It was day four of my trip to Jasper before I was up to any kind of après action. The London to Edmonton long-haul and a hyperactive 24 hours trying to sample all the rollercoasters, water slides, ice rinks, themed hotel rooms and sunken galleons of the Death Star-sized West Edmonton Mall, three days of joyous, queue-free ripping up the bowls, glades and cruisers of Jasper’s Marmot Basin ski area, and nightly cowboy-sized dinners and fireside cocktails, had conspired to put me to bed by 10pm so far. Day four, I was determined, would be different.
That’s how I came to rock up at the Athabasca Hotel, home to this low-key little frontier town’s liveliest bar, and the Atha-B, nominated by every local I’d met as the hottest nightspot in town. The crowd was a perfect cross-section of gnarly local teens buzzed up from a sun-drenched powder day, sports fans nursing pints and cheering on the bone-crushing ice hockey match on the bar’s giant screen, a few old couples shuffling in to escape the -15°C evening for a spell and a smattering of chilled tourists. And when the Atha-B, a dark room next door, started pumping out sounds, the dancefloor belonged to each of them alike, a balance ingeniously achieved by alternating two rave classics, drawing the youngsters onto the floor, with a couple of stomping line-dancing anthems which let the oldies have a go. And repeat. All night long.
Truly, a ski trip to this corner of the Canadian Rockies is a little different. While its decent-sized, well-equipped and smartly-run ski area has enough terrain to keep all but the most demanding downhill junkies busy for a week, and its facilities meet most every kind of international standard, the characters of both resort and town have stayed miraculously resistant to any kind of standardisation.
A major factor is Jasper’s location, in the heart of Jasper National Park. The park’s pristine, 4,200-square mile sweep of lakes, immaculate pine forests, roaring waterfalls and saw-toothed Rocky peaks is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as one of the most protected places on the planet shelters important populations of moose, wolves, beavers and grizzlies (the bear-proofed bins on the town’s streets are the first clue). As such, development has been strictly controlled, and a policy of no on-mountain accommodation rules out ski-in, ski-out addicts right there. An almost eerie lack of lift lines and crowded pistes balance, Marmot Basin’s well-networked 1,675 acres and 3,000ft of vertical drop offer all levels of terrain with some exceptional, adrenaline-dripping backcountry and gladed areas, all wrapped up in stunning, wide-open views. New development has opened up substantial new areas in recent years, while (eco-freaks rejoice) both the park’s and resort operators’ standards guarantee that any development will have no net negative impact on the environment.
It’s worth noting that extremes of weather are a feature in these parts. Darkest winter can see temperatures scraping -35°C, although a friendly ‘chinook’, a sudden warm wind, is just as likely to usher in some unseasonably warm, sunny days. Warm-weather devotees will find March and April a safer bet, and Jasper’s location make it a good bet for a late-season jaunt.
Back in Jasper, the world-class charm up the hill have done little to turn the heads of inhabitants of this little old railroad town. Founded in the 1820s by fur traders looking for a route through the Rockies, and a century later joined up with the wilder world by the Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern Railways, Jasper, now home to just 4,500 permanent residents, has hung on to an uncommercial, unspoiled small-town vibe which sees it in no hurry to develop and be damned. Friendly, fun and resolutely down-to-earth, the locals love where they live and are more than happy to share it.