By George Davies – The University of Calgary, Canada
Studying in Calgary should definitely be at the top of your list if you enjoy being outdoors. Home to the fastest ice in the world, as well as the stupendously stunning snow-capped Rocky Mountains, Alberta ticks every box for any alfresco adventurer. After spending almost seven months in this corner of the world, I’ve had my fair share of experiences. From carving down heavenly white powder to scrambling up unrelenting rock faces, I have accumulated a string of thoughts on the best places to visit and investments to avoid as a travelling student. Which I hope may be of some sort of guidance for those new to the Albertan scene. Allowing you to make the most of your time in the province and beyond.
First things first, if you’re considering skiing at any skill level, its worth joining the University of Calgary (UoC) Ski Club. With said membership, you can get up to 25% off standard lift tickets at both Alberta and British Columbia resorts, as well as various discounts at bars, ski shops and rentals. A few of my friends, who were planning on skiing for most of the season bought a student season pass for a particular resort at the start of the year. Whilst it does work out cheaper in the long run, you do find yourself financially restrained to one set of slopes. If you go down this route make sure you invest your money into a sizeable resort, such as Lake Louise or Sunshine Village.
I would recommend adopting more of a ‘freelance’ approach to ski trips. By taking advantage of the ski club’s various discounts, you’ll find that most hills around Banff, Jasper and BC will cater to a student’s budget whilst providing a wide range of downhill excursions. Ranging from one of the greatest vertical drops on the continent at Revelstoke, BC, to the glorious backcountry skiing at Fernie, BC. Although I never got the chance to visit, I’ve been told that the eight-hour round trip up to Marmot Ski Hill in Jasper is worth it.
Again, if you’re coming over and wanting to invest your time into North American Skiing, I would advise on picking up a second-hand ski set. My friends and I have found some absolute bargains on the buy and sell sites of Kijiji and Varage Sale. For beginners, it is best to save your money buying helmets and poles from such sites but renting a pair of skis and boots from the UoC’s Outdoor Centre is a no-brainer. Given my ineptitude in the world of skiing prior to arrival, the Outdoor Centre educated me on skiing jargon and maintenance. Moreover, for those who have bigger fish to fry throughout the year, renting skis saves time and effort compared to being responsible for the upkeep of your own set.
In terms of places to ski for beginners, you’re best heading to the bigger resorts first, or using the nearby Olympic Ski Park in town. Visible from the UoC campus, the Olympic Park houses a couple of runs that are perfect for learning the ropes. Moreover, if you’re able to pick up a Sunshine Superpass for the year, which gives you discounts at various ski hills including Sunshine Village and Revelstoke, you can get yourself a free day of skiing at the Olympic Park if you register online.
Much like the Ski Club, the UoC also has a brilliant club for those keen on hiking in and around the mountains. Being a member of the UoC Outdoor Adventures (UCOA), I’ve been on a handful of hikes in both Banff and around Alberta’s border with Montana. This is definitely one of the most affordable ways to do some amazing hikes without worrying about car rentals or buses from town; having to only cover petrol money, which is usually around CA$10-15.
In terms of equipment, I would certainly advise picking yourself up a good pair of spikes. Given that a lot of hiking will take place during fall, winter and early spring spikes are an essential to most snow- and ice-packed climbs. Then again, if you know that you won’t be hiking weekly, the UoC Outdoor Centre is once again at hand to supply you with whatever equipment you may require. From ice picks to canoes, the more you tell them about your hike, the more likely they will know which one you’re on about and will supply you with the appropriate gear.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to venture into the wilderness on your own its worth downloading the AllTrails app on your phone, picking up a bear spray and heading towards those protruding, pointy rock things. It may also find value in taking advantage of the various discount days and reduced rentals that come with being a UCOA member. I found, despite its slightly steep prices, that discount days with the club at MEC, in downtown, was more than sufficient in supplying hiking paraphernalia.
Whilst I haven’t dabbled in the sport this year, my good friend, fellow exchanger and keen cross-country skier Jess, from the University of Kent, has a little insight into this endurance-themed joy-ride:
“Cross country skiing is an underrated sport. It’s significantly cheaper than downhill skiing as the majority of trails in and around Calgary are free to use, while the gear itself is also a lot less costly. At first it can feel quite precarious as you’re attached to thin flimsy skis by just your toe, but that ability to move is freeing, making it easier to get back up if you happen to face plant on the downhill. You feel pretty sporty, until you realise you’re sharing the course with a lot of elderly people, given the low-impact nature of this exercise.
Whilst there are several local options for XC Skiing, my top three spots would be:
1. Bragg creek. Situated in the foothills, it’s a short 40 minute drive from Calgary for some lovely tracks, with some running parallel to the creek. You can often see snow-bikes, and people with their dogs which is a highlight.
2. Canmore Nordic Ski Centre. Canmore charges a small fee as they maintain the trails and produce artificial snow if there isn’t enough. It’s a short drive from Calgary with multiple trails, as well as home to a warming hut, which makes a massive difference on cold days – the opportunity to defrost is wonderful.
3. Mt. Shark. This is by far my favourite place. Although the glorious weather may have helped, compared to skiing in frostbite conditions during my other winter trips. It’s a longer drive, around two and a half hours, but well worth the scenic journey via Spray Lakes. Where you can spot people ice fishing or kite skiing. The name makes it a cool enough spot, and the views are stunning. There are plenty of long trails, including one to a lake. One thing to be aware of is that the only structures are basic toilets, so there’s no lodge to warm up in.”
The UoC campus is also home to the Olympic Oval. The city’s main speed skating track used in the 1988 Winter Olympics, and to this day is still regarded as some of the fastest ice in the world. Skates and helmets can be rented track-side.
When estuaries and ponds start to freeze up, renting a pair of skates from the outdoor centre allows you to explore the multiple public skating rinks around the city. From gliding in the midst of skyscrapers on Olympic Plaza in downtown, to gracefully skating through the icy pathways of Bowness Park, Calgary has it all. Although I found that heading out to Banff National Park to skate on some hefty frozen lakes was where the best skating was at. Although Lake Louise was a delight to glide upon, especially during the 2018 Ice Sculpting Championship, I would advise taking those blades in hand to the quieter, but equally as beautiful, Minniewanka and Johnson Lakes.