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Return to the Rockies

TIME : 2016/2/26 17:40:06

A decade on, Linton Besser tours Canada's finest fields — and remembers why he once thought he could ski them forever.

I was last here in 1998. Drivers flashed their headlights at me; some leant on the horn, scowling, a plume of snow trailing behind like white dust.

A virgin hitchhiker, I was too busy looking tough (for the benefit of blokes in trucks) and boyish (for single women in tidy hatchbacks) to take in my surroundings. I waited for hours before I realised I was standing several metres behind a giant motorway sign that said: NO HITCHHIKING. DRIVERS FACE FINES.

But back then, it didn't matter. It was part of the adventure. All those years ago I had no plan - just a Walkman and reckless curiosity. I slept on frozen campgrounds and in 12-to-a-room dormitories. Now I'm strapped aboard a carefully scripted itinerary: 12 nights under Egyptian cotton, 12 days skiing in the Rocky Mountains. I have an iPod plugged into the stereo of my rental SUV.

I pick up two hitchhikers on the way. One is German and the other is from Melbourne.

I drive through the Rockies' most breathtaking gateway, Jasper National Park, and think about how things have changed. I recall the truckie who radioed ahead to find me another lift; the amateur hunter who gave me a frozen moose steak from last summer's kill. This time I'm insulated from people, a vacationer.

There are still the vast tracts of untouched forest that I remember, the unusual skyline of jet-black mountains, both square and jagged, and the boulder-strewn rivers. But the mountain life of Alberta and British Columbia seems to have been transformed. The frontier has been pushed back so far it can be largely ignored, except by those who seek it out. And the hard-luck men and women who made the mountains habitable have been replaced by couples running souvenir shops and Italian restaurants.

But it's probably me. I have been transformed into a holidaymaker focused on the buttermilk pancakes and the tour guide's brochure spread over the table, selecting wild places from a menu, like breakfast. I stay at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, built in 1915 as little more than a row of tents for summer holidays among the deer and the elk. These days it is log-cabin luxury. The fireplace in my cabin is freshly latticed with kindling each morning. Gazing over a frozen lake at dusk - wrapped in a bathrobe, listening to my roaring fire - I feel like a captain of industry.

Jasper sits on one side of a long valley that comes to its zenith at the formidable Mount Edith Cavell, at 3363 metres. For a long time it was simply where charcoaled men retired after a day in the coal mine. The town was originally named Fitzhugh and it seems to have been carved from the valley only because it was designated as a four-way railway junction. As late as the 1960s most arrivals came by train.

Fitzhugh, now Jasper, is so picturesque it was twice chosen as a cinematic backdrop during Hollywood's golden era. James Stewart starred here in The Far Country, and then there was River of No Return, starring Marilyn Monroe.

When Monroe came to town, Harry Home was 19. Like everyone, he had heard she was coming, but when she showed up at a local dance, Home was awestruck. "She would dance with anyone," he says, "but I was too shy."

So when he saw Monroe two days later, strolling down Connaught Street, he was determined he wouldn't miss a second chance. "She was walking up the street and she was gorgeous," he says. "She was wearing a yellow sweater and a brown skirt. She was as normal and natural as blueberry pie." Gathering his courage, he apologised for his bashfulness at the dance. The corners of his eyes crease with the memory: "I didn't stutter once."

Home is now 77. He spent 49 years living here and shunting trains across the Rockies. He and his colleagues were paid twice a month but the railway wouldn't issue their money until after 3pm to prevent the men blowing their wages; they couldn't access their money until the following day. So in an act of shrewd generosity, the Astoria Hotel cashed their cheques that afternoon. The average pay in the 1960s was $125 and a glass of beer was ¢10.

The riot of drinking, eating and wrestling would be getting up a head of steam when "around 5.30pm, the wives would show up and lead their husbands out".

I meet Home at the Astoria - though now it's been, unfortunately, renamed D'ed Dog. I join him and John Stirling and Logan Roth, two other locals. Someone at the table orders a Caesar (a Bloody Mary with "Clamato", celery and a salt rim) and I'm transported back to the Royal - a redneck bar in southern BC where I made more Caesars than I care to remember. The bar was famous for the meanness of its owner and the padded cushions installed at head height above the urinals in the bathroom. I hated the job but I was free to ski all day.

Stirling, in his 40s, builds log cabins. He is quiet and his hands are like leather. About six years ago, he tells me, his then-girlfriend broke some kind of record when she was mauled to death by a grizzly bear 20 metres up a spruce tree, on the outskirts of town. The Rockies are not quite as sterilised as I had come to believe.

Roth, 31, is a cowboy, and until a few years ago he and his brother used to capture wild mustangs for rodeo operators. "Catching wild horses is in my blood," he says, downing a glass of beer. "Having a wild horse on the end of a rope is amazing. They squeal so loud you can hear them from a mile away. And to then turn and train them ... it's a feeling you don't experience all the time."

Roth, who wears a black feather in his bone-coloured ten-gallon hat, doesn't catch mustangs any more. He takes tourists on horse-drawn trips into the mountains.

For visitors, Jasper is a quaint old mountain town with plenty of diversions. A jumble of shop fronts dot the main streets, and there are comfortable hotels and chalets. Holidaymakers ski at Marmot Basin until the afternoon and then return to town for groceries and a flavoured coffee and to book a table for dinner. For the seasonal population, though, it's a throng of twentysomethings from Europe, Saskatchewan and Australia who teach skiing by day or drive snowcats at night and pile into share houses with very little furniture.

Jasper's winter economy is practically identical to a string of other Rocky Mountain towns: Banff, Lake Louise, Fernie, Whitewater, Golden, Revelstoke. It is better measured by accumulative snowfall than gross product. And it is a fiercely competitive business. Between December and April, these former mining towns are tied to the fortunes of their local ski resort.

Marmot Basin is Jasper's winter lifeline and one of the most northerly ski resorts in the Rockies. At the tip of the Columbia Icefield, the resort sits within one of Canada's most pristine wilderness areas, the Jasper National Park.

Finally, after 24 hours on a plane, two days in Edmonton and a day driving, I go skiing.

For more than a decade of winters in Australia, I've queued to ride the Crackenback chairlift at Thredbo, so now, on this clear bright morning, I am strongly - what's the word? - enthused.

I suspect there are dangers in trying to relive my early 20s in this week-long road trip and a handful of days of telemarking. Driving up the winding switchbacks from Jasper to Marmot, my mortgaged life as a married father of one melts away. I am on my own with no responsibilities and, despite a decade of physical atrophy behind a desk, I am determined to rip Marmot all day. I wince and release a bit more slack into the seatbelt around my gut.

It turns out a vicious cold front has followed me from Edmonton. When I get to the main building, someone has chalked the temperature on a blackboard outside: minus 32 degrees. At the top lift, it says, the wind is forcing the temperature down to below minus 50 degrees. They have closed the resort.

Still, I am not willing to concede defeat. The resort is not the largest in Canada and it is too cold here to get the kind of snowfall that makes other corners of the Rockies famous for deep, dry powder. But Marmot Peak stands at 2612 metres, it has several hundred metres of alpine skiing, and it has lift-accessible double-diamond terrain: tight trees, chest-high bumps, naturally gladed couloirs. It is a serious resort with heart-catching vertical and I'm here on my own - not a nappy change in sight. I am not going to be denied.

I step outside the resort and unfurl a pair of skins. I spend the morning climbing up through a forest clinging to the side of the mountain, protected from the wind that is scratching away its edge. I catch myself reflecting not so much on the quietness of the woods but on my sedentary day job. My calves protest loudly.

That night the air warms and I spend the next two days skiing and I remember why I once thought I would do this forever: the pull of gravity propelling you around each turn, the speed, is coupled in skiing with a sense of exploration that might only otherwise exist in surfing or hang-gliding. In these moments, I might as well be 20 again. I'm not thinking about work or bills or about juggling childcare. I am not even thinking about how I'll describe this moment. I am thinking of nothing. Between chairlifts, I shed millenniums of human evolution and become a ski bum again.

After three days I pull back onto Highway 16 and continue west towards Kamloops, which sits on the western edge of the Rockies. Leaving the charm of Jasper behind, I drive through an area of the mountains that sees few travellers. Winters are grim here, and Valemount, about 100 kilometres from Jasper, is a perfect illustration. Like its more-popular neighbour, the town has the same spectacular Rocky Mountains scenery. But blasted by arctic winds and mostly closed, Valemount seems a mere relic.

A few days later I arrive in Sun Peaks. Everything is different here. I am further west, it is warmer and there is less snow. The resort sits on the western flanks of the Rockies, just above Kamloops, a town not dissimilar to Dubbo. Sun Peaks is a purpose-built ski resort village, opened in 1992 and modelled on iconic towns in the Alps such as Zermatt, Chamonix and St Anton.

Structurally, it is not so different to Whistler, Canada's answer to Aspen, Colorado. But the "pedestrian resort" feels like a movie set; as though a truckload of roadies might arrive at any moment to pack it all away. There are hinged wooden signs swinging outside each ye-olde shop, eaves drooping with snow and a bell tower. It chimes with a brassy note. It is not that Sun Peaks is an unpleasant place to be. On the contrary, it is popular with Australians (they're everywhere) - it is just that I feel like an extra in The Truman Show. But then each time I step inside a shop, cafe or pub, a beaming Canadian leans over the counter with a steaming mug of coffee or a giant plate of food.

I ski for several days and I'm drowning in lactic acid. A warm front comes through and the snow, though fresh, becomes soupy. Sun Peaks is not a resort for men trying to relive their youth. It is a resort for families. Restaurant windows are steamed up with childrens' ruddy faces and exhausted parents drinking red wine. It's a place I want to be with my son, who I imagine bundled into a one-piece ski suit. For the first time in my life, I think tobogganing might be fun.

Suddenly my thoughts are filled with my wife and the boy, and my brave fire of reckless indifference is extinguished. I am lonely. On my last day, I summon the motivation for one more run, urging myself on. It might be another decade before I return.

Linton Besser travelled courtesy of Travel Alberta and Tourism British Columbia.


Getting there

Air Canada flies to Vancouver from Sydney (about 14hr non-stop) with connections to Kamloops (55min, to access Sun Peaks, for about $1894) or Edmonton (1hr 25min, to access Jasper, for about $2048). This is a low-season return fare including tax; Melbourne flyers connect in Sydney. You can arrange car hire at Kamloops and Edmonton and drop off at either airport.

Skiing there

Marmot Basin resort is about 20 minutes' drive from the centre of Jasper. Magic Bus Tours has a daily shuttle between town and up the hill. The resort has ski runs for all levels of ability, a ski school and a hire shop. See

Sun Peaks is a Euro-styled ski resort and one of the biggest in North America. Although it has a range of steeper slopes, the resort caters particularly to beginners and families. See

A Sun Peaks package including seven nights at Hearthstone Lodge and a six-day lift pass costs from $909 a person, twin share. A Jasper package including seven nights at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and a six-day lift pass costs from $935 a person, twin share. Phone Ski Max, 1300 136 997.

Staying there

The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is one of Canada's most luxurious hotels. On Fraser River, it has rooms and self-contained cabins overlooking the lake — including the Outlook Cabin, which has hosted members of the Windsor royal family. A room in February with breakfast included costs from $C254 ($250) a night; see

Kookaburra Lodge at Sun Peaks has apartments near the centre of the village, some with outdoor hot tubs on the balcony. A two-bedroom apartment costs from $C210 a night; see