Sixtine Cousin is a Swiss athlete on the World Cup ski cross tour. She is in the starting area of Canyon Ski Resort’s track, describing the drive to the Alberta venue.
“It is down, down, down,” Ms. Cousin says while illustrating the descent with her hand, losing elevation. On the drive down, down, down, Ms. Cousin thought: “Oh, so we are skiing in a hole.”
Canyon prefers to advertise itself as “Alberta’s largest non-mountain resort." It is just outside Red Deer, in central Alberta. The ski hill is built on the western slope of a canyon – a big, but not grand, canyon – bisected by the Red Deer River. It is a Prairie hill in disguise. Ms. Cousin could not see it until she and her team arrived at its base, where the downhill access road terminates.
And so in a province known for its peaks and its challenging mountain ski resorts, it is an odd stop on the global ski cross-race circuit. This weekend, it will play host to a NorAm Cup race, the Canadian national championships, and training for athletes preparing for other races. Ms. Cousin, along with competitors from around the globe, put in runs earlier this week.
Seventy-five athletes – 30 women and 45 men – are racing and training at Canyon this week. The hill stretches just 164 vertical metres from top to bottom, and the ski-cross track starts lower down. In ski cross, four athletes race in each heat, navigating quick drops, rollers, jumps and banks. Compared to downhill racing, ski cross is more about smart navigation – rhythm, where to land, how to overtake a competitor – than sheer speed. Competitors should cover Canyon’s course in about 40 seconds.
“It is definitely a hill,” Ms. Cousin says of Canyon’s stature. But she comes back from her first training run with a warning to her teammates. There is a tricky feature – a “kicky” jump – after the first curve. The lip of the jump is sharp, sending scores of racers into the air and back down along the same trajectory as a high-jumper rather than a long-jumper.
“Just do something and pray,” Ms. Cousin advises her teammates.
And features like this encapsulate why Canadian coach Sead Causevic says the family owned Canyon, even though its terrain is more gentle than some of the bigger resorts, has potential to become a place for mountain athletes to train and race. Organizers of competitions can make up for its shortcomings by building aggressive, temporary features such as the kicky jump.
“It is up to us and the hill to build the course to the right specs,” says Mr. Causevic, who is also serving as the course setter for the weekend events. “They can make enough snow for the biggest, baddest, course in the world.”
Canyon received a facelift in 2018, so it could host alpine events during the 2019 Canada Winter Games. The terrain and snow-making equipment were improved, runs were widened and an elevator was installed in the lodge, for example.
Mr. Causevic concedes Canyon is unlikely to become a stop on the World Cup circuit. But, he says, it can be valuable as a facility where promising athletes can be turned into elite competitors.
“We don’t need to be World Cup [quality],” he says. “We need it to be developmental.”
Marielle Thompson, a champion Canadian ski-cross racer who won gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, says she believes in Canyon’s potential, particularly as a place to develop young athletes.
“It is pretty good, and good for all [skill] levels,” she says in the lodge after some training runs. “You still have to be accurate and precise.”
Ms. Thompson, 27, has more experience than most of the competitors at Canyon this week. She is from Whistler, B.C., and this is her first time at Canyon. It is possible, she says, to imagine the hill hosting bigger events, albeit not in its current state.
“I’m sure if they were to ever hold a World Cup race, they would build it up," she says.
Nakiska Ski Area, which was built on a mountain west of Calgary for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, is playing host to a World Cup ski-cross event next weekend, which is why top athletes showed up at Canyon this week.
While trying to warm her feet in Canyon’s lodge after three training runs, Australian Olympian Sami Kennedy-Sim wonders out loud what she should say when asked for her opinion about the track.
“It is a cool place,” she answers cautiously. “It is a good place to develop ski cross in Canada.”
Canyon’s lifts deposit skiers and snowboarders on the top of a plateau, a few metres away from a pasture and field dotted with straw bales. Its 164 vertical metres are still enough to make skiers’ ears pop on the lifts. By way of comparison, Lake Louise Ski Resort has 991 vertical metres between the very top and the base; at Ontario’s Blue Mountain, 220 vertical metres separate the top and bottom.
The temperature at Canyon was about -20 C on Thursday; school groups cancelled their field trips, leaving the hill to the racers. The resort turned on only the lifts necessary to reach the race track.
Ms. Cousin, the 20-year-old Swiss athlete, declares it fun, even if it is a bit odd.
“It was cool. Everything is small," she says. “It is good for training.”