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Away from its big-name hills, Alberta has a quieter, hidden side, as Snow’s backcountry boarder Pete Coombs discovered when he visited the KPOW! cat skiing operation at Fortress Mountain.
fresh tracks fortress mountain pete coombs
The tale of Fortress Mountain, about 30 miles south of the Nakiska Ski Resort, is one that broke many hearts – and even drove one long-term employee, unable to bring himself to leave, to set up home in a tent, catching his dinner through a hole cut in the ice.

Fortress has held a place in Albertan skiers’ hearts since 1967, but a slow spiral of decline came to a head in April 2007, when everyone who worked and played there was informed that the resort was going to close, for good. The local community were devastated, but it was out of their hands, and a week later, on a grey Friday afternoon, the gate at the foot of the access road swung shut for the final time.

Fast forward to last winter: I was finishing the last few drops of a local IPA in a hotel bar of the Kananaskis ski lodge, another nearby resort, and had been about to head for the door; but on mentioning to the barman that I planned to visit Fortress the next day, a guy who’d been locked onto his computer screen turned to me and said, ‘Can you imagine your favourite ski hill closing, the one you taught your kids to make their first turns on?’ He looked like he was about to burst into tears, so I ordered another beer and bought him one too.

‘I have friends who took signs from the mountain,’ he continued. ‘They have them up in their houses, but I couldn’t do that. It’s not right to take things from there.’ It was as if by taking something, he’d be accepting that the mountain really was finished. And he could be right.

Late 2007 saw a group of entrepreneurial skiers, with a shared love of the area, buy Fortress. Hopes of a swift reopening were soon dashed as a bizarre bureaucratic battle ensued. Even though Fortress had historically been a ski resort, for some reason, known only to the inner workings of the Albertan provincial government, an operating ski resort permit would not be issued. That is until late 2011, when they finally got the green light to reopen that locked gate to the public. By which time nature had taken its toll: chairlifts had rusted, and buildings had filled with snow.

The new owners – fronted by Joey O’Brien, whose hands-on approach sees him driving the client minibus and ski guiding – have a long-term sustainable development plan, which started last season with the excellent KPOW cat skiing operation, and plans for new limited lift access skiing.

It’s a very unusual cat skiing operation – more like having your own personal resort than heading deep into the back country, as you ski on the old pistes. My first run of the day was comparable to catching first lift and bagging fresh tracks on a powder-filled piste. The difference here was that when I looked back at my tracks, there wasn’t half of Europe coming down behind me and that’s what it felt like for the whole day: first tracks all day in our own private resort.

 ‘Most groups arrive with a pumped-up attitude, aggressively taking the first few lines like a pack of wolves on a dead elk, but they soon relax, as there’s plenty of lines for everyone,’  Joey explained.

After an alfresco lunch, Joey told how he’d hired skiers to fell a few narrow lines in the trees adjacent to some of the old pistes.

‘Lots of resorts will hire any old feller (a lumberjack) to clear, but I hired my ski guides, as they can visualise the perfect place to take a turn, and fell accordingly.’

I dropped into one of the these newly cut lines, and I couldn’t argue with his reasoning as I took a narrow  path through the trees at speed, carving banked turns in the untouched powder.

Back in the base garage, after 11 runs and some 2,700 metres of powder vert, Joey introduced me to a 71-year-old bearded guy.

‘This here is Mountain Mel. When we finally got our permit and started work on this building, we found Mel squatting in it. He’d worked here for 28 years and just didn’t leave when the resort shut. Rather than throw him out, I gave him a job. No-one has as much knowledge of Fortress as Mel here.’

‘Wow, you really lived here all that time?’

‘Yep,’ replied Mel, who was strangely sociable for someone who chose to live alone in the backcountry for many years.

‘Spent most of it in a tent on the backside there, near Fortress lake.’

‘Didn’t your tent get buried?’

‘Yep, I’d have to get up some nights and shovel snow.’

‘And what about the bears and cougars?’

‘Oh, they didn’t bother me none, as long as I didn’t bother them.’

I stood in awe of Mel and Joey, who both have an unstoppable love for Fortress Mountain and won’t let counsels, closures, cougars or bears stop them from calling it home.