GROUNDED, HUMBLE, BADASS
SKIERS: THE CAPEL FAMILY
By Kevin Hjertaas
PROFILE I SKI/SNOW
Banff attracts flocks of tourists and the local ski scene is bright and robust. It is thanks, in part, to the families that form the backbone of the ski culture, who work at the resorts, and lend a hand to ski clubs and programs. Writer Kevin Hjertaas profiles one such family, whose modesty is as impressive as their accomplishments on the slopes.
Like any sport, skiing has its share of celebrated athletes and role models who inspire the next generation. But, beyond the domain of pro skiers, there are characters who shape their local communities and who should be celebrated for their contributions to the collective lifestyle.
Five such people share one roof in Banff.
Lesley and Ryan Capel have three kids aged 13 to 20, any of whom could be the Bow Valley’s next professional freeskier. But, it’s the family’s attitudes more than abilities that make them a valued cornerstone of the Banff and Lake Louise ski scenes.
Keegan Capel, their eldest, has spent the last two winters being photographed for magazines and tourism gigs. A tall, confident 20-year-old, he has become one of the Rockies’ most recognizable skiers. When a ski magazine or film crew comes to town, Keegan is one of the first skiers they call because his smooth style is perfectly photogenic, even in the most challenging terrain.
He deserves the attention, but it sure hasn’t gone to his head. At a point where most young skiers would be moving to Whistler with stars in their eyes, Keegan has started school to become an aircraft maintenance engineer.
His humility clearly comes from his parents.
Ryan, the Banff boy, and Lesley, the Calgary girl, actually met in Sylvan Lake when Ryan spent a summer working in the flatlands and Lesley was visiting her sister. It’s a tiny town with just one real bar and not much happening, so Ryan moved quickly when the smiling, willowy blonde showed up. Offering Lesley a beer, then pulling it from his pocket, was the perfectly humble starting place.
Calm and comfortable at first, Ryan is charming, engaging and, apparently, convincing. A year later, Lesley came to spend a summer in Banff, and though it wasn’t quite the cliché “I came for a season and never left” story, it was pretty close.
Ryan’s dad, a top ski instructor, worked at Sunshine Village. His whole family skied, so Lesley needed to adapt fast. She learned quickly by simply following the crew. But, once they had their son, Keegan, Lesley decided she needed to become a good skier to keep up and be a part of that side of her family’s life. She joined the Rut Runners program at Mt. Norquay and worked at it until she was a great skier in her own right.
A few years later, with two boys (Keegan and Garrett) and a daughter (Jemma) on the way, Ryan took a job at the Lake Louise Ski Area, which meant a family pass and discounts on daycare and lessons. On the weekends, the family skied while Ryan was at work. The routine became so habitual that the family developed their own tradition: on Sunday nights they would gather and meet friends for pizza dinner in the Powder Keg restaurant at the resort’s base. It was a chance for everyone to relax after an active weekend and catch their breath before the school week.
Weekends – basically all of them – have been spent on the mountain ever since.
As the kids grew, the whole family became fixtures of the Rocky Mountain Freeriders, a freeskiing program at Lake Louise that has developed many of the region’s top skiers over the past decade. While the club helped shape them as skiers, the Capels have helped the club provide the supportive, encouraging and fun atmosphere it strives for.
“They’re like the team parents,” head coach Drew Wittstock explains. “Lesley and Ryan look after the coaches and help the other kids every weekend.” Keegan is now a coach himself and Garrett or Jemma could easily be next.
Just coming into his own at age 17, Garrett has his coaches and sponsors excited about his skiing future. As Wittstock expounds, “He’s insane these days: technically super strong skiing, but also throwing tricks off cliffs.” After the Wrangle the Chute contest at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, everyone was talking about the massive spin Garrett threw off a cliff most people had no interest in even hitting. Sponsors, K2 and Monod Sports, are taking notice, too, and supporting Garrett as he develops.
Jemma Capel, 13, doesn’t have a lot of girls her age to ski with, so her usual ski buddy is her mother and, in recent years, Keegan’s girlfriend, Morgan (who the family has now turned into a regular skier as well). On snow, Jemma has always been ahead of her age group. At seven, she was sneaking into programs for nine-year-olds. At freeskiing contests, it has never been a challenge to reach the podium in her age group. Instead of getting bored or cocky, though, Jemma remains modest and supportive of other kids.
You can tell her coach, Steve Hjorleifson, appreciates her attitude. “She’s really coachable and cares about the other kids,” says Hjorleifson. “She’s never too cool to ride the chair with anyone or help them out.”
Seeing as Ryan has been part of the ski scene in the Bow Valley most of his life, you can tell he’s proud of his kids and their accomplishments. But you will never hear the Capels bragging about any of it. With junior freeskiing contests ramping up the “hockey parent” mentality on the slopes these days, it’s refreshing. Instead of boasting about their kids or pushing them to achieve more on the hill, the Capels just seem happy they can enjoy skiing together as a family.
“The avenue we’ve chosen in skiing – freeskiing, instead of racing – has made the kids good skiers who can enjoy it year-after-year,” says Ryan, “unlike some kids you see who are burnt out on racing and quit skiing altogether.”
Grounded, humble, badass skiers. No wonder they’ve become the poster family for Rockies skiing.
An ex-stone mason turned avalanche technician, Kevin Hjertaas balances his time in the Bow Valley between parenting and squeezing in any ski adventure he can.