In august of 1896, a badass climber named philip stanley abbot slips at the top of mount lefroy and becomes the first recorded mountaineering fatality in north american history at the bottom.
So it goes. The incident sparks an influx of highly skilled, Swiss mountain guides to the largely unexplored mountains around Lake Louise, Alberta. Years later, in 1909, Conrad Kain shows up in Banff and builds a massive kicker (traditional ski jump) on Tunnel Mountain in 1911.
This stokes out the local groms, and they start making skis out of things that they find lying around the house. Peter Whyte, Cyril Paris, and Clifford White go on to form the Banff Ski Club in 1917. The latter two become some of the first to shred the slopes of Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and what’s now the Lake Louise Ski Area. Downhill skiing catches on at Mount Norquay around 1926, where the focus on ski jumping shifts towards downhill, parallel turns. In 1929, a Norwegian ski instructor named Erling Strom logs a two-week session on the epic ski terrain around Mount Assiniboine with a group of paying clients, essentially introducing backcountry skiing to the Canadian Rockies.
“There is not much to tell about lift skiing,” says Strom in a later interview. “It is great fun, but one run is much like another.” Sometime around 1930, Swiss guides and a few visionaries from the Lake Louise Ski Club tell Cyril Paris and Clifford White to check out the Ptarmigan Valley. Spot Leak!
The zone scores a coveted 9.5/10 on the radness scale, so they build Skoki Lodge in 1931. Temple Lodge is built in 1938. And in 1952, the first rope tow is installed on Lipalian Mountain. 1959 sees the Lake Louise Gondola go up the frontside of Whitehorn Mountain, followed by the Eagle Flight Rope Tow in 1960. The Lake Louise Ski Area is slowly coming into its own, but it’s the backcountry accomplishments that are hogging the headlines of the era.
In 1967, The Great Divide Ski Traverse is completed by Neil Liske, Don Gardner, Chic Scott and Charlie Locke.
This 320-kilometre route over the broken, remote icefields between Jasper and Lake Louise has fended off multiple parties in years previous, but the right combination of Nordic ski gear, favourable weather and mountain grit helps the four ski mountaineers finish the job.
Incidentally, Charlie Locke goes on to buy the Lake Louise Ski Area in 1981, sells it in 2001 and then buys it back from his former business partner in 2008. In 1971, The Temple Ski Club joins forces with The Whitehorn Ski Club and officially becomes the Lake Louise Ski Area.
This era sees a new style of skiing start to take hold on the slopes of Lake Louise. Skiers feast on the non-stop supply of Rocky Mountain cold smoke during the snowpocalyptic winter of 71-72. “That season is what carved out a lot of the avalanche paths in the Canadian Rockies, says “Rocket” Miller, a veteran ski patroller and current Mountain Manager at the Lake Louise Ski Area. “It was frickin’ monumental.” Freeski legend Wayne Wong does a few Rocky Mountain stints in the late 70s, unleashing his Hot Dog steez on the slopes of Lake Louise with mirrored sunglasses, a flowing black mane and sunny pow laps down the frontside. Meanwhile, there’s a flurry of righteous backcountry descents that get people talking as well. Just down the valley in 1976, Rene Boiselle and Arno Birkitt ski The Postcard Line, a complicated descent down the south face of Cascade Mountain above Banff. Calgarian fireman Doug Ward and partner Kevin Hann answer back with descents of Mount Temple’s Aemmer Couloir and The 3-4 Couloir above Moraine Lake in ‘78 and ‘79 respectively. But while freeriding and ski mountaineering are taking root in the Bow Valley, so too is ski racing. The Lake Louise Winterstart World Cup fires up at the Lake Louise Ski Area in 1980, attracting top tier ski racers from around the globe.
Another strange thing is happening as well: a passing fad that will henceforth be referred to as “snowboarding.” Shit’s getting weird, and all the different disciplines have no choice but to take notes from one another. And this takes us right into what many people consider to be the golden era of freeskiing. “The late 80s, man, that was a moment in time,” recalls Banff-bred freeskier, Andrew Sheppard. “You know all good things come to an end, but the late 80s in Lake Louise were like no other. We partied huge and we skied huge; people just fed off of each other’s energy and it was a really fun pack of people.” The MG’s (Manual Groomers) are the guys to follow at the time, understated employees of the resort who know where all the good shit is.
“Slightly before my time there was a group of shredders that were definitely sending it with great style, especially considering the equipment at that time,” says Eric “Hoji” Hjorleifson, a Canmore-born skier who honed his craft at Lake Louise. “Kirk Jensen’s opening segment from Return to the Snow Zone (1988-89) is a great example of excellent high speed skiing with large controlled airs and solid stomps on 200+ cm skis in sunglasses!” exclaims Hoji.
“It was great to see guys like Jensen, Andrew Sheppard, Martin Bouillon and Marty Gautrey featured in the RAP films based out of Calgary. To have ‘local’ skiers in ski films that were shot at The Lake was very cool and definitely inspired the next wave of younger Bow Valley skiers.” But as is always the case at Lake Louise, the dark horses are skiing just as hard as the guys in the limelight. In the early 90s, a now-mythical cat driver starts doing things a little differently.
“Robin Nixon was one of the first guys to start skiing switch and doing a lot of things that snowboarders were doing,” explains Sheppard.
This sorcery catches the eye of “Team Core,” a posse of standard-setting knuckle draggers who compare notes with the emerging band of local freeskiers. The relationship is mutual. And guys like Greg Todds, Scott Newsome and Jonaven Moore learn as much from the ski crew as the ski crew learns from them.
“It’s hard to say what skiing would look like today without this influence from the creativeness of snowboarding,” says Hoji. “Would jump turns on 200 cm skinny skis and twister twister spreads still be the cutting edge of style? Hopefully not but it’s hard to say!”
“With Lake Louise being a place that relies on wind, there’s a lot of cool windlips and wind features,” adds Sheppard. “Instead of just skiing fall-line powder runs, we were looking for unique features and putting signatures on new lines down the mountain.” And this doesn’t just apply to the lines that you find within the boundaries of the resort. “In Lake Louise, when you’re looking across the valley at Mount Victoria, the Aemmer Couloir and the 3-4 Couloir, you realize that if you really wanna ski stuff that’s gonna float your boat, it’s gonna be on your own propulsion,” says Sheppard. Some time around 1997, Sheppard “drags Steve Parsons out of the bar” and the duo skis The Sickle, a terminally-exposed line on the
NE face of Mount Victoria. “We skied it and we got to the bottom and he puked,” recalls Sheppard with a laugh. It’s quite possibly a first descent, but a comment on an online trip report states that a Banff resident named Rick Crosby skied it 35+ years ago. Back across the valley, the Lake Louise Ski Area continues to foster their freeride culture through the late 90s and early 2000s. Under the direction of avalanche forecasters Dave Illes and Rocket Miller, the ski patrol pushes into steeper terrain. “They started to get more progressive and started opening things like Eagle 5 and Eagle 6 and 7,” says Sheppard. “When you caught those at the right time, that was amazing.” The Lake Louise Ski Patrol sculpts some of the best skiers in the area over the years: Steve Parsons, Lindsay Anderson, Dave Petch and Alexandra “Army” Armstrong to name a few.
The Lake Louise Big Mountain Challenge starts up in 2003 (and is still running in 2018), giving North America’s best shredders a chance to prove themselves in The Lake’s boney-yet-rippable terrain. Around this same time, Sheppard skis the Sickle again. But instead of a half-drunk Steve Parsons, he skis it with Eric Hjorleifson this time around. “Hoji’s the full package, from designing boots and skis, to dissecting lines and shredding them with surgical precision,” says Sheppard.
“It all just comes really naturally to him.” Hoji’s not just a product of his environment,but also the people he shares it with. He bridges the gap between the new school and the old, stoking out the next generation of shredders and pushing them towards a more technically sound style of skiing. For a lot of the kids in the Bow Valley, he’s like a modern day Conrad Kain. He can put on a show, but he can back the whole thing up with a preternatural mountain sense. Hoji’s influence, which can be traced through every character mentioned in this article, can be seen in the next generation of Bow Valley rippers as well. Guy Mowbray and Kevin Hjertaas start The Rocky Mountain Freeriders in 1999. This “anti ski club” goes on to produce shredders like Steve and Eric Hjorleifson, Chris Rubens, Drew Wittstock, Izzy Lynch, Noah Maisonet and of course Keegan, Garrett and Jemma Capel.
No story about the next generation of Lake Louise skiers is complete without a nod to the Capel family. Their dad, Ryan Capel, is a longtime employee of the Lake Louise Ski Area who managed to carve out a lifestyle for his kids that involves as much skiing as possible. Now all three of them (and also their mom and dad) have some of the most recognizable style in the Rockies. “Back east people are technically good skiers because they have to ski ice all the time,” explains Sheppard. “But at Lake Louise you definitely get these skiers who can ski through variable conditions quite well because that’s a lot of what you’re encountering there.” Of course, a lot of shredders move on from The Lake to places with more snow and more exposure to ski media.
“You’re not gonna get famous skiing The Lake,” explains Sheppard matter-of-factly. “Look at Tatum Monod, she had to move to the States basically. You have to move to Whistler or somewhere if you want to become a pro skier…
But maybe that’s why The Lake has produced a lot of humble skiers over the years, because they weren’t really after the fame and glory.”
Either way, the Lake Louise Ski Area has one of the best big mountain pow circuits in the world, especially if you catch it on a “Lake Louise pow day” (1+ cm and some wind). The terrain accessed by the Summit Platter and Paradise Chairs offers up chutes, spines, cliffs, windlips, straightlines and good old-fashioned fall line skiing. But don’t forget to look across the valley while you’re riding the lifts, or up towards Skoki Lodge. “The Rockies just provide inspiration for so many things on so many levels,” says Sheppard.
“They radiate a lot of energy somehow and get people inspired to do all sorts of things, skiing being one of them.” So what does all of this have to do with a man named Abbot falling down a mountain in 1896? Or another man named Kain showing up in Banff with skis on his shoulder in 1909? Well that’s the same as asking what the past has to do with the future.