You’ve seen them in the movies, read about them in magazines and visited their websites. You’ve dreamed of visiting knowing that nothing is a bigger rite of passage than being able to start every chairlift conversation with, “When I was in…”
The following North American resorts are iconic in the world of skiing and have helped shape and mold modern skiing into what it is today. And whether you’ve been to them all, spent a season at each or a day at just one of them, there’s no better way to earn your stripes than to get out there and ski one of these legendary areas.
Marshal Talbot resides in the white room above the madness of Peak Chair. Carr photo
For the white man, Whistler began as a fishing lodge and logging camp early in the 1900s. By the mid-’60s it was a dirty-hippie ski town, and by the early ’80s buildings started popping up like mushrooms after a shitstorm.
These days Whistler is a skiing icon—everybody knows it, and all kinds of places are buying into the Whistler model, hoping to copy, and cash in, on what makes us so key. Sure there are places with better snow (Smithers) and a mellower vibe (the Kootenays), but the truth is, nowhere in North America comes close to delivering the all-around package of Whistler.
The numbers are impressive—an average snowfall of 10 metres (33 feet for you Yanks out there), 3,307 hectares of in-bounds terrain, 200-plus trails, 38 lifts, sick terrain parks, night pipe and, tucked at the bottom of the mountains, the best party town in Canada, hands down.
But numbers and statistics aren’t what make Whistler so epic. It’s the people who live here—whether it’s that comedian–ski instructor that taught you how to ride pow and laugh when you bail, or the gorgeous bartender with the big hair who was smashing glasses for fun and made that one lucky dude do a shot of Jack out of her bosom, or the time you rode the chair with a couple of pros on a day off from filming and just up to rip the trees. These are the stories you tell your buds back home along with how you stomped that 540 in the black park or got the third chair up Peak when there was a foot of fresh.
In Whistler it’s also the 90-plus restaurants and bars, the sick nightclubs, the cute girls or the scruffy dudes that all look the same, the improv snowball fights when it dumps, the free concerts at the Ski and Snowboard Festival, the massive underground film and art communities—you can’t find stuff like this anywhere else. Not within spitting distance of two huge ski hills covered in pow and the sickest, comparatively safest, backcountry terrain in North America. There are enough backcountry lines within an hour of Whistler to last a lifetime for even the most hardcore ski-touring dirtbag. I hear there’s lots of cross-country skiing here, too, but you can do that crap anywhere, so whatever.
If you like to ski, Whistler is the best. It’s as simple as that. And if you disagree—awesome. You’re absolutely right. Don’t come here. It sucks. (More snow for me.)
Another shitty day at Alta. Cliff Bennett. Markewitz photo
When it comes to claiming the title for best skiing in North America, few regions can measure up against the powerhouse of British Columbia. One of the few contenders worthy of consideration, however, is the Mormon stronghold of Utah and its epicentre of powder-twins of Alta-Snowbird. Tucked away in the avalanche alley known as Little Cottonwood Canyon, these two ski areas are so close to Salt Lake City that the metropolis can legitimately claim the status of biggest ski town in North America. While the legendary resorts aren’t officially affiliated and were only recently connected across a shared ridge, one name is rarely mentioned without the other—a double dose of the continent’s lightest, fluffiest, re-goddamn-diculous snow. The local governments are so proud of it, they even went as far as to trademark Mother Nature’s gift with the notoriously goofy slogan “Greatest Snow on Earth.” With annual average snowfall of 1,270 centimetres and a combined total of 4,700 acres of terrain, the situation makes for friendly neighbours. Unless, that is, you’re a snowboarder, then your lame, chute-shedding, side-slipping and poorly laid traverse tracks still aren’t welcome at Alta. This cold-hearted exclusion is a welcome proviso for bitter skiers hanging on to any notion of the old days—which is pretty much what and who you’ll find at Alta. Snowbird offers more than enough to make up for it; the same snow on the same aspects creates a big-mountain terrain park worthy of an IFSA World Tour venue and makes it a breeding ground for some of the highest profile pros in the business: Sage Cattabriga-Alosa and Jamie Pierre are only two examples of Little Cottonwood’s influence. A trip to Alta-Snowbird means nothing less than guaranteed world-class powder skiing, even if part of it is a blast from the past.
Not all Eastern areas are icy. Hardy Avery delves deep. Waskusch photo
“How special is a town where the girls think the best way to spend Valentine’s Day is slashing three feet of fresh pow?” asks local Justine Wysong, after the epic spring storm of 2007. It’s pretty damn special.
More than a simple tourist town, Stowe is steeped in history. It’s this deep-rooted skiing tradition that keeps Stowe grounded, despite all the growth and changes that have taken place over the years.
Stowe symbolizes the quintessential Eastern destination. It’s best known for great terrain—from grip-tight steeps to casual cruisers—but also superior snowmaking and grooming.
And Stowe is a status symbol, the Eastern resort frequented by movie stars, international tourists and iconic athletes. The home mountain of Burton snowboards, Stowe has a progressive freestyle scene and a wealth of diehard freeriders. And it’s got international appeal—close proximity to Quebec makes it easy for French-Canadians to shoot over the border and revel in the Stowe stoke.
The first Winter Carnival, flush with ski jumping and ice skating, took place in 1921. It was over a decade before the downhill experience was had. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed Bruce Trail, Stowe’s first, in 1933. People hiked for their turns until a single chair was built in 1940.
“A big part of what defines this place is that, for locals, Stowe’s past is present,” says Stowe skier John Dostal. “The mountain’s original trail, the Bruce, is still in play. Even though the Starr, cut in the ’60s, was laid over it, people still ski bits of the original line and refer to its 1930s predecessor, S 53.”
Improvements, including a new intermountain lift connecting Spruce Peak and Mansfield, keep Stowe moving forward. Many Eastern resorts feature more cat-track than fall-line terrain. Not Stowe. With Mount Mansfield’s summit elevation of 4,395 feet (highest in Vermont), 485 skiable acres, and average snowfall of 330-plus inches, Stowe has everything from alpine exposure to low-angle glades. The legendary Front Four—Goat, National, Liftline and Starr—are classic black-diamond lines. OB lines like Hellbrook tumble down into Smugglers’ Notch, and after skating down the Mountain Road, cold ones await at the Matterhorn.
Kris Cormier gets his tips frosted. Mossop photo
It’s a standard-issue powder day at Lake Louise. Ten centimetres has blown around the back bowls, creating carveable, racy conditions. As the saying goes, “No place wears 10 centimetres like The Lake”—and it’s a good thing, ’cause that’s usually all it gets. We ski all afternoon with a rotating cast of friends and strangers. The hill isn’t overrun with experts competing for tracks, and therefore has a laid-back feel. The Crack o’ Noon Club can still get fresh tracks, and other skiers are more comrades than competition.
We ski hard, but at the top of Paradise chair we pause to chat and enjoy the view of Lake Louise itself across the valley and the surrounding glaciated peaks. The view is awe-inspiring, and thanks to the protection of Canada’s original national park, it’s the same view that greeted skiers 100 years ago.
Drawn by the dramatic landscape and lakeside chateau, those first skiers loaded their wooden skis onto locomotives and chugged their way to Lake Louise. The area was already a hotbed for mountaineering when a group of adventurous Banff skiers built the West’s first ski lodge in the Skoki Valley, in 1930. A daylodge on what is now Lake Louise Ski Resort was constructed six years later, and the first mechanized lift erected in 1954. Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I first skied here.
For me and most of the freeskiing world, Louise was born when RAP Films started pointing cameras at Kirk Jensen and Andrew Sheppard. With glacial peaks shining under blue skies as a backdrop, the Louise locals displayed an approach that was both aggressive and playful, with an inherent fluidity and unflappable style. Years later, their way of skiing is still the way to ski The Lake. The vertical cornices are spots for airplane turns. Tight chutes are hammered with precision short-radius turns, while tighter ones still are straight run. Fat skis have changed the way most people devour the open bowls, but when it comes to playing with the mountain’s features, those guys were so ahead of their time, most are still trying to catch up.
They also left a tradition of humility. The place seems to breed it. Perhaps it’s because no matter how great a skier you are, the mountains around Louise offer lines that are beyond you. It’s a landscape that is completely indomitable. These peaks make you feel alive, but they can also make you feel weak, incapable and mortal.
For our final run, we slide under the boundary rope. Because of national park restrictions, Louise is not likely to expand, but with the growing popularity of backcountry skiing and an open boundary policy, the area people ski is expanding. In mountains like these, there is always a new zone to check out just one ridge farther. So, after almost 100 years, the exploring continues.
Henrik Windstedt finds his own riches in Aspen. Fredrikkson photo
Aspen. Even the name strikes fear into your heart—fear that you’re missing some kind of party. Which you probably are. Beginning in January, Aspen is home to Gay Ski Week, the Winter X Games, U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, Food & Wine Classic, The Meeting (fall film premieres), and the Aspen Cocktail Classic, among others. But the biggest party you’re probably missing is on the mountains, in the form of great skiing. Whether it’s a double dose of classic Colorado champagne powder, mogul-bashing on one of Aspen’s gorgeous blue-sky Rocky Mountain days, or spinning laps on North America’s premier high-speed cruiser, Ruthie’s Run (Euros can’t say enough about this piste), the skiing here says everything about how and why resortdom took hold of this old silver mining town in the Roaring Fork Valley in the first place. And why it has turned into a kind of celebrity ski camp both for Hollywood stars and generation X Games athletes.
Each of the resort’s four unconnected mountains has its own unique character. Snowmass is huge, diverse and unpopulated. Despite its name, flattish Buttermilk has shed its beginner’s rep and found raison d’être in the massive terrain park and cross-runs sculpted on it annually for the X Games. Highlands is just that, with super-steeps and rad backcountry bowls hovering between 3,000 and 4,000 metres, leaving you out of breath on two counts—altitude and the spectacular views to the twin peaks of Maroon Bells, famous from many a Sierra Club calendar. The main mountain of Ajax, footing the town, is surprisingly gnar—almost 70 per cent is expert terrain, and ferocious bump runs like Ridge of Bell are one of the places the ’70s freestyle revolution fomented before breaking continent-wide. Sucking up corduroy rollers at subsonic speed in any of Ajax’s several gulches (once home to the infamous 24 Hours of Aspen team race) on a crisp, blue-sky day is like pulling Gs in the space shuttle and enough to have you hallucinating. Don’t worry, though: all those bizarre-but-intricate shrines to the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Bob Marley, Jerry Garcia and Marilyn Monroe you see in the forest lining the runs on Ajax are real.
It proves one thing. Sure there’s a cheesy film extolling the area’s historic ski-bum virtues, and yes, there are Aspen trees beyond counting, with plenty of snow in between. But what really defines Aspen is that you can’t get away from the party—even when you’re skiing.
Aaron “Ragdoll” McGovern, in a rare moment on his feet. Markewitz photo
Squaw Valley, U.S.A.’s moniker is certainly no secret. There’s even an expert freeskier’s guidebook bearing the name. But while many associate “Squallywood” with an attitude, the term is more apropos on account of the mountain’s physical layout and its place steeped in steep-skiing history.
In 1960 the late Alex Cushing lured the Winter Olympics to the fledgling ski area and put Squaw on the map. But it was the ’80s and the burgeoning film industry that gave the area its rep. First, the Hollywood romp Hot Dog... The Movie, followed by a barrage of Squaw-heavy ski movies. Ski filmmaking was by no means born at Squaw, but it found a solid home there. And through the past three decades Squaw’s in-bounds terrain has consumed more airtime—literally and figuratively—in movies than any ski area in the world. Consequently, the list of skiers who have called Squaw home reads like a who’s who of freeskiing. Pick an era, and iconic names leap forward: Steve and Tamara McKinney, Scot Schmidt, Tom Day, Kevin Andrews, the DesLauriers brothers, John Tremann, Brad Holmes, Shane McConkey, Kent Kreitler, Jonny Moseley, Ingrid Backstrom, C.R. Johnson, Michelle Parker.... One generation fades, and a new batch of Squaw superstars emerges to fill the void.
The film stars are only part of the equation, however, because for every renowned pro at Squaw, there are another 20 lesser-known rippers who can slay the same dynamic lines. Catch a powder day at Squaw, and it seems everyone and his or her mother can stomp a 40-footer and point a sketchy rocky sliver at 90 km/h. It’s enough to leave seemingly expert visitors bewildered and humbled.
But what is it that makes a mountain plagued by Sierra Cement and extremely short pitches churn out such talent and stellar images? Well, one man’s curse is another man’s treasure. From top to bottom, Squaw is littered with cliffs, and that dense snow pastes to the rock, opening up ridiculously steep lines and faces that wouldn’t be possible in lighter, fluffier snowpacks. And with many of the premier lines ranging from only 50 to 150 metres, skiers can get themselves in and out of trouble quickly, making the mountain a veritable playground for straightlining, billygoating, dropping in above exposure, and hitting cliffs at speed. It’s ideal for bursts of fear and adrenaline, with a safe zone almost always seconds away.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Squallywood without the show, and no ski area is so chock full of in-your-face terrain. Nearly everything is visible from chairlifts, which makes picking lines easy, and tearing up the real marquee features pure entertainment for all in view. And with more than 11 metres of snow a year, delivered in quick, powerful storms that can dump two or three metres in a matter of days, when that brilliant California sunshine returns (expect bluebird 300 days a year), the show is on. And it is one worth catching.
JD Zicat spins his way to Le P’tit Caribou. Rioux photo
In the 1930s thousands boarded snow trains out of Montreal to mingle with the rich and famous in the Laurentian mountain town of Ste-Agathe and try out the latest sporting rage: skiing.
Here the Montreal Ski Club’s crazed members practised their spectacular invention, the “Briancon Stop” (ski as fast as possible, then throw yourself to the ground). A typical weekend would include a ride behind the “Aeroski” plane that dragged peopsicles strapped to barrel staves at 120 km/h across a frozen lake.
American millionaire adventurer Joe Ryan was among the crowd drawn to the rugged forests and lakes of the Laurentians in 1938. After trudging on skins 875 metres through heavy snow to the tallest peak in the massif, Ryan was smitten. A year and $250,000 later, he opened Eastern North America’s first ski resort on Mount Tremblant.
Algonquin Indian legend says disturbing the trembling mountain would cause its angered spirits to shake and roar. After 65 years of having their frozen tranquility shattered by snow moving, tree bashing, and all-night revelry, those ghosts are pissed off and bent on getting even.
Why else would Tremblant visitors out for a quiet weekend of fine French provincial food and fresh air find themselves skiing and partying like a 15-year-old on a Ritalin vacation? The Quebecois bon vivant spirit infuses the Tremblant lifestyle: laugh often, eat well, drink lots, and ski so fast that the winter winds can’t catch you.
Those ancient ghosts still lull skiers into the woods with the promise of modern “glade skiing” and then pummel them with the Tremblant experience of skiing souis bois or “under the wood.” Most modern resorts forbid scraping through brush and stumps while dodging trees—the same risk-management guys that have banned dancing on bars. Happily, at Tremblant, both traditions are alive and well.
Sadly, by the 1980s, the Grand Dame of the East had become derelict and bankrupt, until Intrawest intervened in 1991 to write Mount Tremblant’s modern history.
Fifteen years of massive rebuilding have produced an abundance of comfortable condos and fabulous hotels in the new Tremblant village. A few of the original white clapboard shacks were saved to form at the base of the new development, and somehow the French provincial charm of the region has survived despite the overwhelming Disney-on-steroids architecture.
Tremblant’s greatest renaissance has been on-piste. The original lovingly hand-cut runs are now groomed to velvet perfection. A new southern exposure aptly named Versant Soleil has welcome early sunlight that softens up the 80-per-cent-diamond terrain. Along with Tremblant’s original two faces, the resort now boasts 631 acres of skiable terrain.
Forty acres of terrain parks, an Olympic Superpipe, and a total of 94 runs offer a wide range of modern options. Astutely the new management has held onto many great Tremblant traditions, like allowing the steep Expo trail to turn into treacherous moguls. The chairlift overhead still offers the ultimate yard-sale viewing seat on the continent.
When skiers funnel down to the new open-air plaza at the end of the day, they unwittingly step into Tremblant’s “extreme” territory. Here any tourist would be a fool to try to keep up with the locals, who have trained for almost a century to master a Tremblant tradition of legendary danger: the après ski.