Thursday, March 1, 2018

Don't Pass Powderkeg!

Lively Lodge at Pass Powderkeg
If you've ever done the journey from Calgary to Fernie, you'll probably have noticed Pass Powderkeg but the majority of skiers just drive on by. I've always been curious about it as the runs always seem to be snow-covered and it looks as though it is a more substantial ski facility than the small community of Crowsnest Pass justifies - i.e. I'm a bit jealous!

There are hundreds of these hometown hills around North America - for example Howelsen Hill at
Sunset at Pass Powderkeg - by Casey Morris
Steamboat Springs and Snow King at Jackson - all over-shadowed by their more famous neighbours that nab the lion's share of destination skiers. But the smaller hills also share a few advantages - chief of which is lack of crowds, especially at peak periods, and much cheaper overheads. For example in the Crowsnest Pass area there are very affordable motels (starting at $59 per night), several hotels, homey B & Bs and an increasing number of cheap AirBnBs popping up. The towns in the Crowsnest community are Bellevue, Hillcrest, Frank, Coleman and Blairmore, by the way. And, of course, lift passes are cheaper too: e.g. adult day pass $50 and adult season pass only $199

Casey Morris, who took most of the photos in this blog, has been skiing what locals call PPK for the past decade. "The value for your money, especially as a family, does not compare," she says. "Our seasons passes were priced at four days skiing. That's two weekends worth. For locals, the ability to have a pass and get in a couple quick laps before or after work, five days a week is great. And night skiing really opens up the ski day to everyone." 

Piste Map at Pass Powderkeg

Pass Powderkeg - by Casey Morris
But it's not just about affordability, it's about quality and quantity too: "I love the lack of crowds and line-ups, the grooming, and the stashes of fresh (even just fresh groomed that has yet to be skied) that can be found any time of day, any day of the week," she says. "The snow this year has been phenomenal. Usually, we have one or two epic weekends a year. This year, we have had at least four epics so far. Even when it hasn't been snowing, the snow conditions are reliably great, enhanced by good grooming."

With beautiful sunset views, the onhill lounge and restaurant facilities are going through gentrification right now. "At PPK we have a great chef, who has put together an impressive menu for us," says Casey. "We are working on utilizing our upstairs lounge with pub nights." In the rustic town there are live music venues at weekends as well as a movie theatre. And the Crowsnest Pass area is rife with alternative activities including snowshoeing, backcountry touring and snowmobiling, fat-biking, an extensive network of Nordic trails just west of town and ice-fishing and ice-skating. "I think the general vibe is families and young punks, mixed with some ski-bums who know the goods are in the mellow vibe and uncrowded terrain," says Casey. "The kids here can really ski/snowboard. I'm pretty sure the other day I saw a skier who was ten or younger pull a backflip." 

Corduroy at Pass Powderkeg 

PPK attracts a range of downhill demographics, mostly locals but an increasing amount of second-home owners including one of my ski buddies, Gretchen Castronuovo. "Powderkeg is a blast in the Crowsnest Pass," she says. From her cute cabin in Bellevue (near Blairmore), Gretchen decided to ski PPK when her friends were all grounded by various injuries - typically they would all drive off to either Fernie or Castle Mountain. "I took the opportunity to practice my ski technique on what we thought of as the local bunny hill," she
Gretchen Castronuovo  
explained. She bought a half day pass and was really surprised at the quality of the snow, the corduroy and the variety: "There's a g
reat terrain park for eager ski gymnasts, two T-Bars, 1200 ft of vertical and it takes approximately three minutes to ski at a moderately fast pace from the top of the hill to the bottom." She loved the way season pass holders could start on the lower T-Bar right from the town. And was particularly impressed by the friendliness and customer service. "When I asked the lifty what he loved the most about the hill he indicated 'family' and that he knows everyone who skis there and their style, etc," she said. "I met two seniors - George 78 and Remo 82 - who bragged that it was five minutes from their doorstep." The old boys knew Bruno Engler and all the original group that had started the hill. Floodlit night skiing is a hit with everybody according to the locals, although the older brigade told Gretchen that they preferred it when it was just dimly illuminated with three lights. "My favorite run was Spina: Italian for the spine," concluded Gretchen (although actually it was named in memory of a local lifty called John Spina. Incidentally, Gretchen's father Clarence “Haak” Haakenstad was one of the original owners of Paskapoo ski hill developed in Calgary in the 1950s, now Winsport
Nightskiing at Pass Powderkeg - by Casey Morris
Snowy Joey O'Brien
So, why is PPK getting a higher profile these days? It's all part of a "turn around effort" which has rallied the whole community, according to Joey O'Brien, Manager of Community Services for the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass. "Pass Powderkeg had suffered with a lack of attention by the municipality. The board members are knowledgeable about skiing and clearly understood the potential, but were stymied as the final arbitrator was council and their budgets," Joey explained. Since starting with the municipality last April, Joey has been focusing attention on the ski hill, beginning with an internal situational analysis. "There are 19 fields of expertise required to operate a small to medium ski hill. Our analysis indicated we were covering two of these well," he said. "Next was the outline of a plan to address the deficient areas. When this was developed the next hurdle was to gain board approval and then council endorsement." Several board members have joined in the rebranding effort and operational change process and community buy-in has meant that progress has been swift. Joey has a history of turning ski areas around, notably Ski Martock in Nova Scotia and Mt Baldy in BC.

Pass Powderkeg - by Casey Morris
Having already launched a brand new Ski & Snowboard School, a race club and snow condition cams at PPK this season, Joey is excited by the potential there. "I say to the staff and board that we are five percent towards the finish line," he said. "A hill like PPK - which is only 300 feet shorter than Norquay and equally as steep on some trails - should see about 100,000 guests annually. Last year we had 4800. We are seeking to multiply that number this year." Father of five and grandfather of two, Joey's whole family is ski and snowboard mad: "My grand daughter who is five was in a speed trap skiing at 65 kmh this weekend at a race. Skiing and snowboarding is in their blood."

The next priority is increasing awareness: "Everyone I ask about PPK either says 'there’s a ski hill there?' or 'I saw it while driving through, but never thought to stop - except for the Timmy’s'.” (Tim Hortons to the uninitiated). So, next time you are speeding through the Crowsnest Pass, turn off into town, take a look round, and fit in a few runs. After all, sometimes the journey and the surprises along the way are just as fun and fascinating as the final destination!

Gorgeous views from Pass Powderkeg - by Casey Morris
PPK Social Media Links:

Snowmaking and groomers at Pass Powderkeg
Summer Strategy:

Crowsnest Pass is a beautiful summer destination with copious cabins and camping as well as all the winter accommodations. "We're working on summer ops next," says Joey. "With 12,600 cars daily zooming past our exit we have a built in market for our products." These include wedding venues and e-biking. "Did you know that there will be about 42 million e-bikes sold this year? E-bikes will do to regular bikes what shaped skis did to straight ones," he contends. With plans to launch the first e-bike guiding and rental program in Canada, Joey is currently creating the website. "The old model of having ski lifts or trucks to transport bikers to the top of the hill will no longer matter. On an e-bike, you, I and a young fit rider would arrive at the top of a climb without feeling like we were having a heart attack." The trails are already in place and the plan is to guide people through a historical review of the Pass which boasts the highest density of historical buildings in Canada. Other projects include promoting the 30 plus festivals and events in the area as well as eco tours of the local flora and fauna. 

Piled up pow on the patio at Pass Powderkeg

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