KICKING HORSE won't be the first high-alpine attraction to draw adventurers to Golden. In the early 1900s, the Canadian Pacific Railway hired Swiss guides to lead clients into the surrounding mountains. In 1965, the world's first heli-ski operation began ferrying clients up to the ridges of the Purcell Range—a service now offered in the region by three chopper companies and a snowcat service. The celebrated Rogers Pass backcountry touring area sits a mere 34 miles west of town, and the whole region is surrounded by six national parks—Banff, Glacier, Yoho, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, and Jasper—that collectively comprise the world's largest mountain playground. Golden's peaks receive an average of 275 inches of Alta-light snow annually—not exactly massive accumulation compared to places like Colorado's Wolf Creek Ski Area (which in a typical year is blessed with more than 400 inches), but snowfall is extremely consistent thanks to the nearby Continental Divide, while cold Arctic wind currents keep the white stuff fresh.
Capitalizing on the region's near-mythical status among off-piste aficionados, Kicking Horse will open up a pair of 1,500-foot ridges over Golden —known in the Whitetooth days simply as Middle Ridge and North Ridge—for the price of a gondola ticket ($27). Once on top, skiers and snowboarders will take in mountain vistas looming in all directions, and then push off into a series of west-facing bowls, cutting powder turns down 1,000 feet to the tree line. Or maybe they'll duck under the ropes up top and enter an unpatrolled backcountry area on the far side of the mountain known as Canyon Creek.
Terrain such as this is at least part of the reason why, while annual U.S. resort visits remain on ice, visits to British Columbia ski areas are actually increasing. Last season, British Columbia's resorts hit the 5.6 million mark, up from 3.3 million a decade ago. Aside from the automatic exchange-rate discount that American visitors enjoy at the cash registers, the province has heaps of snow (372 inches landed on Whistler last winter) and mountains of skiable terrain (72 commercial operations do business there). It's also got Intrawest, the $1.4 billion developer that masterminded Whistler-Blackcomb and the “village-centered” ski resort, where lifts leave directly from the town square. In the past two seasons, Whistler and Blackcomb together surpassed two million skier visits per year—a feat unduplicated in the United States.
And those visitors are hungry for new thrills. “All the French shredders have been waiting for a high-speed lift in Golden for years,” says Ptor Spricenieks, a North Facesponsored skier who spent last winter in Golden. “B.C. is the hot spot for skiing in the world.” But it hasn't been a totally smooth ride. Since 1996, former Olympic skier Nancy Greene-Raine and her husband Al have been battling with the St'at'imc First Nations people over their $360 million, 14,000-bed Cayoosh Resort, planned near the town of Lillooet some 40 miles northof Whistler. The St'at'imc have blocked access roads to protest what they fear will be an increase in pollution and a decrease in game.
Though Kicking Horse is being billed as a brand-new resort, technically it is an expansion project—a distinction that allowed Oberti's proposal to sail through the province's environmental impact assessment process. There were no nearby aboriginal claims and few objections from environmentalists—due largely to the fact that the operation is situated a stone's throw from the Trans-Canada Highway, and not within pristine wilderness.
Kicking Horse also benefitted from the close ties that British Columbian ski operations share with public land authorities. As part of the Commercial Alpine Ski Policy, a government plan, the province kicked in 180 acres of public land at $2,500 an acre (roughly market value) for Kicking Horse to develop into an alpine resort village. Judging from architectural renderings of Kicking Horse that depict a gondola plaza surrounded by hotels, condos, and family homes, and the newspaper ads for the units filling Vancouver newspapers, you get the impression that the Kicking Horse base area will be Whistler II. (A Whistler Resort representative declined to comment on the plan.) “We are going to try to make it the most interesting and elegant village there is,” gushes Oberti.
Of course, there already is a village nearby—the town of Golden itself. When Oberti first outlined his plans to the locals in October of 1996, the 4,000 residents were still smarting from the temporary closure, just weeks earlier, of the Evans Forest Products lumber mill, the town's principal employer. Promising that the resort will create 350 to 500 new service jobs, in the fall of 1997 he presented the populace with a referendum. Some 31 percent of area residents turned out, and 93 percent of them voted in favor of the project.
But the townspeople's enthusiasm could come back to haunt them, should property prices follow the trend they have in Whistler. (According to Whistler Real Estate, average 1999 home prices were two-and-a-half times those of a decade earlier.) Should that happen here—and skier Ptor Spricenieks, among others, believes it will—people like Caroline Green, a 34-year-old masseuse, will feel it the most. After living in Whistler for 12 years, she decamped to Golden in May to escape an escalating cost of living. “My friends can't afford Whistler anymore, so they all came flooding out here to check out the real estate,” she says. “Whistler is becoming the Canadian Aspen.”
That's just fine with pro skier Moss Patterson, who also just moved to Golden from Whistler, and who recently returned from a ski descent of Peru's 19,790-foot Mount Toqllaraju. “Just like Whistler, you can ski right down the ridge,” he says. “Golden's going to be a similar big-mountain experience: lift to the peak, then where do you want to go?” In other words, ask for some boards in Golden this time next year, and you'll likely be pointed in the direction of the nearest sleek pair of Dynastars.
Access + Resources
THE BASICS: Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is at 888-706-1117 or www.kickinghorseresort.com All prices in U.S. dollars.
GETTING THERE: Air Canada services Calgary from almost every major U.S. city. From there, rent a car from Avis (800-879-2847) or Hertz (800-654-3131), or catch the westbound Greyhound to Golden.
LODGING: The Golden area offers several backcountry lodges, including Sorcerer Lake Lodge (250-344-2804; www.sorcererlodge.com; $840 per week) and Mistaya Lodge (250-344-6689; www.mistayalodge.com; $1,030 per week) both accessible only by helicopter. In Golden, you can rest your peds at Sisters and Beans Restaurant and Guesthouse (250-344-2443; $40 night), a European-style inn known for its rich fondues.
ABOVE THE FRAY: Eastern British Columbia boasts thousands of acres of prime heli-skiing terrain. Contact Canadian Mountain Holidays (800-661-0252; www.cmhski.com Great Canadian Heliskiing), (250-344-2326; www.greatcanadianheliski.com), or Purcell Helicopter Skiing (250-344-5410; www.purcellhelicopterskiing.com), for weeklong trips ranging from $3,350 to $5,000. —Jason Daley