I’m a little embarrassed to say that, despite skiing all over North America for more than two decades, the first time I had ever heard of Norquay was in 1999. I had just started working at Gord’s Ski and Bike in Winnipeg when I overheard the man himself: Gord Reid telling a customer “if you’re going to the Rockies on a Ski Big 3 vacation, you must make your first ski day at Norquay followed by Louise and Sunshine”
Why I wondered, would he say that… and before I could raise my hand, he added “because it’s where you go to warm up before you hit the big hills”. Sadly that prejudice stuck with me until I actually skied it much, much later on -at night- after I opened a Gord’s in the Cascade Plaza in Banff in the 2000s. Before that night I had spent the previous dozen or so years as GM and then owner of Gord’s repeating that descriptor to all who would listen. After all, if the godfather of skiing in central Canada decreed it such, who was I to make up my own mind about what the cool kids referred to as “The ‘Quay”?
Did I even need to ski this hill that some had described as a Vermont ski area plunked into the Rockies? Of course not. After all, I’d spent most of my life and career skiing and racing in the Green Mountains. I didn’t feel the urge to burn one of the limited number of ski days that I had traveling out of Winnipeg on Norquay… especially when Taos, Big Sky, Sunshine Village, Mammoth Mountain, and alike were calling.
Fast forward to 2011 (I think) when I was building the newest Gord’s location in Banff… That Saturday afternoon one of my staff suggested that we rip across the highway and up the road to go night skiing at the ‘Quay.
Norquay’s night skiing consists of two or three green runs off their Cascade Quad and boasts the only night skiing in the Rockies, which in itself is pretty darn cool.
That evening the terrain available was, as advertised: family-friendly. And so on that dark night, unable to see much of the rest of the mountain I deduced that Gord was completely correct: A perfect venue to warm up at before a ski vacation.
My next visit to Norquay, however, was to be an entirely different experience. The year was 2019 and I had just moved to Calgary to help my friend Dave with his brand-new acquisition: Ski West. Since September of that year, Gord’s son Eric (who is a renowned bootfitter at Ski West) had been doing his best to sell me and anyone who’d listen on this mountain that he loved. I heard him describe a totally different Norquay than I had imagined.
To say that Eric was a big fan of the mountain (and even more so their nachos) was an understatement. He would regale us with tales of racing on “North American” and days gone by including how Gord would encourage him and his brother to race him down to the Trans-Canada Highway (Gord in his car going down the access road and the boys on skis going down the now-decommissioned ski-out)… if Gord won, the boys would have to walk from the ski-out to wherever the family was staying in Banff.
Before the snow fell that season, as I prepared our ski testing schedule, I started to read more about this “Norquay”… and the more I read, the more I became intrigued by this, the oldest ski resort in Canada and the second oldest in all of North America (Norquay was established in 1926). Being a bit of a ski history nerd, how did I never take the time to learn about a ski resort so steeped in skiing lore?
My first daytime visit to Norquay in November of that year was memorable not for the early season limited-terrain skiing but for the spectacular switchback road leading up to the resort from Banff followed by the spectacular views and vistas that rivaled any that I’d seen from any ski resort short of Alyeska, Alaska. What a truly beautiful place. I remember being equally impressed by the superb chalet as I was by the welcoming and good-humored staff. Kind, helpful, and warm-hearted in a way that no mega-resort could hope to compete with.
We came, we skied on the Cascade chair (the only chair open), we tested some skis, we made some videos and I couldn’t wait for more snow in order to discover more of this mountain that had managed to capture my imagination. To quote Arnold: I was going to be back.
As the snow was slow to come that early season, Norquay’s ace-in-the-hole came into focus: Norquay makes their own snow. Lots of it. And so with every week, more terrain opened, and the scope of this mountain became more evident. Yes, it was indeed like a Vermont ski hill plunked into the Rockies, but that’s not a bad thing because, just like those Eastern resorts, Norquay doesn’t need to wait for old man winter to produce the white stuff, they make it… and that’s a very good thing.
As the early season progressed, I started appreciating The Mighty ‘Quay (as a customer had recently referred to it) more and more. Yes, the conditions were sometimes bulletproof but the grooming was always on point, and more important for ski testing, the conditions were dependable and consistent… It was indeed the perfect snow and the perfect terrain on which to start one’s season, especially if you didn’t have rubber articulations and nine lives. If you want to work on your skiing this is the best place to hone your technique.
With every passing visit, I fell more in love. The more I discovered the mountain, the more familiar it became, the more it felt like home… and when the North American chair finally opened, I was hooked.
For those who have yet to discover the ‘Quay, “North American” is to Norquay what “the backside” and West Bowl are to Lake Louise, what the North Side is to Tremblant, what Mary Jane is to Winter Park or what Corbett’s Couloir is to Jackson Hole.
The original North American chair was installed way up there in 1948 and at the time it boasted the steepest, longest terrain in North America. To this day, that terrain remains daunting to many.
The trails off North American are silly steep, ungroomed and so much fun. Runs like Gun Barrel, Corvid’s, Waterfall, The Chute, Memorial Bowl and alike are sparsely skied because of how intimidating the vertical is. Rarely will you find anyone skiing the North American that doesn’t belong there from a skill point of view (which in itself is spectacularly refreshing)… add to that the fact that the lifties are the best at letting you know what ropes have just dropped and you have an old-school ski experience like none other. Anyone scoffing at hitting the ‘Quay right after a snowfall to rip up North American are simply snobs who know nothing about how gnarly Norquay can be… that or they’re just keeping this secret to themselves.
Later on, during that season, I had the joy of discovering even more terrain off the Mystic Quad way on the other side of the resort, Sun Chutes, Sheep Chutes, and Goat Chute to name a few… Their southern exposure means that they aren’t awesome all of the time but the Patrol does a good job of closing them when the conditions are less than ideal. When you see them open, you just gotta. Short and oh so sweet.
But the true awesomeness of Norquay lies right under your feet. Since they actually “mow the lawn” in the summer, the ‘Quay doesn’t need that much snow to open terrain… and a little bit of snow goes a long, long way. The main runs were well cut and are exceedingly well maintained. There’s a reason so much race training happens here: great fall-lines and impeccable pitch.
Sidebar secret: when it dumps at Norquay, the retiree regulars usually vacate back to their Canmore condos and the place literally empties out. I‘ve only skied there two seasons and believe you me, there is nothing better in ski country than a powder day at the ‘Quay. Doing knee-deep hot laps off the high-speed Mystic Express is orgasmic (Should I have kept that a secret?). On a powder day, it’s an hour closer than Sunshine or Lake Louise, you park at the base of the chairlift and the mountain is YOURS. I dare you to make it to 4 pm. Your legs will give out well before your brain registers that you’ve skied twice the vert than you would have at the other of the Big Three in the same day… And no liftlines (Provided no one reads this).
Have I said that Norquay is steep? Because it is. The only drawback about the ‘Quay for some is that it’s not somewhere where you can ski sans brakes. Technique at Norquay is a requirement. Well-tuned skis with a nice radius are also something that will make your experience more fun.
As a matter of fact, I have this theory: When someone bitches about the place, chances are that they have shitty skis, their technique falls short of perfect, or they lack the imagination to make the best of what is a more finite terrain than it’s behemoth Big 3 brothers. I wonder if Simon (their gentleman marketing guru) will be tempted to use this slogan on their next brochure: “Norquay: Awesome if your skis aren’t crap, your technique doesn’t suck, and you have an imagination!”). All kidding aside, this is the kind of mountain that creates good skiers who are good at making lemonade (Right, Jay?).
I think that at this point you’ve likely come to the correct conclusion that I’m no longer really objective about this wonderful mountain. I’ve convinced friends to ski there and I’ve designated it as our Ski Test headquarters for the Magazine… Because, among many things: “if a ski can ski well at 3:30pm after a big day of bulletproof ‘packed powder’ snow, it will ski well anywhere”. In the past two years, I’ve reintroduced this mountain to dozens and dozens of people who had skied Norquay once twenty years ago but hadn’t been back since, and without exception, they all came back to say the same thing: “I never thought that Norquay could be this much fun and this challenging”. Some even bought season passes the following year.
Yep, I’ll fess up: I love Norquay. I love their staff, I love the mountain, I love the jaw-dropping views, I love their grooming, I love their home-made chips, I love the chalet, I love testing skis there, I love North American dearly, and as a result, I’ve adopted Norquay and it’s unique vibe and underdog status as a close second to my second home mountain after Owl’s Head.
And yes Eric, you were correct: The nachos at the Lone Pine are pretty damn spectacular.