring. Along with avalanche problems a variable and thin snowpack can also present the opportunity for hitting buried rocks or fallen trees while skiing, ski style should account for this possible interaction.
Persistent Weak Layers
Persistent weak layers, such as depth hoar and facets, can be a season-long problem often producing avalanches long after these layers have been buried. Although we can get surface hoar layers it is a little less common. Depth hoar and facets are often a problem lower down in the snowpack near or at the ground. These layers are generally the result of a cold spell in the early winter while the total snowpack was still thin. The wind can also transfer faceted snow over areas creating uneven problems for when these persistent weak layers get covered up; this creates a slope with many trigger points (“hot spots”) for skier triggered avalanches. Since these persistent weak layers are often near or on the ground the avalanches they produce can also run off the ground, resulting in a very violent ride for the victim and death is often caused by trauma. Smaller avalanches or a skier’s slough can also cause larger step down avalanches running off buried and otherwise bridged persistent weak layers.
When it is all put together the overall layering of the snowpack is often very complex until a true melt-freeze takes over in the mid to late spring. Do not underestimate the often stubborn nature of the snowpack if avalanche reports are warning of bad conditions but your party is not seeing avalanche results.
Snow bridges on glaciers are regularly thin throughout the skiing season and it is common practise to always carry a rope and travel roped up while skinning. Contrary to what some people may suggest there are plenty of crevasses large enough to fall into on the glaciers here.
One of the main draws for skiing here also holds one of the greater hazards. While the almost limitless, remote, and isolated wilderness of the Canadian Rockies within the Mountain Parks offer great freedom, it comes at the cost of great self responsibility. Have a plan and be prepared to deal with any problems that your group may encounter and do not assume someone will be able to rescue you.
Due to the remoteness of the area you should leave a plan or itinerary with someone you will not be travelling with, if check-ins or return times are not met they will be able to initiate the appropriate search measures. You can also organize return times at a Parks Canada information centre in Banff, Lake Louise or Field. If heading out on a multi-day trip you need to register for camping permits at these information centres and therefore can organize a check in with them at the same time.
Most of the time you will not have a cellular signal or be near urban infrastructure. Outside of the more popular day trip zones you will not be likely to see other people. Your party should be completely self-sufficient, including self-rescue. Although the National Parks here have excellent, on-sight search and rescue programs it is common that they are hampered by bad weather or avalanche conditions. Your best bet is to be prepared and trained in self-rescue. Carrying a satellite phone, SPOT, Garmin InReach or other such devices are good uses of pack weight but should not be your “go to” rescue plan as practiced self-rescue can often be quicker. If you do self-rescue and need medical attention you can either call 911 once back in cell range or head to the closest hospital which will likely be in the town of Banff. Although Lake Louise has a medical clinic it is not prepared to deal with serious injuries, the time spent contacting someone to meet you there (they have limited hours but are on call) could very well be better spent driving to Banff. These are tough decisions but ones you should be prepared to make.
Season Quality and Quantity
The ski season here is long and some might argue never-ending but with long seasons come long droughts and questionable turns, if you feel like it hasn’t snowed in a while don’t worry, it will. If you stretch your season here you will end up skiing everything from fluff on rocks to sun cups on glaciers.
Locals here will start skiing in mid-to-late October and end in late May, with most considering November to April to be a more true ski season. In the early and late seasons the access or lower valley skiing is often plagued with low snow depths and this tends to puts people off from making regular trips. Usually by December you can travel in and out of most places without issue. Most seasons you will start seeing more consistent snow fall around mid-February with the bulk coming down from March into April. Sometime in April the snow pack will head into a melt-freeze cycle, while late April to mid-May provides corn skiing that generally has less snowpack issues. May through June can be a great time for the larger objectives on the higher icefields and this usually ends the season for most skiers.
Never Ending Seasons
Some people never stop skiing here and although it is possible, it can end up being a fair amount of work heading into summer. Many of the high north facing glaciers can be skied any time of the year and often strips of avalanche debris in lower gullies can be skied into midsummer. Those Facebook posts from friends skiing in September probably included core shots and less than ideal conditions so don’t get too jealous.
The National Parks in this area stretch along the Great Divide and include large glaciated mountains and icefields at higher elevations but fairly dense forests in the valleys. Both alpine and forest areas are often littered with cliffs. Many falling in the “not skiable” range. You should have a good understanding of the overall terrain you will be travelling in before heading out, blind or exploratory downhill skiing here can result in death.
In general north and east aspects will be much steeper than south and west aspects. If skiable, north and east aspects will often still have many cliff areas both in the alpine and below tree line. Travel is generally easier and more straightforward on the lower angle south and west aspects but due to being windward and sun exposed these slopes can have their own snowpack problems.
The glaciers here are less active and generally have less/smaller crevasses than many other ranges in the world. You will still notice isolated areas with large crevasse holes and seracs, especially on the larger icefields. It is considered normal practice to rope up on all glaciers and icefields in the Canadian Rockies due to the thin snow bridges, which are the norm here.
Many skiers will tell you that there is no good tree skiing found in the Canadian Rockies but this is likely due to their skill set being actually tuned to skiing glades. If you can handle true tree skiing then you will likely be able to get fresh turns in all season long, as these areas are not often utilized. In general it is normal to ski forest terrain by connecting ski able tree pockets that are separated by short sections of thicker trees. If you are more interested in spaced out tree runs, (glades), then you will need to search for areas at treeline or trim lines along avalanche paths.
Weather patterns in the Canadian Rockies can change rapidly. They can be extreme at either end of the spectrum and are very hard to forecast. While travelling in the mountains you should be prepared to deal with any type of weather, regardless of the forecast. It is not uncommon to experience temperatures in the -25°C to -35°C range and during winter temperatures down to -50°C can occur during most seasons. Cold spells can happen suddenly and be short-lived or they can sit around for several weeks. If planning a mid-winter camping trip it is important to plan for these temperatures and use tested gear that you can rely on. It is also not uncommon to have warm swings, even mid-winter. Although this is less of an issue for gear prep, you should take careful note of the changes this can produce in the snowpack.
Access to backcountry ski terrain within the National Parks is limited to human power. You can charter helicopters for some areas by being dropped off just outside the border of the National Park which is common practice for some of the more remote ski zones, (Freshfield Icefield, Clemenceau Icefield, etcetera).
Skiing Along The 93N
The 93N or The Icefields Parkway is the road that connects Lake Louise and Jasper running north/south just east of The Great Divide in the Canadian Rockies. This section is to highlight the differences this area presents compared to the rest of the mountain park areas.
Parking can often be a challenge as many of the ski areas either have small, or non-existant parking lots. If parking roadside please make sure you are completely off the road which means being to the right of the painted shoulder line. In some cases you will need to do some shoveling in order to make this happen. This road is winter maintained with wide plow trucks running almost 24 hours a day to keep up with snow removal. Please don’t make an already difficult and dangerous job even more so by parking in the road lane, especially during storms or bad weather. If the weather is particularly bad (heavy snow/wind) it might be a good idea to pick a location with a large pull out or parking lot to start with. If you park roadside and there is already a car in the location please do not park opposite to it, even if you are both off the road as the road way will look more narrow, which can create a dangerous situation for drivers. Please do not park on blind corners or blind hills. I have personally almost driven directly into a parked car on a blind corner during a storm. The last and likely most important point to be made on parking is to MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT PARKED IN AN AVALANCHE RUNOUT ZONE! These areas have signs posted on the road and no one is permitted to park or even stop within these areas on the 93N. If you park in an avalanche zone your car will likely be towed, ticketed and it might end up resulting in a court appearance.
Often I have had a confused newcomer ask why they can’t get cell service or why there are no restaurants or gas stations along the way. Do not be mistaken, just because there is a road nearby doesn’t mean you aren’t in a wilderness setting. Generally you will start getting spotty cell service south of Herbert Lake but don’t count on a clear call until you get closer to Lake Louise. While out skiing there are a number of places where you may get cell service, in general they are all “line of sight” to Lake Louise. The following are the cell service locations I have noted recently. The summits of: Mount Hector, Cirque Peak, Bow Peak, Crowfoot Mountain, Vulture Peak, Mount Thompson and Mount Gordon. Other areas: Hector South Ridge/Sub Peak alpine areas, Mount Hector West Rib and high on most of the Pulpit Knobs.
Although I have never bothered with hitchhiking myself, I have heard it is easy to hitch back to your car after completing a day traverse on the 93N. Even though it seems that many people rely on such situation to work out it should be understood that traffic here dies down very quickly as the sun begins to set. If your traverse ended up taking a bit longer than expected then the walk back from something like the Seven Deadly Sins Traverse would make an already long day into a bit of an epic.