By Matt Schneidman
Helicopters, canyons, skiing and ice climbing- vacationing in Banff, Alberta is an experience you don’t want to pass up.
Helicopter Tour Through the Rocky Mountains
The funny thing about a helicopter – actually it’s not so funny – is that you feel every single movement it makes. Riding in the backseat gives new meaning to turbulence, and even the slightest of winds sends you into an undulating frenzy worthy of closing your eyes and hoping your early morning breakfast stays down. A 30-minute helicopter tour over a section of the Rocky Mountains in Canada was the first outdoor adventure of our first full day in Banff, a resort town in the province of Alberta. It provided an overhead glimpse at the majestic mountains, icy waters and dense forestry that serve as home to sights and species hidden from the human eye.
There isn’t much in terms of safety protocol that goes into riding an aircraft smaller than a car other than strapping on your seatbelt and not sliding open the side windows thousands of feet above ground. Throughout the ride, our pilot guided the tour over the built-in headset system, pointing out landmarks such as Three Sisters peaks, the town of Banff below and even a traveling pack of elk barely visible from the sky. Granted, keeping your balance as the helicopter dips and dives over the snow peaks can take away from appreciating what’s below, but simply having a vantage point from above one of the world’s most visually appetizing land structures fit the bill for an opening act on this vacation.
Johnston’s Canyon Ice Walk
The name “ice walk” is a bit deceiving since the tour is guided through snow, but the ice structures are the most fascinating aspect of the four-mile walk through Johnston’s Canyon. With a four-foot green fence as the only barrier between you and death, various overhangs into the canyon provide breathtaking views at how the winding river has shaped these rock structures over the years. On certain parts of the walk, you have to duck beneath overhanging cliffs. On others, a full squat is required to snake through an icy cave before emerging in front of a water hole surrounded by towering cliffs and icicles.
At the mid-point of the hike, a bridge overlooking a vertical cliff covered in ice provides safe viewing of daredevil climbers scaling structures that don’t look like they’re meant to be climbed. Snow flutters in from the sky, and our tour guide hands out cookies and hot chocolate, as if our whole 12-person group was sitting in front of a fire indoors. At this moment of rest, that’s the serenity offered by Johnston’s Canyon, a bucket list hike for the physically inclined.
Half-Day Ski at Lake Louise Resort
In the Canadian Rockies, skiing is turned up a notch. A beginner level hill at most other mountains is intermediate here, and an intermediate hill anywhere else is advanced on the slopes of the Lake Louise Resort. Maybe it’s because this was my first time skiing in four years, but even the final slope funneling into the base area provided a handful of wipeouts. At the base, there are two transportation options up the mountain, one chairlift that takes 10 minutes to reach its end and a 20-minute gondola ride up to a higher elevation. And if you’re feeling like living even more on the edge, another chairlift takes you into the clouds, literally, and to the highest point of the mountain where the most difficult trails are located.
There are three terrain parks on the mountain, each with obstacles marked as small, medium, large and extra large. Note to everyone: the steeper the uphill, the steeper the drop. If you speed off a jump and aren’t ready for what waits below, you will go face first into the snow and lose both skis and poles during the fall. Aside from that yardsale, the afternoon offered a decent mix of casual skiing and unbeatable views of the mountainside in the distance, a perfect fit even for those just beginning on the slopes.
Ice Climbing with Rockies Ice & Alpine Specialist, Kris Irwin
The one thing our climbing guide kept emphasizing: ice climbing is not like rock climbing. We arrived at the gear outfitter at 8 a.m. and didn’t start climbing until around 10:30. Before we scaled the ice, we had a 45-minute training run on how to walk on ice with crampons, a metal claw-like attachment to the bottom of our specialty boots. Don’t side-step, always put one toe forward. Hammer into vertical ice with the two front prongs of your crampon. Look for softer ice that’s more blue than white to insert the ice pick because it’ll stick deeper. So many small techniques could be the difference between staying on your feet or tumbling down an ice sheet the length of a football field.
Once we strapped ourselves to the rope, beginning the climb was far more difficult than it looked from the base of the ice wall. Not even an inch of your foot is in the ice, but it’s the only thing keeping you lodged in place. Insert the ice pick into the right spot and you can lift yourself up, but your foot will almost always dislodge and finding another crevice maintain stability is even harder. Your arms and legs are shaking, but you can’t afford for either to give way. The higher up the cliffside you climb, the farther into the distance you can see if you dare turn around. This was easily the most exhilarating and unique of our four adventures, a physical challenge you won’t be able to find many other places in North America.
For more by Matt check out: