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Golden: All That Glitters

Like most Calgary skiers, we love Kicking Horse. So, when we came across this old article in SBC Skier, 2008, by our friend Kevin Hjertaas, we thought we’d share it to get people’s reaction. The ski area, and town, have changed in the 13 years, so do any of these criticisms still apply? The great skiing around Golden, thankfully, hasn’t changed!


Golden: All That Glitters

Kevin Hjertaas, 2008

A surprise late-March storm has blanketed Kicking Horse Mountain Resortwith 40 cms of light fluff. On the right aspects—the ones without rocks or glare ice or moguls or too many gapers— the skiing is amazing, so local Tim Grey leads me to the goods first run. We ski as hard as legs and lungs will allow, gobbling up vertical. All around us, skiers are flying, tearing apart the pristine mountain. It seems there are more experts per square metre here than all the neighbouring resorts combined—and they’re a greedy lot. 

Trying to keep up and get mine before it’s gone, I’m drenched in sweat by the time we hit mid-mountain. It’s a powder cliché: legs are on fire, quads seizing around spaghetti knees, but the skiing is too good to stop. Big, cruisy turns in the alpine lead to rhythmic short-radius around well-spaced trees as I lose count of the face-shots. But as we reach the old Pioneer Chair, upper-mountain bliss morphs to lower-mountain desperation. Massive ice moguls are covered in great-looking snow that’s too light to protect you from meniscus-grinding impact. Still, Tim doesn’t stop. I’m so exhausted that my body folds limp over every bump while my melon flops like an oversized bobblehead. By the time we reach the bottom, I’m almost thankful for the 15-minute gondola lineup. 

Almost. 

Exploring Roger's Pass. Pic: Chris Rubens

Built in 1998, the Golden Eagle Express Gondola is the backbone ofKHMR. It flies skiers a distance of 3,413 metres into the alpine so they can demolish themselves on a 1,130 vertical-metre descent. The mountain is massive, steep, challenging and surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of backcountry skiing. Needless to say, when the lift was first announced, skiers all over Canada got excited. So why, just nine years into the project, has most of the buzz about Golden died down?

A slight let-down should have been predictable. Kicking Horse started with such high expectations that those who thought a world-class ski resort would materialize overnight, or at least in a couple of years, were bound to be disappointed. But even those happy with the pace of development are now grumbling about some of the decisions made. 

To start, most powderhounds skiing that March day probably wished there was a mid-mountain gondola station so that they could avoid the lower mountain train wreck and return more quickly to the top. It’s a legitimate gripe: virtually every other installation of such length in the world has a mid-station. After all, spectacular alpine is what people come to mountains like this for. 

Perhaps more inexplicable is that the gondola istop-drive, which means someone has to get to the summit to start it every morning. With a Rocky Mountain snowpack blanketing huge, steep terrain that funnels onto many inbounds runs, getting up safely or trying to control avalanche danger from the bottom can be a problem. Observing the dilemma first-hand, a visiting snow-science expert from Austria was blunt in his assessment: “Zat is a catastrophe!”

He wasn’t the first to voice concerns. When Poma Lifts saw that the original plans lacked a mid-station, they offered to put one inat cost. How could something so obvious to skiers be missed or ignored in the plans? The short answer is that the owners didn’t ski. The longer answer can be traced to a skyscraper in Holland.

Ballast Nedam is the multi-billion dollar development corporation that turned the tiny, blue-collar, community-run Whitetooth Ski Area into KHMR. BN had never built a ski hill before. Its PR propaganda lists “key strategic points” about finding “activities that fit in with the portfolio,” “strengthen the front and reverse sides of the ‘value chain,’” and, predictably, “further increase profitability.” Fair enough, but why choose a ski resort in the crowded B.C. ski market? Especially when skier visits across the continent have been flat for over a decade? Or when two other new resorts were slated to be built nearby (Jumbo Glacier and Revelstoke Mountain), and almost every existing resort was expanding? Jeezuz, even building bridges was more profitable.

And that’s what BN is known for. So why the ski hill? BN was keen to land the massive engineering and construction project that became the Confederation Bridge (uniting Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia). It fit all their key strategic points. But as a foreign company, they were only able to land the deal with a proviso: that they commit to another project elsewhere in Canada, which was how a Dutch construction corporation that knew nothing about skiing ended up building a gondola at KHMR. 

Mid-station aside, there’s no arguing that the gondola accesses a whole lot of great terrain, and skiers got busy enjoying it while holding out hope that the next lift would open up even more acreage and allow skiers to stay in the alpine if they chose. That’s exactly what the Stairway to Heaven does, but again it brought up a few complaints from skiers.

The fixed-grip quad takes skiers up a ridge that was previously an easy and popular 15-minute hike from the gondola. Alpine laps here consist of an off-camber mogul field enjoyed by almost no one who isn’t in a one-piece. Off the other side, it offers a few fun runs back to the base, and some folks who originally complained about it now use it for easier access to the untracked champagne of Kicking Horse’s backcountry. 

Easy access to quality backcountry is what makes the town of Golden, 15 minutes from KHMR, a skier’s dream. It dates back to the days of Whitetooth when serious skiers used the four-day-a-week Pioneer Chair to boost themselves to treeline where they could tour to alpine gold. In most ways, skiing here hasn’t changed all that much. For some, the mountain has gone from an old double chair they toured from to a big gondola they tour from—notwithstanding those rare, glorious powder days when skiing is mint from top to bottom, and they can simply kick back and save some energy for the long descents.

And there are plenty of other options in the local powder sweepstakes: A quick five-minute drive from town lies the Gorman Creek sled zone. A groomed logging road zips you up to dramatic (and much-loved) 300-metre chutes through sheer rock walls. Beyond are endless lines that stand as examples of the area’s true ski potential. 

Contemplating the backcountry near Golden, BC. Pic: Shane Treat

Colin Puskas has spent a considerable amount of time exploring thesled-skiing in these parts. A usual trip consists of driving up a logging road until the truck gets stuck, building a huge bonfire to keep warm while consuming massive amounts of beer. In the morning, he’ll fire up the sled and see what’s lurking above. More often than not, he finds a mountain range of opportunities and no one else around. Colin is the kind of skier who fits in comfortably around Golden, a town whose international jet-set resort aspirations seem stalled in redneck grit.

Puskas knows Gorman’s as well as he knows the mountain pictured on a can of Kokanee, and I again find myself trying to keep up, this time on a sled with more horsepower than my truck. In less than 30 minutes hanging onto a rocket with handlebars, we’ve crossed three mountain passes and more terrain than you can shake a touring rig at. Choices are endless, but we finally settle on a face that heli-skiers would pay thousands for. Turning off the engines, we look out over range after range of white possibility. 

After a beer, we drop into a dream of high-speed turns and soft, steep landings. The face is so steep, the snow so creamy, that every slashing turn throws tail-spray for metres. We ski four ridiculous runs without seeing another track. It’s too good to be so easy, but this is the kind of skiing you can findevery day in Golden. And on days you can’t afford to gas up the sleds, Rogers Pass offers some of North America’s best ski touring just 45 minutes drive away. It again leaves you wondering why more people aren’t excited enough about Golden to move here en masse.

The town’s appearance doesn’t help. To the three-million or so passing it each year on the Trans-Canada, Golden doesn’t look like much. A handful of fast-food chains and gas stations peppering the highway fails to inspire. The industrial town, located in the hazy valley beyond, is moreain’t than quaint, its defining landmark the lumber mill squatting along an edge. And while the growth of KHMR may have added a fourth season to this burgeoning tourist market bordering Canada’s most spectacular mountain parks, only a small number of new restaurants and posh shops have popped up to capitalize. 

SmalMinorappointments aside, the hillhas continued to move forward. When it first opened, those expecting the slickness of another Whistler had found nothing but a gravel parking lot and a line-up for the gondola. But KHMR has since filled many of those gaps: they now have crucial snowmaking on the lower mountain, on-hill lodging, restaurants, a tube park, convenience store and the all-important bar and patio for après beers. It’s on this patio that KHMR’s Mike McPhee tells me why people should never have expected a new Whistler. 

“That [expectation] was completely wrong,” he says. “The hill’s vision statement was clear: we didn’t want to over-develop. We wanted to keep the local pioneer spirit of the area intact.”

In the ski-in, ski-out real-estate office, a display shows how the development hopes to evolve: no immediate terrain expansions, but plans for four new lifts (beginner and intermediate runs) to be added to the lower mountain as well as a golf course, condos, hotels and more village facilities. As McPhee explains, building up the base village and infrastructure should increase skier visits enough to turn profits that will allow them to expand skiing further.

 

I take my time gliding down one of the KHMR’s main ridges onanother powder day, hoping my memory will click when I see a familiar tree. There’s a powder stash with a double air I used to love to hit back when a one-hour ski tour would get you up here. It’s tough navigating with the ski tracks and new landmarks, but I eventually find the entrance and make my way down to the air. The turns are a bit tracked-out compared to the old days but still fun, bouncy chop.

As I reach the first air, I hesitate. Cloudy memory has shaken my confidence, or perhaps I just didn’t have enough coffee this morning. Either way, I stop long enough to spot the well-travelled traverse that now crosses the landing. Sending the double to that hammered-out track would almost surely have put me in a hospital; if it didn’t, maching into the mogul field below might have. Like a crusty old man, I hike back out bitter at the world and cursing new development.

Fortunately, friends drag me up the gondola again, and this time we hike 15 minutes before dropping in off a convex ridge that rolls over steeply then fans out into a giant bowl. It’s one of those lines that are just scary enough to make you giggle before dropping in. Every time you cross the ridge and un-weight for the next turn, you fall in slow motion until your skis touch down and powder explodes. You let go more on every turn, speed increasing until you’re going so fast you just have to point it and hope the bowl below catches you. 

Needless to say, my mood improves. From the bowl, we hike for another run down a north-facing playground that funnels us back to the lower mountain. At the bottom, the same gondola I was cursing a couple of hours ago is waiting to fly us back up so we can go find a couple more “best runs ever.” It seems that one man’s trash is always another man’s treasure—even when it’s the same man.

The bottom line is, anyone who moved to Golden nine years ago looking for dream runs like this has found what they came for—over and over and over again. Those who came hoping to cash in on an instant resort town probably didn’t. Perhaps it’s only unrealistic expectations that have led to the disappointments. In an era when Whistler dominates the discussion of what a good ski resort looks like, any new project is doomed to be measured against it. And if it doesn’t have the capital and drive to create a Disney-esque resort overnight, it’s going to come up short in some people’s eyes. They’d rather see unrealistically ambitious master plans achieved faster than you can say “capital gains.”

Maybe what’s happening in Golden is the way a ski hillshould develop. Great mountains—famous mountains—take time to build character. They don’t just pop out of a mountain in a season any more than a town built on logging, and railroads can become a hip international ski destination overnight. In the meantime, what Goldendoes have is a seriously impressive mountain and high-speed gondola—warts and all—that takes you right to the top of it all. 

Judging by the number of smiles charging downhill on a powder day, that’s all real skiers need anyway.

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