The Fortress Still Stands

Ghost Resorts, a new film by Black Crows is a fun look back at one of Calgary's favourite resorts, Fortress Mountain. Some older skiers will remember the funky little hill with playful terrain, a cool lodge, a solid freestyle program, impressive views and a soulful vibe all its own. 

Tucked away on a slice of private land, embedded in Spray Valley Provincial Park and Kananaskis Country, Fortress first opened in 1967. It had many different incarnations since then (including a stint of heli-skiing), but it was a thriving ski area in the '90s. By the early 2000's it was owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies and they decided to close and then sell it in 2004 to focus their attention elsewhere. The new owners were only able to reopen the ski area briefly in 2006, and it never again operated as a lift-serviced ski area.

Today, some old lifts and buildings remain, and KPow Cat Skiing operates on the old runs a few days per week. The current owners of Fortress continue to work towards a reopening of the ski resort someday, 

"We have been working on the re-development of Fortress for almost six years. Deconstruction has commenced, and planning is in full swing for reopening of this great resort. We are thrilled to offer cat skiing while this process is underway!" Fortress website.

In the meantime, Fortress offers different opportunities. Avalanche courses use the easy access provided by the Fortress road to get students into the mountains. Guiding companies like M-T-N Guiding have used the cats to access ski touring terrain beyond the area's boundary. And film crews love shooting on the old ski hill. Blockbusters like Inception, The Revenant and Brokeback Mountain were all filmed in part at Fortress. Onetime Fresh employee and athlete Drew Wittstock was even up there this winter working on an ad for a Vancouver-based production company. 

Drew Wittstock, Dec. 2, 2021: "Crazy shoot the last two days at Fortress. It's pretty good out here! Did some stunts which were cool."

So check out the short film and read this profile on Fortress Mountain from 2006, when the owners were still hoping to keep the lifts running. That was a long time ago, but there's still a sliver of hope that this Calgary favourite could once again give local skiers a unique option.

The Fortress Still Stands

Aug. 22, 2006. 

Before you go to Fortress, you need to ask yourself this question; Do you really want a different type of ski experience? One that is somewhere in between backcountry skiing, cat skiing, and the usual resort ripping? If you are going to complain about the lack of a good latte or the speed of the lifts, Fortress probably isn't the place for you. But if you want to feel like you are exploring the backcountry from a ski lift, you might want to check out this tiny anomaly. 

Until two years ago, this five-lift hill tucked away in Alberta's Kananaskis Country was owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, the friendly people who bring you Lake Louise, Fernie, Mont Sainte Anne and other "Resorts." Whether it was the lack of real-estate potential at Fortress or just a lack of direction, RCR ran the little hill into the ground and shut it down after the 2004 season. Just as Fortress-loving locals were getting over the blow, a group of Banff investors named The Banff Rail Co. bought what was left and began trying to piece it back together for the 2005-06 season. The hill had been left in rough shape, though, and it took longer than expected to get the lifts up and running, pushing back their opening day by over a month. The day lodge never did open for the 2005-06 season. Hungry skiers were sold burgers from a barbeque tent instead. Naturally, some pass holders were angry with the delays, and message boards lit up with complaints. From a different perspective, though, the astonishing thing might have been that a small group of people with relatively limited resources were able to get the hill up and running at all. 

Fortress promises a Dec. 1 opening for the lodge and all lifts this season, including the Farside Chairlift, which didn't run at all last year. Instead, a snowcat towed skiers up so that they could access the entire "Farside" of the resort. The service was so popular that this season the cat will return to tow skiers up the Farside Shoulder or up to Baldy Glades for $5 a ride ($2 for pass holders). Compared to the cost of true cat skiing, this looks cheap alongside the $349 season pass ($249 if you had a pass last year). Throwing another twist into the classic ski area setup, Fortress is adding a ski shuttle bus named Helga for 2005-06. Helga will allow timid winter drivers to park at the bottom of the access road and hitch a ride up to the lodge and lifts. Her more exciting role will be picking up skiers who descend the chutes on the mountain's front side. These chutes, including Hourglass and the Bandit Chutes, have always been popular as backcountry runs (with a car shuttle or long slog) but will now be controlled for avalanches and open to skiers as inbounds terrain. 

The current ownership group has plans to expand the on-hill lodging options and replace the old rental building in the future. But to talk about Fortress' facilities (or lack of) is to do the tiny gem a disservice. Fortress has always been a hill that gets dumped on often and holds powder stashes for longer. And they have a desire to open as much terrain as possible. Since taking over from RCR, the new owners have committed to controlling more hike-to, shuttle-from, or cat-to terrain than even optimistic locals would have hoped for. Fingers crossed for the next phase of Fortress.

And here's some footage from Fortress back when the lifts still spun:


While we're looking back, check out our new Fresh Poles celebrating the shop's 20 years serving Calgary.