Drop the rope: Historic turns made in Marmot Basin’s new expert terrain

On December 1, high above the town of Jasper, a small group of local skiers and snowboarders were unloading from Marmot Basin’s Paradise chairlift.

It was a chilly morning, there was a trace of new snow on the ground and a quick glance at the ski tenure below indicated that the groomed runs were in prime shape for the impending weekend.

But instead of swooshing down to the crowd-free slopes below, these riders were shouldering their skis and boards and gathering around the adjacent ski patrol hut. They were waiting. In fact, some of them had been waiting 25 years for this moment.

What they were anticipating was the opening of Tres Hombrés—a 1,200 vertical foot, north-facing alpine slope which had whet expert riders’ appetites for decades but which had never been skied by the public. The news that the terrain would open on Friday was anything but official, yet for the previous 48 hours, word had been spreading quickly.

All throughout Jasper, previously-sealed lips had been loosening. Those with a roommate on ski patrol or a friend working for dispatch were hearing the same, exciting thing: avalanche control members had been working on the slope all week and the gate on Trés was due to drop at 10 a.m. For the die-hards, they simply had to be there.

The high degree of suspense was based partly on the fact that the news of Trés’ opening was so surprising. Travis Grant, a long-time Marmot Basin shredder and former staff member (1999-2003) who now has a family in the Edmonton area, was admittedly shocked when in November, Marmot Basin announced they would open the area to the public.

“I never in a thousand years thought they would do something this cool,” he said.

Grant wasn’t the only skeptic. However, with Parks Canada signing off on Marmot’s recently-completed trail maintenance plan and with the agreement with the ski resort that there will be no aspirations for lift development in that area, Grant and countless others were happy to eat their words.

“It’s a smart move,” Grant said. “It’s great for Marmot and everyone in town whose living is connected to skiing.”

For those whose lifestyle is connected to skiing—and certainly the two dozen or so who were loitering around the gate on December 1 count themselves in that category—the expansion of rideable terrain is nothing short of momentous. Not only does Trés Hombres’ opening give expert riders new, off-piste acreage to explore, the move means black diamond skiers will be less concentrated on the entire mountain, giving everyone more room to ski.   

“This is going to spread out the expert skiers from places like the Knob and Eagles East,” said Freewheel Cycle’s Chris Peel, who was among the first to dive in after ski patrol dropped the rope.

Make no mistake, this is an area that caters to advanced riders. While the slope itself is gnarly—steep, un-manicured and home to big rock and cornice features which command respect—what will really separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, is the ski out back to the lift. On the opening weekend of the new terrain, newbies were finding out just how narrow, technical and hazard-laden the egress can be. Since that bony start, ski patrol has put in a heroic effort to make the traverse more rider-friendly, but those dropping in should be aware that skiing out is just as challenging as skiing the slope—perhaps more so for snowboarders, for whom a lack of ski poles and fixed foot positioning makes flat-land travelling challenging.

But for those who know what they’re getting into, that challenge is exactly the point, according to Marmot Basin’s VP of Marketing, Brian Rode.

“People get to test their skills, there’s that sense of accomplishment,” said Rode. “You don’t just jump in and start making turns, you have to stop and plan your line. That’s part of the fun.”

Peter Amann knows what line he’ll be taking when he gets into Trés. The ACMG professional and former director of avalanche control at Marmot Basin was as surprised as anyone else when the news about Trés Hombres started making the rounds. Amann, who worked for Marmot Basin for 22 years, knows the slope well. He skied it only once, with his colleagues, after the resort closed for the season, but has extensive experience in Trés Hombres from the standpoint of avalanche control.

“I think it’s cool that it’s open,” Amann said. “I’m looking for

ward to going up and checking it out.”

Amann remembers at one point, in the mid-1990s, there was serious chatter at Marmot Basin’s management level to open Trés for skiing. At that time, however, sights were also set on the Eagle’s East area and as Peter remembers it, “it was one or the other.”

The ski area’s leasehold was different back then, too—the idea was for Trés to extend all the way to Whistlers Creek, and with that idea came talk of a lift—but even though Amann’s team were researching ways to make that possible from a snow safety angle, the focus on Eagles East and the subsequent installation of the Eagle Ridge chairlift soon took priority. Trés moved to the back burner, where most people—including Amann—figured it would stay.

“It will be interesting to see how it works for the course of the year,” Amann said, noting the challenge that the egress will present not

 only to riders getting out, but to patrollers getting in, in particular should they need to do so by skidoo.

Rode says they’ve got their best people on it.

“As we get more snow we’ll have an egress trail maintenance plan in place,” Rode said. Maintenance will be performed on the track as required. Signage to alert guests to the nature of the skiing will be more prominent, he added.

On December 1, the only sign needed for the 20-odd expert skiers and snowboarders lined up for the opening of Trés, was a green light. At 10:25 a.m., under slate-grey skies and with a sense of being part of local ski history in-the-making, those die-hards got what they were dreaming of.

“Sierra one to Sierra 22,” came head of avalanche safety, Kerry MacDonald’s voice over the radio. “Go ahead and open the gate to Trés.”

 

//Bob Covey

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