Some of the best skiing in the country goes unnoticed by the masses—and that’s just fine with RYAN STUART.
My computer’s dictionary defines quirky as “characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits.” Castle Mountain, tucked deep in southern Alberta, definitely qualifies.
from December 2014 issue * photos: RYAN CREARY
For skiers’ attention, it competes with slick neighbours like Fernie, Banff and Kicking Horse, but has no high-speed lifts or cute resort village. Snowstorms hit from every direction, coating it in more snow than Lake Louise, but the good Lord can also taketh away, sometimes in the form of ferocious winds. On-hill accommodation ranges from modern townhouses to decrepit ski shacks and RVs buried in the parking lot. In lift lines, ranchers in cow manure-stained Carhartt overalls and straight skis merge with oil execs from Calgary in The North Face, choosing from their quivers of the best current-year skis. Later they’ll chase each other down the icy gravel access road in their beat-up pickup and Porsche Cayenne, respectively. Ticket checkers are as likely to give you a hug as actually look at your pass.
Yeah, Castle is not your typical ski hill, but if terrain matters more than lift speed, gourmet eats and après shopping, you’ve come to the right place. Especially if you arrive during a non-stop storm cycle, mid-week in late March. Which is exactly what I did, last winter. Indeed, I had the whole funky show to myself.
I leave late from Calgary, the snow falling lightly. By the time I hit the final 30 minutes, the only sign of a road in the storm is the gap in the shrubbery. I aim for the middle and plow on through the silence. Just before noon, 2.5 hours after leaving Calgary, I pull into the parking lot and park 25 metres from the main lodge.
Fifteen cm of fresh on the ground; maybe 20 cars in the parking lot. The perfect ratio.
A quick lap through the line-free cafeteria has me fuelled and ready to rip. Fifteen minutes later, and 863m higher, I stand at the summit of the uppermost Tamarack Chair, an antique centre-pole double. I dive into the first trackless bowl I see, basically right under the lift, and powder billows above my knees with every turn. At the bottom I pole into some Christmas trees and the snow gets even deeper and less tracked up.
Skidding into the lift line, I have to wait for one other party to load the chair in front of me. Outrageous! At the top I head into another bowl, again untracked, and then a few more trees. This time I continue onto one of the groomers, now covered in 10 cm of new snow, and pin it all the way to the bottom, arcing high-speed turns along the edge of control. With no one else on the entire run, I feel like my recklessness is excusable. Plus, I’m late to meet Kathryn Seleski.
Castle is owned by a group of locals, including Kathryn’s parents. She’s a jack-of-all-trades for the resort. Earlier she was wearing a snow school jacket, now she’s tipping her marketing hat and the next day I find her checking passes. She’s also a solid skier and knows the resort like the home it is.
Kathryn leads me back to the top of the mountain, greeting just about everyone we see by first name, and then along a cat track to the north. I struggle to keep up as she races into the clouds.
The Tamarack Chair rises up the middle of Mt. Gravenstafel, with the runs spreading out in equal direction to the north and south. The terrain steepens toward the south as it wraps around the mountain into an area known as The Chutes. But first we head to North Bowl.
I chase Kathryn off the cat track and into a shallow gully, where I figure 8 her turns through the nicely spaced pines. Soon the slope smooths out, steepens up and the trees open. Our speed increases as we weave our way down, five-metre Christmas trees acting like gates. We’re both hooting as we land on a groomer and race for the lifts.
Next we head south, passing through the avalanche control gate, past Drifter, the longest fall line in Canada, to The Chutes, the steepest runs on the mountain. The cat track becomes a traverse line, and as it progresses, the vertical shrinks but the pitch increases. Each run is wide-open, unbroken fall line, separated by a ridge of trees, perfect braille for navigating in the near whiteout we find.
Two runs later the talk eventually turns to snow. Castle sits in a unique microclimate, on the boundary between the moist air that hits the Fernie area and the cold, dry air over the Prairies. The convergence produces precipitation. Upslope storms, pushed by east winds, usually miss the resorts in Banff and B.C. but hammer Castle. Low pressure tracking from the west hits the cold air on the Prairies, unleashing their load. When the weather comes from the south, bringing rain to Fernie, Castle is often still cold enough for snow. Sometimes it won’t be snowing anywhere but on the hill. It all adds up to the deepest snow in Alberta after Sunshine Village. “We’ve had more snow than Fernie this winter,” Kathryn says with a pride reserved for the underdog.
But it also suffers from major wind. Often the upper Tamarack Chair swings empty on wind standby. On our way to our third run we pass a six-metre wall of snow on the suburban-street-sized Skyline Traverse. Kathryn tells me how the wind can fill it in overnight.
A few runs later we miss the last chair by a few minutes. Kathryn heads inside to tackle another job—maybe repair the snowcat—and I walk across the parking lot to check in at the Castle Mountain Ski Lodge and Hostel. Another quirky aspect of the resort, it’s part hotel, part hostel and very strict about following its rules, like taking shoes off at the front door. So Canadian.
Properly barefoot I unpack, have a shower and then find myself at a loss as to what to do next. Options are: beer at the T-Bar, the on-hill pub, or check out the common room downstairs.
The common room is empty—everyone I saw on the mountain is already polishing tables in the T-Bar. I have to wait five minutes before the waitress has a moment to take my order. I don’t mind; I scan the walls adorned with memorabilia. The people-watching is good, too.
Chatting with a local, I learn the busiest day of the week is Saturday, when church-goin’ farmers and townies create lift lines. On Sundays those heathen Calgarians dominate. On weekdays it’s mostly ski bums and farmers. A bunch of old-timers do a couple of runs then gossip like ski racers over coffee in the day lodge.
I order a pizza, down a few beers and make some instant friends over ski stories. Before I know it, it’s past my bedtime.
The wind still isn’t blowing the next morning and the snow is still falling. It’s Friday and the parking lot is noticeably busier—at least 30 cars. I run into George Koch, a fellow Ski Canada scribe. He skis here a lot, preferring it to the faster-paced options. “On a calm day it’s hard to beat,” he says. “But the wind is its Achilles’ heel.”
With the Tamarack closed, the mountain feels pretty small. With it open, it feels massive. The upper half of the mountain is either naturally open, spacious trees or cropped glades. You can ski almost everywhere. As I follow George to all his favourite haunts, I start noticing the variety of terrain: more rolling, small bowls and short but interesting pitches on the north side, long fall-line chutes on the south side, and a mix in between. The only thing missing is rocky couloirs and cliffs. But as we ski run after run of untracked, rarely another skier anywhere in sight, I don’t mind.
And I can tell neither does George. Like all the regulars I meet, all friendly and all too happy to show me their secret stashes, George is sometimes frustrated by Castle’s quirks. He lists off a bunch of things he would change if he were in charge of his favourite ski area, but I can see the annoyances are part of Castle’s charm. It’s rough around the edges, full of frays—and lots of personality. That’s why just about everyone who makes the effort to get here returns home in love with the place. Just like I do later that afternoon, legs heavy and tired despite the slow lifts, my powder needs satiated for another couple days, chasing an old pickup down the road toward home.
Castle Mountain is 260 km southwest of Calgary, Alberta. Google Map.