banner: SkiBig3/Reuben Krabbe
The best way to brighten up a winter night? Lights and more skiing!
The dark Canadian winter is brutal if you aren’t a skier, and even we feel it. You go to work as the sun comes up and get home as it drops. Skiing on the weekends is the one bright spot, the fresh air, exercise, and fun that you needed all week. If only we could find more of those bright spots every dark week.
By the time I turned 20 and moved to the mountains, I’d spent more hours skiing under lights than I had skiing under the sun. Growing up on the prairies, we were lucky to have even a tiny ski hill and luckier still to have it lit up all week. Weekends were short, and two days of skiing were never enough. Luckily we could add up to five nights a week on snow.
So many of my early memories are from those cold, poorly lit, hard-packed slopes. I watched the northern lights from that lone chair lift often enough to lose interest in them. We created our own clandestine adventures by sneaking onto runs that weren’t lit up(or open) to claim secret ski lines.
Leonardo Di Maggio/Norquay Photos
The confines of darkness made every nook of that little hill a discovery. In the shadows, you might find a new jump or tiny pile of soft snow to slash. More often, nothing but ice was waiting for you, but still, we explored the next shadow.
Many Calgary skiers got their start at Paskapoo or Wintergreen, spending dark winter nights training for ski racing or freeskiing with friends. Edmontonians are lucky enough to have three different hills that offer night skiing - to help make up for the long drive to the mountains. Calgary lacks that type of variety, but Canada Olympic Park is the most well-funded and fully developed training ground in the province. Calgary skiers can spend evenings perfecting their turns, airs, or rail slides all week long so that when weekends come and they have time to enjoy sunlit mountains, they’re ready and primed.
Skiing after dark isn’t just for training, though. Even if the actual skiing is more limited, the experience of skiing under stars can be its own reward. And the social scene that night skiing offers is unique. This year especially, Banff’s twenty-somethings are heading to the Norquay terrain park. It is the Covid version of nightlife in Banff, every Friday and Saturday. Some hike and lap the features tirelessly. You can witness their progression while seated on the chairlift. Your first time around, you see them gap to a rail. Next time around, they’re spinning on to it. By the end of the night, they’re buttering on, changing up, and spinning off so smoothly that the kids on the lift above them react, “OOhhh!!”.
Norquay night park
Other skiers hangout but rarely drop in at all, just happy to linger near the top joking and commentating. A steady progression of friends walking up to them, then dropping in. It might actually be the most social thing a person could be doing on a pandemic Friday night.
Almost 40 years after my first time, night skiing now gives me the chance to squeeze more family time into my week, an excuse to ski with my 11-year-old daughter.
Once she bores of the limited terrain night skiing provides, I watch her disappear into the black forest beyond the lit trail. I slide down the groomed run, content to let her explore the monkey trails alone and in wonder. She pops out, beaming at the bottom. “Dad, you have to see the trail I found. Can we do it again? There a jump to want to try!”
Getting back or getting started?
Perhaps it’s all those years skiing artificial snow under lights and dreaming of being in real mountains, but these days I love the rare chances to backcountry ski at night. On those special clear evenings where a full moon illuminates the hills, we ski tour to gentle powder slopes made effervescent in the moon’s glow. Just like when we were kids, the darkness heightens our awareness, and we feel the snow more than we see it. We walk in silence because the night sounds different, but we can’t say why or how. In the forest, headlamps light our way, shrinking the world to a small cone directly in front of us. But as we climb into the alpine, we can turn the lights off and become covert observers of the sleeping mountains.
Skiing is ever-dependent on natural forces. The best days are fleeting and never guaranteed, which is, of course, what makes them so special. Even more so these nights where snow, avalanche risk, weather and the lunar cycle align. Blindly sliding through boot-top powder, listening for changes in the snow, feeling for undulations in the terrain, the stars have aligned, and the world has spun into this perfect moment for you.
Atop a moonlit peak.
The very next night, I’m back at Norquay with my daughter. She tells me that she likes night skiing better than skiing during the day. “We don’t have to get up early!” I roll my eyes. But, as she looks out over the lights of Banff from Mount Norquay’s Cascade chairlift, I can tell that there’s more to it. Perhaps skiing in the dark has lit a passion for the sport in a new generation.