What’s old is new again in K-Country as Fortress Mountain is poised to re-enter the Alberta ski scene with a revamped version of the funky little resort where the lifts haven’t turned in more than a decade.
Plans are in place for Fortress to resume full operation in December 2016 using some of the existing lifts and infrastructure but, for the time being, Fortress’ slopes are being serviced by a cat-skiing operation that aims to create a spark in public interest for the resort’s renewal efforts.
KPOW Fortress Mountain Cat Skiing is offering exclusive skiing on both the existing runs and, for those that have the ability, in areas outside the resort’s traditional boundary.
Chris Chevalier, president of Fortress Mountain Resort, says right now is an exhilarating time for both the staff and guests.
“We take 14 people a day and, basically, the cat is providing the lift service,” he explains. “The entire hill is theirs, and it’s been a wonderful experience watching the reactions of the guests as they have this great place all to themselves for the day. For us, it’s also really exciting as we are part of planning the redevelopment of this really beautiful and special area.”
Fortress Mountain was a modest little resort in Kananaskis Country that operated from 1967 to 2004. It originally started as Snowridge and was later called Fortress Mountain—a name derived from the rocky monolith that towers over the resort’s slopes. Its location is about half an hour deeper into Kananaskis Country than Nakiska and Kananaskis Village with the final leg of the trip up a narrow, winding, gravel mountain road to the resort’s base. While the skiing area’s vertical was only 335 metres, there were three separate mountain faces to ski on and plenty of easily accessible out-of-bounds areas that made the resort seem much bigger than it really was.
What started out as a quaint, remote ski area on the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains eventually became a pawn for owners and corporations that had more interest in their other holdings than in developing Fortress. A pair of the resort’s more infamous owners were the Aspen Skiing Corporation, which stripped out one of the resort’s T-bars in the mid ’80s and moved it to Blackcomb to help open up the slopes on the glacier there, and Resorts of the Canadian Rockies who, after taking over Fortress in the ’90s, closed the resort down completely in 2004. RCR had wanted to develop rental accommodations at Fortress, but the Alberta government was not willing to bend its strict rules regarding development in the wilderness area. By the time Fortress was shuttered, the resort’s daylodge and other infrastructure was long overdue for reinvestment, but RCR, whose contribution to Alberta skiing the previous season was to shut down the Wintergreen ski area by Bragg Creek, was not the company to do it.
The Banff Railway Company bought Fortress in 2005 with plans for revive it, but had little success. The current owners purchased Fortress in 2010 and immediately began the cat-skiing operation.
“We’re in our fourth season of cat skiing and we’ve been full from the get go,” Chevalier says. “We have one single cat and we are out four or five days a week, depending on the snow. We meet people at the bridge (at the start of the gravel road) at 8:30 am and drop them off at about 4:45 pm. The cat skiing is a break-even operation designed to let people experience what Fortress can be.”
A sign of the new owner’s commitment to Fortress’ redevelopment is the firm they have brought in to oversee the project. Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners from Whistler are world leaders in their field, having designed more than 360 resorts in 36 countries, including the sites for five winter Olympic Games.
As part of the redesign, the iconic lodge that sat at the base of Fortress will have to be torn down, as it had been allowed to deteriorate by previous owners to the point of being condemned. A new daylodge is planned for a lower location. Two of the existing chair lifts—the Canadian and Backside chairs—will be reused for the resort’s start-up but eventually they will be replaced with new, more strategically placed lifts.
Plans are also in place to deal with one of Fortress’ biggest nemesis—the wind. Anyone who skied Fortress in its previous incarnation likely has memories of getting sandblasted by snow pellets while skiing on a rock-hard moonscape of packed snow.
“A lot has changed in terms of dealing with wind since Fortress was originally built,” Chevalier explains. “With snow fencing, proper positioning of lifts to protect loading and unloading areas and wind barriers—there’s a lot we can do now.”
It appears to be full steam ahead for Fortress at this point, as the owners are eager to re-enter the marketplace with a resort that is both new and old. If you can’t wait for the lifts to start turning, check out the cat skiing operation at kpow.ca.