ON PISTE – CASTLE MOUNTAIN RESORT
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...
We’re the only skiers on a two-kilometre-long T-bar. It’s about noon on Boxing Day and people are only now starting to arrive at Troll Resort, 44 kilometres east of the town of Quesnel, in British Columbia’s Central Interior Cariboo region. The temperature is -23 ̊C at the base and -15 ̊C at the top—a decent enough inversion, but still cold enough to keep many Quesnelians at home enjoying a second cup of coffee. Well, that, and an ultra-thin snowpack, meaning only a handful of the resort’s runs are open.
The latter is unfortunate, because this place has plenty to offer, beginning with a healthy 527-metre vertical drop. There’s also a wide variety of terrain, from perfect beginner slopes and long, fall-line groomers to steep glades and a recently expanded terrain park.
It’s a 10-minute ride to the top; not that long, though enough for a cold day. Fortunately, on a T-bar hemmed by thick trees, you’re sheltered from any wind. That wouldn’t be the case if you were dangling on a chairlift. Which, were there one, would likely be a slow fixed-grip obtained secondhand from another resort and could exceed 10 minutes to get to the top. You’d hate for it to stop, as chairlifts do, or break down, as old ones are famous for. If it did either, you’d be swinging in the cold while someone went to find the maintenance guy, whereas if the T-bar stops for some reason on a frigid day, you’d just step off it. Am I making the case for T-bars because I love them and Doppelmayr is still building the same reliable model it has for decades, and resorts like Whistler Blackcomb should open up new terrain with T-bars? In part, but mostly I’m echoing the rationale of Troll co-owner Hildur Sinclair, whose small-market, low-price, big mountain vision can’t justify a chair when, all things considered, a two-kilometre T-bar is a low-maintenance wonder that does the job for a fraction of the cost.
“T-bars are the future,” she tells me with a big smile.
After taking in the expansive summit view and chuckling over a small wooden sign proclaiming “Texting Station” (the only opportunity for cell phone service in this remote locale), we make our first run down Astrid’s Alley, a zigzagging, kid-friendly trail named for Sinclair’s mom. It’s pure, unadulterated fun.
It was, in fact, Norwegian immigrants Astrid and Lars Fossberg who built the hill in 1972. Like most Cariboo folk, Lars was a DIY guy, and so the first version of the base lodge incorporated plenty of recycled and repurposed material. He even disassembled the crate in which the T-bar bullwheel arrived and built outhouses from it. Though recently enlarged, the log lodge he built remains both ample and cozy, its central fireplace surrounded by the usual kitsch of old-school skis, snowshoes, historic photos, a trophy case (mostly for dog-sled racing), an inexplicable musk-ox head and an upright piano that a procession of kids and adults tinkle away on during the day. The lodge vibe is somewhere between rec room, cafeteria and somebody’s kitchen—indeed Sinclair hosts weekly potluck dinners here for employees. She and husband Len own the hill and lodge but lease rental, tuning and ski-school concessions to Scott Zacharias, a young energetic guy who sells me a Troll Resort “Keep Calm and Ski On” T-shirt.
After a break in the lodge for fries with gravy (the benchmark dish for all little areas that rock), washed down with an IPA from Quesnel’s Barkerville Brewery, we head back up the T-bar. When Lars installed it, it was one of the longest T-bars in North America and thought to be the longest in B.C. But that honour ultimately went to the T-bar at Murray Ridge Ski Area in Fort St. James. When Lars found out that Murray Ridge had him beat by only a few metres, he was despondent.
For our next run, we head in the opposite direction, toward the resort’s second summit, where another T-bar takes you into some steep north-facing trees. The Sinclairs recently selectively logged some of the area and are using the proceeds from the timber sales to open new tree runs. We head down Snow White, which winds through the valley below the peak and seems to go on forever, because it actually does—the run is six kilometres long.
That kind of exposure on a cold day is a test of endurance, but nothing like Troll’s annual Everest Challenge. A highlight of the season, the event is the brainchild of Len, who determined that if a person completed a certain number of designated runs, the vertical would be equivalent to having climbed (or, more to the point, descended) Mount Everest. The magic number is 20, with seven of those runs—Snow White, Hurdy Gurdy, Viking, White Lighting, Overlander, The Rush and Racer’s Edge—mandatory. The remainder are skier’s choice. The event is open to all ages, comes with lunch, and, as one imagines, is plenty of fun.
Like all family-operated community hills, Troll has stories. The best is about the old groomer that was sold when Hildur was young and disappeared into the mists of dilapidated northern machinery. But after the Sinclairs were married, they heard the machine was again up for sale. They bought and converted it to an open-air bench-seat cat that can carry 24 people. On powder days, the refurbished snowcat runs from the top of the main T-bar, delivering skiers to the mountain’s higher reaches and bowling-alley powder runs through the trees.
If that isn’t worth riding a T-bar for 10 minutes, I don’t know what is.