Certainly it needed vision to choose the remote spot of Kicking Horse, the bottom third of which used to be the old community ski hill of Whitetooth above the valley town of Golden. Golden is no quaint Victorian mining town awaiting a little gentrification, but a busy blue-collar railway junction awkwardly sprawled across both sides of the tracks, which lacks even an ounce of charm.
The backbone of KH is a high-speed gondola, which gives a respectable 1260m vertical drop on a mountain that offers something for everyone. Having completed the gondola, the stroke of European-inspired genius was to build, at the top of it, the best mountain restaurant in North America, the Eagles’ Eye. This has been followed by comfortable, spacious and upmarket accommodation at the base village, so that no-one needs to stay down in the dreary Golden motels any more – although some people clearly want to: “Real people and that hometown feel. We loved the place so much that we moved lock stock and barrel to live in Golden” said one reporter.
Another part of the resort’s appeal is that it makes a great anchor for a road trip into the underpopulated interior of British Columbia. To us Brits this feels like one of the world’s empty quarters – where half the traffic consists of logging trucks and there’s only ever one radio station to listen to. There’s a real thrill to be had from travelling through so much space, and then at the end of the day, pulling up at a new mountain which, by Alpine standards, is completely deserted. We’d go back again like a shot.
A quad-chair serves the beginner area and an old fixed-grip double gives access to some easy and advanced runs on the lower half of the mountain. But it’s the Eagle’s Eye gondola to the summit that is the principal reason you should travel all this way. Riding it provides access to three wickedly steep bowls that are the foundation of KH’s reputation.
The choice of entrées starts right outside the door of the Eagle’s Eye restaurant. Black-diamonds fall away from both sides of the ridge to produce some sensational skiing. Some of this is steep by any standards, and for anyone lacking in confidence it pays to study the topography before committing yourself to runs that may test your ability to its limits.
Meanwhile, Stairway to Heaven, a quad on the far northern side of the ski area, takes you up to Blue Heaven, highest point on the mountain. More steep runs follow down through the trees on one side of Redemption Ridge. The other leads down into Feuz Bowl, a glorious powder cache after a fresh fall. Once you’ve skied out of the bowls, the mid-section is home to several fun single black-diamond runs – including Double Header, at the southern end of the resort.
Much of the ski area is avalanche-controlled
Kicking Horse’s 2,750 acre ski area is now larger than Breckenridge and, according to one reporter, is home to ‘the steepest resort we have ever skied’. Anyone familiar with the toughest resorts of the Alps will beg to differ, but they would still have to concede that this is exciting terrain. What’s more, because so much of it is avalanche-controlled, you can get stuck in without having to hire a guide.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that the resort is now trying to make itself more accessible to intermediates, and points out that there are lots of easy confidence-boosting groomers at the bottom of the slopes. This is true. One recent visitor was, for example, impressed with the wide range of runs, ‘not least those served by the old Pioneer Chair, which most people seem to ignore in favour of using the gondola.’ But the fact remains that unless you’re ready to start venturing off-piste, into the bumps and powder, you’ll be missing the point of the place.
A superb place to ride, but watch out for the occasional dry winter
Kicking Horse is a great slab of mountain: the three steep bowls, full of come-hither lines, are wonderful places to find yourself on a powder day, and when you get to the bottom of them, you just keep going, down through the trees and over the rollers of the lower half of the mountain. It’s no wonder that when one of our editors was in the resort recently he met a bunch of snowboarding Brits who sampled it once – and then decided to come straight back again the following year for a second helping.