Marie, Castle Mountain’s “hugging lifty,” squeezed my shoulders and then took a second look at me, pulled out a hanky, and wiped frost from my cheek.
“Can’t have you getting frostbite, Yvette”
Day two and she already knew my name. She seemed to know everyone’s name. And she had that shoulder squeeze for them all.
But that’s what not was on my mind. Up the Blue and then Red chairs, bowls of knee deep, fresh powder awaited. Pristine. Light. Hardly touched.
Castle Mountain in southwest Alberta is that kind of place …. the best snow you never heard of.
Some call this the Jackson Hole of Canada. That’s a good comparison … if you are talking Jackson Hole 30 years ago before the powder hungry hordes discovered the place. This is, indeed, the end of the road. Montana’s Glacier National Park is five miles away as the crow flies and the British Columbia border is within sight.
There’s no cell service, sketchy internet service … but twice the snowfall of Lake Louise … and hardly a body, especially on weekdays when maybe 600 people show up to revel in Castle’s 2,400 skiable acres.
“We average 30 feet of snow a year,” said Marketing Director Andrew Rusynyk. “Last year, we got 40.”
Ski resorts across the U.S., meanwhile, were praying for snow and a few biggies at one point had hardly a quarter of their lifts open.
This is NOT Whistler. Nightlife here is watching local kids do ski jumps over a bonfire. Besides the two restaurants and the ski cafeteria, the nearest eatery is a 17 mile drive to Beaver Mines (more about that later ). There is some beginner terrain, but truthfully, this is a skiers’ ski mountain with chutes and bowls and trees that run from widely gladed to kiss-your-bum goodbye.
We had four days of knee and deeper powder. Some three feet of snow fell during that time. Who cares that it was ski by Braille. When the bowls got too scary, there was plenty of viz in the trees.
Ah yes, the trees. I am not by any means an expert skier. I’m more like chicken advanced. But those trees off the Huckleberry lift were nicely spaced and ran along the run so I could bail if it got too hairy. I ducked into the woods and swerved around the evergreens, finding open patches that stretched for maybe 100 feet here and there. The snow had hardly a track. And this was Saturday!
Cowboy Skiing and Pizza
Huckleberry lift is what brought Castle Mountain to the masses. The resort was built by a handful of locals who loved to ski. For years, there were only the Blue and Red chairs that led to chutes and bowls that Rusynyk once described as “mildly discomfiting to fairly terrifying.” But in 2006, Huckleberry opened 200 acres of beginner and intermediate terrain on the lower slopes of Mt. Haig, along with what three years ago became lift served access to another 800 acres of cat skiing.
Yet, the people have not come. Where Lake Louise gets more than half a million skiers a season and Whistler gets two million, Castle averages 90,000. Even on weekends, you’re hard pressed to find 1,500 people on the mountain and an aggravatingly long wait for the Red (upper chair) on Saturday is, maybe, 10 minutes.
There are, however, plans afoot. Approval to pave the access road all the way to the resort came through the week we visited. High speed internet was to be in place within weeks. And a village core, complete with condo hotel, is on the way, most likely within three years.
The place has a decided western flavor. The runs all have cowboy names … Outlaw, Sheriff, Bandito, High Rustler and on the gentler slopes, Lone Ranger and Tumbleweed. Saturdays, the parking staff wears outsize cowboy hats and riding chaps.
Meanwhile, among the most recently added amenities is the cat skiing. I stumbled on a web site that offers cat skiing elsewhere for $500 a day … granted it comes with TVs in the snow cats. But on Castle Mountain, for $295 a day ($10 off on Friday and another $40 off if you have a Castle or Lake Louise loyalty ski card), you get untouched open bowls and powder choked trees.
“It’s like heli skiing,” one guy yelled as he disappeared into the blizzard haze.
The day I cat skied, the group did eight runs and racked up some 16,000 vertical. It snowed all day, covering the previous day’s tracks. People dove into thigh deep fluff.
At the end of the day, my friends and I headed to the T-Bar Pub for pizza (see Recipe). “People actually drive here just for the pizza,” one local said.
There are also veggie choices, something with chicken and ranch dressing and a teriyaki sampling. Oh YES it would be worth a special trip.
But beyond the T-Bar, there is only the Barnaby Steakhouse and the ski cafeteria which serves up a massive, killer blueberry pancake … though that’s for breakfast.
Your other choices involve driving … half an hour or so to Pincher Creek, more to Crows Nest Pass and even more to hit the very well recommended Twin Butte General Store & Mexican Restaurant. For us, blowing blizzards dictated a choice closer to home, so we landed at Stella’s in (blink and you’ll miss it) Beaver Mines.
This was worth the decision. Stella’s has served, variously over the years, as the Beaver Mines’ community dance hall, school, church and whatever. It’s all rustic paneling, handmade tables, wood burning stove, and eclectic knickknacks. The owner’s name is really Susan Jo, but since she bought the place in 2002, nobody has called her anything but Stella.
We started with Scotch broth, thick with chunks of meat, potatoes and veggies. Then on to beef strips over noodles with curry sauce. Fern, the resident kitty, rubbed our ankles, demanding to be serviced. And yes, the place comes with a wonderful view of mountains and ranches that dot Beaver Mines Creek Valley.
Our last morning, we got yet another six or so inches of feather light powder. My friends and I were fifth in line at Huckleberry chair and first on Pony Express run, where boot top fluff stretched unbroken before us. We snaked down, caught the chair and found the run still hardly touched. We got four runs, nearly 5,000 vertical feet before 11 a.m. when, sniff, we had to leave for the airport.
If You Go
Castle Mountain Resort is in the southwest corner of Alberta, a three hour drive from the Calgary airport. There’s 2,400 skiable acres with a 2,833 foot vertical drop, four chairs, 78 runs, eight named bowls, along with uncounted tree glades and chutes, including Lone Star, Canada’s longest continuous fall line drop, 1,700 feet, at a 37 degree pitch.
The mountain averages 30 feet of snow a year.
Castle has Alberta’s only cat skiing with 18 named runs that each have up to 2,000 vertical feet. The day includes not only the standard avalanche beacon drill, but a short class on how to use a probe and shovel.
Castle also has the only on-slope ski lodging in Alberta that has car access. Castle Mountain Ski Lodge and Hostel has 10 basic double bed hotel rooms with bath and 10 hostel rooms along with an assortment of more upscale chalets.
Resort dining is limited to the T-Bar Pub, Barnaby Steakhouse, and the ski hill cafeteria. Other dining and groceries can be found in nearby Beaver Mines, Pincher Creek and Crows Nest Pass.
Castle Mountain Resort: www.skicastle.ca
Castle Mountain Ski Lodge and Hostel plus chalet rentals: www.castlemountainskilodge.com
Castle Mountain Powder Stagecoach cat skiing: www.powderstagecoach.ca
by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Contributor