Steep, Cheap and Deep

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]It's the worst sentence a skier on vacation can hear: "You should have been here last week." Five days before I arrived at Castle Mountain, they'd gotten a waist-high dump of fabulously light fluffies. "Face shots for four days," says a ski instructor, grinning as if he's just robbed a bank and gotten away with it. "I had to wear this bandanna to keep the snow out of my nose."

I tell him to shut up.

I have come to Castle because I heard it is steep, cheap and deep. Located in southwestern Alberta, on the other side of the Rockies from Fernie, B.C., Castle is legendary among my western Canadian ski bum friends for its true fall lines, airy fluff and complete lack of liftlines. Too often, we assume that the best skiing is at the best-publicized mountains, with their many trails and lifts. Au contraire. When powder hits those big-name mountains, it gets tracked up fast.

But only millionaires and ski-filmmakers have the budgets to launch their ski trips the instant they spot a big storm front on the radar. The rest of us have to buy airline tickets months in advance. In 1999-2000, its busiest season ever, Castle logged 62,000 skier visits, fewer than Vail on a holiday weekend. Which means when there's powder at Castle, you don't have to share. And given Castle's 340 inches of annual snowfall, the most of any ski area in Alberta, I figured I couldn't lose.

CHINOOKING OR GROOMING?
As I approach Castle across the flat, cattle-country prairie from Calgary, however, with sharp Matterhorn-like mountains beckoning on the western horizon, my first impression is not of treetop powder. It's of wind. The roads, lined with barbed wire and grazing heifers, are drifting with blowing snow. White tornadoes twist in the air. It feels not like a Warren Miller movie so much as the twister scene in The Wizard of Oz.

"Man, oh man," I say to myself. "This is gonna be nasty." But as the lifts start up, I notice that the locals aren't moping in the lodge. They're excited. "Around here, they think the wind is a blessing," says a guy I meet on the chair. "It's a 900,000-horsepower grooming machine." His name is Nick Manko, age 34, and he says he's "on the Government Ski Team." Translation: To recover from a burnout job, he's collecting unemployment checks and following the powder in his equipment-stuffed camper van.

Manko is currently living on the other side of the Rockies in Fernie because, he says, "that's where the girls are." Whenever he can manage a ticket, he drives the hour and a half to Castle. "Castle has the wide-open, consistent fall line that everyone's looking for," Manko says. "On powder days, it's drier here than in Fernie, because it's on the Eastern Slope and at higher elevation. And Fernie can get tracked up in half an hour. Even when the wind's up at Castle, it's great. One time I was here skiing two turns behind a buddy of mine, and I was getting fresh tracks, because the wind was filling it all in."

Castle, Manko points out, has the best of both worlds: a mom-and-pop atmosphere at the bottom, with $25 lift tickets and $6 pitchers of beer; and a big, bad 1,613-acre mountain above. Sure there are only five lifts, none of which is a high-speed quad, but more than half of the 2,800 vertical feet is above tree line. Whereas at most ski areas the bottom third flattens out, here you get to ski all that vertical.

Which is not to say that beginners and intermediates can't enjoy Castle, as the busloads of school kids on weekdays attest. It has two gentle areas on either side of the base area and plans to build a lot more. But it's that vertical that gets me excited.

From the top of the upper chair, traverses run across the top of shoulders for about a mile in either direction.

The north shoulder leads to natural glades and two or three Tuckermans of powder. I follow Manko south to the Chutes and down Lone Star, one of many double-diamonds that blend together into a treeless plain of white, tipped nearlvertical.

At the more famous ski areas across the border in B.C., this most recent storm has turned to massive moguls and chopped up, hardening crud. Here at Castle, just as promised, there isn't a bump in sight.

I expect the wind to create a nasty breakable crust, but instead it takes the tops off the moguls, fills in the gullies and smooths the entire south face into a solid base that feels like wet beach sand dusted over with three inches of confectioners' sugar. In some hollows and eddies, a local delicacy called "wind sift" has formed into boot-top "freshies" light and dry enough to make me hoot with joy. Even three days later, the night wind fills parts of the North Bowls with six inches of wind-sift freshies in the morning.

Whereas I was too focused on the filet mignon of untracked powder, Manko is teaching me to enjoy barbecued ribs. Wind sift isn't the only thing that has lured Manko over the pass from Fernie. "I go to Castle," he says, "to escape Fernie's circus atmosphere. Castle is pure. It's all about skiing. Places like Castle are communities," he says, "not just subway stations for skiers. I like the people here. And who I go up the lift with is what really makes my day."

Over the next week, I find out for myself what Manko is talking about. They may call it Castle Mountain Resort, but it could proudly rename itself Castle Mountain Anti-Resort. No high-speed detachable quads, but also no liftlines. No fancy restaurants, but also no walking attitudes in shimmering metallic one-piece suits who shop more than they ski. At Castle, there is no place to buy art, a pedicure or a slab of foie gras. The only real reason to come here is to ski. Imagine that.

And while it may not be a shopping hub, the area around Castle is nonetheless interesting to explore. On the Alberta side, with its rolling prairies and Blackfoot reservations, you see ranchers with walrus mustaches and cowboy hats hauling trailers full of cattle. The mountainous area toward B.C. was only settled about a century ago, when prospectors in search of gold instead found wide seams of coal. This brought the railroad, and by 1903, Crowsnest Pass, the lowest dip in the Rockies, was a boom area, with dozens of mines, thousands of workers from around the world, grand hotels, theater, music-even a spa. Some called it the Pittsburgh of western Canada.

The last coal mining operations in Crowsnest Pass didn't shut down until 1983, but the boom years ended in the 1920s, partly because of falling coal prices, but also because of some spectacular disasters. On April 29, 1903, a cycle of freezes and thaws made 75 tons of rock fall off Turtle Mountain and slide toward the town of Frank, burying the railroad, cutting houses in half and killing more than 70 people. On a June morning 11 years later, 229 men went to work at the Hillcrest coal mine. A huge explosion, its cause still unknown, killed 189 of them. It was the worst mine disaster in Canada.

But wild places attract hardy people, like Darrel Lewko and Derrill Murphy and their buddies Cam Jensen and Rene Trudel. They're all in their 50s; Lewko and Murphy both have grandchildren. Murphy is retired. Jensen and Trudel won the Powder-8 regionals at Castle the day before I arrived. When they lead me to the Chutes on the southern side, some of which bear their names, they whip fat turns down near-vertical walls of white like they're cruising home on corduroy.

I thought I was pretty good. I thought I could ski fast. But these Ripping Grandfathers have to wait patiently for me at the bottom. Then, while I catch my breath, they point with their poles to this chute or that line that I have to try next. You know you've found a great ski area when the graybeards can kick your butt. Trudel, a Quebecois by birth, tells me that when he first saw Castle he told his wife, "Unpack the car. This is the place. We're not leaving." I can see his point. Castle is surrounded by trout streams, government-owned nature reserves that teem with grizzlies, big-horn sheep, elk and cougar, and mountain ridges that have never been skied-although the Ripping Grandfathers are working on that. But then he has to go and piss me off. "Last week," he says wistfully, "we made four days of face shots."

I tell him to shut up.

THE MAD RIVER OF WESTERN CANADA
Castle reminds me of one of my favorite Eastern ski areas, Mad River Glen, Vt. Both mountains are so challenging they worry about their appeal to intermediates. And because Castle is owned by 143 shareholders, the place is run by avid skiers who don't want it to change. Dieter Gerngross, for instance, a jolly, white-haired native of Austria who owns the rental and retail shop at Castle, has been skiing here since 1969 and now sits on the shareholders' board of directors. Castle was first developed in 1966 by a Swiss man, Paul Klaus, primarily as a playground for him and his friends.

He built a Swiss-style lodge, but it burned to the ground in 1976, uninsured. He lost the area in the early 1970s, when it was taken over by Pincher Creek, a town 30 miles away. By the early '90s, says Gerngross, "We had nussing." A T-bar went about halfway up the mountain, and a few ugly construction trailers served as the lodge. Finally, in 1996, people like Gerngross and the Ripping Grandfathers took over management from Pincher Creek and made steady improvements. By selling long leases, on which now sit everything from tiny RVs to impressive four-bedroom chalets, they have been able to finance a big day lodge and an upper chair that added 1,100 feet of vertical, quadrupled the skiable acres, and made those upper chutes and bowls lift-served.

They are now waiting for government approval to add a lift and intermediate runs on adjoining Haig Ridge.

Their goal is to increase skier visits from the current high of 62,000 to about 100,000. (By contrast, Whistler/Blackcomb regularly tops 2 million skiers per season.)

"We don't want a golf course and all that," Gerngross says. "Our focus is not on housing development. It's only to make good skiink!" Before he heads back to his shop, Gerngross holds his hand at his belt buckle and tells me, "Dis place is like heli-skiink for 25 bucks. Day before yesterday I hat powda up to heeah."

"Schweigen Sie sich," I tell him, which in German means, "Please shut up."

BACKCOUNTRY EVERYWHERE
But three days after my arrival, Castle still has no fresh snow, so two of the Ripping Grandfathers decide it's time to head into the backcountry for untracked powder. (How many grandfathers, I ask myself, skin up mountains in the backcountry?) They borrow and liberate gear, browbeat friends and get us towed partway up Haig Mountain by T-bars tied to snowmobiles.

We put on our skins, test our avalanche beacons and begin uphill. "Darrel," says Derrill Murphy to Darrel Lewko, "you take the lead, I'll take the tail, and we'll let all the Derrill wannabes go in between." We skin to well above tree line and roast fat sausages on coat hangers over a dri-ki fire. Then we climb higher and inspect a chute so steep and narrow you can't see over the lip.

But the wind has packed and carved the snow into sustrugis (miniature grand canyons), so we move east to a powder-thick shoulder of Haig Ridge. Lewko, who is a patroller at Castle and therefore an avalanche expert, ski-cuts the top of a big white bowl dotted with balsam fir and pronounces it acceptable.

When it's my turn to head downhill, I find myself deep in the holy grail I'd come here for: I'm floating like a surfer in a knee-high heaven of sublime, dry, airy fluff. When I leave the next day, Grandfather Lewko says, "I'll call you on Tuesday to tell you about the big powder dump." He did, too. Three feet. But I was still so happy I couldn't tell him to shut up. ure reserves that teem with grizzlies, big-horn sheep, elk and cougar, and mountain ridges that have never been skied-although the Ripping Grandfathers are working on that. But then he has to go and piss me off. "Last week," he says wistfully, "we made four days of face shots."

I tell him to shut up.

THE MAD RIVER OF WESTERN CANADA
Castle reminds me of one of my favorite Eastern ski areas, Mad River Glen, Vt. Both mountains are so challenging they worry about their appeal to intermediates. And because Castle is owned by 143 shareholders, the place is run by avid skiers who don't want it to change. Dieter Gerngross, for instance, a jolly, white-haired native of Austria who owns the rental and retail shop at Castle, has been skiing here since 1969 and now sits on the shareholders' board of directors. Castle was first developed in 1966 by a Swiss man, Paul Klaus, primarily as a playground for him and his friends.

He built a Swiss-style lodge, but it burned to the ground in 1976, uninsured. He lost the area in the early 1970s, when it was taken over by Pincher Creek, a town 30 miles away. By the early '90s, says Gerngross, "We had nussing." A T-bar went about halfway up the mountain, and a few ugly construction trailers served as the lodge. Finally, in 1996, people like Gerngross and the Ripping Grandfathers took over management from Pincher Creek and made steady improvements. By selling long leases, on which now sit everything from tiny RVs to impressive four-bedroom chalets, they have been able to finance a big day lodge and an upper chair that added 1,100 feet of vertical, quadrupled the skiable acres, and made those upper chutes and bowls lift-served.

They are now waiting for government approval to add a lift and intermediate runs on adjoining Haig Ridge.

Their goal is to increase skier visits from the current high of 62,000 to about 100,000. (By contrast, Whistler/Blackcomb regularly tops 2 million skiers per season.)

"We don't want a golf course and all that," Gerngross says. "Our focus is not on housing development. It's only to make good skiink!" Before he heads back to his shop, Gerngross holds his hand at his belt buckle and tells me, "Dis place is like heli-skiink for 25 bucks. Day before yesterday I hat powda up to heeah."

"Schweigen Sie sich," I tell him, which in German means, "Please shut up."

BACKCOUNTRY EVERYWHERE
But three days after my arrival, Castle still has no fresh snow, so two of the Ripping Grandfathers decide it's time to head into the backcountry for untracked powder. (How many grandfathers, I ask myself, skin up mountains in the backcountry?) They borrow and liberate gear, browbeat friends and get us towed partway up Haig Mountain by T-bars tied to snowmobiles.

We put on our skins, test our avalanche beacons and begin uphill. "Darrel," says Derrill Murphy to Darrel Lewko, "you take the lead, I'll take the tail, and we'll let all the Derrill wannabes go in between." We skin to well above tree line and roast fat sausages on coat hangers over a dri-ki fire. Then we climb higher and inspect a chute so steep and narrow you can't see over the lip.

But the wind has packed and carved the snow into sustrugis (miniature grand canyons), so we move east to a powder-thick shoulder of Haig Ridge. Lewko, who is a patroller at Castle and therefore an avalanche expert, ski-cuts the top of a big white bowl dotted with balsam fir and pronounces it acceptable.

When it's my turn to head downhill, I find myself deep in the holy grail I'd come here for: I'm floating like a surfer in a knee-high heaven of sublime, dry, airy fluff. When I leave the next day, Grandfather Lewko says, "I'll call you on Tuesday to tell you about the big powder dump." He did, too. Three feet. But I was still so happy I couldn't tell him to shut up.

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