Castle Mountain Resort, located approximately 50 kilometres southwest of the town of Pincher Creek, Alta., is busy preparing its 94 runs for the start of the ski and snowboard season.
Cole Fawcett, manager of marketing and web operations, says the hill’s earliest opening in 20 years was in 2019, following the installation of snow-making machines. This year, it is expected to officially open for the season on Dec. 4.
“Often times at this time of year, it was just straight-up brown grass,” Fawcett said. “No ability for us to make any meaningful amount of snow.”
Natural snowfall has also been favourable this year, and with more than 300 hours of snowmaking completed, Fawcett says the resort is far beyond where it would have been pre-2019.
“If [the snow] keeps up, it’s going to be a glorious beginning to the season.”
In addition to preparations of the actual slopes, the resort is also taking the steps to equip buildings with COVID-19 measures.
Visitors can expect to see some changes to the operation of Castle’s day-use and food and beverage areas, including reduced seating capacity and mandatory masks.
Joe’s Café, a grab-and-go snack and specialty coffee outlet, won’t be open this season, but an alternative will serve in its place.
“In lieu of that, we’re going to have a ‘ski-thru’ window which is kind of our take on a drive-thru,” Fawcett explained.
“We are really looking to protect the guests and our staff, and the season, for all Albertans.”
The pandemic has also resulted in a change in staffing. Fawcett estimates around 30 to 40 per cent of resort staff are typically international applicants.
“We’ve done very well in terms of the amount of staff that we’ve ascertained so far this year — many more Canadian or Canadian permanent resident staff than we’ve ever seen before,” he said.
“We were very proactive knowing that we might not see the international applicants that we were accustomed to.”
Fawcett says, speaking with retailers, they’re expecting to see a busy start to the season, with more people purchasing winter-activity-related material than usual.
Alpenland, a ski and winter gear retailer, has been seeing higher-than-normal levels of sales at its Lethbridge location.
“Generally we see a trend of busier traffic in our shop kind of starting beginning of December, it gets really busy,” said marketing and web operations manager Joe Molina.
“But we’ve seen December-level traffic starting mid-October, end of October, already.”
In particular, Molina says more families have been loading up with cross-country skiing gear and snowshoes, as they search for winter activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With this increase in popularity, certain items have been in danger of shortage.
“For anyone interested in getting into the gear or have been thinking about it and haven’t quite decided, definitely we recommend making a decision now than later,” Molina urged. “You may not have a chance later in the season.”
Rentals will still be available and Alpenland is working to make a smooth transition into a COVID-safe system.
“We’ve invested some resources into developing a digital system that’s going to allow us to minimize the amount of contact that’s going to happen when we need to process rentals.”
Some Alberta ski hills that are already open include Mount Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village.
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