Saddle your Snowboard at Kicking Horse
By Tom Wilson-North
Published May 2007
Kicking Horse is one of the newest ski resorts in North America. Famed for off piste powder and an "experts only" attitude, Tom Wilson-North takes a look at this wild stallion, to see if it lives up to the hype.
Calgary airport on a Saturday afternoon is not something you'll want to experience twice. Mobs of hungover holiday reps and their jetlagged, plane-fresh herd. Billboards and clipboards, lost luggage and lost souls, backpacks and ski bags. Count yourself lucky that you're not following the chaos to Banff and Lake Louise. Count yourself lucky that you're going to invest another 90 minutes sitting on the road beyond all that. Count yourself lucky you're going to where the real skiers ski and the real riders ride. Count yourself lucky you're going to Kicking Horse.
No doubt you've heard of this place before. Put short, the quality of rider you encounter here is amongst the highest you'll see anywhere in the world. Long-haired Scandinavians with Chamonix stickers on their helmets are everywhere. And you see as many people holding camera tripods on the outside of their backpacks as there are people with shovel handles. Volkl Gotamas & Mantras everywhere. Line and Armada vie for position with Moments and Spatulas in ski racks. Everyone's skis are long, stiff and wide. And they ski them fast. There are more skiers than snowboarders here, which I suppose could be attributed partly to the terrain. There's a lot of traversing down ridge lines to get to the good stuff. But we'll get to that later.
Kicking Horse is a young mountain, only seven seasons old. It feels as if it's a mountain developed and run by serious steep-slope skiers, then tamed by marketing men. And that's true enough. It's got enough of a raw scary feel to dwarf you, but enough nice touches to make you feel like you're being treated.
Most visitors to Kicking Horse stay downtown in Golden - the 'friendliest town in BC', known for its truck-stop chic and of course the notorious 'Fresh Meat Mondays' night at the Roadhouse Tavern. Intrigued? You will be. Golden itself is a small, roadside, rough-around-the-edges town. It's in the middle of nowhere somewhere along Highway 1, the Trans-Canadian artery that runs from one side of this vast nation to the other. The numerous gas stations, drive-throughs and 'Truckers Welcome' billboards everywhere remind you that you're constantly being passed by trucks and trains. That said, the main street in Golden, 9th, has a couple of OK ski & snowboard shops, a grocery store and a couple of bars and diners. It's not much, but it's got everything you need.
Anyway, I saw your eyebrows raise when I mentioned that strip joint. "The Roadhouse Tavern" bears a striking resemblance to the place in the Patrick Swayze movie of the same name, but with an interesting twist. Mobs of bikers share floor space with stopping-off truckers, local logging workers and soft-shell-clad ski bums. Strippers, who move around the 'circuit' of BC venues, switch on Mondays, so Monday night is the first look at that week's 'Fresh Meat'. It's almost a family occasion and everyone in town comes out for it. But it doesn't end there. Once the show's over and the drool's beginning to dry, the Fresh Meat reclothes and hangs out for a while in the bar, working the floor, drinking beers and chatting with the punters.
Now let's get to why you really come here. Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is a series of three bowls, separated by two spiny ridge lines, which all funnel out to a fast frontside. There are four lifts; Catamount, a bunny chair to mid-mountain, Pioneer, a rickety old non-detachable two-man that serves lookers right of the resort, Stairway to Heaven, a high chair which accesses one of the bowls, and the Golden Eagle Express, an efficient and fast eight-man main gondola to the top. Once you're up, you ride a ridge line as far as you want, pick a chute, drop in, ride the bowl, shoot out the mouth, ride the frontside, and repeat. Every run incorporates phenomenally different terrain, vibe, views and conditions. There is a near-infinite combination of top-to-bottom lines off the gondola...and that's just on the marked trails.
Let's start with the chutes. What makes this mountain are the chutes. From steep, narrow, rock-lined couloirs to steep, wide rock-lined couloirs, there's something for everyone. And with 70 inbound chutes, it's just a matter of trying them out until you find your favourite.
Once you're done with the chute, ride out the fan into the bowl. There's nearly always soft snow to be found if you dodge the obvious shots, and there's always a fast groomer to link into on the way out of the bowl. Don't forget the natural hits created by fallen boulders and nature's park crew - the wind - though.
Out of the bowl and onto the frontside. Let's drop into the glades first. An eerie silence abounds in the trees here - rarely do you encounter other people, and fallen branches and stumps grow enormous pillows that just beg to be slashed and bonked. Some of the zones here are right out of a TGR movie. In fact, Jeremy Jones and Seth Morrison were at the mountain earlier this season looking at lines, inbound and out.
Out of the trees and onto the cruisers; even these have a sting in the tail. Shots like Wily Coyote and Grizzly Paw are fast mellow blues with good convex & concave rollers which lull you into a sense of getting the mountain under you...then they drop off, suddenly and hard, to 35 degree nose-dives, reminding you that the terrain beneath your feet is running the show, not you.
Kicking Horse is a microcosm of a lot of European resorts, with all the good things (vertical, steeps, alpine terrain), and none of the bad (half term kiddies, ski school snakes and bad attitude). Is it worth a visit? Definitely.
-Challenging and varied terrain - plenty for a fortnight, enough for a season.
-Efficient, simple and fast lift system.
-Good quality lodges and amenities, with on-mountain accommodation options (if you're made of money or can't stand the 20-minute, five mile drive up from Golden every day).
-It gets tracked out fast. People don't come here to cruise groomers. They come to freeride, drop anything within reason, and get pow.
-As soon as someone freaks out and side slips a chute, it's done. But there are loads more to choose from.
-The park sucks. That said, if you're here to ride the park, you've got problems.
-Check out Taps pub, Packers nightclub and the Roadhouse strip joint in Golden.
-Buy one-day lift tickets from one of the gas stations on the way into Golden for up to 10% less.
-Look out for KH local Boo, a semi-domesticated grizzly bear which lives in an enclosure underneath the gondola.
-Ride the natural hits and halfpipe in Bugaboo.
-Try the Canadia Challenge - a hike from the top of Bowl Over to the top of Terminator Peak (record set at just under seven minutes...but more like twenty for us mere mortals!)
-Have lunch at the Yurt. Way quieter than the base lodge.
-Ask around about 'Suckers' and 'Dutchmans Wallet'.
-Hit the Diving Board, a 30ft air beneath the gondola, and listen to the cabins go wild.
-Traverse the bowls, thereby creating large ruts in the runouts of chutes. Imagine flying into a trench at 45mph. You wouldn't want that. Don't traverse. Use the fall line - ride the bowl, and take the bottom groomer out.
-Hit the slackcountry (an article in itself!) without avi gear and a buddy with the same.
-Heckle from the chairlift. It's a small town and chances are you'll run into the target of your wit in the bar that evening.
-Ride the powerlines from Kicking Horse down to Golden, unless you like walking. A lot.