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​Playgrounds: A Distinct Flavor of Canadian Resort Skiing at Kicking Horse

Kicking Horse, B.C., home to a very distinct flavor of resort skiing. Jeff Bartlett photo.

To us skiers, there are certain zones that simply hold such a heavy presence in our minds that they are hard to not think about arcing perfect tracks down. Think Jackson’s Pucker Face, Verbier’s Bec De Rosses, or for those who have ever skied in BC: Kicking Horse’s Ozone Face.

Wait, Ozone? Isn’t that the permanently closed avalanche zone above the resort, that has lured a few poachers here and there, but hasn’t seen any real tracks in years? Yes, but after this year’s Freeride World Tour event, Kicking Horse has plans to finally open this area to the public. More information on the motions can be found here.  

The Canadian Rockies and Interior B.C. may scream huge backcountry lines and sled-access skiing, but this part of the country is home to a distinct flavor of rowdy resort skiing, thanks to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. The resort on the now-famous Powder Highway can be described using words so often heard before: no crowds, deep snow, huge vertical drop, and seriously steep terrain, but only a few mountains offer a true combination of all those in one place. It’s big mountain skiing without the attitude.

Golden Origins

Over 200 years ago, the first explorers traveled deep into the Canadian Rockies in search of the Columbia River and a passage to the Pacific Ocean. On the way, they found indications of gold and other minerals, and by the end of the century, the area west of Banff in the Kicking Horse River Valley was settled by families searching to exploit the mountains of their minerals. It turns out there wasn’t much gold, but the town remained alive thank to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was completed in 1885.

By 1900, the locals recognized that the beautiful mountains surrounding their homes were sure to be a tourist draw, and hired a team of Swiss mountain guides to establish the Purcell Range as a tourist paradise. These guides quickly built up the mountain tourism industry in the area, which the century led to the creation of Whitetooth Ski Area in 1986. Whitetooth featured a single chairlift, three runs and 2,000 feet of vertical featuring some of the best powder skiing in Canada. In 2000, Whitetooth re-opened as Kicking Horse Mountain Resort with a new gondola and chairlifts thanks to investment by a Dutch engineering company.

Yep. This is inbounds. Dom Daher photo.

A Small Town with a Big-Mountain Attitude

Golden, BC’s history leaves it mark in the form of the local’s decidedly pioneer attitude towards all things: skiing, nightlife, even driving.

I mention driving, because in the four days I spent there, driving was likely the most adventurous part of my trip. The mountain lies eight miles outside of town, up a winding hill that not only seems like it will never end, but seemingly never gets plowed. At the bottom of the hill, the road crosses an extremely narrow one-lane bridge over the Kicking Horse River, and immediately crosses the CPR train tracks. In the four days I spent there, I got stuck at the railroad crossing almost every time I drove to and from the mountain, watching 100+ car long trains crawl by at a snail’s pace. It’s a different pace of life, and to be honest, I was okay with it.

The mountain’s base is also noticeably low-key, with only a tiny base area surrounding the Eagle Eye Gondola that whisks riders up into the alpine. I visited Kicking Horse on one of their busiest days ever, reporting a whopping 3,700 guests there to ski and watch the FWT. To put that in perspective, Vail reported nearly 20,000 guests on one of their busiest days. So yeah, nobody skis there, and it really shines through when you drop into a chute off CPR ridge at 2:30 P.M. and see a single track down it.

Speaking of those chutes, those are exactly what sets this mountain apart, defining its rowdy character. Kicking Horse was put on the big mountain skier’s map back in 2009 with the inaugural Wrangle the Chute competition, featuring a unique format that included skiing said chutes and riding a mechanical bull at the base of your line. The comp was almost entirely entered by locals, but soon drew in freeriders from all over North America who wanted to drop into the pillow lines and cliff-lined chutes the mountain is home to.

FWT riders Erika Vikander and Dave Baird making their way to the top of Ozone bright and early on competition day. Jeff Bartlett photo.

This year, the competition spirit was brought to an international level with the inclusion of a Freeride World Tour stop. After a prior postponement of the Hakuba stop, that actually turned into two events at Kicking Horse, and the international freeride community descended upon Kicking Horse in full force. The funny part? Local Logan Pehota won the first event with a 98.00, one of the highest FWT scores ever. Turns out, local knowledge still holds supreme when it comes to impressing the crowds and judges.

Local Knowledge Wins

I got a chance to ski with Pehota the days before the comp, and it basically turned into a full-on send fest thanks to amazing snow and good lighting.

“Since I moved to Whistler a few seasons ago, life’s changed a bit, but I feel like Kicking Horse is still the home mountain,” said Pehota as he led us on billygoat tracks high above some pillow lines. Oh yeah, did I mention that Kicking Horse has lift-accessible pillow lines?

Logan kicked off a load of snow into a tight pillow field below him, sending them all collapsing in a row. “Guess I’m not skiing that one,” he chuckled and instead traversed deeper along the ridge to the next line, which he flawlessly sent.

That same scenario repeated itself again and again, with us finding ever-more terrain to explore. It felt like a never-ending backcountry day, except we kept skiing down to the same lift over and over and working our way down further down the ridge on each run. It was rowdy, and certainly out of the ordinary for most ski areas, but it really didn’t feel like it there.

Markus Eder decides to try flying in the days leading up to the competition. Dom Daher photo.

Perhaps that’s exactly the difference between here and most other mountains with that kind of terrain: a nonchalant attitude towards it all. The locals all absolutely rip, but there’s not the bro-ey attitude towards it all. Pehota sums it up nicely: “You see the same bombholes and tracks out of cliffs as in Jackson or Squaw. There, the attitude is ‘bro, you snaked my line!’ but instead here, you throw the guy some stoke, maybe heckle him a little bit, and then go hit the same thing together next run.”

That attitude boils down to one thing the locals know so well: It’s all skiing at the end of the day.

From The Column: TGR Playgrounds

About The Author

stash member Max Ritter

I manage digital content here at TGR, run our gear testing program, and am stoked to be living the dream in the Tetons.

After skiing the 500 vertical metres ...  :- prrrtt ... at Vancouver Island’s Mount Washinton during their January snowmageddon, I was happy to get back to Kicking Horse .. Love It !!
Great article !

Ok ok, I don’t want to make a comparison to my beloved Mammoth, but… KHMR has to be the greatest mountain on earth that’s not Mammoth. Maybe I caught it on a good day (Monday, Feb, fresh pow/last of the storm), but… damn. Loving this profile series.

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