John's Report - January 24, 2006

Castle Mountain - The Best Place to Ski?

I skied Castle Mountain last Sunday, where the conditions were nearly as good as those described in Jay�s last report. Two years ago, at the Fernie ski auction, my pal Dan bid for and won a ski trip for himself, and his 19 best buddies, to Castle Mountain, Alberta. With last year�s mud-bog of a ski season, the trip never happened, until last Sunday. Castle is about 120 kms (1 � Hrs) from Fernie. Travel Highway 3 east through the Crowsnest Pass & just as the Prairie starts to open up through the mountains, turn right on Hwy 507 (which at some point gets renamed Hwy 774) & go straight to the end of the road. You�ll travel through foothills until reaching a gaping valley that leads you to Castle, on the very spine of the Rocky Mountains.

Castle Mountain is one of the best �unknown� places to ski in North America. The trouble is, even though every local has heard tell of it, the convenience of Fernie prevents most from taking the trouble to look just over the hill. Over that hill, sometimes, is another world. Both the base and the top of Castle are ~ 1000 feet higher than Fernie, which can mean (but not always) freezing temperatures and snow when Fernie is awash in Pacific rains. The south and middle of Castle is mostly scree; the rock debris that falls from the top, making near perfect +45 degree slopes & straight fall lines of about 2,500 ft (850 m). On the side, it is superb tree skiing.

Castle definitely is not for everyone. The mountain is for advanced skiers and boarders. While there is some easy and intermediate terrain, there isn�t much & it often requires a degree of skill just to get to it. Most slopes are well over 40 degrees with some at 50. Trust me, that�s steep. When the snow is compacted in the �Shoots�, if you slip, it possible to slide on your back over one and half kilometres (and that just the vertical distance - perhaps over three kilometres on the surface). On the other hand, there is very little to hit on the way down. Next year, Castle plans to open Haig Ridge, which will open much more terrain to the less experienced skier or boarder.

Aside from long, steep fall lines, another benefit is the relentless, scouring winds which sift the snow and which, in many places, covers the previous person�s tracks in a matter of a seconds, leading people to remark that skiing Castle is akin to Cat skiing. But that wind raises another challenge; the fields of scree that become exposed by the winds - always fun to discover at high speeds. The winds can close Castle so best to call before setting out.

Don�t expect wonderful resort services at Castle. There is a day lodge, pub (with the best pizza in a hundred miles), ski shop and a small hotel/hostel. Castle used to be owned by the town of Pincher Creek which got tired of the responsibility. It was thus sold to about a thousand locals who take their skiing very seriously. Basically, it's operated somewhat along the lines of a co-op, with the object of offering the best possible skiing. The place has a really good non-commercial feel to it. Also, a day pass is just $48.

Anyone interested in Castle can go to www.castlemountainresort.com for more information. For those without cars, I understand that there is an occasional bus service offered by the shuttle company that travels downtown and which links Fernie to the hill.

Before inundating me with email accusations of disloyalty to Fernie, consider this. The best place to ski is the place with the best snow. Everything else is just fluff. People spend a winter trying to find five days of really good snow. Perfect skiing, as with all things, is fleeting - one hundred metres up or down; one day to the next; the right or the left route; this patch or the other. As change is constant & nothing exactly repeats itself, why not consider adapting your plans & going somewhere else if where you're skiing doesn�t suit your taste? Sometimes the best place is Fernie and sometimes its Castle.

As it turned out, the best place last Sunday was Fernie, but Castle was a close second.

Happy tracks.


Some of the Fernie locals who joined Dan for his day of skiing on Castle.

The old & slow three seat Blue Chair gets you from the base to about 1/2 way up the mountain.

The even older Red Chair completes the task of getting to the mountain's top, which is 2273m (7,463 ft) high

This picture was taken near the top of the Red Chair and looks north. Note the scree fields and the skiers to the bottom right, on the traverse leading to the centre bowl and the north side of the mountain. I saw a Rocky Mountain ram on the first knoll on the left - but alas, it refuse to pose for a picture.

This picture, taken near the top of the mountain, gives a very good idea of the steepness of Castle's slopes

The entrance to the less than world famous, but nevertheless remarkable, "Shoots", the place for really long & deep descends.

Heading into Lone Star, one of the Double Diamond chutes.

Dodging trees on the rim of chute. As you can see, this guy has a long way to go before reaching valley's bottom.

A boarder coming through the trees near the top of Castle's north ridge. As one descends the trees thicken but there is still plenty of room for turns.

Ok, don't write. Here's a map of directions to Castle Mountain.