The Chutes at Castle Mountain
While it’s not the hidden secret it once was, going to Castle Mountain is still a throwback to a time when lifts moved slow, amenities had fewer stars, and you felt a camaraderie with the other skiers on the mountain. That's why, even today, if you park your RV at the base, ski the long fall-line runs all day, then settle into the T-Bar Pub for some apres, and you’ll be as close to the soul of skiing as you can get.
The nearest town (if you can call it that) is Beaver Mines, with one gas station/meat shop and one taxidermist. Castle gets its share of powder, but “Wind Sift” snow is what it’s famous for. The Chutes all get cross-loaded with the dominant SW winds, and 10 centimetres of new snow can blow around all day and fill in your tracks constantly.
Nick Thornton/Castle Mountain
Start your day with a right off the top of Tamarack Chair and warm up on Sheriff while avalanche control works to open The Chutes. The avalanche danger is real. In the early ’80s, before this area was open for skiing or controlled by patrol, a massive avalanche ripped down The Chutes and up the other side of the valley. The debris pile was so large that it took 3 years to melt out.
It is the fall potential that makes these runs double black diamonds. “You can fall all the way to the bottom on a firm day,” says avalanche expert Tom Ross. “We put fences up on the cliff tops sometimes (to catch skiers apparently). But when there’s 20 centimetres of powder, it’s wonderful!”
Nick Thornton/Castle Mountain
Watch the weather reports and get down here for a powder day! If Fernie is getting rain, check the temps at Castle; it’s likely getting snow and it’s 45 minutes closer to Calgary and $25 cheaper.
6 favourite lines in The Chutes:
For all of these lines you take the Sundance Triple Chair (445m) from the base area to the Tamarack Chair (420m). Get off Tamarack to the left and follow the groomed Skyline Traverse to the south. The wind will almost always be in your face, so put your head down and skate hard! This wind is also what makes the skiing in the chutes so good. Pay attention to where it has deposited snow and ski the lee sides of every feature. With any luck, the wind will be filling your tracks in while you ride back up. The old lifts offer a slow ride to the top, but that keeps skier traffic down and Castle Mountain has been able to put in 4 chairlifts, a day lodge and open hundreds of acres of terrain for the price of one high-speed quad.
The Skyline Traverse starts with a large timber gate with a hangman’s noose dangling from it and a sign declaring, “We Hang Poachers Here!” Every line in the Chutes area is a natural avalanche path, so they take avalanche control and closures very seriously!
Drop into the mellow bowl before the gate and noose and head for the high ridge with dead trees. Huckleberry Ridge takes you down the skiers’ left line and leads right into a creepy forest of dead-standing, burnt trees. Stay high left in these trees and keep an eye out for the easy to miss “Side Show” sign about halfway down the ridge. Cut right and start the line with some tree skiing that opens up for about 12 turns (around 35 degrees) before you are back in the glades. The area naturally funnels to an easy exit onto the Cinch Traverse.
The longest run in the chutes, Drifter rolls over seemingly without end (20 to 37 degrees). There is a permanent rope line dropping from the noose that acts as the right-hand boundary of this run. It’s a broad convexity, so poke around and figure out which aspect is the best that day. Near the bottom, there are signs for the “Easy Out” traverse to Gambler, but be tough and continue down to the tight, steep gully that ends the run 600 vertical metres from where it started. If you still have legs for it, the cornice on the right of the gully is a classic air, but you have to shut down your speed before the Cinch Traverse.
Kyle Rast has the record for the fastest trip ever down Gambler. The patroller was caught in a slide while doing avalanche control work and was swept down the line at 80km/hr. Despite massive injuries, the hard-man was back at work the following season. Luckily patrol makes sure you don’t have to worry about avalanche danger, so take your first drop-in after the gate and point it downhill for another classic, straightforward descent that loads up with snow whenever the wind blows.
Lone Star offers a long, long fall-line at approximately 37 degrees for 500 vertical metres. The line starts about 50 metres past the gate with two options around a small tree island. There is a large dead tree half-way down on the left. 100 feet below it, cut left to get to Blazing Saddle, which is a 90 metre wide, wind-loaded bowl with a fun cornice on your right. Cutting left 30 metres above the tree offers a tougher/funkier entrance to Blazing Saddle with wind drifts, shelves, and small trees to carve around and gap over. Keep an eye out for stumps and jacket ripping branches as you point it out into the bowl.
High Rustler is built for speed! It starts as a 42-degree chute through the trees and continues to mellow and widen all the way (18 degrees in the run-out). If you ski with local Jeff Harker (star of Warren Miller’s Castle Mountain segment), expect to see the 500 vertical metres disappear in about four turns. Mere mortals should try to stay in control until they reach the pinch halfway down. Here the run is dissected by a rock band that can be skied around to the left, or you can cut right to hit the 3-15 foot drop. Then it’s off to the races!
Don Haavardsrud was one of the hill’s directors back when it was called Westcastle (pre-1996), and it was his dream to put in the upper, Tamarack chairlift and open these chutes. To ski Havy’s Dream, go past High Rustler and take the gate through the permanent rope line. Your first option is a 5-metre air down into the chute, but skiers can also traverse 10 metres further to the ski-in option. Once in Havy’s, find your groove in time to rip the 44 degree 10-metre wide crux halfway down. The last 150 metres are easy in comparison, so enjoy the powder; you earned it.
The groomed Cinch Traverse gets you back to the base from all The Chutes, and each run smacks right into it, so you can’t miss it. Don’t be tempted by the powder below. If you drop down, you’ll spend the rest of your day climbing out of a creek bed that just gets you into more and more trouble the deeper you go.