The Cult of Opening Day

Travel to Canada - What to Expect

The Cult of Opening Day

First Chair at Mt. Norquay
First Chair at Mt. Norquay. Photo by Dan Evans.

There is always a palpable excitement in the air when the Banff & Lake Louise ski areas open.  The town waits for announcements about opening day expectantly.  Will the hills open early? Will they open late?

It’s as though opening day is some sort of harbinger for how the rest of the season will play out; as though it will also answer the question of how epic a snow year it will be.  It may be about as scientifically telling as a groundhog seeing its shadow to predict an early spring but despite the lack of rational – the excitement is real.

The oddest part is possibly the fact that it’s locals that drive the buzz; tourists are few and far between in mid-October when the anticipation starts.  So why do locals get so excited for a season that lasts almost 8 months and brings sometimes frigid temperatures?

To find the answer, consulting an expert seemed necessary and who would have more insight than one of the diehards that wakes up before the crack of dawn to get to the hill for first chair on opening day?  Local lore was that a few Lake Louise residents had being doing just that for the past number of years and since Lake Louise has a population of about 500 – finding these diehards, these ‘experts’ would be easy.

It was the second call to a local business that panned out.  The friendly voice on the other end of the line enthusiastically admitted that she was indeed one of the diehards that had lined up in the dark last year to be on first chair.

Emjay Lyon is a lot like most ‘locals’ in Lake Louise – she came for a season, hoping to become a better snowboarder, and fell in love with the place.  That was three years ago.  Now she works at Wilson’s, the local gear store, which not only gives her enough of a discount to stay in boots and boards each season but more importantly allows her to ride 45 to 50 days each season.

Emjay Lyon ripping it up at Lake Louise
Ripping it up on the slopes of Lake Louise Ski Resort, Emjay Lyon is one of the diehards who queues to be on first chair opening day.

So if she is up at the Lake Louise Ski Resort two to three times a week the question again becomes why bother standing in the dark with just her two friends waiting for the resort to open?  What’s the hurry?

“It’s like Christmas for locals. You lay out your clothes the night before and get up really early,” Emjay reasoned.  “You don’t get anything for it.  It’s boring and freaking cold but it is bragging rights for the rest of the season.”

She describes setting up to wait with camp chairs, sleeping bags, and a supply of redbulls and handwarmers.  She laughs when she remembers digging a moat in the snow around one of her buddies to stay warm.

“Here skiing and boarding is like a religion.  That is why first chair gets put on such a pedestal.  It proves you are THE most stoked for the season.”

Her willingness to start the season sleepless and chilled to prove her commitment, her excitement for winter sports is admirable.  Other locals do the same at Sunshine Village and at Mt Norquay to be on that first chair.  People make their way to the hill much like a pilgrimage of the most faithful.

While first chair and opening day are quite obviously a celebration of the ski season to come, it also has a greater meaning to the morale of each mountain town.  Shoulder season – those months from September to the end of November when the town becomes unusually quiet and it gets uncomfortably cold to hike and bike but not snowy enough to shred – is a very negative word.  “There is nothing to do… You go to gym to train for winter,” is how Emjay describes it.

Opening day is the official end of that shoulder season.  Tourist towns like Banff and Lake Louise just aren’t themselves without a few tourists around so opening day really represents more than just the chairs turning and the start of winter sports.  It is prosperity and fun flowing back in.

So RIP shoulder season and hello slopes!