What a great race! 2009 Lake Louise to Banff Loppet


Team TNT: Bob, Cheryl, Peter


When I poked my head out the door at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning at Lake Louise, it was a pleasant -6 celsius but that blasted wind was still blowing. I could see that it had snowed a couple centimetres overnight. The sky was overcast,  so it was still semi-darkness at 8 a.m. when the race started. With such a mild temperature, it wasn’t necessary to wear any extra clothes or a face mask. One layer with a shell would suffice. No long underwear required today.

The first surprise: We couldn’t start on the lake because the recent warm weather had left it slushy, so we started just above tramline on the two tracks which run through the upper parking lot. Try funneling 51 skiers down two tracks! There were 26 teams, and 25 hopeful individuals attempting to do the entire 71K.  

For all practical purposes there was really only one lane because no one would get out of the track which the first skier was breaking trail on. I found myself in a train of about 15 skiers as we double-poled our way down Tramline to the Village. The first leg of the race is 21K, but the initial 5K is all downhill. Thank you to whoever the lead skier was. I’m guessing it was either James Bannon or Jean-Pierre Bohard as they were the first two skiers into Baker Creek, 91 minutes later. There was absolutely no chance to pass if you stepped out of the tracks into the soft snow, so all you could do was bide your time. 

The first ”misfortune” to befall me was a lost pole. Approximately 2K along Tramline, you have to cross the road. As we were slowing down, the skier behind me stepped on my pole and it fell out of my hand. I came to a stop, but my pole was about 20 metres behind me. Next thing I know, a fellow skier had picked up my pole and delivered it to me.  I didn’t see her bib number because she was wearing a Camelback, but THANK YOU to the lady who did that kind deed. In the mean time, everyone in the train passed me, so I was now at the back of the pack. The remainder of the field(36 skiers?) was well behind us, so I didn’t lose a lot of positions, maybe three or four. Now at the back, I didn’t have to use a lot of energy because my skis were gliding well and I could stay close by casually double-poling. By the way, the guy who stepped on my pole did say “sorry” as he sped by. LOL

We hit the hairpin turn at the bottom of Tramline where it meets the train station, and there was no crashing and burning as often happens here.  We’re now skiing along the river near the Village and I’m following a skier who said he was from Manitoba. He’s setting a nice pace for me to follow, but I can see the lead skiers are slowly pulling away from us. We actually have to ski now, as the terrain has changed to mostly level with small dips and rises, as opposed to Tramline where it was all downhill. Periodically, a skier gets out of the tracks and lets us go by.  Another 3 or 4K goes by, and I think I’m in about 11th place. We come to the end of the campground trail and just as we are about to cross the road and go through the maze which takes us across the railroad tracks and highway, some of the lead skiers are coming back towards us!

“We’ve lost the trail!” one of them shouts. The maze of roads and trails that take you across the RR tracks and highway can be confusing, but there were ski tracks which were visible and all you had to do was follow them. Having done this a few times before, I knew we were on the right trail and told everybody to follow me. Now how’s that for a cheap and easy way to pass a lot of skiers? An example of experience and treachery serving me well!

Of course, all the fast skiers were back in the front in no time, and I was probably in about 7th place as we negotiated our way over the RR tracks, under #1 highway, up Corral creek and onto the Bow Valley parkway. We’ve completed about 12K, 9 to go.

There’s fresh snow in the tracks, making them very slow, so all the lead skiers are skiing on the corduroy. By staying on the corduroy where the wind had blown away the new snow, you could go faster and usually one-step or double-pole. I almost felt an obligation to ski in the tracks, knowing some of the skiers behind us would be out here for over 8 hours today, but of course my other team members would have highly disapproved! When I reached Baker Creek, the head organizer, Joe Lunn, asked me how it was out there. I suggested that in subsequent years, we hire a couple skiers to go out at 7 a.m. and ski in the tracks. If anyone reading this was skiing this leg, did the tracks ever get skied in?

There’s a couple short, steep climbs on the section between the railroad tracks and Morant’s curve where you have to herringbone. In years past, the snow on these hills would often be “sugar” snow, and very difficult to negotiate. You can get trapped in this quicksand-like snow, flailing away and getting nowhere. No problem this year, as it was hard-packed and relatively easy to climb. The second one takes you up to road level, which then leads you along a narrow ledge above Morant’s curve. The ledge which you have to follow for about 60 meters is barely a meter wide. You don’t want to look down if you suffer from vertigo. If you lost your balance, it looks like it would be about a 100 meter drop onto the railroad tracks! This is a beautiful spot to admire the scenery and views of Banff. If you’re not familiar with Morant’s curve, a picture of it used to be on the back of our $20 bill.

An hour has gone by very quickly to this point. From Morant’s curve to Baker Creek it’s about 7K of mostly level terrain sandwiched between the Bow Valley parkway and the railroad tracks. Two trains went by. I’m constantly double poling like crazy on the narrow strip of corduroy between the ski track and the side of the trail. If you miss your plant on the outside, your pole sinks into the deep snow, you get no push, and you almost lose your balance. My shoulders are aching with every plant of my poles but I continue the ritual, constantly battling the fatigue. I lose my focus on an easy curve as it takes a dip and I wobble on the narrow trail and fall into the deep snow! A skier passes me, asking if I’m alright. Pride is hurt, that’s all. I compose myself and a few minutes later I pass the skier. A little further down, Team B pulls over and lets me go by, thanks. The odd small rise gives me a chance to kick and restore some blood flow to my legs. I’m really having fun now!

At this point, I’m being very thankful that I don’t have to ski the entire 71K on my own. I’m thinking about John and Ken, who are doing it as individuals, and who I talked to last night at dinner, and hoping they are pacing themselves. The cabins at Baker Creek finally appear through the trees, a welcome sight. Just to make the last 500 metres interesting, the trail is now covered with a carpet of pine needles.

I cross the 1A highway on the snowbridge which the volunteers have built, and 20 meters away, my beautiful babe Cheryl is prepared and ready to ski. It was one of the few times today that our next skier was actually ready to go. I tap her on the shoulder and wish her good luck on the 9.9K she’ll be skiing to Castle Lookout. The second leg of the loppet is my favourite for sightseeing. After crossing the road at Protection Mountain campground, the views for the next 5K are spectacular.

 It turns out that I was the third team to make it to Baker Creek, about six minutes behind the leader. There were three individual skiers who also arrived before me. There were three other teams within two minutes behind me, so they’re nipping at our tail. Jean-Pierre Bohard from Team M(aka Arctic Foxes) was the first skier in to Baker Creek with a time of 1:31:07. Right on his heels was James Bannon from Team T at 1:31:32. James continued on to ski the entire 71K, but skied the first leg also as a Team. As we were to discover, Team T was in a league of their own once Maria and Kathy took over. James went on to finish 2nd as the overall fastest individual, but won his Male 50+ category.

I hung around Baker Creek for a few minutes and took pictures of a few skiers who were coming through, had a delicious brownie, then I’m in the car and off to Castle Lookout to meet Peter, coming from Calgary, who will be skiing the third leg of 13K to Johnston Canyon.

 We were pretty casual about our transitions, with each of us taking a turn at being unprepared for our hand-offs. It seemed like our skiers were showing up well before they were expected. The skier who just came in would have worked hard to pass three or four people, skiers who would then pass us at the hand-off station! When Peter came in to Johnston Canyon, it was my turn to ski again, but I was busy enjoying the warmth of the car while eating some soup. All of a sudden I hear “Bob!” and I race to put on my skis and get going. Meanwhile, I see at least three people pass through the checkpoint!

The fourth leg was quite the obstacle course with the high winds of recent days blowing a lot of branches onto the trail. One steep section of downhill which was very icy required me to remove my skis and run beside the trail for a couple hundred metres.

Cheryl was almost ready to start the fifth leg when I cruised in to Sawback. The snow between Sawback and Muleshoe was described by one skier as “sandpaper.” I want to say hi to the volunteer who was in the backswamp – just as you climb out of the river and get ready for this unbelievable section of the race, there was a gentleman waiting to give directions. Not the most pleasant place to be on a cold, windy day.

As the day wore on, we were as high as second place and as low as seventh place. That wind which was howling this morning was blowing even stronger by now. Luckily, this year it was on our backs. The adventure through the backswamp was not too bad. The trail was easy to see, and the snow was packed well and was fast.

Peter took the final hand-off at the Sunshine overpass, and yes he was ready to go. You don’t realize how long the overpass really is until you traverse it on foot. With the wind on his back, he skate-skied the last 11K in 39 minutes which includes about five or six minutes of running across the overpass and into the Healy Creek parking lot and putting on his skis.  

We had barely parked the cars in downtown Banff when Peter showed up at the finish line.

Just to illustrate how fast the first-place team was, Team T, they had crossed the finish line before we had even started the final leg. Team T was in our category of Mixed 40+, so we had no chance at all of winning our division. I think it’s interesting and encouraging for us older people, however, that the three teams in the Mixed 40+  category all were in the top five finishers(out of 26 teams). What’s that saying? Old age and treachery beats youth and enthusiasm!

The real race among the teams was for second place. There were eight teams all within 17 minutes of each other. We were two minutes behind the Arctic Foxes, and the Tri Girls were one minute behind us. The Golden Explorers were a minute behind them.

The fastest individual skier, Darryl Mekechuk, made it across the finish line in 5:21:21, 33 minutes ahead of us. Talking to him later in the hot tub, he said he overwaxed and was slow for the first half of the race. Maybe Darryl can give me some waxing lessons if that’s the case! Only 92 seconds behind in second place was James Bannon.

My deepest admiration goes out to the individual skiers who braved the elements and difficult trail conditions for over eight hours but persisted. According to the results list, every individual who started the race also finished. As I said in my earlier posts, I skied the entire distance once and learned my lesson! I had nothing left at the end but raw willpower. John Addicott was the elder statesman among the individual skiers at the age of 64. Congratulations, John.

I was pretty tickled with our result, seeing as how the best finish I’ve ever had on a team was 10th overall.

I can’t say enough about the organizing committee who pull this off in such a flawless fashion, despite many obstacles, and the volunteers who make it happen, often having to stand around in the cold and wind. Thank you for your time and efforts; you are truly appreciated.

Sometimes when I’m happily skiing along the trail, my mind wanders back to that day in 1997 when I rented a pair of cross-country skis at Kananaskis Village. It was the first time in my life that I had skis on my feet, but I immediately got hooked on this activity. I count my blessings for having the opportunity to enjoy this event in such a beautiful environment with all the friendly people, skiers and volunteers alike. This day is always one of the highlights of my winter.

See more photos http://loppet.wikidot.com/photos

Ken Hill completed the entire 71K as an individual. Read his story in the comments section here http://skihere.ca/2009/02/02/old-skiers-take-3rd-place/#comments

See the full results http://loppet.wikidot.com/results

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