An extraordinary birthday gift from my fiancé: One week of skiing at Panorama Ski Resort just south of Banff in Canada. Sadly, she does not accompany me due to her schedule. I am on my own for a weeklong adventure in the cold northlands.
The trip starts out in an unusual way. The shuttle bus from airport parking to the airport is pulled over by security so that officers can check under the bus and under the bus hood—presumably for terrorist bombs. Turns out that the Bush Administration has issued a “Code Orange” terrorist alert today. The shuttle driver at first mistakenly drives through the check point, and later explains that he has never encountered such a check point in the past.
It is a 3.5-hour coach bus ride from the Calgary airport to the Resort. The Resort sits just west of the Alberta/British Columbia border.
I am in eager anticipation of the ski trip. With a vertical of more than 4,000 feet, Panorama is second only to Whistler for ski resort verticality in Canada (base elevation is 3,800 feet). The Resort has over 100 runs, 10 lifts and 3,000 patrolled acres for skiing in the Canadian Rockies.
The Resort averages about 187 inches of snowfall each year.
Some of the lodging at the Resort offers the highly convenient experience of “ski in, ski out” luxury.
On the way there, I gaze out the window in awe. All around me is a spectacular array of boldly-jutting, snow-capped mountain peaks—part of the Rocky Mountain Range. The mountains dwarf our bus as if we are a rowboat sitting next to the Titanic. By comparison, the providence of Saskatchewan is so flat that you can watch your dog run away for three days…
I have only skied on twice in my life, and that was 6 years ago in Colorado. I am, for all intents and purposes, a beginner.
The obligation, as a result, is that I humbly start off on the “bunny” slopes for kiddies and other novices.
And humbled I am, for after more than 6 years off of skis, I find myself ill at ease even on the slopes that little Johnny and Suzie are comfortably skiing.
It takes 14 runs down a nearly level and football-field-wide slope to remember how to make turns and avoid falling down every 5 feet. Unquestionably, I must sign up for ski instruction.
The full-day class with the “school of skiing” turns out to be well worth it. An enormous confidence boost. Indeed, my skills advance so substantially that I upgrade to high-performance rental equipment, and lose my fear of steep, higher-level slopes.
But it is not an enjoyable day, as it is hard to find enjoyment when you are continuously striving to follow instructions and remember to do all the things you’ve been instructed to do. Commands such as “Keep your weight on your downhill ski!” “Lean forward!” and “Don’t lean back!” are seemingly endless.
On my first night there, we eat at the Heli-Plex restaurant (The restaurant name presumably comes from the fact that the Resort contains the world’s largest helicopter transport system for skiing remote mountain areas). The restaurant food is outstanding, and spiced by waitresses who enjoy our mischievous dining humor. An affordable and fun-loving dinner option.
I discover that Kootenay Mountain Ale is a popular and tasty Canadian treat at the Resort.
Day Three. I strap on my wide-angle lens camera to capture the breathtaking views—views that tantalize me as I look from side to side while the lift ascends the mountain. Foolishly, I am unable to resist and stop to shoot a photo as the other three in my group ski off down a “traverse” toward our group destination.
After I snap a shot, I head in the direction my companions had departed for…but they are no where to be seen as I round the first bend.
I ski several hundred feet further.
They are nowhere to be found.
They have apparently committed a “no no” for leading a group: Never turn off the trail you are on if a newcomer is not in sight to see the turn off.
I reach a dead end in the traverse trail.
For 15 minutes, I try raising them on the walkie-talkie they have given me in the event we are separated. It becomes apparent that the battery has died.
And there is no “Plan B.”
Mild panic sets in, as this is my first time on this portion of the mountain, I’m a beginner skier, and I don’t really know where to look or what slopes are tame enough for my mediocre skills. I’m fairly helpless at this point.
I head to one of the lift drop-off points. Wait 10 minutes. No sign of them.
I decide there is no point in wasting a ski day waiting for them—particularly if they have decided to let me go “solo” after losing me, and continuing without me.
Heading down “Little Dipper,” I fearfully make my first approach to the final segment: a relatively steep slope down to the Sunbird lift.
I successfully negotiate it without incident.
While waiting for the chair, it occurs to me that Jeff is particularly noticeable today and that I should ask the lift operators if they have seen anyone recently who is wearing comically ENORMOUS white Viking horns (Indeed, the horns are so obvious that not only do most skiers and operators I ask laughingly acknowledge to me that they have seen him a few moments ago, I also notice that young women often laugh from the slopes when they see him on a lift and yell obnoxious things such as “You are making me soooo horny!” I vow to buy some Nordic ski horns for my next trip…
While waiting for the Sunbird lift on this day of follies, I become confused and get myself out of position. I prematurely move forward to get in position for the lift chair.
But I don’t have enough time to properly position.
I am unmercifully whacked by the mindless, remorseless lift machine chair swinging around to rudely greet me. I am sent flying into a face plant along the side of the lift loading area. Skis go flying as they snap off their releases. Humiliated as I think about how goofy this scene must have appeared to those waiting behind me, I sheepishly get up and assure the operator that I am unharmed—physically, at least.
Miraculously, my group stumbles upon me at the top of the main lift. We head up the Horizon lift for a ride down the “Rollercoaster” run. A very wild, entertaining course—my favorite for the 6 days of skiing I do here. Many namesake ups and downs.
Oddly, even though I am now skiing confidently, I fall three times. One of the falls sprains my left thumb—apparently a very common ski injury. The thumb soon balloons in size and discolors.
I continue to fall on runs.
It becomes clear: the bruises that now are scattered throughout my body, as well as the lack of oxygen at this higher-than-Flatland-Florida altitude has exhausted me to the point where I am not lifting my skis on turns—a costly mistake that nearly always punishes a fast-moving beginner skier. Particularly on ice.
Just before lunch, I comically fall, slow-motion, on my back, which plants my camera into the snow. It is now a mad dash to our lunch stop, where I empty the camera of its film and remove the lens. I dry it for several minutes under a hot-air hand drier in the washroom.
Worn out and sore, I slip into the soothing spa again. A comforting balm, given my now exponentially growing aches and pains.
On Day Four, I have a new camera plan: Put it between my coat and fleece pull-over.
The day starts out and finishes as it does on each day I am at the Resort. Five degrees Fahrenheit in the morning. (a bitter cold walk to the gondola—”do I really want to ski in this??”) Sunny, windless and about 30 degrees in the afternoon. Indeed, the weather reminds my friend, Jeff, of the adage that in Vermont, there is nine months of winter and three months of very bad sledding.
Today, I ski like a champ. My confidence level is high. I feel cocky. I have not fallen all day. But with the day coming to a close, I commit a strategic blunder. Blinded by overconfidence, I ask myself “Why not take my first crack at a ‘black diamond’ slope?”
A cruel mistake.
Tentatively, I ski the first portion of the “Fritz” black diamond run without incident. “Keep leaning forward,” I tell myself over and over again…my facial expression that of a deer in the headlights as I hurtle down impossibly steep slopes. I arrive at the final precipice and get a quick glimpse of the fearsome final segment of the run. The void below is hundreds of feet of the steepest ski slope I have ever encountered. Nearly vertical. I have an impulse to turn back. It causes me to involuntarily pause and hesitate.
Bad blunder. (he who hesitates, after all, is lost…)
With icy conditions, the slope is unforgiving. There is no margin for error.
My exhaustion by this time means that I’m not picking up my skis on turns. On a left-side turn, I trip on my ski. The slope unmercifully defeats me. I slide most of the way down the deadly slope—my skis still attached and nearly impaling me as they flail in the air above me. An ugly scene.
Somehow, I live to tell about it.
I finish the day as I had done on each of my previous days at the Resort. Exhausted. Yet exhilarated.
On Day Five, I experience an excellent day of skiing the slopes. Only one minor, lazy, low-speed fall.
Afterwards, in the men’s locker room, it dawns on me. My injuries seem to cover my body. I am now part of the “walking wounded” with a terrible vengeance.
Not only does my left thumb remain nearly useless in its swollen, discolored condition, but I also notice a dinner plate-sized bruise on my left hip. And my right tricep has now ballooned to twice its normal size.
I feel as if I have been repeatedly run over by the ski slope grooming truck.
But I’m here to ski. Not see doctors.
I have one last day of skiing, and will not allow “minor flesh wounds,” as Monty Python would say, to deny me.
To the slopes!!!
My final day is a good one, all around. I finish it by enjoying a delicious Italian buffet dinner at the Starbird restaurant.
After each day of skiing, I am able enjoy the complimentary hot-water spa pools at the base of the slopes. Absolutely essential balm for my exhausted, bruised, aching, mangled muscles. Soothing and much-anticipated after each demanding day of skiing. The outdoor spa experience is dramatically enhanced by the bitter cold outdoor air and the snowy mountain peaks on the horizon from where I soak. Just what the doctor ordered (photo below).
Our lodge is a short gondola ride from the base of the main lift, and runs until 10 pm from the slopes, rental shop, gift shop, spas, bars and restaurants.
The view of the peaks on each side of me as I ride the lifts is simply magnificent. I am stunned, and at times kick myself for not having brought along a camera to record the superlative scene. Each lift ride is a joy. I’m either making a new acquaintance with someone, or I am riding alone and relaxing in an atmosphere of silent solitude with mountainous peaks at my right and left—a silence created in part by the muffling effect of the snow.
Conditions at the Resort were unforgiving to a beginner like me on this particular trip. It has not snowed in a number of weeks. While the slopes are groomed each night, the lack of new snow creates a demanding, treacherous layer of ice on the slopes. Ideal surface for losing control and tumbling toward doom.
In addition, I am to learn that the “beginner” slopes at Panorama are more like the “intermediate” slopes at the Colorado resorts I’ve previously skied.
Panorama offers a good ski experience. Despite the quality, the crowds are apparently quite sparse, normally (particularly in comparison to Whistler), which means little or no lift line waiting. As their publicity web site points out, “no place in British Columbia is as underrated or overlooked as Panorama…”
My flight originally lands in Calgary. For the first time in my life, I am personally greeted by a Canadian Mountain Experiences shuttle staffer who holds my name on the sign he displays. I’d often seen that on flight arrivals I had been a part of in the past, but had never seen my name in the past. Nice touch.
The shuttle passed through suburban west Calgary. It was a grim experience. After driving through the seemingly endless misery of strip commercial development, we entered a starkly homogenous collection of sprawling residential homes without offices or commercial or civic structures in sight. Noteworthy was my observation that in comparison to the residential development I am used to in Florida, these units were on comparatively small lots, and there were no trees to be seen at all. The bus then carried us into a cathedral of imposing, proudly jutting, snow-capped Rocky Mountain Range as we sped toward Panorama.
Easing the boredom of the bus ride was the fact that on our quite large bus, there were only seven or eight of us riding. We gathered around and chatted for most of the 3.5 hours, and became rather friendly. I shall particularly remember Lambert, Bob and Cathy, who I later saw on the slopes and at a pool table bar.
After a full week of skiing at Panorama, I shuttle back to Calgary. With a full day to burn while I wait for my flight the next morning, I spend all day alone on Saturday exploring Calgary on foot and transit—an unusual way to spend a birthday.
My first impression is one of being struck by the size of the buildings in Calgary, an “oil city” that was larger than I expected. Much of the architecture, unfortunately, is rather modernist and therefore sterile for my tastes, but the City is making visibly obvious efforts to create a pleasant public realm. Downtown, I find noticeable public art, attractively decorative street lighting, a pedestrian mall, fairly well detailed streets and sidewalks, and a seemingly healthy collection of restaurants and retail.
There is a two-block by two-block Chinatown portion of downtown that was relatively vibrant—particularly given the 20-degree temperatures.
This day also happened to coincide with a worldwide citizen demonstration against the war that the United States is currently threatening against Iraq. Enjoyed seeing a group of “Bees for Peace” holding signs and dressed in appropriate costume. A great many anti-Bush signs were evident in the crowd of hundreds I see assembled in a downtown park.
One block north of the retail-rich, several-block-long pedestrian mall is a free light rail service that becomes fee-based as it leaves what amounts to a fairly compact downtown (photo at left).
The Calgary City Hall is unfortunately designed to look like a modernist reflecting ice cube—ironically, a rather forgettable building.
The northern boundary of downtown is bounded by the Bow River, which is graced by what I expect is a rather popular paved greenway trail along its south side. Olympic Plaza downtown contains a pleasant skating rink in winter months.
Regrettable design flaws I notice downtown include the existence of a great many one-way streets—some of which are 4- to 6-lane monsters—which probably deliver unacceptably high motor vehicle speeds. I also notice an excessive number of gap-tooth forming surface parking lots downtown.
For my birthday, I treat myself to some nice Italian hiking boots (irresistible given the strength of the American dollar to the Canadian dollar), and dinner at Brewsters Brewery. The Brewery not only serves delectable microbeers (I try the “sampler” of 5 of their best ales), but also provides delicious meals.