Cue the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Duct tape a sombrero onto your helmet. Find a half-burned cigarillo (good luck!) to chomp on.
The bad boys have arrived at Marmot Basin, Alberta’s quieter, family-friendly Rocky Mountain ski resort in Jasper National Park.
These new rascals are Tres Hombres – a series of double-black-diamond ski runs on the north side of the 1,720-acre ski resort. These are not baby double-blacks, either. They’re the real deal, with delicious steeps covered in gobs of the kind of soft snow that puts even the harshest runs within reach of weekend warriors like me.
Brian Rode, Marmot’s vice-president of marketing and sales, said the resort has wanted to develop this challenging leasehold territory for years.
“It is the longest uninterrupted fall-line at Marmot Basin and is incredible advanced and expert skiing terrain,” he said. “We knew this would … thrill expert skiers.”
Getting Parks Canada sign-off was a time-consuming and rigorous process.
“We had to evaluate the area and formulate an operational plan that included our avalanche control plan,” Rode said. “We worked closely with Parks Canada to ensure there would be no negative environmental impacts.”
The work included a two-year caribou study and a three-year goat study, both required by Parks Canada. Marmot Basin also surrendered 18 per cent of its leasehold (about 350 acres) by moving the lease up-slope from the valley bottom to avoid encroaching on wildlife. An exit route back to the main slopes also required careful planning.
But, in the end, both parties were satisfied.
“Parks Canada was left with a net environmental gain and Marmot skiers were left with a new piece of incredible expert terrain,” said Rode.
Marmot Basin has a record of working co-operatively with Parks Canada. It’s the first of the four ski areas located in the Canadian Rocky Mountain national park system in Alberta to negotiate a vision statement and site guidelines. Having a long-range land use plan mapped out created an atmosphere of enhanced trust.
The name for the Tres Hombres area comes from an incident more than four decades ago involving local scofflaws. In 1973, three local skiers ducked the fence and “poached” – skied illegally – in the closed area several times. As it happens, one of the popular rock albums of the day was ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres.
“Three skiers, Tres Hombres, and voila, the legend was born,” said Rode.
For decades, Marmot has been the yin to Banff’s yang – a refreshing alternative to the crowded parking lots at Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. Though it’s smaller than those two cousins to the south, Marmot has a near-ideal blend of runs that appeal to all levels of skiers and riders. Thirty per cent of its 91 runs are within reach of novices, another one-third will appeal to blue runners, 20 per cent is advanced and now another 20 per cent is expert.
Just a little more than a half-century old as an official ski resort, Marmot has grown a lot in the past decade. The addition of a high-speed quad chairlift called Paradise Express in 2011-2012 was transformative. It made it infinitely easier to get as many as 2,400 skiers and riders an hour into higher terrain.
Two friends and I visited Marmot during the Jasper in January festivities. Though it had been days since a snowfall, we were still able to find patches of powder, especially on the higher runs. We spent our days on the upper half of the mountain by grabbing decadent lunches of poutine and beef at the mid-mountain Eagle Dining Room, washed down with Jasper Crisp Pils – a fine local brew.
Unfortunately, such calorie-laden indulgences can lead to ill-considered enthusiasms. Mine was a choice to make the gruelling half-hour hike up to Marmot Peak from the Knob Chair. If your fitness level can take it, it’s worth the trip. Taking in the stunning scenery at the peak gives you precious minutes to bring the heart rate down and prepare for the rush of romping down expanses of untracked powder.
Like the mountain town it’s close to, Marmot’s remoteness helps keep it special. It’s a four-hour drive from Edmonton Airport and five hours – weather permitting – up the Icefields Parkway from Calgary Airport. Heavy snows can shut those routes, leaving you stranded.
The nine-hour drive from Vancouver is also quite a schlep.
But what a reward awaits the adventurous.
This town feels like a step back in time. Its heritage Athabasca Hotel still serves the best old-school eggs Benny breakfast in town. The restaurants and bars are mostly local and there wasn’t a Lululemon store in site. It’s so folksy, the readers of USA Today recently voted it the best ski town in North America for 2018. It’s got my vote, too.
If you love the outdoors in winter, Jasper offers a broad range of activities, including skating, snowshoeing, hikes, cross-country skiing and geo-caching. Tuckered after two full days of skiing, our gang of three amigos chose to spend our third day hiking through the spectacular Maligne Canyon, just 14 kilometres northeast of town.
Sometimes, when you visit a special place, you hesitate to tell the world for fear it will be spoiled. Western Canadians already know about Jasper and Marmot, and yet its isolation shelters it from the worst of the over-tourism plaguing many of southern B.C.’s ski resorts.
Those who take the time to travel the extra distance will be glad they did.