Lake Louise & Lake Moraine: A Banff Winter Backcountry Mission

I awoke, my nose damp and cold from the early morning Canadian air. Still groggy, I started to move, taking note that my toes were slightly numb and my back stiff from the frozen truck bed that we have been laying on for the past five hours. I lay there, not quite ready to move yet.

Un-cinching my sleeping bag hood to give myself some breathing room and a view of the outside world, I’m still not exactly sure where we are. All I know is that we pulled off the road around 3 AM local time and that it was definitely cold out!

banff-post-8I left work yesterday at 3 PM to catch a flight out of Buffalo, NY and meet up with Jonathan for another Mountain Collective adventure. We had bought the pass this year from Liftopia determined to get in one epic snowboard trip to Western mountains at least one long weekend per month. This would probably be the last of these expeditions for the season and we wanted to take it up a notch.

Neither of us had ever been Lake Louise, in Banff, Alberta, Canada, or anywhere in that vicinity for that matter, so we were excited to do more than just ride the resort. We wanted to explore! Our goal: Snowboard at the resort for two days since we had the day passes already, ride as many crazy lines as we could, and also spend time skinning into the side country and backcountry in search of some extra fun.

This was pretty much the objective of each of our trips, but this time, we gave ourselves some extra time and an extra extreme push. We didn’t book anywhere to stay. Instead, we brought winter camping gear and figured we would just find places to pitch the tent or crawl into the sleeping bag at the end of each day! Oh, and the reports said the bears were just starting to wake up. Great.

Eating pizza on my layover, I heard from Jonathan. His original flight out of Boston was cancelled and the new one they put him on was delayed. For how long… at the time who knew? We just hoped he would get in that night, but when airlines delay, you can never be sure.

Luckily, he would be making it to Banff that night, but it turned out not until a half hour past midnight, about two and a half hours past when he should have arrived. Upon receiving this news, he transferred the rental car to my name and I would be picking up the wheels.

After collecting my gear off the carousel I headed over to Budget Rental. This was not the walk in the park that I expected, but I guess I was foolish to expect otherwise. Over an hour of waiting in line and arguing about the necessity of car insurance, I finally had a key in my hand. It wasn’t a key to the compact SUV we reserved. No. It was a full-size Ford F-150! We’ll take it! I loaded her up in the airport parking garage, the crisp Alberta air and a slight flurry greet me in this new place. Then I waited.

With no service for my domestic phone and no Wi-Fi in the lot, I had no way of contacting Jonathan. I decided to go to the cell phone waiting area (which seemed ironic) and rest my eyes shut for 25 minutes or so. The alarm seemed to ring almost instantly and I began doing laps around the airport arrival area hoping to see him standing at the curb. This continued for at least 9 insanely slow laps. I finally saw him, along with an extremely surprised look on his face that somehow the pick-up worked out, and that we had this beast of a truck too! We started the second leg of our journey west into the black night.

Sitting up I finally get a view of where we pulled off Route 1, The Trans Canadian Highway. A hikers parking lot complete with a trail map of the area, a brown and green porta-potty, and the all access gateway to the wilderness beyond the road. Strangely enough, the snow was very thin. A little nerve-wracking given what we had planned for the rest of the day. We jumped, or creeped really, out of our warm down bags, long-johns on and winter hats and gloves trailing close behind. We suited up into our riding gear and packed up the truck.

banff-post-4Soon enough we were on the road again and destined to arrive at Lake Louise around 9:30 AM. Only a little behind schedule but not behind enough to skip breakfast. We found a little shop in Lake Louise shopping center that had the most unbelievable breakfast burritos. Who knew sweet-chili sauce on a sausage and egg wrap could be so mind-meltingly delicious!

The mountains were rocky, rugged, and to our relief, covered in snow. They reminded me of our old home mountains – The Elks on The Colorado Rockies. After linking a few lifts together we were finally standing on top of the Paradise Bowl and that’s exactly what it looked like! Paradise. My nerves were high as we were strapping in and standing a top of the first big steep run since my big crash in Snow Bird, Utah a month prior. Without my helmet, I may have died then. I knew I could handle this terrain, but it’s hard to stop the fear from stacking up after an experience like that.

Jonathan lept off the cornice with a smile and made two big flowy turns. The snow looked good! I followed off the 2-foot wind lip and accelerated quickly into the steep light powder of Paradise. Effortlessly connecting turns down the near vertical face, I couldn’t help but feel we had found what we went out there for!

One after another, the trails were incredible, steep, covered in fluffy powder and the lines were endless. It’s what snowboard movies are made of. We had the biggest grins on our faces as we continued to explore the back bowls of this huge adult playground known as Lake Louise Ski Resort. Pushing ever further, we eventually found ourselves outside of the resort boundary and trekking up a prominent side country ridge we’d come to call The Sharks Fin.

It was clear that on this trip we would continue to stretch our limits and make every tedious minute of airport travel completely worth it. There was a boot pack along the ridgeline but it ended at the base of The Sharks Fin. Obviously, we had no choice but to continue upward, punching our own steps into the rising shoulder of the mountain.

Inches to our left was open air. Exposure of hundreds of feet, sprinkled with large, piercing rocks and some cliffs speckled in for good measure. Falling here would hurt, maybe to the point of no return. And on our right were the lines we were after. Reminiscent of Alaskan spines, or at least what I picture them to look like after watching guys like Jeremy Jones and Travis Rice stomp them in the biggest videos to date.

banff-post-1Strapping in, the nose and tail of the board crested each edge and standing up had to be done with both a hint of caution, and more focus then when you took your SAT’s. Riding it felt like a controlled fall. The Fin seemed vertical and with my weight back I felt the front of the board was completely out of the snow! Using the tail of my board, I controlled my speed as best I could as the snow shot up around me.

The day was far from over. After riding The Sharks Fin we continued to seek out powder stashes that had survived that week’s drought. We retired to the lodge a few minutes before 4PM to grab water and some snacks. And this is where an Explore Inspired trip diverges from a normal ski trip. There wouldn’t be any end of day beers, no relaxing hot tub, no beautiful lodge, cozy beds, warm covers or crackling fires. Because it wasn’t the end of the day. Nope.

We packed up again and drove though the hamlet of Lake Louise up to the start of Lake Moraine Road; a seasonal road that happened to be completed covered in beautifully white snow and very closed this time of year. The only traffic this area sees are cross-country or nordic skiers, but they only travel part of the way in before turning back at the avalanche closure.

banff-post-2We parked the truck and began to pack. We’d be racing the clock and competing with the sun to pitch our tent. Trading Burton Sherlock’s for Jones Solution Splits, we packed our Hilleberg Saivo tent and -20 degree F down bags, along with down jackets, warm gloves, shells, and a minimal amount of prepackaged energy foods and water, and then began the journey.

We had a good pace going, as our skins dragged on the ever freezing snow with each semi-graceful step. We skinned side by side for what felt like endless kilometers and talked about our trip thus far, what we expected of the coming days, future endeavors and adventures, business, and dreams we would soon turn to reality. But soon the conversation fell and only the whoosh of the skins and our exhausted breathing disturbed the silence of the evergreen wilderness we found ourselves in.

Our landscape was becoming darker. The pine trees changing to another shade of green closer to black. Stars emerging from their revolutionary sleep one by one. Fatigue was certainly setting in after a long travel day, only a couple hours of sleep, and a full day of charging the slopes just behind us. Besides it getting darker, it was also getting colder. Much colder. And when you’re active in extreme cold conditions, it can be very hard to balance your body temperature in a way that prevents sweat but keeps you warm.

banff-post-7We trekked on thinking that we must be coming close to the end of our 11-kilometer expedition to Lake Moraine, but it was hard to tell how close we were. All we knew was we were exhausted, cold, and thirsty. It wasn’t too far into this little late day jaunt that we realized 2.5 liters of water each was much less than ideal. We didn’t bring that much food either. This was when we starting thinking about rations and conversation to make sure we’d have energy and at least 1 liter of water for the journey out tomorrow.

It was going to a quick trip and we were packing light, so neither of us brought a camp stove. Doing so would have involved buying gas locally and we really didn’t need to prepare any hot meals. We also wouldn’t be on a multi-day trekking trip. After every night we’d be coming back to civilization to snowboard or explore further up the Icefields Parkway. So it seemed unnecessary having the stove. We did bring some backup storm matches, in case of emergency, but there would be no melting snow for any additional thirst quenching H2O. The new plan? Try to break through the ice of Lake Moraine with our axes and siphon up some reserve water.

The trek continued one foot in front of the other following the small beam of light cast by each of our head lamps. A kilometer or so after crossing into uncontrolled avalanche territory the road started to point down into the valley, we guessed the lake must be at the base of these mountains but still had no real idea of how much farther this would be. The snow was deep and we were breaking trail, the powder robbing us of what little energy we had left. At one point we decided it was worth converting the board from skin mode to ride mode, hoping we could glide down slowly to the lake.

Unfortunately, the slope was deceiving given the amount of snow and we couldn’t build speed enough to get very far. We had to switch back over and continue moving along, both of us too stubborn to give up our goal of the lakeside tent spot. In these situations, I always wonder what I was thinking at the start. How can this be worth it? But in the end, it always is, and the journey, hard as it may be, is just as important as the end goal. Many times the best memories await you in the struggle.

banff-post-9Our perseverance paid off and over four hours later we were at a frozen Lake Moraine. Not before the sun had set though. Drained, we unpacked the tent and began to set it up on the first flat spot we came across. Tent up, sleeping bags open and boots off, not much else happened. We didn’t have anything to cook and barely enough water to take a sip before going to bed, so we just crawled in and drifted off.

Just like last night, we were sleeping outside, it was cold, and we had no idea of our surrounds as we arrived once again in the blackness of the new moon. My shivering body and parched mouth was my alarm clock the following morning. My socks were still soaked and my boot liners damp too, but at least they were warm cuddled between my legs all night, along with other miscellaneous mountain gear.

The condensation from breathing all night froze to the dome of our tent and with each movement, ice crystals flurried onto our heads. We were ready to see where we set up camp late last night. Opening the tent flap was incredible. The Valley of The Ten Peaks in all its glory towering above a silent frozen Lake Moraine. Without having to say it to each other, we both realized the pain of getting here was immediately worth it. I’d say worth 20 dollars even! (At one point this valley was pictured on the back of the Canadian 20 dollar bill).

The view was unimaginably stunning, and we realized we were some of the few people who ever even see these peaks in the winter or Lake Moraine blanked in snow.  No vehicles of any kind can drive the road during these months and few travel by foot past the viewpoint of the Consolation Valley because of its high avalanche risk. But here we were.

banff-post-6As Jonathan said, “we don’t have a lot of water, we don’t have a lot of food, we’re exhausted, but we did it for this!” And he was right. Now we just had the long and strenuous journey back out, followed by whatever crazy adventures we’d find ourselves chasing that afternoon! Certainly no rest for the weary…

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Ryan Sarka
Ryan Sarka

Cycled across the entire U.S. A mountain biker, climber, snowboard mountaineer, triathlete, and engineer. Founding member of Between The Peaks.

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