Sitting on a snow bike on a mountain top in Alberta, I thought death was a distinct possibility. In such circumstances some people might see their life flash before their eyes; for me, I just heard the chorus of the Beatles’ song, Fool On The Hill.
I was here because I gave up saying no to an Alberta colleague who, learning I was headed to the Rockies, took charge of my itinerary.
“Do you ski?”
“Do you snowboard?”
“Would you like to learn?”
Then she snapped her fingers and said, “I know, snowbiking! I’ve hurt my knees, so I can’t ski anymore and this is what I do.”
I agreed because I didn’t want to seem too stubborn, and fool that I am, figured if an injured person can do this, how difficult can it be?
I pulled the rented SUV into the parking lot of Sunshine Village, which is the ski resort between Lake Louise and Banff. Sunshine Village prides itself on having a longer ski season (it lasts until mid-May) than other mountain resorts. It’s about a 25-minute gondola ride up the mountain to the village.
The scenery on the ride is stunning and preoccupied me while my gondola-mates engaged in excited skier speak. The words were English, but, for the non-skier, they were strung together in a senseless thread.
At the village, I was introduced to Glen Anderson, a trim, cheerful 20-something Ozzie, who would be my snow bike guide. In the rental room I was given a pair of grey ski boots. This was my first time wearing ski boots. I’ve had people tell me they dance in their boots. Not me. It took half an hour to squeeze into them and when I finally did get them on, I moved like a drunk auditioning for the role of Frankenstein.
Next I was given waist-high skis to strap on before slip and slidin’ up three snow steps to a rack of bright yellow snowbikes. The snowbike is a stripped down small bike frame with a black banana seat and short skis, front and back, instead of wheels. There are no brakes. A detail I didn’t consider until careering down the mountain.
Unfortunately, our next move was to the chairlift. This concerned me. I figured novices would be taken to a bunny hill or toboggan run. Not us, we went to cloud level.
At the summit, which is 8,954 feet (2730 metres) high, I sat on a bike looking down at the Continental Divide. To the left was British Columbia, on the right Alberta. Glen gave me a crash course on the nuanced sport of snowbiking. Turns are accomplished with head and shoulder movements. You do use the handlebars for some maneuvering, but the greater control comes from light shifting of the body.
As cheerful and positive as Glen sounded, I told him I had serious reservations about this. He smiled and sped off across the new snowfall, shouting, “Follow the green flags, you’ll be fine”.
Stranded on the mountain top, I followed. As I ripped across this pristine alpine meadow I realized we didn’t discuss stopping. I considered throwing myself down but feared that was too simple a solution to work. I weirdly remembered an afternoon cable program called The Bonny Prudent Show. I don’t know who Bonny Prudent was, but she had a TV show. On one program she talked about her first, and only, ski experience. Only when she was swooshing down the ski hill did she think about stopping. Like me, this was a neglected conversation. Bonny decided since it was snow, she would sit down. Seems reasonable. Except where she opted to sit there was a huge rock. She spent the next eight months in a body cast. It’s funny how quickly you can remember and digest so much when the world is flying past.
With Bonny in mind my thoughts turned to figure skaters. They came to a sideways stop. That worked. I turned my skis and bike sideways and was happily surprised this worked and that I didn’t end up flying over the handlebars.
Every dozen flags I caught up with Glen. I would be gasping for breath. He would be smiling. At the second stop an impressed Glen said, “You really like speed!” No, that would be gravity conspiring with my fear of falling propelling me at breakneck speed.
At what would turn out to be the midpoint in the run I faced a bowl in the trail. The choice was risk a short, sharp downhill that could really propel me to uncomfortable speeds or try for a longer, more benign incline. As I sat contemplating my route along the lip and thinking about centrifugal force, a snowboarder flew over my left shoulder and frightened the shit out of me.
I felt compelled to move. I caught the upper lip of the bowl and shot across two adjacent trails in front of a wall of brightly-dressed skiers coming directly at me. It was like a scene from James Bond. One skier sailed behind me, another in front and two others jumped overhead. To avoid getting a ski in the ear I crouched low which had the unfortunate effect of making me more aerodynamically efficient.
As I accelerated across this bowl in the hill, I sped towards a large caution sign with skull and crossbones and thought, “(expletive deleted), I’m running out of mountain! I am going to die!”
A quick left jerk of the bike in coordination with my skis and I started to slide to where Glen was waiting. I had quite a bit of speed going, so I kept the skis angled slightly to slow me down. When I finally reached Glen, now wearing a fresh layer of my snow spray, he said, “I can’t believe you did that. That was really difficult.” I couldn’t believe it either. It’s surprising how you can carry off terror.
At the end of my half-hour run I was exhausted. I was drenched in sweat. Every part of my body was in rebellion. My lungs were inflamed, my thighs ready to explode and my shins ached. But having survived, and knowing now what snow biking involves, I would do it again. But not this day. I had earned a very large drink.
If you snowbike
Sunshine Village (www.skibanff.com) no longer offers snowbiking. However, Sun Peaks Resort in BC does offer it.