The backcountry skiing world is growing fast, and with fast growth comes a more mixed demographic. Lately I’ve been asked the question “where can I go skinning for fitness and not have to worry about avalanches?” a lot. While your local skimo racer will quickly point to skinning uphill in a resort as the main and often only answer, even that answer is not as clear cut as many will lead you to believe. In this article I’ll quickly go over the uphilling at the resort issue and then go over three places in the Banff area that can fulfill the desire of getting out with less risk.
Resorts Are Not A “Free For All” Uphill Location
Let me be very clear on the use of uphilling at a ski resort: most resorts don’t allow it and it is not your god given right to be skinning anywhere you want while inbounds at a resort. In Banff National Park the resorts allow access to backcountry zones through their resorts. This does not mean you can skin up any run and do laps on it. It means that you can travel on certain runs in order to access backcountry areas that you otherwise could not. For example if you are going to Healy Pass you need to use the lower ski out at Sunshine to access the trailhead. If you are skinning to Boulder Pass behind Lake Louise you do so by skinning up the long, flat ski-out. You can not, for example, skin up the front side of Lake Louise since the resort is not limiting your access to the backcountry. For resorts outside of the National Park there are often strict “no uphill traffic” rules in place and when breaking this rule you are trespassing in most cases. Some resorts offer uphill tickets that allow you to skin up certain zones to ski, often these are fairly cheap and they do provide a great service for those who want the exercise of touring and the safety of a controlled zone. In all cases you should confirm with your local ski resort about uphill traffic before heading up.
Admittedly a ski resort is a hard place to beat for ease of use for someone that wants to get some uphill exercise with less avalanche risk. The resort is a highly controlled area compared to the backcountry, which can provide even a “never ever” skier with the option of going uphill without having to worry about the down too much. The backcountry areas I have included in this article require you to ski back down, and although they aren’t difficult “runs” they are still more difficult than most ski outs at a resort. Even though these areas don’t have much avalanche danger you should still carry and know how to use all your avalanche safety gear. If you do not know what I am talking about, or haven’t taken an AST 1 yet, then I suggest you visit Avalanche Canada and check out my Get Into Backcountry Skiing series of articles.
Rockbound/Tower Lake Trail
Skiing distance: about 7.5km, 650m if turning around at Tower Lake.
Drive to Castle Junction on highway 1 and head east 100m on the 1A to find this parking lot. There is an outhouse at the trailhead and a gas station at the intersection.
This wide, old mining road has a great, steady pitch until you wrap around the corner of Castle Mountain and head to Tower Lake. The trail is rated as Class 1, Simple avalanche terrain but you won’t be exposed to much in the way of avalanche danger until just before getting to Tower Lake. Some of the small hill sides along the lower trail could slide in very extreme situations but generally the lower forest here doesn’t see a lot of snow fall. Going past Tower Lake and onward to Rockbound Lake puts you in more risk as the slopes coming off Castle are sizable and the final climb to Rockbound Lake is steep. This trail sees a lot of hiking and snowshoe traffic so it is usually firmly packed down. The ski back down from Tower Lake is rolling terrain but the last 6km is a consistent down. Overall the main downhill section is great fun for beginners as it is long and has some room to slow down if needed.
Taylor Lake Trail
Skiing distance: 6km, 600m to Taylor Lake.
The parking lot is signed and is found a few kms west of Castle Junction on highway 1. Often it is very busy so please don’t box other cars in, this seems to happen more every year. There is an outhouse found at the trailhead.
This summer trail starts off fairly flat but then steepens until you get to Taylor Lake. It is a typical single track summer trail and it can be tricky coming down as you gain speed or if there are other people coming uphill. Often you can escape into the side snow in order to slow down or avoid people. Again there are few very small, isolated steep areas along the trail that could avalanche in very extreme conditions but these situations would be rare. If looking to avoid avalanche terrain it’s best to turn around at Taylor Lake and head down. Those with the ability to identify and avoid avalanche danger could head left or right of the lake to do some exploring, there is excellent skiing found in the area. The lake itself should not be considered a safe zone either, as I have seen one very large avalanche travel a good distance across it during an extreme rated avalanche cycle.
Smith Lake and/or Twin Lakes Trail
Skiing distance: about 8km, 600m to Twin Lakes, or 2.5km, 200m to Smith Lake
At Castle Junction head a short distance south on Highway 93S and park at the pull off with a large garbage bins. Cross the highway and access the summer road/parking via a gate. You will skin or walk down the summer road where you will find signage for the trail.
Parks Canada has classified the Twin Lakes Trail as Class 1, Simple avalanche terrain but outside of a small section of steep open slope in the forest there isn’t much to worry about on this summer trail that travels through a fairly dense forest. The trail rolls a fair amount and at times it will test your ability to go downhill on skins on the way up, and give you a good “side step” workout on the way down. The last couple of kms up to Twin Lakes is fairly flat and you will start to get some great views of Storm Mountain. Once at Twin Lakes it’s best to turn around unless you have the skills to deal with the more serious avalanche terrain around Gibbon Pass. For those looking for a short day, or to do laps, Smith Lake can work well. You will see the turn off for Smith Lake at the 0.5km mark of the Twin Lakes Trail. This trail is more consistently up than the Twin Lakes trail but is much shorter and as long as you don’t ski down the lake slope you will not be in avalanche terrain.
You Are Still Backcountry Skiing
Although most backcountry skiers will consider these options on the boring side, they can provide good exercise and you still need to be prepared to deal with any kind of emergency. Carry avalanche safety gear and a first aid kit. Be prepared to spend the night out if something serious happens and help can’t come quickly. As the backcountry becomes more popular we need to focus more than ever to be responsible backcountry users.