Asnowy, 200-metre sherpa trail winds up the exposed ridge to Marmot Peak. Sometimes, it's bootpacked; other times, the toeholds are no more than tiny divots.
In minutes, the weather can turn from bluebird to blown-in. No matter the conditions, the 20-minute, lung-burning climb is worth it. From this altitude, you're at the epicentre of Jasper National Park, surrounded by 360 degrees of sharp spires and dogtooth ridgelines. In the presence of such undisturbed majesty, you could be pioneering a first ascent.
"You're looking out on a national park, not a forestry cut block or a big city," says Marshall Dempster, a Jasper-based competitive freeskier. "One way, you see the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, [Mount Robson] the other way you get Alberta glacier."
This is what captures the imagination at Marmot Basin Ski Area. It's less about what's built and more about what thrust from the ground and asserted its dominance eons ago. For Dempster, who has competed in the Canadian Open Freeskiing Championships and the Freeskiing World Tour, it's a large part of the attraction. As are the long season, lack of crowds and, of course, the "scare-yourself lines."
One of only four ski areas set within the national parks of the Canadian Rockies, Marmot has a distinct natural character unlike many of the more developed Western resorts. Inside the park, the emphasis on wilderness and preservation dictates a different experience. Where most resorts remove trees to cut new runs or thin glades, Marmot plants them. A reforestation plot runs along the shoulder of No-Show (a black diamond run on the edge of the ski area), replacing trees cleared to make way for the new Paradise quad lift that opens this season. Instead of expanding ski terrain, Marmot voluntarily returned a parcel of undeveloped land to Parks Canada in 2010, ensuring that a caribou migration route would be protected.
At the same time, Marmot has reduced its lift-to-ski ratio (time spent on the lift compared with time actually skiing) and improved snow coverage. The new Paradise quad extends the length of runs off the upper mountain while cutting lift times in half.
Of course, some of the best terrain is hike-to or traverse access (reached by skiing horizontally across the mountain). But unlike some busier Western resorts, it's also among the least plundered. "Some days, there's 200 people on the bootpack to Ruby Bowl [at Whistler]" Dempster says. "At Marmot, there's mine and five other people's tracks."
For less experienced skiers, intermediate and easy runs meander gently downhill to the main lodge. The mountain layout funnels toward the base, so it's easy to regroup after each run.
But from Marmot Peak down, over cornice drops, long spines and wide-open power fields, it's a freeskier's dream.
JASPER IS FOR …
Jasper National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. The most visited glacier in North America, Athabasca sits within the park, which also claims the title of world's largest dark-sky preserve. Elk herds graze nonchalantly on street corners in town. Rare lynx have been spotted along the ski hill road.
Some North American resorts feel more like theme parks. Not Marmot. You won't 'find mountainside lodging, nightclubs or cobblestone streets lined with high-end retail. For that, you have to head back to town. But even there, Jasper retains its small-town Rockies feel, preferring locally owned cafés, pubs and restaurants. There's no Starbucks and no McDonald's – residents here actually drove the burger chain out of business. Favourite hangouts among locals include Evil Dave's Grill, The Bear's Paw Bakery (famous for its scrumptious bear claws) and the only microbrewery pub located in a Canadian national park, the Jasper Brewing Company.
Après On Ice
Here, après-ski often means switching from skis to crampons. "Jasper is a world-renowned ice-climbing destination," ACMG guide Ryan Tichener says. "It's kind of the norm for a lot of folks to go skiing and then head right down for a top rope [climb]" One climb, Edge of the World, lies just off a bend in the resort access road.
Special to The Globe and Mail