Diverging off the beaten track in southwest Alberta, we've headed east from 'The Powder Highway' (an area chock-full of ski area options and a propensity for deep fluff) in search of a ski mountain we had just heard of in local whispers. Traversing a region rich in coal deposits and lean on population, it's a backcountry drive that takes us over Crowsnest Pass, which is also the richest archaeological zone in the Canadian Rockies. Passing through the skeleton town of Frank, Alberta, it's an eerie site. In 1903 the cataclysmic Frank Slide occurred on the north slope of Turtle Mountain; where 82 million tons of limestone (seemingly half a mountain) caved-off and partially buried the town, killing 70 of the town's 600 residents.
Emerging onto the high prairie from our super scenic and melodic Rockies crossing, we hovered over the route map. Taking a right hand turn at Burmis, then again at Beaver Mines we make the approach up the Westcastle River Valley to its abrupt in-your-face mountain range dead end; having done an end run to the back door of the Eastern Rockies.
Bumping into some 40 cars in the parking lot, we get a quick hint of the uncrowded slopes rumored at Castle Mountain. Due to the unusual skier density, stories float that fresh tracks typically can be found even at day's end within the mountain's terrain pockets. Additionally, the Continental Divide Chinook winds that sweep Castle Mountain tend to refresh its slopes; covering old tracks run after run. Unfortunate for us, we discover that regional storms often localize in these parts, and the pow we had experienced at Fernie just days before had missed Castle. It would be a sunny, windless Sun Valley like day on wind-buffed packed powder. Nice! We'll take some of that if you please.
In many ways 'The Secret Castle' has changed little from its beginnings. Still offering the flavor of a club-style ski hill out of the 60's hey-days, the mountain was originally inspired by a local European immigrant who wanted to impress his buddies back home with its challenging terrain. Castle Mountain began in 1965 with 4 Mueller T-Bars, and a gain of some 2500 feet up Gravenstafel Ridge. A stunning Swiss style base lodge was built (sadly burning down New Years Eve '75), and strong skiers of adventurous families (the original mountain was 70% advance terrain) from Southern Alberta came to coveted the aggressive terrain and stupendous views. Due to low mid-week traffic and a patch of poor snow seasons the resort suffered financially until some 288 passionate locals incorporated "Castle Mountain Resort Inc." in 1996; purchasing the resort and its assets from the Municipal District of Pincher Creek.
As we explore the terrain reaches, it's easy to see why Castle Mountain Resort holds the passion of the loyal local skiers. There's a lot to get excited about. Although we missed 'the day', the powder potential is unmistakable; down incredibly long, uninterrupted fall-line steeps that are constantly carpeted with 910cm/358 inches of annual deep, light powder. Most ski mountains stair-step and undulate, but with Castle's constant pitch added to world renown Rockies crystal light you've got a skiing experience that is truly unique. For us it was the relentless need to turn that made the mountain stand out. Some say that Castles steepness is overhyped. We agreed that on a powder day or during a good gripping wind-packed session that most of the slope angles are comfortable for a confident intermediate, but there were times when skiing High Rustler and Lone Star that we were acutely aware of the consequences of losing ones edge on the wind-pack - an unstoppable slide thousands of feet to the bottom. Castle's Desperado, one of a half dozen runs with similar statistics, boasts 1700 vertical feet at 38 degrees - the most continuous vertical ski run in North America.
Even though we gravitated to the abundance of continuous south Gravenstafel Ridge steeps that lay under the omnipresent shadow of Mount Haig, the wide open European-like alpine spaces of Tamarack Bowl were an equal delight of arcing. In the sun soaked afternoon Andrew makes sure we don't miss the sub-alpine terrain of North Peak, and guides us over to investigate. We poke our noses in and around the glades in the Land of the Wild & Woolly boundary until reaching new cut runs that naturally return us to the base. We could only imagine the powder stashes it would hide on a weather day when visual contrast aids route finding.
Before calling our idyllic day, we visit the intermediate area of Mount Haig that opened in 2006. Here new intermediate and novice terrain (elevating the terrain mix to Beg: 20% Int: 40% Adv: 40%), a terrain park, and just this year off-the-top-of-the-lift Castle Mountain's Powder Stagecoach (CATSKIING) is found. With fantastic groomers and access to exciting backcountry terrain, this area is the perfect complement to a well rounded Castle experience.
Offering some of the driest powder conditions in Canada with warmer than typical Rockies temperatures (-5C to -11C on average), Castle is secretly known for its every day powder experience due to over night prevailing winds filling in previous tracks. With the expressed intent of keeping visitor expectations modest and focusing marketing on the surrounding natural environment, Castle Mountain Resort intends to operate long into the future with a minimal environmental impact.
The skier promise: truly a unique steep and deep experience that is sustainable and will repeat itself for decades for those lucky enough to have heard the rumors.
Ski Canada Magazine Best of Awards!
BEST NEW LIFT-ACCESSED CAT SKIING
Huckleberry Chair to the cat to Haig Bowl
MOST CONSISTENT FALL-LINE STEEPS
Castle's Marie Cameron
BEST SKI-TO-YOUR-OWN DOOR IN ALBERTA
Only ski area with privately owned ski-in/ski-out real estate in Alberta
1.888.SKI TONS (1.888.754.8667)
Pincher Creek, Alberta, Canada, T0K 1W0