Marmot Basin has always been known as a family friendly resort. With the opening of new, rugged terrain, is it time to start giving the Jasper National Park ski area more credit as a destination for hardcore huckers?
The first time he rode the Knob Chairlift at Marmot Basin, Jasper skier, Pierre Antoine Carret, looked longingly at the knife-edged ridge which dominates the ski area’s southwestern skyline.
“Let’s go there,” he told his friend sitting next to him in the two-person, fixed-grip Doppelmayer.
Carret was contemplating the centre-most peak of the kilometre-long ridge which makes up the highest Marmot Basin aréte. Being from the French Alps, Carret was used to being able to ski whatever run, ridge or rock-lined chute he laid eyes on, should his energy, experience and expertise be up for it.
In Europe, off-piste skiing is as natural as the cornices which form at the top of Mt. Blanc and unlike at most North American ski resorts, adventurous riders can get into backcountry bowls, couloirs and glaciated terrain without worrying about facing severe legal ramifications for ducking a rope or crossing into out-of-bounds territory; because apart from avalanche closures, there isn’t any.
“It’s unlimited,” Carret says. “You can go anywhere.”
For big mountain riders and ski mountaineers, the European experience is often a blend of resort riding and backcountry touring. A skier or snowboarder at Valmorel, Carret’s home mountain, can ride a lift, traverse off-piste to a different mountain, spend several nights in a chain of high alpine huts and then, several thousand vertical metres of riding later, descend back to the valley bottom, often on a different resort, in a neighbouring country.
“Ski touring off resort is part of the ski culture in France,” the 41-year-old explained.
Coming from that liability-loose landscape, in 2008, naive to Canada’s relatively restrictive resort riding rules, Carret was practically salivating over the possibilities of making fall-line turns from the roof of the Rockies. His backpacking buddy had scoped out the mountain before the young travellers alighted in Jasper; Carret had been assured him the terrain looked extremely promising.
Weeks later, as he eased down the safety bar on Marmot’s highest (and oldest) chairlift and took in what, until then, he had only surveyed via the ski area’s trail map, Carret was itching to get off-piste.
“Il faut skier ça, non?” he asked his friend, pointing to the snow-choked gullies fanning off of the peak known as Marmot 2. “We have to ski that, no?”
At that time, the answer was just that: an emphatic “no.”
In 2008, “hardcore” riders could, if avalanche control staff deemed the slopes safe, take on other gnarly pitches the mountain has to offer—Charlie’s Bowl and Eagle’s East, for example. And if they wanted to get away from the crowds, they could prop their skis on their shoulders and hike the Peak. Since 2004, there’s been another boot-accessed option on the north-facing snow ramps known as Cornice, accessed from the Eagle Ridge Chair. And Jasper locals are familiar with the notoriously rock-ridden but rewarding lines in Upper Charlie’s.
Marmot 2, in 2008, however, was far from being in play. Skiers obtuse enough to duck the litany of ropes and ignore the closed signs were liable to have trespassing charges filed against them by the RCMP. Several skiers learned that lesson the hard way and Carret remembers his friend telling him as much.
“He said ‘you’ll never be able to ski that,’” Carret recalled. “‘Put it out of your mind.’”
And until last week, Carret had.
Little did he know, however, that avalanche control staff at Marmot Basin had not.
The first Marmot 2 whispers started about 20 years ago. At that time, longtime Jasper-based mountain guide, Peter Amann, was head of public safety at Marmot Basin. It was Amann who put the original proposal to open the cirque and had his team install a patrol hut at on the mountain’s peak to store safety equipment, avalanche control gear and other tools essential to facilitate the Marmot 2 conversation in earnest.
In 2005—and then again in 2007, under then safety boss Tim Ricci—there was more chatter about moving into that terrain. But conditions never really lined up, and in the ensuing seasons, Marmot switched its focus, instead concentrating on opening up the Tres Hombres area, which it did, in 2017. But after those historic turns into the Whistlers Creek drainage were first made, MacDonald, who has been head of public safety since 2012, again started eyeing up the big cirque under the mountain’s apex. But there were still no guarantees.
“A lot of things have to come together in just the right order,” MacDonald explained.
In 2021, those dominoes lined up. Marmot Basin avalanche control team members, supported by mountain operations staff, ski patrol and the grooming team, undertook substantial efforts to make the terrain safe—including building a network of high traverse trails into the lower portion of the slope which allowed them to nudge into the big face above. Once there, they used traditional avalanche control techniques to knock the air out of the snow and make it less sensitive to potential triggering and on March 10, 2021, a small group of in-the-know locals were the first to dive into the area known as Marmot 1-Left.
But MacDonald and his team weren’t done there. This year, with more cornice maintenance, more explosives and more rope systems, bootpacks and high traverses in place, avalanche control continued to pound away at Marmot 2. Another hut with rescue equipment was stationed on the ridge’s expansive saddle. And in general the groomers, patrol, maintenance staff and management was “all pulling in the same direction,” MacDonald said.
Finally, a cold, clear forecast opened a window MacDonald had been prying at for the better part of a decade. The rope dropped. The gates opened. On March 1, 2023, Marmot 2 was officially in-bounds.
“It felt pretty darn good,” MacDonald said. “It was great to see our staff and the public using it.”
It’s March 1 at 11 a.m. Jasper skier Koji Takahashi’s tips are teetering on an ice-buffed precipice at 2,530-metres. A gale wind is at his back, and snow pellets—blown uphill from somewhere deep in the wilderness of Jasper National Park’s Tonquin Valley—are whipping down onto the steep, leeward ramp below his feet. Takahashi inspects the committing entrance to the undulating, boulder-strewn terrain below. Far beyond the 500 metre pitch, Takahashi can spot tiny figures sliding into the lineup for the Knob Chair.
“Pretty cool perspective,” he remarks.
Considering he’s only the 10th or so “civilian” skier in six decades to have gained such a perspective, it’s an understated remark—to local skiers, anyway.
Takahashi—whose laid-back demeanour suggests he’s prone to understating things—is a local skier, and because he works in a local ski shop and is connected to local grapevines, he got word last night that big new terrain would be opening today. Now, he and about a dozen other die-hards who got the Marmot 2 memo are happy to take the initial plunges into the prolific powder.
“Dropping,” Takahashi says, before launching himself acrobatically off of a rime-covered rock into a jump turn. As he touches down, however, his skis find something other than snow.
“Watch for sharks!” comes the 23-year-old’s salutation as he carves his way into the guts of the slope.
Takahashi’s warning is far from the first that riders get if they’re considering venturing beyond Marmot Basin’s regular piste. By the time a guest unloads off of the Knob Chairlift, hikes the Peak and enters the gate which leads to the rim of Marmot Basin’s upper boundary, there are at least six signs—most of them printed on red, metal octagons—which let guests know they are choosing to up the ante, so to speak, in terms of their terrain selection.
“Extraction of injured guests from this area will be prolonged” cautions one of the more ominous placards.
The signs are meant to provide the visiting public with pertinent information about the mountain’s hazards. Yes, by dropping the rope and allowing guests to access the cirque, Marmot’s public safety team is signing off on the slope in terms of avalanche hazard. But there are still plenty of things in this area that can injure the careless and unacquainted. Rocks, for one, but also slamming into the sizeable chunks of snow and ice that avalanche control staff exploded off of the basin’s overhanging cornice. Or skiing into a bomb hole left by one of dozens of detonations in the previous days and weeks. Or simply sliding off of the narrow ridge and raking one’s self over rock bands. If visibility is poor, even the high traverse trails and cat tracks which have allowed AC staff to nudge into the big face from below can take an unsuspecting rider off guard.
If Marmot Basin loyalists were taken off-guard in 2017 by the opening of Tres Hombres and were surprised again in 2021 when Marmot 1-Left became a riding reality, surely this year’s curtain reveal of Marmot 2 was envisaged by the double-black-diamond skiing public?
Yet based on the last three weeks of #mymarmot instagram stories and regional media reports, it appears not. That may be due to the lack of fanfare that has ushered in the terrain expansion, or it may be because Marmot Basin isn’t trying to be something it’s not. While Jasper’s only ski resort is well-regarded as a family-friendly hill with great groomers, a long season and short lift lines, historically, it doesn’t rise to the top of the charts for the big line, big mountain ski crowd.
That may be changing, says Brian Rode, Marmot’s VP of Sales and Marketing. Even if providing access to new, expert terrain isn’t likely to move mountains of lift tickets, the incremental improvements in Marmot Basin’s skiing offer gives marketing experts like Rode a richer story to tell.
“Are we going to see business increases? It’s hard to say,” says Rode. “But we’re going to do anything we can to improve the skier experience and strictly from a branding or marketability standpoint, this is one more thing we can talk about to Europeans, Americans and other skiers who like to get off the beaten path and ski advanced terrain.”
On Sunday, March 12, Carret—a European who, after meeting his wife in Jasper, has become a defacto Rockies skier—was finally able not just to talk about skiing Marmot 2, but could actually do it. As he put one foot in front of the other ascending the Peak, kept his speed and dodged rocks while traversing below the ridge, then boot-packed up a snow-choked gully to a gain a perspective he was told would only be attainable in his dreams, Carret was savouring the moment. He took in the grande Tonquin Valley vistas to the west (reminding him there are still plenty of limitations to skiing in Jasper National Park) and snapped a few photos with his friends.
Then he placed his goggles over his eyes, clicked his poles together twice and promptly soared into space.
Landing into the first of only three turns he needed to charge down the bulk of Marmot 2’s main draw, Carret was soon back on the groomed runs. As his buddies joined him, oversized grins plastered across their faces, he retrieved his phone to call his wife, Marianne. It was time to meet up with his family on the lower mountain. His four-year-old son, Mattis, wanted to ski with papa.
With a final glance to the ridge, Carret could discern where he had, moments ago, stood at the roof of the Rockies.
“Mission accomplie,” he smiled.
MacDonald and Marmot Basin avalanche control staff couldn’t agree more.
Bob Covey // email@example.com