For anyone of a certain age, Fortress Mountain was one of the most fun hills close to Calgary. Small gullies formed natural halfpipes, tight tree runs got your heart pumping, and there were open slopes for bombing down fast. Sure it was windy, but it was close, it was fun and it was cheaper than some of its larger counterparts.
Since closing eight years ago, the hill has been sitting unused (except for a brief reopening in 2007 and as a film location for such blockbusters as Inception). Then, last year, a new operation sprang up on its slopes, offering cat skiing to those with some spare change in their pockets.
K Pow (get it? Kananaskis powder) started operating a cat to bring guests onto the hill for a great day of skiing or boarding, but also to promote its development plans, which would see the old Fortress reborn and completely reimagined.
“We are not selling cat skiing for cat skiing,” says Joey O’Brien, the president of Fortress Mountain Resort, which operates K Pow. “We’re selling cat skiing to create the buzz for the resort when we open it. We want everyone to have the best experience that we can possibly manage, so when we open the resort we’ve already built our marketing in.”
And it is a good experience. Take the old Fortress runs, eliminate the people and throw in a lot of fresh powder. It may cost $375, but it’s a great day of uninterrupted powder, ending in satisfyingly sore legs. The whole experiment was positive for the operators last year.
“One of the things that happened last year that we didn’t predict was we were successfully able to offer every guest, every run, a virgin trail. We didn’t really expect that,” says O’Brien.
“...We don’t promise that this year as well — we could end up with a six-week dry spell.... However, last year what we learned was that just, you know, four or five centimetres of snow and a 40-kilometre wind reset everything.”
This year, the cat skiing is running from January 3 to the end of April, four days a week, and includes a Red Seal chef preparing lunch and a photographer on hand to snap thousands of shots.
“We have really kind of focused on the corporate bookings as well,” says O’Brien. “So, we’re running in March, for example, about 70 per cent corporate bookings.”
Of course, the ultimate goal is to develop the property, taking out old lifts and installing new ones, opening up new runs, and building condos and a new lodge. But O’Brien doesn’t really want to talk about that just yet. It’s taken him five years just to get to the point where he knows what he has to do to move forward after dealing with multiple layers of government and jumping through bureaucratic hoops. He hopes to have that process for the next stage in motion by June.
“Now you’re stepping into the next thing I want to talk about, but not now,” he says when questioned on his plans for the resort.
“There is a process that we have defined, by which we’re going to outline what we’re going to do, and we need to talk to certain groups and authorities first.”
In the meantime, the cat skiing has also helped the guides and the owner to learn the intricacies of the hill in preparation for building.
“Here’s the big thing our cat skiing helped us with last year: our glide path,” says O’Brien. “Because obviously those of us who were leading the cat skiing and tailgating the cat skiing, we’re proficient at the sport. So it helped us understand what the glide paths were like for the people who were less proficient and where they ended up as opposed to where we may wish to put a lift base. Where they ended up regularly taught us perhaps that’s where liftbases should be.”
More accessible than most cat operations and running about the same price as you’d pay for any day outing, K Pow’s views, powder and fun terrain are a welcome winter riding option.
To learn more, visit kpow.ca.