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Ski Runs & Free Hugs at Alberta's Castle Mountain Resort

Visit Castle Mountain Resort and you'll receive free hugs before boarding the lift to some of the most challenging ski runs in the West.

I'd never gotten a hug from a liftie until I encountered Marie Cameron at Castle Mountain Resort (tel. 888/754-8667; in far southwestern Alberta. Cameron, a.k.a. "Marie the Hug Lady," scans lift tickets and hugs -- in that order -- just about every skier and rider before they embark on Castle's Centre lift.

"She's world-famous," says Andrew Rusynyk, the resort's assistant general manager. He tells me to ask locals about their favorite stashes. "They'll be glad to help you out, but they won't wait for you," he laughs.

A subsequent ride on the Tamarack chair gets us to the top of the resort's terrain, near the summit of Gravenstafel Mountain, where Marie's hug offers little solace for the meek. This is some of Canada's steepest and deepest terrain, featuring the longest continuous fall line -- stretching over 5.5 kilometers via the resort's renowned South Chutes -- and superlative snow, this season being no exception. A sun dog below acts as a beacon on my way down the double-black High Rustler, undoubtedly one of the more challenging runs of my skiing career.

But the resort -- which has evolved from a local's hill that the nearby city of Pincher Creek (pop. 3,000) sold to a group of investors in 1996 -- isn't an experts-only destination. The Huckleberry Triple Chair accesses blue and green groomers on Mount Haig as well as plenty of single-black glades. There are a grand total of four chairlifts here, plus a T-bar and a handle tow.

Folksiness aside, it's hard to ignore the fact that Castle has some of the most wicked steeps and deepest powder in the West. Beyond the 1ift-served terrain, the resort features the province's only snowcat operation (packages start around C$211 per person per day/night) in about 1,800 acres of adjacent backcountry.

And Castle is one of the few in the Alberta Rockies to feature accommodations on the hill, in the form of a lodge and hostel as well as a number of ski-in, ski-out chalets. The restaurants feature a picture-perfect funky apr├Ęs-ski joint in the T-Bar, as well as a cafeteria and the sit-down Barnaby Steakhouse.

A note of caution: Notoriously windy, the resort can be battered by hurricane-force gusts on a bad day. The silver lining of the wind, says Rusynyk, is the fact that it acts as a natural groomer. "The wind can be a friend -- you do these loops and have fresh tracks all day long."

After an exhilarating day navigating sometimes knee-deep powder, I find myself in Marie's embrace once again. Then I ride back up to the mountaintop, and fling myself down one last time.

What's New: Castle's snowcat operation is new for 2011-12; there was also extensive glading in the timbered areas on the resort's north side and Mount Haig, plus implementation of a new ticketing and pass system.

Best Ski Deals and Ski Packages: The resort offers ski-and-bunk packages in the hostel starting at the rock-bottom price of C$75 nightly for shared rooms. Ski-and-stay deals including lift tickets and a private room in the lodge start at C$118 per person per night based on double occupancy. On-hill chalets that sleep four start around C$150 a night. In Pincher Creek (a 45-minute drive from the resort), the Ramada is the cream of the crop, with an indoor waterslide and double rooms starting around C$125 nightly. But act soon: Castle closes for the season on April 10.

Quotable: "If you can ski Castle, you can ski anywhere." -- hotel clerk in Pincher Creek

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