Monday, March 14, 2016

Introduction to Family Backcountry Ski Touring

I've participated in many conversations on the topic of taking  kids "backcountry skiing"over the last year or two with questions centered around when the kids would be ready, how to keep it safe, how to build a pair of backcountry skis for a child (or whether it was even necessary,) and if it was really all that necessary to take kids into the backcountry at a young age (always my biggest question since kids don't have to try every experience under the sun before they're even 8 years old!)

When and How do you Introduce Children to Backcountry Skiing?

Hesitations in Taking Children Backcountry Skiing

Gear -Backcountry skiing usually requires a special alpine touring (AT) ski set up with bindings that act like cross country skis on the way up (heels flexible to move up an down,) and that act like downhill skis on the way down (with heels locked in.)

Downhill skis work just fine when kids are young
Having AT skis is optimal in the backcountry but our son already has downhill and cross country skis - and he's only 7! Why would we buy or make a third pair of skis for somebody so young? That would be like having three separate bikes for a child (again, a crazy idea for somebody so small.)

While costly to buy or make a special AT set up for children, it's really not so much about the start up cost with me as it is about the size of the child (who's constantly growing.) If I go out and buy a new pair of skis, I know that my skis and boots are going to last me many years. A child however is going to need a new pair of skis and boots every year or two as he or she grows.  And yes, AT skis require their own custom boots so you likely won't be doubling up with downhill ski boots.

Avalanche Danger - Most backcountry ski areas cross avalanche slide paths or require spending significant amounts of time in areas prone to avalanches. It is my personal opinion that children should not be skiing in areas that pose avalanche risk. While I would consider crossing a small slide path quickly, carefully, and without stopping, I would not spend prolonged periods of time in avalanche terrain with children.

Skiing across the meadows before Chester Lake (avalanche risk-free)

Skill and Ability - My husband and I both agree that children don't belong in serious backcountry terrain until they posses the following abilities:

Fortunately, there are easy backcountry places to explore
  • Ability to ski intermediate and advanced terrain at an alpine resort in a mixture of conditions including fresh powder, heavy spring snow, moguls and bumpy terrain, and even the dreaded "death cookie" type chunks of snow frozen in place after a favourite powder run has been skied out and then frozen solid overnight

  • Ability to ski intermediate to advanced glades at an alpine resort (obviously without hitting a tree and in a variety of conditions)

  • Ability to cross country ski on advanced groomed/track set trails. Cross country skis work well on many backcountry trails if the trails is not too steep, but children need to be able to conquer the difficult hills on a groomed trail before heading out on a natural trail. 

 By the criteria above, my 7 year old is not ready to go into the backcountry seeking out turns.


Where to Begin When You're Ready for that First Backcountry Trip

Hesitations aside, where do you begin if you are ready to embrace the challenge and "try" some easy backcountry skiing as a family?

Start small - Choose an easy to intermediate light touring trail that is not tracked or groomed. Have the kids hike or snowshoe up and carry their downhill gear. Bring helmets for the descent and a tow rope for the flat sections.

If the trail doesn't have a lot of height gain and isn't overly steep (or has many flat sections,) children could use cross country skis as well with the use of a tow rope or snowshoes for the way up.

Note RE tow ropes: They work well with cross country skis when kids can help by shuffling along while you pull them up hills,  or they work for very short sections on downhill skis but don't expect to tow your child on downhill skis uphill for an hour. They have to lean back quite significantly when the hill is steep and your back will not thank you the next day.

Moving across the flats at Chester Lake

Chester Lake with  downhill gear
Work up to it - We just did Chester Lake as a family. My son hiked up the 300 metre ascent and he did the descent with downhill gear. This wasn't our first ski trip of the season though. Noah had already logged 100+ km on skis this winter and he has done many intermediate/advanced trails on cross country skis this year. We introduced him to easy tree skiing at an alpine resort earlier this month and he comfortably skis blue runs at resorts. While he isn't ready for serious backcountry skiing, he was ready for Chester Lake (a trip that good skiers can do on cross country skis.)

Other Suggestions:

  • Use AT skis or have skins for your cross country skis if towing your child up hills.

  • The supervising adult should be very comfortable in backcountry terrain and in full control. My husband used AT skis on our recent trip up to Chester Lake because it gave him the most control and comfort. I used cross country skis but I wasn't doing as much towing and didn't have to keep up to anybody on the way down. The boys waited for me periodically as I snow plowed down to save my life.

  • Helmets should be imperative for children (and adults if skiing through heavy trees or if you are new to this sort of skiing)

Chester Lake in Kananaskis

Where to Start near Calgary

The following trails are great for families wanting to introduce the children to soft backcountry skiing in safe areas that do not enter avalanche terrain (also known as ski touring as opposed to backcountry skiing in search of turns.)

Chester Lake, Kananaskis - This is the trail that we just did and it worked well for snowshoeing or hiking up, and then skiing down with regular downhill gear. Adults towing kids will want AT skis or skins on cross country skis. If using cross country skis, you will want to be very confident on steep twisty trails through trees. I kept my skins on for the steepest part down from the lake until I was on the lower loop part of the trail. (all photos in this story up to this point have been from the Chester Lake trail.)

The only real down side of this trail is that there are many flat sections up by the lake which require a child on downhill skis to be towed on the way out. Once you hit the downhill part though, it is super fun and a very easy run down to the car for those on full alpine gear. Kids would need intermediate resort skills but the trail is usually well packed down so they likely won't be skiing through much powder.

Chester Lake on a clear day

Boom Lake, Banff National Park - This trail only has 175 metres of height gain over 5.1km (one way distance.) It is a great trail on cross country skis if looking for something that's not maintained or track set. Children may need help getting up some of the steeper hills (with tow rope or just walking) but downhill skis should not be necessary. If children are using downhill skis, prepare to tow them for significant portions of the trail where it is not steep enough to get up much speed.

You will come to a sign that says "end of official ski trail" shortly before you descend down to the lake. Know that there is one avalanche slide path past this point if you go straight (avoided by turning left and descending steeply to lake level on a well broken trail.) Once at the lake, enjoy the views and turn around. 

Read more here: Family Backcountry Ski Touring in Banff: Boom Lake 

Boom Lake on light touring skis 

Paradise Valley, Lake Louise - This is a great intro. backcountry trip that can be done on cross country skis by competent skiers. You begin by skiing up the Moraine Lake Road at Lake Louise, up the Fairview Trail (all groomed and track set to this point) and then continuing on the summer bike trail into Paradise Valley where you enter backcountry terrain. 

We usually go as far as the second bridge and return (no avalanche danger this far.) Depending on conditions, we either follow the summer trail through the trees between the two bridges or we ski straight up the creek from the first bridge (my preference.)

This trail would be challenging on downhill skis purely because of the amount of time spent on groomed trails. It is best done on light touring skis (cross country skis with metal edges.) Children would have to be competent on narrow twisty trails and I'd recommend helmets. Bring a tow rope for the uphill sections on the way in or plan to have kids walk the steepest parts.

The above story also includes skiing to Ross Lake off the Great Divide Trail.

Paradise Valley Ski touring at Lake Louise 

Other Suggestions

  • Goat Creek Trail, Canmore to Banff  - This trail is occasionally groomed and track set but is usually pretty "natural" in feeling. The 19 km long trail (best done from the Spray Lakes Road to Banff) is very remote and has a few good hills on it as you descend close to 300 metres over the entire distance.

  • Lake O'Hara Road, Yoho National Park - This 11 km long road is periodically track set but unless you time it just right, it will be skier-tracked without grooming. It's great practice for backcountry trails and you can stay the night at the Elizabeth Parker Hut. (Please note if staying at the hut, you will likely be in avalanche terrain if you stray too far above the hut without knowledge of where to ski safely.)

  • Rummel Lake, Kananaskis - This trail is 10km return with 400 metres height gain. Kids could hike up and ski down using downhill skis. There is no avalanche danger if you stop at the lake. 

Cascade River Bridge bridge on the Cascade River Trail

Other suggestions? Leave a comment below because we'll be looking for ideas next winter as we try more of this kind of skiing.

Skiing across Bow Lake in Banff - a great intro to natural skiing without tracks or grooming

Disclaimer: Please know the risks going in if attempting a ski trip into backcountry terrain with children. Try the trail as an adult (without the kids) first, and respect your kids' abilities. If you don't know where to ski without entering avalanche terrain, please take a course first so that you can safely evaluate your surroundings. Travel with more experienced friends if new to backcountry skiing and know your limits. 

For the purposes of this story, I am assuming you will NOT be entering avalanche terrain. If you are, that puts you into a whole different realm of backcountry skiing that I am not prepared to talk about at this time. Again, if you do not know where to safely ski in the backcountry, please take an avalanche safety course.

For more information about avalanche safety please visit the Avalanche Canada website. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Yurt-Camping in Kananaskis at Mount Engadine Lodge

Raise your hand if you like winter camping? In a tent. While it's snowing outside. After you've been skiing all day and you're already wet and cold. Thought so - I don't see many hands raised. And I don't blame you because I don't like winter camping either. "Usually."

Now ignore the classic idea of winter camping and picture this instead:
You drive up to your beautiful backcountry lodge perched on a bench overlooking a snowy meadow with awe-inspiring mountains in the background. You then grab your bags and set off on a two-minute hike through the forest to reach your cozy home for the night - a small yurt tucked away in a remote corner of the Mount Engadine Lodge property. The yurt is cool upon entry but you know that it will warm up as soon as you turn on the propane heater, and you look forward to crawling into your down sleeping bag later that night. First though, you have a three course gourmet meal waiting for you at the lodge (included with your stay) and if you've arrived early enough you can go enjoy afternoon tea in the sunny dining room complete with a charcuterie and pastry board (with home-made apple strudel also available if you're checking in on a Sunday.)
Now who's interested in winter camping?

Winter Yurt-Camping at Mount Engadine Lodge

The Mount Engadine Lodge Experience

This front country lodge is located in Spray Valley Provincial Park on the Spray Lakes Road outside of Canmore. The Spray Lakes Road turns into the Smith Dorrien/Spray Trail (highway 742 south) and the Lodge is located beside the road to the Mount Shark trailhead past the Spray Lakes Reservoir.

While the lodge is considered "front country" due to its drive-up approach, you will definitely get a backcountry experience as you stay in this remote setting for a night or two. For more information on the location and how to reach the lodge, visit their website for driving instructions.

Mount Engadine Lodge, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Kananaskis

Accommodation at Mount Engadine comes in various options depending on your budget. The lodge suites overlook the meadow are ideal for families wanting to stay at Mount Engadine. Well-behaved pets are even welcome in some rooms at the lodge so you won't be stuck finding a dog-sitter during your stay.

Lodge Suite at Mount Engadine Lodge

The second option available for families is the Meadows Edge Chalet on the Mount Engadine property. The chalet has three separate rooms in the cabin, each with private bathrooms and showers. My favourite, the Whiskey Jack room has two bedrooms (one with a queen bed and the other with twin beds) and its own private deck.

The Meadows Edge Chalet at Mount Engadine Lodge

The third option for families at Mount Engadine is the yurt where we recently stayed. This is by far the cheapest option at $125 per person for a night (including all meals at the lodge.) Families wanting to stay without meals can rent the yurt for $50 per night and treat it as more of a real camping experience. Children receive a discounted rate and the yurt sleeps four people.

Winter Yurt Camping at Mount Engadine Lodge

Five-Star Dining at Mount Engadine Lodge

All stays at Mount Engadine include afternoon tea (coffee, tea, charcuterie board, pastries, apple strudel on Sundays,) a three-course dinner with soup or salad, main course, and dessert, breakfast the next day, and a packed lunch for your adventures.

And lest you worry about the "quality" of your food during your stay, this is 5-star dining at it's finest! Chef Gerard Garnier serves up gourmet meals that could include Eggs Benedict with smoked bacon for breakfast along with slow cooked bison ribs or rack of lamb for dinner. Even the sandwiches for lunch taste better than anything I could prepare myself with fresh baked bread and homemade cookies to take on the trail.

Charcuterie and Pastry Board at Mount Engadine Lodge

Enjoying Mount Engadine Lodge as a Day-Guest

Afternoon tea is available for visitors to the lodge every day between 2 and 5pm without a reservation if you just want to pop in after hiking or skiing in the Spray Lakes area. More information on the cost and on what's included is here at Afternoon Tea at Mount Engadine Lodge.

Dinner reservations can also be made if you just want to drop by for dinner without spending the night. Information on making reservations for dinner can be found on the website.

Winter Camping in Style at Mount Engadine Lodge

More on the Engadine Yurt Experience

As I mentioned earlier, we recently stayed in the yurt at Mount Engadine Lodge for a night. We spent the day skiing at nearby Chester Lake and then checked in with plenty of time to enjoy afternoon tea. We spent the rest of the afternoon  reading and playing games by the fireplace and enjoyed a fabulous gourmet dinner. After dinner we retreated to our cozy yurt and crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. We woke up the next morning and returned to the lodge for our breakfast with the other guests. We placed our lunch orders, spent some more time hanging out by the fireplace, and then left for our day's adventures.

A look inside the yurt at Mount Engadine Lodge

The yurt is primarily advertised for use during the spring, summer, and fall seasons, but if you are willing to "rough it" a little bit, you are more than welcome to make a reservation during the winter months as we did. The only request is that you  bring your own sleeping bags if staying in the off-season. During the summer months, bedding is provided for you in the yurt and it's more of a "glamping" experience.

We certainly didn't mind bringing our own sleeping bags and we were never cold in the yurt while sleeping. We didn't make use of the propane heater at night but it was there should we have wanted. We also had a fire pit located outside our little cabin which would be fun to sit around before bed.

The Mount Engadine Lodge yurt in its remote forest location

Other information you'll want to know before making a reservation:

  • The nearest bathrooms are located in the lodge, a short 2 minute walk away. The lodge is open all night though should you need it
  • If there are problems during the night, the lodge is always available for retreat. This is good news for families with little ones who may wake up early. You can just go into the lodge and hang out in the warm building at any time
  • The yurt does not have any furniture in it other than two bunk beds, a small table and a portable heater. Expect rustic. Fortunately you have the lodge just down the path and you are really only sleeping in the yurt
  • You are welcome to spend as much time in the main lodge as you want. You are official guests at Mount Engadine Lodge when staying in the yurt

Snowshoeing in the meadow below Mount Engadine Lodge

To make a reservation at Mount Engadine Lodge, visit the Mount Engadine Lodge website.

Big thanks to Mount Engadine Lodge for accommodating our stay in the yurt for the night. As always, all words are my own and I wasn't paid to write this story.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Family Guide to Kimberley Alpine Resort

I recall ski trips to Kimberley Alpine Resort with great fondness back in my pre-parenthood days. My husband and I used to make the trek across the border into BC to ski at Kimberley every couple of years and it was always one of my favourite hills. Many years later, we have finally returned to ski in this small mountain town, and everything was just as awesome as I remembered! Perhaps better...

We love skiing at Kimberley Alpine Resort

First Impressions of Kimberley Alpine Resort as a Family 

The Drive: The drive took us approximately 4.5 hours from Calgary and I admit, it was a bit far for a regular weekend trip. We chose to drive through Radium Hot Springs rather than through the Crowsnest Pass because we live in the NW of Calgary. Families in the south would likely prefer to reach Kimberley via the Crowsnest Pass (although then it would be tempting to just stop in Fernie and save an hour and a half of driving...)

Long drive aside, we left Calgary around 4:30pm and were in Kimberley by 9:00 for  a slightly "later than normal" bed time. We had all Saturday to ski and still managed to get in half a day of skiing on Sunday before heading home, arriving back in the city in time for dinner! (impressive driving I might add)

Next time we go to Kimberley we will make a long weekend of it so that we don't have to drive home after skiing on the second day. We'd likely still drive out Friday night, but it would be nice to be able to come home on Monday rather than rushing back Sunday.

The Kimberley Alpine Resort and Village

The Hill: One word - Corduroy!!! Oh, the glorious groomed corduroy! And lest you stop reading right now because of that previous sentence - there are plenty of natural runs too. In fact, Kimberley boasts of having the largest gladed terrain in North America. I also saw a few runs with moguls for those of you who like your ride bumpy and the terrain park was something to see! (you get to ski over a car!)

Perfect grooming Sunday morning on the main run at Kimberley Alpine Resort

Highlights of Our Ski Weekend in Kimberley

The Kids' Tree Runs

My son is officially in LOVE with tree skiing now on twisty little trails resembling a luge track. Kimberley has a kids' run (doubled in length over the last couple of years) that winds through the trees off of the Bradford Run on the front side of the hill. You'll first see the entrance marked with a yellow "minute maid" sign and then you'll see the next part of the trail lower down marked with a large KIDZ sign. (and if you look for this run on the official trail map, it's double the length shown.)

Kids trails at Kimberley Alpine Resort

My son's confidence sky rocketed while skiing through the trees and we are now thinking about taking him out onto some real mountain trails where he would snowshoe up and ski down (one of us carrying his downhill equipment.) We took a fun video (below) and while it's a bit long, you can watch as much of it as you want to get an idea of what skiing on these kids' runs is like. Warning for adults, the trail is designed for kids so you will find your skis very long if trying to follow your child. It's doable, but challenging.


A Hill for the Whole Family

 My husband loves powder, my son loves trees, and I love corduroy. Fortunately, Kimberley offers something for everybody. While my boys were off skiing in the trees, I would cruise down the easy green and blue main runs on the front side and meet them at the chair lift. We'd ride up together and then split off onto our separate ways again. When skiing off of the Easter or Tamarack chairs, my husband would escape to do his black runs and I'd follow my son down the groomed blue runs. Again, we'd always meet at the bottom to ride back up to the top together.

Skiing on one of the kids' runs off of Bradford Blvd. at Kimberley

Sunday Funday - With No Crowds

Skiing at Kimberley on a Sunday has got to be a highlight for everybody I've talked to. There are no crowds, no lift lines, nobody to share the runs with... - just glorious peace and quiet. It's a rare thing at a ski resort and I can't wait to come back again. We will definitely plan future trips around skiing hard Sunday rather than driving home at noon.

Sunday Skiing at Kimberley Alpine Resort


Ski in / Ski out Accommodations at Kimberley Alpine Resort

We stayed at Trickle Creek Lodge at Kimberley and loved our location on the hill. We were able to have breakfast in our condo, hit the slopes when the hill opened for the day, return to our condo for lunch, and hit the hot tub at the end of the day. My son loved the swimming pool and definitely won the cannon ball challenge!

Trickle Creek Lodge and the outdoor pool

While we didn't participate in night skiing, Kimberley is open for skiing under the stars on the main run Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 5:30 through 8:30pm until March 12th. This would be a  great option for families staying on the hill. Night skiing is also included with your lift ticket for the day which is a bonus.

Night skiing at Kimberley Alpine Resort

For dinner Saturday night, we traveled downtown to the Bavarian Themed Platzl to eat at the Pedal and Tap Restaurant that I'd heard so much about. To summarize the experience in one word, I would just have to say "YUM!!!" My son loved the spaghetti balls stuffed with cheese and us adults loved the Vietnamese style sandwiches with the mucked up fries (think poutine but better!)
Word of advice about eating here though - arrive early! By 5:00pm it was standing room only with a line out the door.

Dinner in Kimberley at the Pedal and Tap

Our other dining experience that totally "rocked" was breakfast at Montana's at the Trickle Creek Lodge. The restaurant didn't open until 9am but the food was quick, and we were first in line for the lift at 9:55am, ready to be the first people on the chair lift up the hill. How often does that happen?!!

First in line at the lift Sunday  morning

Overall Experience at Kimberley Alpine Resort

Overall, we have no complaints about our recent trip to Kimberley. We're already planning another trip next year and hope to stay for three nights instead of two. Maybe we'll even get to try out the nordic trails at the hill or will get the chance to rent some fat bikes for a spin. There are no shortage of activities at the resort and one could easily spend a week here.

Visiting Kimberley's Bavarian Themed Platzl

For More Information 

For more information on Kimberley Alpine Resort, please visit the resort website.

For information on accommodation in Kimberley, visit the Kimberley Vacations website.

For information on Kimberley and the surrounding area, visit the Tourism Kimberley website.