Kicking Horse – Canada’s Shadowland

A physics lesson: When walking on snow colder than –10 degrees Celsius, foot pressure won’t melt the crystals. Instead, they will merely be crushed, resulting in a squeaking noise; the colder it is, the louder the sound. This explains the Styrofoam symphony emanating from my footsteps at the base of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort on a –30 degree Celsius January morning.

What can’t be explained is why one would choose to ski in such cold weather. Yet here I am with local Emile Lavoie, touring a mountain known to me only through the hushed tributes of others. Emile is from the Canadian province of Quebec, where such chill is the winter norm; I am from neighboring Ontario, which can claim the occasional same. You have only to imagine the rivalry between Canadian provinces to understand how, having shared these details over coffee in the base’s funky Double Black café, we now engage in a silent, frigid, pas de deux in which neither of us will admit we are too cold to ski. It’s testament to this mountain’s riches — and a little help from the sun — that I barely notice my toes freezing solid.

Those “tributes” had delivered significant numerical intrigue: four bowls and four knife-edge ridges, 1,260 meters of vertical, fully two-thirds of 128 numbered trails at the dark end of the spectrum, 60 bearing the portentous double black graphic. What mellow terrain exists is found in the bottom of bowls and on the mountain’s lower apron, where two of three chairlifts reside. The rest of the goods are accessed by a bottom-to-top gondola in which Emile and I ride.

I’d spent yesterday lapping CPR Ridge’s treed southside and testing its extensive north facing chutes, so Emile and I head to Redemption Ridge, separating Crystal and Feuz bowls. The chutes tumbling into the latter are wider and more forgiving than CPR’s heart-stopping inventory with a few exceptions — Steps Chutes, choked with enormous mushroomed rocks, and Dutch Wallet, requiring that you lower yourself in by a permanently affixed rope. This is out-there skiing. Add in North America’s fourth largest vertical and it more readily channels Jackson Hole than B.C. Interior’s catalog of powder cruisers. Snow coverage is excellent, quality superb, yet despite the mountain’s full lodges, it feels like no one’s on the mountain.


Kicking Horse Canada
Chad Sayers in Terminator

I could get used to this, and I will, directly after lunch in the Eagle’s Eye, Canada’s highest elevation restaurant. Inside, I’m immediately consumed by one of the all-time great vistas in skiing — a 360-degree view of two mountain ranges, five national parks, and the town of Golden.

It’s also mercifully warm.

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort opened in 2000, and was immediately registered as one of the continent’s big-mountain destinations of note.

Golden sits in B.C.’s Kootenay region, the Columbia Mountains in the west and Rocky Mountains to the east. At the turn of the 20th century, it became an internationally recognized mountain destination, largely because of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which established a freight and passenger hub in Golden. Recognizing that those transiting here might want to explore the postcard landscape, the railroad brought Swiss guides to town in 1899, later building them homes on a hillside overlook, a de facto Swiss village christened “Edelweiss”. Though Golden’s economy centered on the railroad and forestry (there was never any gold), skiing and mountaineering would continue to draw visitors.

Kicking Horse Canada
Chad Sayers Dropping In

Dutch backers purchased the small Whitetooth Ski Area, developed, and reopened the area under its new name, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, in 2000; it was immediately registered as one of the continent’s big-mountain destinations of note. Yet despite this watershed, Golden remains humble and genuine — populated by guides, artists, dogsledders, biologists, rail workers, lumberjacks, and a smattering of skiers escaping the hubris of more populous resorts.

This isn’t to say there’s little of interest here: bookstore, museum, wolf sanctuary, and other attractions abound. And a budding gastronomy is anything but provincial, from casual-yet elegant Whitetooth Mountain Bistro, to Eleven22, occupying a renovated turn-of-the-century house, to true fine dining at isolated Cedar House Restaurant. Wandering off the town’s utilitarian grid and onto a riverside trail one day, I discover both Whitetooth Brewing Company and homey Riverhouse Tavern (“Where everybody knows your shame”). In only a dozen years, Chris “Soap” Soper has turned this former print shop/dentist office/ sushi bar/coffee shop into a skate-and-snowboard-themed pub that seems it has been there forever. At street’s end, I pass a wall mural commemorating a century of the Swiss guides, a reminder of how these men shaped the area’s mountain culture. Edelweiss, where some of their homes still exist, lies a couple of kilometers west of Golden, and I make the trip one early morning to take in the view that guides and their families had across the valley to what is now Kicking Horse. A serrated skyline glows amber in the sunrise, but despite Edelweiss being a ghost town, I know where I can find at least one Swiss guide who is still very real.

Kicking Horse Canada
Golden, Canada under the full moon.

Heli-skiing was born in the Bugaboo Range of the Purcells south of Golden, and Rudi Gertsch of Purcell Heli-Skiing is a living pioneer who is still at its forefront. After arriving from Switzerland in 1966 and taking up with Hans Gmoser’s original Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) crew, Rudi learned the heli-ski ropes, striking out on his own with a day-skiing operation in 1974 that has become an iconic family business, with son Jeff as lead guide.

Kicking Horse Canada
Rudi Gertsch – owner Purcell Heli-Skiing

Rudi’s half-century of guiding is interesting enough to have inspired a book by the Alpine Club of Canada. No surprise, then, that Rudi’s Purcell Lodge base is a museum filled with his uncle’s inventions (remember Gertsch plate bindings?): iconic powder boards, old climbing gear, and mementos like sketches and woodcuts. A picture painted in Europe that journeyed to the old guides’ house in Lake Louise, and then Edelweiss, before someone decided Rudi should have it, hangs over a massive fireplace that splits floor-to-ceiling windows that invite in the Purcells.

We’re not here for nostalgia, urges still-ski-mad Rudi, snapping our reverie and hectoring us to the heli-pad. Accompanied by Jeff, we debark with the energetic 73-year-old atop a stunning run called Top of the World, only to find the alpine wind-hammered. No worries, Rudi has many options in a tenure that spans 1,200 square kilometers. Guiding us farther down the ridge and into the trees, we find a huge pillow feature that provides for endless lines. The pick-up, where the pilot meets us after each circuit, features a grizzly bear rub — a tree marked by claws with fur stuck to the bark. It’s still as wild out here as the day Rudi arrived.

If there’s one thing Rudi does better than ski, it’s tell stories, delivered with a twinkle in his eye and perpetual half-smile: growing up in Wengen in the shadow of the Eiger; the cowboy days of heli-skiing with Gmoser; his working friendship with fellow guide and renowned photographer Bruno Engler; being kicked out of Mount Norquay’s ski school (“They called me in and said, ‘You’re skiing too fast.’”); carrying an enormous film camera down a race course for the 1969 movie Downhill Racer (“Can you imagine how easy that would be with a GoPro today?”). Each run brings a new tale — heavenly skiing served up with an earthly libretto.

Scattered throughout Rudi’s property are hand-built cabins used for lunch stops. This day’s soup and sandwiches are served in one facing the pillow line we just skied. It also has a gorgeous overlook to the Selkirks, which, in wan January light, appear to stampede toward the porch under a harlequin sky. It’s the kind of beauty that has captured more than one pilgrim’s heart.

Kicking Horse CanadaAfter moving west from Quebec, Emile Lavoie did stints in Whistler and Revelstoke before being enthralled by Kicking Horse. “The mountain is so different. There was no question I wanted to live here,” he says as we bootpack the resort’s marquee peak, Terminator 1, to overlook Super Bowl. He loves it so much he wants others to know about it. And as marketing manager at Kicking Horse that’s his job. But like others who’ve unearthed this gem, he doesn’t want too many to know too much. Kicking Horse skiers can’t understand why the mountain isn’t perpetually packed and neither can Emile (“It’s a happy mystery”), yet it’s the elbow room that keeps them coming back. And you don’t need a –30 degree Celsius day here to have it to yourself.