Something interesting happened in Western Canada over the past few decades. Just as many struggling small- and mid-sized American ski areas looked toward government ownership or nonprofit charity as solutions, private investors up north did the opposite, convincing communities to sell their publicly-owned ski areas for a brighter future. Residents in the town of Golden, British Columbia voted by a 97 percent margin in 2000 to give up control of a one-Riblet ski area called Whitetooth to a Dutch construction company. After debuting one of the world’s greatest gondolas and two new quad chairs, the renamed Kicking Horse Mountain Resort was sold to the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies conglomerate in 2011.
Seven years after Golden’s experiment, a Denver-based developer bought the Powder Springs ski area from the City of Revelstoke and announced a $22 million contract with Leitner-Poma Canada to create North America’s first resort with a vertical greater than 5,500 feet. One more lift out of a planned 30 was built in 2008 before a mountain of debt and the global financial crisis nearly forced Revelstoke Mountain Resort to close. Now controlled by giant hotelier Northland Properties of Vancouver, the jury is still out on Revelstoke’s viability as a billion dollar destination.
Meanwhile in Alberta
Another public to private transaction took place in 1996, when a group of 150 skiers purchased Castle Mountain from a nearby municipality to form Castle Mountain Resort, Inc. Castle was privately developed with two Mueller T-Bars in 1965 but became insolvent after a 1976 fire and was rescued by Pincher Creek taxpayers. Just across the continental divide from Fernie, BC, the mountain shares the same dramatic scenery as other Canadian Rockies destinations but without the fancy hotels and high-speed lifts. With a local population only around 35,000 and a three hour drive from Calgary, Castle currently averages only 90,000 skier visits despite its terrific snow and terrain. Some 3,200 acres are serviced by five main lifts and a nearly 3,000′ vertical drop exceeds those found at places like Squaw Valley and Alta. Averaging zero winter rain days at mid mountain (a perennial problem in much of British Columbia) and 350 inches of snow, there’s a lot to love for those willing to make the trek.
When the current investors took over, they inherited the two T-Bars, one of which is among the longest remaining in the world at 4,518 feet. Designed to be turned into a chairlift but never actually converted, the dinosaur was named T-Rex in 1996 and these days only rarely drags guests up its 1,670′ vertical. Castle Mountain has installed four new chairlifts since ’96, all of which came used from mountains like Sunshine Village and Beaver Creek. The ski area continues to generate all of its own power with diesel fuel.
In 2016, Castle Mountain Resort partnered with Whistler-based Brent Harley and Associates to develop a road map for the next decades of growth with input from the mountain’s shareholders, the local community and other stakeholders. The new master development plan was completed in May of last year and envisions the replacement of most of the current lifts, construction of up to nine new ones and expanded year-round recreational opportunities.