UP UNTIL A FEW months ago, if you asked for a pair of boards in the hardscrabble mill town of Golden, British Columbia, you might well have gone home with a couple of two-by-fours strapped to your car. But "planks" will take on an entirely new meaning here come December 8, when the gondola doors open on one of the largest North American ski resort expansion projects in decades.
In the coming six years, Golden's Whitetooth Ski Area, a 1,000-acre, 14-year-oldmom-and-pop hill in the Dog Tooth Range of the Purcell Mountains, will, for better or worse, morph into a Canadian- outback version of Whistler and Blackcomb. Leading the $130 million Kicking Horse Mountain Resort project is 57-year-old Canadian architect Oberto Oberti, with funding from the Dutch engineering firm Ballast Nedam and the Columbia Basin Trust—a Canadian government group set up to revitalize communities displaced by the damming of the Columbia River. Starting this month, powder seekers will take the ten-minute Golden Eagle Express gondola to the 7,705-foot summit, and by the time the project is finished, six lifts will bring a projected 225,000 skiers a day to the brink of a 4,133-foot vertical drop—the fourth-highest on the continent and just a few feet shy of the vertical at Wyoming's Jackson Hole. Kicking Horse, 165 miles west of Calgary, will boast 4,005 acres of terrain, which is just one-quarter fewer than Vail Mountain, the largest single-mountain operation in the United States.
But it's not the size of Kicking Horse that's extraordinary; it's the fact that the resort is going up at all—and so quickly. "The only way you can ever afford to build like that is with some kind of government support," says Roger McCarthy, the chief operating officer of Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado. "It would take us 15 years to get any kind of critical mass. In Canada, they can get government funds to make it happen in five." On this side of the border, resort developers face a very different regulatory and environmental climate: In an October 1998 effort intended to draw attention to the plight of the Canada lynx, activists set fires that destroyed or damaged some $12 million worth of Vail Mountain facilities, including four chairlifts and a new lodge. Further, legal wrangling between the Forest Service and enviro groups has stalled a proposed 581-acre expansion at Loon Mountain Resort in Lincoln, New Hampshire, since 1986.
More to the point, on this side of the line, alpine skiing seems cursed with a nationwide case of ennui. Aside from a five-year, $500 million expansion under way at The Canyons in Park City, Utah, it's been almost two decades since the last major ski resort was built, and the annual number of visits to U.S. ski areas has remained relatively static at 52 million for the last 15 years. This is a fact that a National Ski Areas Association representative blames on industry consolidation, but one that may more realistically be attributed to aging baby boomers who would rather hit the golf course than freeze their butts off on some chairlift. And a depressed Canadian currency is helping to bleed the domestic industry—at press time, the dollar had dipped to US $0.67. Roger Beck, a senior vice-president for Vail Resorts Development Company, guesses that Breckenridge, one of the firm's properties, lost 150,000 visitors over the last four years. Though he doesn't know exactly how many of them headed for Canada, Beck confirms the country's weak dollar is "luring American skiers North."