January 21st, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 3
Cat skiing at Castle Mountain
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Alan Heidel photo
Snowcat skiing is alpine skiing that is accessed by snow grooming machines called snowcats, which gives thrill seekers the chance to ride on untouched slopes. Though most of the cat skiing operations in Western Canada are located in B.C., there are several in Alberta including one at Castle Mountain Resort near Pincher Creek.
Pass Herald Reporter
Castle Mountain is an old school barebones resort. No cellphone service, no fancy high speed lifts. But what it lacks in luxuries it makes up for in powder.
“Being purists, we won’t populate our mountain with snowmaking equipment,” says Castle Mountain’s sales and marketing coordinator Ryan Lachapelle. “For those of you who are okay with manmade slush, there’s a 7-Eleven in Pincher Creek.”
An increasingly popular way for skiers and snowboarders to get at deep untouched snow is cat skiing where riders use repurposed ski hill grooming machines known as snowcats to reach inaccessible parts of the mountain.
Castle offers one of the few cat skiing operations in Western Canada, which is now in its sixth year of operation.
On Jan. 13, the adventure started with a ride in a chairlift to a waiting snow cat. Before embarking, the riders were given a crash course in mountain safety and each of them was outfitted with a transceiver, which acts like a portable global positioning system.
The cat, which fits about a dozen passengers, continued the ascent up the mountain face to almost 2000 vertical feet.
At the top, Cam Jensen, a veteran ski bum and cat skiing host, picked the lines that wended through fresh powder and between trees. Riders follow Jensen one at a time.
“My favourite part of the job is going first and skiing on untracked snow,” he said.
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Jensen has decades of experience and has worked on some of the most popular mountains in North America including resorts in B.C., Utah, Montana and Wyoming but in 1990 he came back to counsel, the place where he learned to ski.
“At some of the other major ski hills you might have 6500 people lined up to get first tracks, which are gone by noon. Here you get first tracks till the end of the day,” he said.
“Unfavourable weather conditions a few days before caused a hardening of the snow at the top of the mountain but the further down we went, the more we found ourselves in the ‘the goods’ – ski slang for untracked powder.”
“Though the terrain was somewhat challenging, the going was undeniably smooth and my fatties – ski slang for a very wide ski designed for powder conditions – glided beneath the deep snow.”
Following the dozen or so cat skiers was Czech born Jana Peterova, a ski instructor tasked with pulling fallen riders from tree hollows and other hazards.
A former engineering graduate student, Peterova abandoned academia to pursue a PhD in alpine skiing. She came to Canada specifically for the powder snow after hearing about Castle Mountain working in New Zealand, she said.
“You do get some powder skiing in Europe but it’s sun affected, wind affected and wet, which makes it heavy,” she said. “Canada is famous for over-frozen powder, which is very light and makes for very soft skiing.”
Though a bit pricier than a regular lift ticket, the snow conditions were excellent. Frozen chicken heads – ski slang for the frozen slush found on groomed trails – were nowhere to be found.
January 21st ~ Vol. 85 No. 3
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