Experience Castle Mountain!
Castle Mountain is a very special place for many reasons, everyone who is passionate about skiing or boarding must visit Castle. Its original claim to fame was the longest steepest runs of any ski hill in North America, and that hasn’t changed. On my current visit I was excited to be going to Castle for a day of cat skiing on the Powder Stagecoach. The Powder Stagecoach is the only cat skiing in Alberta, it’s no surprise that the BC border is only a couple of km’s West.
The promotional pitch for Powder Stagecoach from the resort is as follows, and it is exactly as it is.
Castle’s lift assisted Powder Stagecoach will style you up Haig Mountain to wide bowls, gladded chutes and breathtaking scenery. Come and share our 995 cms annual snowfall across 800 acres of skiable terrain. When you have 2000 vertical feet a run, you will not be short of epic lines. Experience the unforgettable feel of backcountry skiing with the comfort of an exciting ride in a snow cat!
Now the fact that the cat skiing is exactly as is defines Castle. Most ski hills or resorts are compelled to exaggerate or downright lie about their product or service and especially snow conditions. Real skiers and skier families define Castle. Their passion about skiing rises above the almighty dollar and this is evident everywhere. In the bar you will most likely meet owners and enjoy a few drinks and get envied to ski with them the following day. Any how this special place came to be, the story is as follows:
In the beginning there was snow, next there were mountains and then came masses of frantic powder hounds anxious to get first tracks.
At Castle Mountain Resort after a snowfall, rare is the day when you can’t find fresh tracks at 3:30 pm once you’re familiar with the fantastic vagaries of Castle terrain.
When did Castle Mountain’s history begin and how did the current incarnation of the mountain come about?
According to the weather pundits the snow drought began in 1973, the diehards at CMR find this hard to believe, as even during poor years there’s always great snow somewhere. According to weather pundits, pre ’73 there was significantly more snow. This was very apparent to Paul Klaus and a group of Southern Alberta investors aware that the only way during the early ’60’s into the West Castle valley was with a D-9 Cat. Settled snow on the valley floor exceeded 2 metres and subsequent to the great fire of 1938 there were very few trees on Gravenstafel Ridge, which sparkled in the developers eyes and offered 3200 feet of consummate skiing.
In the summer of 1965 Paul Klaus and a group of Southern Alberta investors installed 4 Mueller T-Bar lifts on the mountain, gaining approximately 2500 feet, with aspirations of installing a fifth lift to the summit in the near future. They built a beautiful Swiss style lodge at the base with a number of rental accommodations and opened to the public in December of 1965. Strong skiers and athletic families from all over Southern Alberta fell in love with the fantastic terrain and stupendous views offered from high on Gravenstafel ridge. The 14 rental rooms and accommodations were full on weekends but the resort suffered financially from lack of traffic during the week. The highest T-bar was subject to wind closure and frequently not open. Eventually, in 1972, it was sold to Mount Baldy in Osoyoos.
In 1975 the area hosted the Canada Winter Games alpine events. During the first part of that week a record amount of snow fell in 48 hours and massive avalanches were triggered. These avalanches resulted in the evacuation of the area and the road being closed for a period of time. The Canada Winter Games were completed after the storm cycle and deemed a success.
On New Years Eve of 1975 the main lodge caught fire and was lost. Trailers were moved onto the foundation and the hill reopened by early February. The owners at that time felt this was the last straw and allowed the ski hill to be taken over by the Town and Municipal District of Pincher Creek.
The following couple of years were plagued with massive rain events and warm weather. One season the hill only managed two weeks of operation. This was not entirely the weathers fault, limited grooming equipment and techniques laid open the mountain to the scalpel of the Chinook winds and much unpacked snow was lost this way.
The rate payers in the MD of Pincher Creek became disenchanted with the ski area and in 1994, bowing to public pressure the MD Council pulled the plug on the operation. This was a blessing in disguise, the Westcastle Supporters Association [WSA] a group of avid Castle men and women created a trust fund to ensure the solvency of the hill and with the MD’s best wishes undertook to operate the mountain. The first year was a struggle but the second year, 1995, demonstrated the possibility of greater things to come.
A core group incorporated “Castle Mountain Resort Inc.” and in the summer of 1996 purchased the resort and its assets from the MD of Pincher Creek. An initial share offering raised enough money to install a triple chair at the base, buy a second snow cat and most importantly purchase a double chair from Sunshine. There were also plans to open the top of the mountain and quadruple the ski terrain. During the summer of 1998 this was accomplished. The resulting terrain improvements put Castle on the map of great places to recreate with some of the best fall-line steeps in North America.
What impresses me with this story is local ownership. The skiers and boarders own the place, could it be any better!
The cat skiing was awesome! My friend Reto and I skied with a couple from Calgary and Lethbridge and our guide was one of Castle’s owners. Castle Mtn is in its second season of offering snow cat skiing. Steve Kuijt, famous mountain guide and retired General Manager of Island Lake Lodge, helped define the operation. The potential to access more terrain is obvious and the group is eager to make it better. Kuijt’s plan will be slowly implemented and he’ll be around to test the product.
The current set up gets skiers up the mountain by chair lift and snow cat. A short lift ride up the Haig chair, a new intermediate chair that heads towards the new snow cat terrain, got us to the snow cat pick up.
The terrain has a direct continuous fall line with many cool features ranging from rock drops to literally dozens of little chutes or gullies. We skied over 20,000 ft of vertical in a relaxed manner. Two groups were riding that day and the local group in the other cat skied one additional run. Naturally they bought the beer.
Future plans potentially include eliminating the chair ride and adding more vertical. Long-term plans could include putting a chair lift on this fine terrain. In good keeping with quality life it will most likely be a used chair from a mega resort.
Many of us can remember Whistler’s old cat ski area, it became know as Blackcomb when they put the chairs in. And the skiing at Blackcomb has never been as good as it was then, or when the slow triple chairs were the only way to the top and the snow was great even at 3:30.
Well Castle is just like that, as good as it has always been, better that anything your skiing these days unless you’re skiing at Castle. Don’t feel any pressure to get there this year, nothing is going to change quickly, the skiing will remain great, the people will be real, just make sure that you ski this place because it’s genuine skier experience!
For more info on Castle CLICK HERE