the ghost ski resorts |
chapter two | Fortress |
making of

To celebrate the arrival of this second episode of Ghost Resorts, we sat down with four protagonists on what has most marked them in the realization of this movie.

A paranormal experience in the muffled world of ghost resorts.

Back to Fortress

Mark Abma and Callum Petit share rider’s visions but are very different from each other. Mark used to visit Fortress regularly when he was on the mogul race circuit, while Callum had never been there. He heard about the abandoned spot from some of his skiing buddies who had shot on the set of Inception. “I grew up in British Columbia, you don’t really go to the rocky mountains on the Alberta side, it’s more for skiers from Calgary.”

On the other side of the camera, Bryan Smith, of Reelwater Productions, was not familiar with the spot either and confirms Callum’s thoughts: “This part of the Rockies is not really a place you go skiing when you live in Whistler or Vancouver, you never say hey, let’s go skiing in Alberta!”

For Abma, returning to Fortress after 20 years was a bit special, after a 10-hour carpool with Callum from the Coastal Range : “Coming back to the ghost resort was strange because really nothing had changed. It’s the same trails, the old lodge is still there, except there’s no one there.”

Bryan adds, “it really seems like when Fortress closed, people left in their cars like after a normal day, never to return.”

Mark remembers well his trips to Fortress in the ’90s. He came there two or three times a year :

“All the mogul skiers in North America would meet at Fortress to compete. Those were big events, plus at that time aerials were there at the same time, so there was always something going on. The main building was especially loud and lively, 100 or 200 athletes over the place, there were some great parties.”

During the shoot, the team was housed in Kananaskis Village, which is more of a tourist resort than a real year-round place (the closest town is Canmore, a little further north). Every morning, they took the road to Fortress Junction, then a forest trail to the resort, half an hour drive in all. A fence blocks the trail, to prevent anyone from riding on a road maintained for the cat ski operation. But even without the keys to get in by car, there are many ski touring enthusiasts in the area.

Fortune favours the ghost hunters. “We arrived just after a snowstorm, and the first day we went up it was blue. There was no one around, especially since we were in the middle of COVID, which adds something ghostly to the shooting of a Ghost Resort” says Callum.

“The first day we drove by the lodge and didn’t see it, it was buried in the snow.Everybody had told us to come late, the conditions here are usually pretty good in the spring, and our early may timing was good” adds Bryan.

A resort populated by ghosts and diehards

When Bryan and the Reelwater Productions team started looking for a ghost resort in Western Canada, at the request of Camille Jaccoux, they quickly found Fortress. Everything is still in place, the lodge, chairlifts, etc. “We saw some YouTube videos and realized they were from the previous summer, all recent.” Adds Ryan. “Everyone told us to talk to Malcom at Sherpas Cinema.”

Malcolm directs them to Chris “Chevy” Chevallier, and tells them it would make a good character to tell the story of the place. He adds : “And then there’s this guy, Mountain Mel.”

Among the figures who shed light on Fortress’s past in the video is Rob Stevens, a legendary Canadian snowboarder. He grew up not too far from Fortress, and became a dishwasher at a resort’s restaurant, as he explains in the film. In the late 70’s, there weren’t many snowboarders, and he was the closest to a “pro”. He is a good example of the pioneer spirit of Fortress : We met him up there, he lives in his truck.”

And then of course there’s Mel. Callum says:

“I think he used to be a good skier but now he’s just someone who lives there and loves the spot. He’s very nice, very attached to this place, where he spent so much time alone. So he loves having company, and he wants to show people coming here how great it is.”

A land marked by the past

“The Rocky Mountains are very different from what I’m used to, coming from the Coastal Range,” Callum says. Everything here is steeper, sharper. “The Rockies are really impressive mountains, with these giant peaks in every direction. The terrain is breathtaking,” adds Bryan Smith. 

Today the most obvious skiing at Fortress is to take advantage of the empty trails, which haven’t been groomed in almost 20 years. Callum :

“We’ve mostly been riding the runs that were cut through the woods to make trails back in the 70s. There are some great glades on the backside of the resort, and we also hiked under the big rock that is Fortress, there is a great view of the old building from up there, although the snow wasn’t that great because it was the last day of the trip and the temperatures had risen.”

For Abma, “There is some really good forest skiing, and great canyons to ride, very surfy in spirit. If you put the skins on, there’s some really major alpine terrain above the resort, all the way up to Fortress Mountain, which can be skied too. I had always dreamed of having a resort all to myself, and I remembered the good spots after all these years.”

For those who come during the winter, it is also possible to enjoy the catskiing: Fortress Mountain Holdings got the lease for the area in 2010, and Chris Mueller and Chevy manage the day-to-day field operations with KPow Cat Skiing, which started in January 2012.

“They’re doing this while completing the investment capital that will allow the lifts to reopen,” Bryan explains.

The challenges of a ghost shooting

Everyone agrees, the first challenge in Fortress, is the wind. “It blows like crazy, especially on the ridges. When they shoot movies, the tents fly away and the actors freeze” says Callum.

However, the riders were able to take advantage of the good post-storm conditions on the first day of filming, even if it got a little worse afterwards. The second challenge was working with the locals. Chris and Chevy are used to Hollywood shoots,operations that pay $10,000 a day.

“We were a little afraid to scare them off with our Ghost Resorts idea,” Bryan says, “but they told us that if we came at the end of the season, when the catski was over, we’d be well received. And once we got there, we only needed a day to warm them up.”

Bringing Mark Abma and Callum Pettit to shoot at Fortress was almost more exciting than hosting Leonardo DiCaprio (who came to face the local weather on two different shoots).

Two days after their arrival, the team set out to enter the main building, the “day lodge“. “At first Chevy didn’t want to, it’s true that it’s potentially dangerous, but we knew it would be the centerpiece of the film, it’s such an iconic building, with its architecture, its big copper hearth, and the star shape, with all the stuffed animals, the old skipasses, etc.” enthuses Bryan.

“Normally when you shoot skiing, you focus on the action, making sure you have ski shots that work and are impactful. But here we also needed smart, aesthetic shots that showed this place as an empty resort. We wanted to show what it had been and what it could become. It’s a real challenge as a director to show buildings that are abandoned, but at the same time give the viewer a feeling of what it was back in the day, to capture the energy of the place.”

Bryan’s favorite shot is the very first one in this episode. It shows a ticket office, with Fortress Mountain framed in the background. “To me that shows the intentions that made this resort: someone put that window exactly so you can see the mountain behind it.”

The future of a ghost resort

The 40 stakeholders who bought the resort are finalizing financing packages for the project with several interested groups. The budget for the first phase of the redevelopment, which would open the first lifts, is between 30 and 35 million Canadian dollars (20 to 25 million euros), and the provincial government permits for phase 1 are already finalized. “Our goal is to open the lifts by December 2023. We will make an official announcement once the date is confirmed,” says Chris Mueller.

They are surprised by the amount of support this redevelopment project is receiving and the passion that still exists among skiers and snowboarders who knew Fortress back in the day. “It was expected that some people would prefer that the redevelopment not happen, but the support we’ve received so far is overwhelming,”

Chris Mueller says, “We do our best to listen to and appreciate any concerns that are brought to the table and try to incorporate them into our re-development planning.”

Because for these enthusiasts, It is imperative to do the project in a manner that holds the utmost respect for the special environment they, we, call home.

“There’s one really cool thing”, says Callum. “There’s a huge lake of drinking water, fed by an underground glacier that’s under Fortress Mountain. So there’s plenty of naturally pure water up there, and they even make great local beer from it.”

Mark Abma resumes: “I’d love to see this resort come back to life”,summarizes Mark Abma, “because it was already resort in the past, it’s not like building a new one in the middle of nowhere. There are sentimental attachments from a lot of people to this spot. And compared to Europe, here we have very few resorts and lots and lots of space. And then the team that wants to reopen the resort has a great vision, they want to make it family oriented. There’s not really a resort with lodging in this part of the Rocky Mountains, so it would be great to offer that type of skiing for younger people and families.”

As Rob Stevens states at the end of this episode, “If you’ve been to Fortress and have memories, you’ve left a part of yourself here.” This small part of the resort embedded in the hearts of its visitors is illustrated by the various writings we see on the walls of abandoned buildings, nearly 20 years later : ”I was here” ou “Fortress forever”.

“There are reasons why Fortress closed, but it’s a place that could easily be a resort again,” concludes Bryan Smith. 

“Even though it’s a ghost resort, you can feel the energy of the past, you can see the ski culture. It’s nostalgic in a way, you can imagine what it was like, but it’s also positive: you don’t need to see the people to feel the culture. In the end this episode speaks to many people. It’s something universal, reminding everyone of their skiing past, and making you feel that energy even though the place is now completely empty.”

 

To go further, find our live on YouTube with Mark Abma, Callum Pettit, Chris Mueller, and Chris Chevalier :

 

interview by Mathieu Ros

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