My mountain town: Canmore, Alberta
I step out of my cozy brown condo with a load of skis, boots and pack for my 67th ski day of the season. Even though I’ve skied nearly every day this season, I don’t really feel like a ski bum. I’ve had a good sleep; I haven’t just fallen out of a dirty old pickup truck that’s parked on the edge of some resort parking lot or a friend’s backyard. I don’t have a night job washing dishes at The Keg. If I did, I could go back to the truck after work, flop out on a ratty foam mattress, inhale a few pilfered table scraps and B.C. bud, fall asleep and repeat the process over and over again.
I don’t feel like that stereotypical ski bum, but I do feel the chill. It’s -20 this morning in Canmore, Alberta. That’s why I’m not sleeping in the back of my car. Like any town, there are dishwashing jobs around, you can ? nd old pickups and B.C. bud is in no short supply. But it’s just too damn cold to live from the back of a truck. Not even the most dedicated and hardcore can last more than a few nights in mid-January. That’s suicide.
And that’s one of the reasons this town is not your average ski town. To make skiing your life here takes a bit more effort compared with genuine on-hill resort towns.
The town of Canmore is surrounded by the jagged limestone grey peaks of the front ranges of the Rockies. It sits only ?ve km outside the Banff National Park boundary, about 110 km west of Calgary. Formerly known as “the town you pass to get to Banff,” today it’s a town not quite as overlooked. Accessibility to the outdoors, Banff’s residency restrictions and slick marketing has led to boom years for Canmore developers and real estate agents. And it’s turned into a dedicated ski town—for now.
Canmore is in many ways a typical outdoor town, its manicured main street lined with hip coffee shops, juice bars and outdoor out? tters. But it wasn’t always like that. It used to be an underground town dedicated to coal mining, with a greasy spoon, barbershop and hotel drinking establishment instead of Gore-Tex and gourmet foods. During that time, fewer people in Canmore took notice of the stunning surface landscape; they were ?xed on following the abundant coal seams that protrude from the tilted mountains.
When the last mine shut down in the late ’70s, many believed Canmore was going to roll over and die. But Canmore is no longer in the shadows and underground. It’s very much alive. Now it owns a large chunk of spotlight that once shone solely on Banff. Since 1988, when the Olympic nordic events were hosted here and the world took notice, Canmore has grown—like a weed. Its future looks bright from an economic perspective and for now it’s a cool ski town, whether you live here or weekend here. But for aspiring ski bums looking for an energetic town, the boom years of today may soon go underground.
When local ski bum Bob Baillie ?rst came west 30 years ago after quitting Ontario’s grade 13, he went straight to where the action was: Banff. As the classic story goes, he cashed in his return ticket and never went back. But after a few years of living in staff accommodations and low-rent ?ophouses, he realized there was no way he could ever own the high-priced property there. That’s when he started looking at Canmore, just 20 minutes east down the Trans-Canada Highway. At that time, Canmore was opening up a new subdivision, offering lot lotteries to any interested buyers. Baillie wanted in. For skiers who wanted a life of skiing in the valley, Canmore proved the only reasonable option for real estate. “I knew I could never get anything in Banff,” explained Baillie, “so Canmore actually became a ski town by default.”
But while many long-term ski bums moved to Canmore in the ’80s, Banff still glowed. Canmore was just the bedroom community and didn’t have the “gotta-be-there” associated with it. “You wouldn’t hear people on the street talking about skiing. You were more likely to hear them talking about ice ?shing. That’s what kind of town it was,” said Baillie, his greying goatee unable to dull his ?ery blue eyes. “Canmore is a real ski town now. You can see that when it snows,” the 47-year-old adds, talking as passionately about skiing as he must have when he ?rst came to the valley. “We have a 20-cm rule here now. Any fresh dump with more than that and everybody’s at the hill. The town empties out. It’s only been like that in the last seven years.”
That’s the buzz I’m working on this morning as I ?nally get all my gear in the car. There’s been 30 cm of fresh at Norquay, Banff’s local hill. I plan on burning up the powder in the morning and coming back in the afternoon to ?nish up some work. That glitch in being a real ski bum in Canmore. Here, you need wheels.
It’s possible to hitch a ride to the ski hills along the Trans-Canada Highway, but because the town’s residents are sprawled out like a Calgary suburb, it’s a long walk to get to the road. Banff, more like a real ski town for a real ski bum, has a smaller, more condensed local population (although a much larger tourist population) and is also a transportation hub with buses travelling all day long to and from Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. Canmore is pretty well useless in that department. You can catch the Greyhound to Banff in the morning and take it back in the afternoon, and there’s also one ski shuttle that runs, but don’t count on getting to the hill early to exploit any ?uff stashes.
Useless as a transportation hub or not, there’s still an intense, intoxicating energy here. I can see that when I stop quickly at Rusticana, the local corner store, to pick up a few drinks for the day. Locals fully dressed to be on a lift are tapping their toes anxiously be on a lift are tapping their toes anxiously in line. Others are scrambling for coffee across the street, big smiles on their faces in anticipation.
At the hill I release my energy under the North American chair, where I immediately taste some nice, dry Rockies powder. While my energy can seemingly last forever in conditions like these, if you’re an aspiring ski bum, you better get a taste of Canmore’s energy sooner than later. It might not last forever. Today’s vibe is being smothered in its own success. Canmore’s growth within the oil-rich province of Alberta is accelerating so much that affordable housing isn’t part of the local lexicon anymore. Lot draws that Baillie was part of 25 years ago are more like a Christie’s auction—highest bidder (and bidding wars do break out) wins.
It’s becoming a community where the hardcore skiers co-exist with the international tourists and movie stars. And for Baillie, who has been a town councillor for the past two terms, it’s a sad sign for the apprentices who want to follow in his footsteps. “For skiers, it’s getting really tough. But,” he adds, with that survivor stare showing that he can look beyond the changes, “I’m here for the skiing. And I still love it as much as I did when I ? rst came here.” He says this as he laments the downsides of last season. “It was one of my worst years,” he confesses, citing illness and a host of other obligations. “I only skied 86 days.”
Canmore is more than just a ski-hill ski town. Mount Rundle, the 20-km-long mountain that separates Banff and Canmore, is home to world-famous ice climbs. Climbs like those on the Trophy Wall—which begin around a thousand metres above the valley ? oor—test the world’s best. “I think we have more Everest summiteers in this town than any other. It’s gotta be the guide’s capital of Canada,” comments Baillie, referring to the many certi? ed mountain guides who have post boxes here. And mountain people do mountain things, and that includes backcountry ski touring.
Even though local snowpacks are dry and cold (which mean touchier avalanche conditions), the surrounding tours are widely held to be some of the most beautiful anywhere. If you drive 30 minutes to local touring slopes like Black Prince and Tryst Lake at just the right times, you’ll be rewarded at just the right times, you’ll be rewarded with some of the driest and most edible pow on the planet.
And then comes spring. Oh glorious spring, a time when you actually could live in the back of your pickup truck. Contrary to most of the country, spring skiing in Canmore means April and May. That’s when the ski hills are good—and you wonder how you ever could have skied when it was -30—but, most importantly, the touring is at its best.
Cold snows warm up from the long deep freeze, settling nicely to form a stronger bond with weaker layers. Big peaks with big glaciers like Mount Hector, Joffre and Balfour are skied, and classic tours like the hut-tohut Wapta Ice? eld are prime. But the Canmore favourite—the one that stares locals in the face every day—is the Canmore Couloir. It’s the kind of run that locals try to do once a year when conditions are just right. If they don’t, they have a reminder all summer long of the run they didn’t ski.
Canmore itself doesn’t get much snow throughout the winter, compared even with Banff. But on the west side of town, sandwiched between Ha-Ling Peak (locally know by the derogatory “Chinaman’s Peak”) and Grassi Peak, is a chute and bowl that provide that fantastic local spring ski run. West winds blow snow into the bowl all winter, ? lling the slopes with a respectable pile of the white stuff.
As the sun rises in the hemisphere, the mellow backside of the mountain is warmed and loses its snow quickly—good for hiking up. The couloir remains cold and sheltered. The ?rst time I walked up the backside it wasn’t so easy—it was foggy and unpleasant. The two-hour posthole was painful, especially with two big sticks ?apping around on my back. But as we crested the saddle between the two peaks, the sun ate what remained of the fog and revealed the magical walls of the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains. The work paid off. Fifteen cm of fresh was untouched in the blowhole, the reward for an early morning. Canmore, sprawling in all its suburban glory, spread before us like a great landing pad.
Knee-deep on the ?rst narrow slope felt a bit precarious. But as soon as the bowl opened up, it was wide open—nearly 1,000 vertical metres of wonderful snow almost all the way to the valley bottom. When the snow petered out and we had done a few minutes of touchy bushwhacking around a few cliff bands, we walked through a grassy ? eld more known walked through a grassy ? eld more known for dog walking than skiing. We crossed the road and within 10 minutes, just when the metal edges of our skis were becoming really uncomfortable on our shoulders, we were home. After a season of driving to the hill every day, I finally felt the thrill of being a real ski bum.Tags: Alberta, Bob Baillie, Canmore, mountain town, Norquay, ski bums