The new year always seems like an appropriate time to look back. Four Seasons, Fall 2011 Fall 2012.
Is Waterton the best backcountry ski town in Alberta?
Driving through the southern prairies past endless lengths of barbed fence bordering windswept grass fields, it seems unlikely. A search of the FM dial to add some interest to the monotonous drive and landscape reveals the local stations like two kinds of music, Country and Western. With that, backcountry skiing seems even more unlikely. Add to this, extreme winds, cold temperatures, and the perception that Waterton is “closed for the winter”, it seems impossible that the small town could be a destination for anything, never mind skiing or boarding. Perhaps this is exactly what makes Waterton the best backcountry town in Alberta.
The truth is, if we could buy an $80 lift ticket to ride a lift up to endless powder all day with no other people around but our friends, we would… we all definitely absolutely would! However, $80 only seems to buy you the right to race down a highway in nervous anticipation of getting to the lift early enough to fight hoards amped egos in a mad dash to get a few soft turns. With growing popularity in backcountry skiing, trailheads around Kananaskis, Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper can have a similar feel. An anxiety filled race up the skin track to get fresh lines. Showing up earlier and earlier for each outing hoping to beat others to the goods. Herein lies the beauty of Waterton, there’s nobody there. Winter in Waterton delivers exactly the solitude and serenity expected, wished for, and sought after in the backcountry.
More truth. Waterton is a tiny National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Peace Park, Biosphere Reserve, and all this is packed into about 500 square kilometers. Banff is roughly 13 times larger but burdened by a population about 165 times greater and a City of one million people an hour away. With the Waterton lakefront and main street fully boarded up, deeply buried in snow drifts, and only about 50 year round residents, the town has a decidedly abandoned feel. But Waterton IS OPEN in winter. Somewhat unnoticed in the heart of Town, Waterton Lake Lodge Resort serves as a winter oasis with everything you can imagine, accommodations, pool, hot tub, sauna, restaurant, bar, rentals for touring, xc skiing, snowshoeing, a ridiculous amount of energy snacks like Stingers and Sharkies, and if you forgot it they’ve got it, water bottles, gloves, headlamps, etc. Despite driving through prairies and country music to get to the park, it is ideally nestled against the British Columbia border and Glacier National Park in the U.S. Upon arrival, there is no doubt Waterton is everything a backcountry ski destination should be.
We rode three days of light, deep, untracked snow over the “busy” holiday break on popular lines like Forum Ridge, Rowe Bowl, and the SW subpeak of Carthew. We never saw another skier or boarder on any of them.
Is Waterton the best backcountry ski town in Alberta? It depends on what you're looking for. There are endless mountain peaks, covered in deep untracked snow, and nobody around. For us that makes Waterton a backcountry skiing Shangri-La!
January 14th, 2013. This post has been entered in the "Backcountry Skiing Canada - Expose Yourself Photo & Video Comp".
February 4th, 2013 update. "Waterton - Best Backcountry Ski Town in Alberta" is a qualifier in the January heat of the Expose Yourself Photo & Video Comp.
I was lucky enough to spend a couple days with photographer Paul Zizka learning to capture images. Paul's enthusiasm for taking photos is inspiring, even in the dark at -20.