There's a slow train coming in the wilds of Canada
Stephen Wood braves an extreme-weather warning, battles rail schedules and finds chilly enlightenment on the tree-lined slopes of Jasper
Saturday 19 January 2008
You are familiar with Bill Gates, probably the richest man in the world. You know about his achievements as the co-founder of Microsoft, about his wife, his house and his charitable works. But you may not be aware that he is the largest shareholder in Canadian National, the biggest railway operator in the world's second-largest country. It might also come as a surprise to learn that Gates's fellow philanthropist and bridge partner, Warren Buffett, probably the third-richest man in the world, is the largest shareholder in Burlington Northern, the biggest US railroad.
These are boom times for North American railways. Canadian National's share price has increased five-fold since the millennium. This success is based entirely on freight; carrying passengers by rail remains an unprofitable business in Canada and the US, one that is heavily subsidised by central government.
So passengers give way to freight when there are competing claims for the same stretch of North American track. Which goes some way towards explaining why the train I was due to catch in Jasper, Alberta, for the ride to Vancouver on the British Columbia coast, ran 13 hours late.
In Eastern Canada it's a different story, but out West the history of recreational skiing and the railways are interconnected. The epic railway-construction effort of the late 19th century, in which the Canadian Pacific and the forerunners of the Canadian National railways competed to establish coast-to-coast links, was as much about nation-building as transportation. The pride involved was expressed in some extraordinary railway hotels built along the way, notably in Alberta. In what was then wilderness and is now a national park, Canadian Pacific created two landmarks that have become symbols of Canada as a ski destination: the Banff Springs hotel, a marvellously mad baronial Scottish "castle" with 778 guest rooms, opened in 1888; and the Chateau Lake Louise, a considerably blander hotel in a majestic setting on a lake backed by the soaring Rockies.
More than 125 miles north-west up the Athabasca valley, which parallels Canada's continental divide, is the town of Jasper. It lies on the Canadian National route from Edmonton to Vancouver. Here, too, a remarkable railway hotel was built. Like the Banff and Lake Louise properties, it was designed to attract holidaymakers on to the railway; but in other respects it was – and is – completely different. Opened in 1922, it consists of a huge central lodge and 441 rooms in chalets and cabins dotted around a 903-acre lakeside site.
Despite their origins in rival railway companies, the hotels are now sister properties in the Fairmont hotel group. Having stayed in the other hotels and experienced their surrounding ski areas, I braved the wicked cold – about which the Canadian tourist office gave me a personal extreme-weather warning – to visit the Jasper Lodge and to ski in nearby Marmot Basin. In deference to the hotels' heritage, my itinerary involved the rail journey into Vancouver, where I planned to ski the city's 2010 Winter Olympics venue, Cypress Mountain, before flying home.
With the temperature falling (on one morning) as low as -30C, it didn't take long to appreciate that the layout of the Lodge is better suited to warm weather than cold. It is primarily a summer resort: in a normal year, the staff number 800 for the summer season, and just half as many in winter. On an estate which, with its collection of wooden cabins, is oddly suggestive of a colonial Indian hill station, fine weather is obviously appropriate, all the more so when breakfast is a stroll away from your room. My cabin was one of the closest to the lodge, though still far enough away for the hot tap to run alarmingly cold for a while, until 100 yards of water had been flushed out of pipes lying in the cold ground. I sprinted to breakfast.
Despite the unfavourable weather, I did venture around the lake to see the five-bedroom Point Cabin (1928), in which Marilyn Monroe threw a party in 1953, during the filming of River of No Return at the Lodge. And I bravely continued on to the Outlook Cabin, which in its original form hosted George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.
Early December was an unfortunate time to be in Canada. Not because of the cold, but because the country was busy destroying its long-lived reputation as a civilised place. An inquiry into corruption in the Mulroney administration and the trial of a serial killer were bad news. Worse was the cruel perversity of its National Parole Board, which refused to release a man who had served seven years of a life sentence for killing his severely disabled daughter, on the grounds that his lack of contrition suggested he might re-offend. And then the Canadian government threatened the progress of the climate-change summit in Bali, no doubt because it aims to continue the energy-intensive exploitation of Alberta's "oil sands" (which have to be heated with natural gas to release their oil). Is it just me, or does everyone allow themselves to be incensed by what they read in the paper when travelling alone?
The oil sands, said to be second only to Saudi Arabia's reserves as a source of oil, are a long way north of Jasper. But the local economy is having something of an energy boom of its own, thanks to the presence of crews working on a new natural-gas pipeline.
Jasper remains essentially a railway town, however. Slow-moving, bulk-carrier freights, some a mile long, grind regularly past Jasper station, a structure built in 1924 in a sort of English-rural architectural style (it wouldn't look out of place in Hampstead Garden Suburb), and so comprehensively restored in 2001 that it still looks new.
Regular passenger trains come at a rate of less than two a day. But the pristine station offers all the usual facilities: café, shop, car rental offices, left-luggage store. Of course, the unpredictability of long-haul trains does keep the place on its feet, if not on its toes. My train was held up somewhere in Ontario, at least a thousand miles away, by a derailment. Could it make up time? Not on Bill Gates's railway, nor any other in freight-friendly North America. With the 13-hour delay, it would get to Vancouver two hours after my flight to London had left. I couldn't help recalling that in the old days of the Canadian National, its initials, CNR, were said to stand for "Certainly No Rush".
Up on the slopes of Marmot Basin there was a sign of the enduring importance of the railway. A helicopter was buzzing around, installing a mobile-phone mast. When rail crews get the offer of an extra shift, they must accept in a couple of hours; otherwise, the offer is passed on. With no mobile-phone signal on the mountain, railmen couldn't ski while waiting for work. Now they can – which makes the installation a wise investment for Marmot Basin.
The temperature on the mountain was a good 10 degrees higher than down at the Lodge. This phenomenon of "inversion", when a body of cold air gets trapped beneath a layer of warm air, is common enough, but here it took an extreme form, with the trees in the Athabasca valley frosted to a pure white and those above still a rich green.
While my plans were going wrong elsewhere, they were turning out right on the slopes. The weather was beautiful, and the snow plentiful. There were so few skiers out – probably no more than 300 – that by my reckoning, we had four acres of piste each. And my guide, Ken Clark, was a former forester. That might not excite most skiers, but for someone such as myself, who regards the trees as one of the main attractions of North American skiing, it was a gift.
Marmot Basin's skiing is in a half-bowl oriented towards the east. The lower half, well-forested with Alpine firs, some spruce and – near the bottom – Lodgepole pines, offers easy, blue- and green-run skiing, but with enough crests and dips to make it good fun. Further up are a few bumpy blacks, plus, over to the south, some quite steep pitches in the Eagle East bowl. The tough stuff, running down from the 8,570ft Marmot Peak, is a great sweep of off-piste terrain accessible from the Knob chairlift. There is a single blue route, but it is no more than a narrow run-out, an ignominious escape for skiers who shouldn't have gone up there in the first place.
The area isn't huge, but it's full of little gullies, copses and ridges. This is enthusiasts' terrain – unsurprisingly, as Marmot Basin was set up in 1964 by a group of keen skiers from Edmonton, most of them doctors. The views are spectacular, not just across the Athabasca to the 11,000ft-plus peaks of the Maligne range, 10 miles away, but also 60 miles south down the valley towards Lake Louise and Banff.
My trip delivered only half what it promised: no train ride through the Rockies, no skiing on Vancouver's Olympic slopes. But Jasper itself was certainly enough to warrant a feeling of satisfaction as I headed back the way I had come, on the four-hour transfer to Edmonton International Airport and the flight to Heathrow. Apparently, two out of three UK skiers at Marmot Basin are there on return visits, which makes sense. They stay, on average, for 11.6 days. The 0.6 per cent of a day? That must be when they're waiting for the train.
Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Edmonton from £400 return. During the ski season a snow train leaves Edmonton 4pm Fridays, returning from Jasper
4.30pm Sundays, for a journey of six hours. A one-way adult ticket costs C$109 (£55).
More information on this (and the Jasper-Vancouver service) from the VIA Rail Canada website: www.viarail.ca.
To reduce the impact of your trip on the environment, you can buy a carbon "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Jasper Park Lodge, Jasper, Alberta (001 780 852 3301; www.fairmont.com/jasper). Doubles from C$263 (£132), room only.
Chateau Lake Louise, Lake Louise, Alberta (001 403 522 3511; www.fairmont.com/lakelouise). Doubles from C$332 (£166), room only.
Fairmont Banff Springs, Banff, Alberta (001 403 762 2211; www.fairmont.com/banffsprings). Doubles from C$421 (£211), room only.
www.skimarmot.com; 001 780 852 3816
www.travelalberta.com; 001 780 427 4321
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