It started, like so many good ideas, as an offhand comment that turned into a running joke and eventually became a trip into the very roots of European skiing. During the seemingly endless process of putting together a detailed history of Castle Mountain Resort, the gritty, glorious little ski resort in the southwest corner of Alberta I had assigned myself to write a history book on, the notion of going to Switzerland kept cropping up.
You see, Paul Klaas, the man who started Castle Mountain Resort (then called Westcastle), was originally from Switzerland. He had brains, bravado and determination to build a ski resort in the windswept eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies that reminded him of the mountains in Klosters, Switzerland where he had spent his youth.
“To really research the history of Castle we’ll have to go to see where Paul Klaas is from,” my wife teased as I pecked away at the research and writing.
Klaas’s life had been unveiling itself to me through interviews with friends, family and investors and the idea that Westcastle was his homage to the skiing his homeland offered had become a thread running through the draft.
Where he chose to develop the ski area was of utmost importance.
Gravenstafel Ridge, deep in the Westcastle Valley, has vast areas of steep, above-tree-line bowls and chutes and was chosen by Klaas after scouting out Alberta’s Rocky Mountains for several years. In 1965, Westcastle opened its doors and Paul’s vision came to life. However, his time there was short lived; he sold off his portion and left the operation just four years later, moving his family back to Switzerland.
His idea for a Swiss-style resort in the Alberta Rockies was based on first-hand knowledge of what a resort should offer. Paul came from an area world-renowned as a winter destination.
In conversation with Paul’s son, Dan Klaas, I first heard about Gotschna Parsenn, the resort in the Swiss Alps Paul where he had lived. The Klosters/Davos area not only features Parsenn, but five other ski resorts sprinkled through the same valley. It is one of those areas in the Alps that ski dreams are made for. If Switzerland is the embodiment of skiing, the Klosters/Davos area is one of its main arteries. Alpine playground for both royalty and the common man (provided he can afford it), home of the famed Spengler Cup hockey tournament and candidate location for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Davos/Klosters is an area steeped in winter tradition.
As the book on Westcastle neared completion, the excuse for a “research” trip to Switzerland had become a real possibility. Neither Mandy nor I were willing to flinch when talk turned to actually going to Switzerland, the dare having passed the point of backing out, so we started to plan on when we could fit it into our winter.
Late December and early January turned out to be the only time we could go — so off we went to one of the most expensive places on the planet during a time that was definitely “peak rate period.” I was envisioning the worst — sleeping on couches in hostel common areas, waiting until noon to save a few francs on lift tickets, trying to eat leftover fondue swindled from restaurant dumpsters using branches and tree moss in place of the bread and fork. But I digress . . .
Landing in Zurich was a bit of a shock due to the lack snow, and winter in general. Temperatures were mild and there were even a few plants in bloom. We immediately got on a train to Chur, which was our home base for the first few days. It’s the oldest city in Switzerland and about an hour train ride from Klosters, our destination. While a beautiful city with a rich history, for our purposes it was only selected because it was the closest affordable accommodation we could get during the Christmas holiday season. On the train ride to Chur from Zurich the Alps had risen up around us and the mountaintops were snow-laden but there was still no snow in the valleys. But there was plenty of traditional Swiss homes and the quaint alpine style that is imitated worldwide. The villages got smaller as the valleys deepened and the mountains grew taller the further we went.
The Alps steepen much more quickly than the Canadian Rockies — in general, they are steeper at the bottom while the Rockies are steeper in the higher elevations. The wide-open, high-alpine meadows were snow-covered and looked like a perfect white sheet gently draped over something valuable.
Not sure if we were ready to hit the slopes after a day of travel, we opted to spend our first day — in this legendary land of downhill skiing — going cross country skiing. Our choice was Arosa, a family-oriented resort near Chur that had the best cross country trails in the area and was located one valley over from Parsenn. While we were gliding around Arosa’s track-set trails some fellow skiers pointed to the top of one of the beautiful monstrosities we’d been admiring all day and told us that we were looking at the backside of Parsenn. The red speck on top was a restaurant and it made the peak easily identifiable.
My heart stopped a little at the mention of Parsenn. I hadn’t realized that the place had become such a big deal to me until I was actually beside one of the Grande Dames of Swiss skiing. Frankly, it felt a bit like we were checking out her behind first before formally introducing ourselves to the front side the next day. Was that OK in Switzerland?
The next day was our first day ever skiing in the Swiss Alps. We were faced with huge line-ups at Parsenn as it was the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s. Another poor timing decision. When we got over the size of the crowds and the size of the trams and the size of the crowds they put onto the trams, we made our first turns on European snow. Of course the main runs were wide and the snow pristinely groomed, but what surprised us was tracked and untracked snow right beside the main runs. Few ventured off the groomed piste. The selection of steeper aspects to tackle was endless and the entire size of the area takes a while to wrap your head around. Several pockets in my multi-pocketed ski coat contained trail maps (pistenplans) by the end of the day.
Hoping to make contact with anyone who might have known Paul Klaas, and knowing that he was a ski instructor of some renown in Klosters, we stopped at the Klosters Ski School.
One of the administrators at the ski school put us in contact with Germaine Klaas (Meier), the daughter of Paul’s older brother. Germaine was recovering from a recent hip operation and was further slowed by a cold so the 80-year-old couldn’t meet us until the following week.
For the next week we took in as much Switzerland as we could. Watching a Canada victory in the Spengler Cup final was followed by pilgrimage to Zermatt, one of the most famous resorts in the world.
The place sprawls over the Swiss-Italian border at the foot of the Matterhorn with more terrain than you could even see, much less ski, in just a few days. Zermatt village is a picturesque zoo of high-end hotels, boutiques and restaurants with well-dressed inhabitants. Small electric vehicles are the only form of motorized transportation at Zermatt which cuts down on the air pollution but creates just as many traffic jams. The difference is they look like oversize Tonka toy traffic jams but are still as frustrating as the full-size versions.
We stayed out of the village down the valley with the cars at night and would take the train back to Zermatt each morning. It was more affordable that way and if costs were kept down we might escape without having to taste second-hand fondued moss.
Returning to ski in the Davos/Klosters area the next week felt like a homecoming. We knew the basic layout of Parsenn and were confident enough to start really exploring some of the more challenging stuff. It was our best skiing of the entire trip as we got bolder with each run, finding our own stashes and challenging pitches that seemed to have been left practically untouched just for us.
Parsenn’s peak elevation is 2,844 metres and, depending on which part of the valley you ski down to, the valley floor is between 1,500 and 1,000 metres. Most of the good skiing doesn’t start until the 2,200-metre level so from a vertical rise standpoint it’s not that different from a place like Lake Louise. But it skis like a much bigger place.
The only trees you’ll see are on the last run of the day as you ski down into the valley. Concentrating on one slope for repeated runs opens your eyes to the size of the resorts in the Alps. We hadn’t even exhausted all the possibilities of one small steep aspect off a lift in half a day and I everywhere I looked there were bigger and better places waiting to be explored.
See next week’s Sun Times for Part 2 of “Searching for Klaas”
Steven Kenworthy is a Spring Lake, Alberta-based writer who has been a ski columnist for the Lethbridge Herald and written numerous skiing articles for publications in Canada and Japan. Pre-sales of Kenworthy’s book “A History of Westcastle to Castle Mountain Resort – 1965 to 2007” are now available by contacting Castle Mountain Resort or Alpenland in Lethbridge.