A Look Back – Early Days of Skiing in Lake Louise

As was mentioned in a post near the end of last season, the Lake Louise ski patrol saw the retirement of Peter Spear from patrolling, as he prepared to have knee surgery after an incredible career spanning more than fifty years. Since the operation last spring, Peter has been collecting his thoughts from his time here and putting them to paper, and has been kind enough to provide them for posting here.

I find it easy to assume that the Lake Louise Ski Area has always more or less been similar to what it is today, at least in available terrain if not facilities. That is however far from the case, and Peter’s descriptions of traveling to and skiing at Lake Louise (originally Temple Ski Area) provide a fascinating glimpse of what is was like in the days before the Trans-Canada Highway even existed.

Following is the first installment of Peter’s personal history of skiing at Lake Louise.

The Early Days of Skiing at Lake Louise.

These are my recollections of the early days of skiing at Lake Louise starting in the late 1950’s. I have skied in the Lake Louise area for over 52 years, and some readers can relate to my adventures, and others marvel at our patience and fortitude with gritting it out under less than favorable conditions in the pioneer years.

The Drive.

A trip to ski at Temple for a weekend in 1957, began usually for me on a Friday night around 6 PM in Calgary when a Canadian Youth Hostel member would pick me and others up about 6 PM for the  3 ½ – 4 hour drive to get to the Lake Louise Youth Hostel.

The route led northwest in the city and out what is now Highway # 1A, to Cochrane, around Ghost Dam, through the old Banff Park gates near the Kananaskis lime plant,, then Exshaw, over the Gap Lake Hill and into Canmore. Then west the road led to the old Anthracite coal slag heaps (still visible today) just east of the Cascade power plant.

Here there was a t-junction, with the right turn leading to Lake Minnewanka, but we turned left, crossed the CPR mainline, and then traversed under the base of the Hoodoos, and then the road led steeply up the Anthracite Hill to present-day Tunnel Mountain Drive before dropping down the hill to the area of the Indian Grounds (near the present-day Rocky Mountain Resort). Then it was into Banff town site, and then past the CPR train station, and across the CPR line. The road then wound around what is now the Vermillion Lakes Drive with the constant threat of sliding into the lakes on the narrow blasted road, onto the present day 1A, across the hillsdale flats, past Johnson Canyon, and to Castle Junction and turnoff to Radium.

Almost there! The road meandered to Baker Creek, crossed Corral Creek and then headed west to the Bow River, where the CPR was crossed again (this is where there is a present-day emergency exit for the campground area). The road led past the Temple View Bungalow camp and Texaco station and recrossed the CPR. A bridge over the Pipestone led to Boyles Grocery Store and the original Post Hotel, which was all there was at the townsite

To get to the hostel and the road leading to the Temple Ski Area, we re-crossed the Pipestone bridge, turned left, and then went to the present-day # 1 highway and turned off the Temple road to the Gondola Base area where the hostel was located, prior to the construction of the Gondola. The Lake Louise Hostel was a series of three buildings that had been at Morley as part of the conscientious objectors camp and had been moved in the early 50’s as part of the hostel “chain”. At -30 degrees, a dorm was hard to heat up before we crawled into our sleeping bags for rest and the prospect of skiing at Temple.

A Day of Skiing at Temple Lodge.

Most of the skiers at Temple stayed in Banff, as the original Post Hotel had few rooms. That meant that there was at least a one hour drive from Banff.

My morning began early, as often we had breakfast and skied across the flats, crossed an ice bridge on the Pipestone River, and tried to get to the Post Hotel to make the first transport to Temple Lodge. We bought one-way tickets ($.50) or round trip tickets in the lobby of the Post Hotel, sold by Alpha Legace, a local legend along with her husband Ray Legace, an original outfitter.

The transport to the hill started at 8:30 AM with a Dodge PowerWagon, fitted with a cab that held 12 jammed skiers. It was followed later by a chained-up school bus carrying some 30 passengers for the exciting ride to Temple, particularly the ascent of Ford Hill. Once at Temple, one went inside to purchase the $3.50 lift tickets.

Temple Lodge, Skoki and Halfway Hut were owned by Sir Norman Watson, an English absentee owner, and the company was the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies. The original lodge was located 75 metres beyond the present “Temple garage”, by the cutoff from Larch to the present lodge. It was a two story log building with a high peak and several rooms that could be rented for the winter weekends. Noted renters were the family of John Worrall, later to become a long time area employee and manager.

The lift was an original Poma, with the mechanical release pulled by an attendant. Tripods supported the pulley and cable as one ascended to the top unload, which is the present flat spot where Lookout, Larch and Marmot diverge. This is about 100 metres below the present quad top.

Larch was a curvaceous run about 15 metres wide and wound its way down the hill. Once one reached the present lower steep pitch, where skiers/boarders often stop to rest, the slope was cleared to almost its present width. One could show off their skills to the waiting line-up. The present Larch was cleared in the summer of 1965.

If one made the early Power Wagon or school bus, one could have a great series of runs before the next load of passengers arrived. At day’s end, one could ride back to the Post Hotel or take the ski out which was an arduous adventure .The descent took Lookout, then through the present closed area that leads to the treacherous Ford Hill. There it ran parallel to the access road on a narrow un-groomed trail till it crossed the present road near Fish Creek parking lot. Here the trail went to the left, and reached the base of a steep hill which had to be ascended. It crossed the present paved road to Whiskey Jack near the Texas gate, and then continued to climb the steep bank. One was lucky to survive the descent to the Hostel (now the old gondola base), cross the flats, and then the ice bridge to the Post hotel.

With no groomed slopes, low stumps on the runs, bushes, and narrow trails it was   challenging skiing in leather single boots, with wooden skies and long-thong bindings with no release features. We wore woolen knickers, cotton undergarments, woolen mittens and Egyptian cotton anoraks. Still it was fun and I look back on the experience with fondness over half a century later.

Peter Spear

**********

In addition to patrolling at Lake Louise, Peter also spent a season doing the same at Pigeon Mountain, the remains of which can still be seen from the Trans-Canada Highway as you drive eastbound by Dead Man’s Flats. I’d always assumed it was a ski hill which had never finished being built. In fact, it operated as a ski area from the 1960’s to 1974, and then again from 1981-83.

Even with some of the earliest snowmaking in this area, the ski season at Pigeon ran only from mid-January to mid-March. If a skier had to be taken to Calgary due to injury, they would be driven to the city in the back of the company station wagon belonging to the Rothman’s cigarette salesman.

In the 1980’s, a new electric motor was installed to drive the snowmaking system. The wiring was reversed, and it blew and damaged the Bow Valley power grid. It was rewired for the following season, and when it again blew and damaged the grid, that was it for Pigeon Mountain, and it never recovered. The lifts were scavenged for parts, most of which ended up at the Canyon Ski Area in Red Deer.

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21 Comments on “A Look Back – Early Days of Skiing in Lake Louise”

  1. Phil says:

    What a great story. 4 hours to get to Lake Louise!!! Is there any chance we could get you to post some pictures from the early days of skiing at Lake Louise? I’ve seen lots from Mt. Norquay and that “other resort” when they first opened, but none from Lake Louise.

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      Hi Phil,

      I’m currently working on getting some photos together from the early days, most of which require permission to use. Once everything is worked out, I’ll put them up. Thanks for the comment!

      Chris

  2. Derek says:

    Good stuff. Can’t wait for the other installments.

  3. Adam says:

    One of the best installments of the lowdown yet. Gave me shivers realizing I got to work with Peter during some of the last weeks of his long-time patrolling career and discussed retiring the cross and loving the sport with such a fellow, myself being a (still)wide-eyed rookie patroller.

    Cheers!

  4. Snow Witch Elemental says:

    This is one of the most amazing pieces of writing about Lake Louise I have recently read. Thank you for sharing it with us. I would love to see the photos too.
    Well, it must have felt great to ski the Larch in those days when one had to endure such a trip to get there. But I am glad that nowadays so many people are able to come and ride the hills and enjoy the beauty of the area.

    • Roger says:

      Have you read the book Brown Cows Sacred Cows. By Rodney Touche. “A true story of Lake Louise” I was privaledged to work on the hill in the early 1980s living in “Touche town” the staff encampment. Peter should be encourage to share his experiences of LL.
      LL is quite unique in the world. Having the park status to protect it from over development, unlike the European Alps which in the main are like a circus. I am sure Peter will agree that the Olympics in 88 put LL on the world map, but what agreat place to live and ski prior to 88 and all the development that came with the Olympics. I wolud love to hear Peters view.

      Roger

  5. Snow Witch Elemental says:

    Roger,
    I never heard of such a book, but I was doing some digging, and there are some used copies on the market. I will definitely try to get one.

    And I totally agree with you, LL should stay unspoiled and as little developed as posible. The pristine beauty is the reason we all come here. So, why spoil it? I hate places like Mont Tremblant, it is a human Zoo there. I don’t want LL to become like that.

  6. Roger says:

    I am pleased you agree, I am not so sure that any one with a commercial stake in LL would quite agree. One thing for certain is LL is a very special place.

    Roger

  7. Snow Witch Elemental says:

    Hi Roger,

    no, I didn’t get the chance to get the book yet. Probably not till next year. I am leaving for LL and Whistler soon for about 4 weeks. Busy, busy…I have seen it on some web sites, used copies, but I am sure they are good enough,lol.

    • Roger says:

      Whister! no need to go to the west coast! You can ski wet snow in LL, just turn left out of the car park 300 yards and across the road is a trail down to the valley bottom. (Safe trail) the wet snow begins when you try and walk across the gap between the East and West Trans Canadian Highway, try and walk across the dip in the middle when the temperature is above freezing and find you will soon find yourself up to your neck on your hands and knees in slush, just like Whister!!

      For Whistlers, Spankies ladder experience, no need to travel West either.

      Stay in LL and ski LL answer to Blackcomb. In the past before the Chateau was open in the winter you had to “skin” up the closed road to the Lake, now just jump on a bus! No ladder needed. But the fun starts as you turn right at the Chateau and you ski straight down the old tram lines which used to link the Chateau to the railway station in the valley bottom! One hell of a vertical drop! ( not to be attempted on your own.) To make it really fun, best completed at night with a clear sky. Now you know what we did in LL before the village was developed. If you really want to feel the history try skiing the tram lines on 30 year old, 210cm skis, that have a will of thier own. Worst case if you fell hard the cable ties (no brakes) would allow you to split your head open with a skis edge. Then some how it would be off to hospital for stiches! Not in Banff, the nearest Hospital was the Foot Hills Hospital Cagary! I think todays riders with tin hats, kevla and easy to ride toys dont know what they have missed. LL has many hidden jems. Happy skiing.

  8. Snow Witch Elemental says:

    Hi Roger,

    you must have been fun to be around 30 years ago! I am sure you are still fun to be around,lol.

    Speaking of fun, nowadays, we put disclimers on everything, and “No Trespas” signs everywhere in fear somebody may get sued. That takes a lot of fun out of the mischief.

    I have to find the place you are talking about, that old railway.

    Well, I wouldn’t have to go to Whistler if LL had snowboarding camps. I will be at the sb camp there. But I promise, as soon as it is over, I am back at LL and I will be practising my newly acquired moves there,lol.

    Thank you for this extremely interesting tip on how to make skiing more interesting. I think I still have the kind of skis you are talking about, without the metal edges. I have to get them from my former home in Czech republic.
    And also you brought up very important point about the hospital. I had a chance to visit the emerg in Banff last year, and I really appreciated it that it is only 60 km away from LL,lol.

    Oh, by the way, there is a very nice person out there on this site, who has the Brown cows, sacred cows book, and who offered to loan it to me when I come to LL. Imagine that!

  9. Roger says:

    Hi

    Having a look at the recent photograhs on the LL web site I note that rails and man made jumps seem to be the in thing, at LL. Does no one ride the “hot tub” in the woods off the left of larch any longer? How about skiing off broken rock with its 25ft drop! I guess now the summit lift has been change to a button its no longer as much fun as when it was a T bar.
    Personally I think I prefer to stick to skiing LL natural hazards, how about you?

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      Hi Roger,

      The “hot tub” on Larch was an old water collection site, and it and the building that housed it were removed a couple of years ago. It had really fallen apart, and was becoming a hazard to the kids who still like to ski the creek that leads down to the site. Where is broken rock? Do you mean Split Rock, off to the right of Saddleback and on the way to Kiddies Corner? As for the summit, I believe the reason for changing it to a single rider lift (as opposed to a two-person T-bar) was because it was difficult for two people side by side to ride up the Headwall, and many ended up falling off and sliding down the steep pitch. That still happens, but probably not nearly as much as it used to.

      Chris

      • Roger says:

        Do you still cut a flying KM across from Whitehorn 1. In the early days of speed skiing at LL we had to boot pack the run top to bottom. We kept one pair of 245cm speed skis which we shared in the back of Lynn Wilson rental shop, which was taken down when the new lodge was built.

      • lakelouiselowdown says:

        Roger,

        Do you mean Speed Run, which is the long gully feature running down the middle of Richardson’s Ridge and has a cornice running down one side? I remember people talking about speed skiing happening there, but have never seen it myself. These days, since that area is outside our operational boundary, the only work we do there is avalanche control if we feel there is a danger to those areas at the bottom of the gully that are inside our boundary, which generally runs along the valley bottom. It does get skied on occasion, but we do not patrol there or do avalanche control with that in mind.

  10. Roger says:

    Hi Chris

    Broken rock and split rock must be the same place as the location is the same as 30 years ago!

  11. Roger says:

    Thats the one off Richardsons ridge, it was out side the boundary then, but didnt stop us. It took days to prepare the run before it was safe to ski, with no safe bale out once you pointed the skis that was it until you made the bottom one way or another.

  12. Snow Witch Elemental says:

    Hi Chris,

    my Blackberry froze (literally) and I lost all information including yours regarding the Sacred Cows. I am coming to LL again next week for a few weeks. If your offer still stands, can you contact me, please? Thank you.

  13. Roger says:

    Hi Chris

    29 years of skiing under my belt since working on the hill with Lyne Wilson and this weekend I am back for the third time, family in tow for the first time! Snow looks great my son has never skied in the gods back yard, he is 21 and we have talked about the elevator shaft for the past 17 years hope to ski it with him next week and foresure “the back side of Louise!”

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      Hi Roger,

      Yes, the hill’s in great shape. Unfortunately Elevator Shaft is not likely to be open when you arrive. With the amount of snow we’ve received and the underlying weak layers in the snowpack, much avalanche control work is needed before that area can open, and crews aren’t likely going to have it all done in the near future. At the same time, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding other areas of Louise’s back side to explore!

      Chris


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