TARVEL: A Real Rocky Mountain High; Nick Mead Meets Up with Jasper and Finds a Friendly Welcome the Canadian Rockies Form a Truly Spectacular Backdrop to Some of the Best Slopes in the World
Byline: Nick Mead
Our driver slowed suddenly on the highway to Jasper and pointed excitedly ahead -a lone wolf stood in the road, its head turned towards the van as it sized up the threat.
It froze for no more than a second, its grey fur bristling in the sub-zero temperatures and then it was gone, vanishing into the forest of spruce, fir and birch which lined the road.
Wolves are shy animals and, although six packs have been spotted near the Canadian Rocky Mountains ski resort of Marmot Basin this winter, we were lucky to see one without venturing into the 4,000 square mile wilderness of Jasper National Park.
By the time we reached the small town of Jasper, Alberta, some 20 miles later we had seen a coyote, some white-tailed deer, big-horn sheep and a pack of male elk.
After six days in the Canadian Rockies it felt like I had seen more wildlife than skiers.
The slopes of Marmot Basin are wonderfully empty. I never waited more than a minute for lifts and even on the busiest weekends, queues rarely exceed seven or eight minutes.
An express quad lift helps, whisking skiers rapidly up to the halfway point of the mountain and making 10 runs in a morning child's play.
A further five chairs and two T-bars open up the rest of the mountain's 75 trails - the longest measuring threeand-a-half miles.
Many times I paused part way down a piste to catch my breath, looked back and saw no one. You'd be lucky to get that in the Alps.
Despite my lack of experience - having skied during a couple of long weekends in Italy, I was classed a 'near beginner' - Marmot Basin had plenty to offer.
All but one of the lifts leads to a beginner, intermediate and advanced slope, mostly tree-lined. Every level of skier can negotiate pretty much all of the mountain.
Advanced skiers were excited by a cocktail of fresh 'powder', some scarily difficult 'chutes' and 'open bowls', some classed as 'double black diamonds'.
My level was a bit lower but after a couple of lessons (pounds 26 per hour for one-to-one tuition, cheaper in a group) I felt I had made real progress.
I even tried an off-piste run through the trees, guided by one of the resort's Ski Hosts, who provide a free service to orientate new visitors to the mountain. Marmot Basin has ambitious plans to expand the resort and extend the lift system, opening up new advanced slopes at the top of the mountain.
However, in a national park, development is controlled and Marmot Basin will never be as busy as Canadian resorts like Banff and Whistler, or American resorts in Colorado and California.
There are no hotels at the ski resort itself and visitors stay around the pleasant town of Jasper, 30 minutes away by bus (hotels arrange tickets). Like Marmot Basin, Jasper - which began life as a fur trading post - is quieter than Whistler and Banff, with bars rather than nightclubs.
The most luxurious place to stay is the Jasper Park Lodge. Set in 900 acres on the edge of Lac Beauvert it offers a large underground shopping area, gourmet restaurants, gym, health centre and outdoor heated all-year pool.
The Fairmont-owned Jasper Park Lodge isn't cheap but the town has many other options including the decent, but more affordable, Amethyst, Marmot and Lobstick Lodges.
A big bonus to skiing at Marmot Basin is that winter is the low season. Hotels packed in summer offer good value to skiers. …