SKI BIG 3 TRAVERSE
Words by Kevin Hjertaas | Photos by Bruno Long Contradiction, they say, is the key to humour. Perhaps that’s why Rob Heule,...
Tales of untracked lift-accessed terrain with little-to-no lineups are often unheard of nowadays. The epic pow day at a resort, bottomless and untouched from bell to bell and top to bottom, has become somewhat of a myth in some places—how things used to be in ski towns. What happened to those types of days that every skier’s father still raves about 20 years later?
Unfortunately, those unforgettable days are fewer and further between. As crowds grow, skiing at big resorts has become a constant cycle of hurry up and wait: from battling for a parking spot, to waiting in massive lift lines, to paying $10 for a hot dog and the stress of beating someone to your not-so-secret powder stash. The development of the modern-day corporate resort, with shopping malls, Starbucks and five-star hotels at or near the base, began to cater to a different crowd, leaving local skiers to fight for the scraps.
It was not until last spring, when I made a two-and-a-half-hour drive south from Calgary, that I rediscovered what I had been missing all these years. Joined by skiers Dylan Siggers, Brendan Mackay and Rachel Karker, and photographer Anatole Tuzlak, we travelled down a winding country road, past farmers’ fields that gave way to towering mountains that impose themselves over the Westcastle Valley. Here we found Castle Mountain Resort, seemingly unchanged since its inception over 50 years ago.
Driving towards the ski hill, the sun broke beyond the mountains, illuminating iconic, snow-covered peaks. The snow banks grew and barrelled high above the sides of the road. As we first laid eyes on the resort, the 853-metre-long runs and high alpine broke from behind the surrounding range. Six lifts are spread across the vast terrain and provide incredible access, bringing you from the valley bottom to the top of the skyscraper-like peaks. Once on top, you can quickly find some of the lengthiest in-bounds chutes of your life, or equally splendid bowls and burnt-forest tree skiing. Over-built timeshares and condos are entirely absent, and, most importantly, there are no crowds. It’s a place that has stayed true to old-school ski culture: created by skiers, for skiers.
Castle Mountain Resort was started by Paul Klaas, a Swiss immigrant looking to create a European-style resort that would test some of the best skiers in the world. The resort was funded by local businessmen, farmers and ranchers that bought shares in the corporation. Klass never gave up on his dream, and installed the first T-bar in 1965. In 1996, a group of die-hard locals then banded together to buy the resort, and ensured it stuck to its roots.
I was lucky enough to experience Klass’ dream for three days. After hearing rumours at the local bar about the longest chutes in Alberta, our group figured: What better place to start? So, on our first day, after boarding the two-person, fixed-gripped Tamarack Chair, we stood on the shoulder of Gravenstafel Mountain, where a series of chutes fell from beneath our feet to the valley bottom, providing endless fall-line turns with nothing to slow us down. After a quick taste on our firstrun, we returned to sample the rest, spending the remainder of the morning chasing each other down the steeps. It left me wondering why and how Castle still seems so undiscovered. The area felt abandoned. After only a short traverse down Skyline Ridge, with the famous Haig Mountain as our backdrop, we had the whole place to ourselves.
We then spent the afternoon skiing below Tamarack. Each ride back up gave a much-needed respite for tired legs, and time to admire our tracks in the snow below while taking in the gorgeous views of neighbouring peaks. Eventually, chasing the last bit of light, we ventured to North Peak, in search of pockets of fresh. The alpine trees were buried in the annual 900 centimetres of snow that the valley receives, so skiing through them in North Bowl did not disappoint. And in an effort to do as the locals do, we capped off the day by celebrating with new friends and old at the T-Bar Pub and Grub.
Eager to explore the rest of the area, the next day we took advantage of Castle’s Powder Stagecoach Cat Skiing. One of only a handful of resort-based cat-skiing ventures in North America, Powder Stagecoach is a more affordable option than most lush backcountry lodge-based cat-skiing operations next door in British Columbia. After the morning safety briefing and training, we piled into the cat and headed up Haig Ridge, which we’d spotted the previous day.
As the sun poked out from behind the towering peak, it lit up our 360-degree view of the valley below. The 900 acres of terrain had a little bit of everything: wide-open bowls, chutes and gladed tree skiing, with clear skies and warm temperatures allowing us to explore the 670 metres of vertical available. At the end of each run, our cat driver was dutifully waiting at the bottom, eager to ferry us back up for another jaunt in the fresh powder paradise. During the rides, our guides took the time to tell us tales of deep days, along with sharing the rich history of the area. And in addition to the great entertainment and warm company, we were repeatedly greeted by two excited golden retrievers. Everyone who helped operate Powder Stagecoach was there for the same reason: they loved the mountains surrounding Castle, and wanted to spend every moment they could exploring them.
With such a strong community, and remarkable terrain and conditions, it seemed shocking that this Southern Albertan outpost is still relatively untouched. Could it be due to a lack of awareness, when compared to the mass-marketing efforts of mega resorts? Or are people just not willing to go the distance to ski somewhere they’ve never been? It’s a question I won’t be able to answer in this lifetime.
For more on Castle Mountain Resort, visit skicastle.ca.