Mountain of Dreams - Ski Mag

Mountain of Dreams

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Another Whistler, another Whistler, another Whistler.

No one's saying it anymore, but it was said so much in the beginning that the echo still reverberates around Western Canada's Kicking Horse River Valley like the shout of a man lost in the wilds. It bounces down the gravelly, lackluster streets of Golden, B.C., bypassing the unremarkable downtown's unremarkable storefronts and hovering like stale smoke in the truck stops that line the Trans-Canada Highway as it slices past town. The echo whispers like wind across Golden's sun-kissed valley floor, through the sprawling railyard and the sometimes operational lumber mill and past the sign that proudly welcomes all to Golden-the "Town of Opportunity." The echo-invoking the dream of Whistler-style vitality, Whistler-style prosperity and especially Whistler-style real-estate profits-keeps reverberating right out of town, gliding west along the low, quiet banks of the silvery Kicking Horse River, tickling the toes of the massive Canadian Rockies and finally bumping its way 10 miles up a muddy, rutted road to the great white hope itself: Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.

Kicking Horse, located two hours west of Banff, opened for business last December amid fanfare that proclaimed it to be "a star," "a world-class ski destination" and the "must-visit place of the season." It was hailed as the first new major ski resort to be built in North America in close to 20 years. It was predicted that the resort-with the highest mountaintop restaurant in Canada, the fourth-highest vertical rise on the continent, 4,000 steep-and-deep skiable acres of thrilling and majestically scenic new terrain, an average 275 inches of light Purcell powder annually and a "five-star" resort village at its base-"would hit the big time in no time."

Golden's big new attraction is, in fact, not entirely new. It is an expansion (albeit a large one) of the existing Whitetooth Ski Area. But there are some key ways in which the Kicking Horse of today is exactly what its promoters want us to think it is. It is a magnificent and uncrowded swath of exciting and often powder-glutted mountain terrain. Over time it will become, like Jackson Hole, one of the mountains on every devoted snowhound's lifetime list of "Mountains They Must Ski." One fine day somewhere in the future-if the hiccups, quirks and falters that marked its first round of development don't indicate an ongoing trend-it might even become an absolute gem among far-flung four-season mountain resorts. And the new summit-top restaurant is very nice. So nice, in fact, that it makes for a worthwhile outing in and of itself.

As for the rest of the tale, it's probably simplest to lay it out like this: Golden is called the Town of Opportunity. And perceived opportunity-a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow-is a big part of what the real Kicking Horse story is all about.

A visit to KHMR last season revealed a 2,300-acre ski area (not the 4,000 acres advertised) with a vertical rise of 3,800 feet (not the 4,133 feet being claimed). At the base: A gloppy swamp of a parking lot incongruously situated next to a gleaming new gondola and a small but equally gleaming new day lodge. Also at the base: 16.5 acres of completely untouched land where the "world class" resort village and its 3,000 beds are slated to go. (Construction of the first real-estate project, Glacier Lodge, was delayed and ultimately cancelled due to a lack of buying interest. The condominium-style hotel, which was to open in December 2000, was marketed with luxury styling, high prices U.S. $353,330 for a two-bedroom-plus-loft condo and serious limits on use by owners one month a year. Construction is underway, instead, on 22 townhomes, all of which have been sold).

The Golden Eagle Express Gondola, one of only two lifts on the mountain, rises 3,437 feet up a ridgeline called CPR, to a wind-buffed summit plateau. The gondola, which was built by a massive Dutch engineering firm that had neverefore worked in the ski industry, is often closed because of wind. The gondola cars themselves offer a panoramic vista for the duration of the 12-minute ride, but the uphill capacity is a scant 600 people per hour, which is strangely small for a place that intends to be a popular destination. On the plus side, the gondola does have the capacity to eventually move 1,200 people per hour, but even that is still less than the upload capacity of Whitetooth's original fixed-grip chair. Strange planning. But there's always the resort's flawless gem: Atop the summit is The Eagle's Eye, an elegant but modestly sized two-story timber-and-glass restaurant overlooking hundreds of miles of mountain wilderness and serving the latest innovative mountain-style gourmet cuisine.

The other flawless gem is Kicking Horse's fantastic terrain. Two big bowls drop dramatically on either side of CPR ridge. On skier's right is Bowl Over, where skiers jet down a wide, steep face through short alpine fir in the shadow of a large, avalanche-prone peak called Terminator. On skier's left is Crystal Bowl, where two dozen couloirs of varying degrees of narrowness and exposure drop off to deliver a full dance card to keen experts. A broad, scenic cat track with a gradual, winding descent offers an out for the less courageous. The lower part of each bowl is a landscape of quiet, scenic meadows. Below the bowls are a squirrely transition zone full of double fall lines and thick groves. Below that lie the wide, fall-line runs of the original ski area. Some are smooth enough for high-speed cruising, others are bumped top to bottom, but all are interrupted every few hundred feet by the cat track that winds its way from base to summit, repeatedly interrupting the flow of every run. Another hiccup...one that savvier mountain developers never would have allowed.

The overall feel of the mountain is pleasant and stress-free. A standard day at Kicking Horse is spent spinning top-to-bottom laps on the gondola. Except during peak weekends, it is the only lift to ride. Also riding the gondola: Packs of Germans, Brits and Japanese on holiday, dividing their time in Golden between the ski area and the long-established local heliski operation; small clusters of Americans, mainly from the East Coast, making day trips to Kicking Horse while on vacation in Banff and Lake Louise; and smatterings of locals, most of them eager new transplants who moved to Golden from other ski towns in Western Canada with the express hope of watching their own fortunes rise with the fortunes of the new resort.

A short two years ago, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort was still a modest hometown hill. Friday through Monday, a lone chairlift shuttled locals a third of the way up Whitetooth Mountain's flank to the top of a rectangular logging clear-cut. The bulk of the skiing happened in parallel lanes that ran down the fall line through the cut. Skiable acreage: 1,000. Vertical rise: 1,740 feet. Lift ticket: U.S. $19 Other Whitetooth amenities: one T-bar; an ATCO trailer turned rental shop; and a small log day lodge. Whitetooth fit Golden as perfectly as its horseshoe pitching field, the rodeo grounds and numerous outdoor hockey rinks.

Golden is a dusty, matter-of-fact place in a spectacular setting. The community of 10,000 year-round residents sits at 2,592 feet in a wide, open basin on the floor of the Rocky Mountain Trench at the juncture of three majestic mountain ranges and the confluence of the Columbia and Kicking Horse rivers. On the east side of the basin are the Canadian Rockies, marching their way north/south; to the northwest are the Selkirks; KHMR sits on the face of the Purcells, which cluster their way south/southwest toward Idaho.

All the ranges are dramatic-everything people from all over the world hope to see when they travel to the Canadian Rockies. The peaks are massive, with shafts of light shifting and playing on their slopes and private weather patterns forming among their heights. They are gigantic and jagged and innumerable. They make the American Rockies look dwarfishly rounded, low and soft. The valley itself, like the rest of the Columbia River basin, is such a large and distinctive land formation that it can be clearly seen from outer space (just as we on earth can see the shadow of the Sea of Capricorn on the moon).

In the midst of all this sits Golden. Six Canadian National Parks-Banff, Kootenay, Glacier, Jasper, Mt. Revelstoke and Yoho-lie within easy reach. The famed Chateau Lake Louise is 45 minutes away. The idyllic cabins of Emerald Lake Lodge, a historic retreat on a small island in Yoho National Park, are also close. Heliski operations are scattered in every direction. Rogers Pass, one of North America's most coveted destinations for backcountry ski touring, is 45 minutes west.

If the surrounding landscape is awe-inspiring, the town itself is another story. The mill and the big Canadian Pacific rail hub are utilitarian and ugly. The Trans-Canada Highway flies past the north end of town, while four-lane Route 95 slices the town in half. In the downtown core, low, graceless commercial buildings mingle with modest, occasionally charming, single-family homes.

Golden's downtown is laid out with a tiny pedestrian-friendly core on one side of the river and the bulk of the town's commerce and services on the other. There are lots of recreational facilities, one Internet café, one cool bar and two very good restaurants-but there are also greasy spoons with sticky, pink plastic seat covers and bars where a new stripper comes to town every Monday and gives her last dance on Saturday night. If you need auto parts or lumber for a construction project, though, never fear: Golden is your place. It's a functioning, working-person's place, a place where real people live for all their lives, a practical if isolated burg with none of the charm of Fernie, Rossland or Banff.

Nevertheless, Golden pulses with a mysteriously pleasant, alluring vibe. It might come from the fact that Golden gets a bit more sun than the other ski towns in British Columbia. Or maybe it's the community's unpretentious feel. "It's a town where people either have toothpicks or a big wad of chew in their mouths," explains one successful local businessman. "But once you get past their initial roughness, they're solid gold."

Solid gold-but not necessarily rolling in it. The locals-mainly loggers, mill workers and railway workers-have fortunes that change from month to month. When the mills are in operation or logging is proceeding, then times in Golden are good. When it's not-such as when one mill closed down for good in 1995 and another closed for several months in 1996-then the entire community wonders what it will do.

The hope, of course, is that Kicking Horse Mountain Resort will give Golden's economy a permanent kick in the pants, generating year-round tourist vitality that weans Golden from its reliance on the timber industry and eliminates the vagaries in its fortunes over the long term. Whether it is a hope that is founded in reality remains to be seen. Not only do visitors have to pass by Sunshine Village, Banff and Lake Louise on their way to Golden, but several other communities within easy reach-notably Fernie and Panorama-are also pursuing four-season destination-resort status. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which owns Lake Louise, Fernie, Kimberley and five other ski operations, sought bankruptcy protection from the courts last season, partly as a result of the enormous capital outlay it had made in the region's resort race. Whether there's enough to go around is not clear.

"Sure, there may be lots of people competing," admits Stuart McLaughlin, the managing partner in the Kicking Horse venture, "but they will have to compete on price, because they can't compete with the ski experience."

Whitetooth Ski Society had a hidden secret all along. Above the top of the lone Pioneer Chair lay an ir heights. They are gigantic and jagged and innumerable. They make the American Rockies look dwarfishly rounded, low and soft. The valley itself, like the rest of the Columbia River basin, is such a large and distinctive land formation that it can be clearly seen from outer space (just as we on earth can see the shadow of the Sea of Capricorn on the moon).

In the midst of all this sits Golden. Six Canadian National Parks-Banff, Kootenay, Glacier, Jasper, Mt. Revelstoke and Yoho-lie within easy reach. The famed Chateau Lake Louise is 45 minutes away. The idyllic cabins of Emerald Lake Lodge, a historic retreat on a small island in Yoho National Park, are also close. Heliski operations are scattered in every direction. Rogers Pass, one of North America's most coveted destinations for backcountry ski touring, is 45 minutes west.

If the surrounding landscape is awe-inspiring, the town itself is another story. The mill and the big Canadian Pacific rail hub are utilitarian and ugly. The Trans-Canada Highway flies past the north end of town, while four-lane Route 95 slices the town in half. In the downtown core, low, graceless commercial buildings mingle with modest, occasionally charming, single-family homes.

Golden's downtown is laid out with a tiny pedestrian-friendly core on one side of the river and the bulk of the town's commerce and services on the other. There are lots of recreational facilities, one Internet café, one cool bar and two very good restaurants-but there are also greasy spoons with sticky, pink plastic seat covers and bars where a new stripper comes to town every Monday and gives her last dance on Saturday night. If you need auto parts or lumber for a construction project, though, never fear: Golden is your place. It's a functioning, working-person's place, a place where real people live for all their lives, a practical if isolated burg with none of the charm of Fernie, Rossland or Banff.

Nevertheless, Golden pulses with a mysteriously pleasant, alluring vibe. It might come from the fact that Golden gets a bit more sun than the other ski towns in British Columbia. Or maybe it's the community's unpretentious feel. "It's a town where people either have toothpicks or a big wad of chew in their mouths," explains one successful local businessman. "But once you get past their initial roughness, they're solid gold."

Solid gold-but not necessarily rolling in it. The locals-mainly loggers, mill workers and railway workers-have fortunes that change from month to month. When the mills are in operation or logging is proceeding, then times in Golden are good. When it's not-such as when one mill closed down for good in 1995 and another closed for several months in 1996-then the entire community wonders what it will do.

The hope, of course, is that Kicking Horse Mountain Resort will give Golden's economy a permanent kick in the pants, generating year-round tourist vitality that weans Golden from its reliance on the timber industry and eliminates the vagaries in its fortunes over the long term. Whether it is a hope that is founded in reality remains to be seen. Not only do visitors have to pass by Sunshine Village, Banff and Lake Louise on their way to Golden, but several other communities within easy reach-notably Fernie and Panorama-are also pursuing four-season destination-resort status. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which owns Lake Louise, Fernie, Kimberley and five other ski operations, sought bankruptcy protection from the courts last season, partly as a result of the enormous capital outlay it had made in the region's resort race. Whether there's enough to go around is not clear.

"Sure, there may be lots of people competing," admits Stuart McLaughlin, the managing partner in the Kicking Horse venture, "but they will have to compete on price, because they can't compete with the ski experience."

Whitetooth Ski Society had a hidden secret all along. Above the top of the lone Pioneer Chair lay an array of steep, high alpine bowls, each with ample north-facing slopes. The terrain had a near-cult following among ski-touring diehards, who came from Banff, Calgary, Revelstoke and Fernie to ride the lift up once in the morning then strap on their climbing skins and yo-yo what are now Kicking Horse's prime attractions.

"From here you can get a bird's-eye view of how big it is in these bowls and how much terrain we have," says Steve Parsons. As he speaks, KHMR's 28-year-old patrol director is standing on a 6-inch-wide ridgeline that drops off steeply on both sides. The ridgeline forms the back wall of Bowl Over, connecting from the Eagle's Eye restaurant to the top of Terminator Peak. "Everything we're looking at here is avalanche terrain," he says.

If you're an adventurous skier, you probably know that avalanche terrain and super-challenging terrain are generally one and the same. Examples of other mountains with huge amounts of avalanche terrain: Alta and Snowbird in Utah, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Kirkwood in California, and Jackson Hole, Wyo. It's the kind of stuff-couloirs with rock outcroppings-that you feel thrilled to ski...and a little concerned that maybe you can't.

The terrain provides more than the usual trials for Parsons and his team. Kicking Horse's patrol had just a few months to develop a safety program for a wild mountain that the public had never skied. "As you get off this gondola, you're in the start zones of all the big avalanche terrain," explains Parsons, who spent 10 years patrolling at Lake Louise. "It's a good challenge."

Kicking Horse's staff is full of people like Parsons: Young but extremely experienced ski-industry worker-bees who were excited at the opportunity for career advancement and a new challenge at the same time. The director of the Kicking Horse Ski School, for example, was just another instructor at her home resort of Whistler-Blackcomb. The area manager was managing food and beverage at Panorama. Parsons saw no opportunity to advance at Lake Louise for at least another decade, due to that patrol's well-established roster of senior members. The birth of Kicking Horse gave Parsons-and a cadre of others like him-the chance to move up in their careers. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for five years," he says.

But the reasons for the involvement of those at the top of the Kicking Horse food chain are a different story-one that no one interviewed for this article has capably explained. The $140-million, seven-year development has three investment partners: Ballast Nedam International of the Netherlands, Grouse Mountain Resorts of British Columbia and the Columbia Basin Trust. Ballast Nedam, one of the five largest internationally operating contracting firms in the world, has built bridges, soccer stadiums and Caribbean resorts-but not ski areas. (The general manager sent by Ballast Nedam to oversee the project's first year, in fact, did not ski the mountain until his last week on the job.) Kicking Horse's managing partner is Grouse Mountain Resorts, which operates a popular 212-acre ski hill in Vancouver, B.C. Grouse Mountain receives a full two-thirds of its revenue visits from tourists who come to dine and check out the view-not ski. Suddenly, all the falters and quirks begin to make more sense.

"Kicking Horse is a very big mountain and Grouse Mountain is smaller," admits Grouse's McLaughlin. "There are many more logistics involved in operating Kicking Horse because of the vastness of the terrain. But the synergies are really there on things like people-movement, programming, food and beverage, and the whole summer sales side of our business.

"There are always hiccups," McLaughlin admits. "We were very ambitious in trying to start from a standing stop and in nine months open a ski resort. We have to be patient. We don't expect that we're going to explode onto the scene immediately. We have to grow."

Another Whistler? That's not what anyone is saying anymoore. Now they're saying, "Not another Whistler. Some place special. Some place wild. Far from the maddening crowd."

"Kicking Horse will be more of a hideaway," says Arijan van Vuure, president of Ballast Nedam's operation in Golden. "It will be more natural. It will be less glamorous. But it will definitely be world-class."

In the province of British Columbia, if not all over the world, the success of Whistler as a resort destination created a lot of hunger in those who weren't in on Whistler's ground floor. And that is true whether you're talking about ski patrollers and instructors, real-estate developers, mountain management or ski town locals who wish they had bought a piece of land way back when.

For the dusty town of Golden, however, it's more than just hunger. It's an opportunity to survive. "This was a town at a standstill," explains a local logger skiing Kicking Horse on his day off. "Now there are a lot of new faces. I like the change."ay of steep, high alpine bowls, each with ample north-facing slopes. The terrain had a near-cult following among ski-touring diehards, who came from Banff, Calgary, Revelstoke and Fernie to ride the lift up once in the morning then strap on their climbing skins and yo-yo what are now Kicking Horse's prime attractions.

"From here you can get a bird's-eye view of how big it is in these bowls and how much terrain we have," says Steve Parsons. As he speaks, KHMR's 28-year-old patrol director is standing on a 6-inch-wide ridgeline that drops off steeply on both sides. The ridgeline forms the back wall of Bowl Over, connecting from the Eagle's Eye restaurant to the top of Terminator Peak. "Everything we're looking at here is avalanche terrain," he says.

If you're an adventurous skier, you probably know that avalanche terrain and super-challenging terrain are generally one and the same. Examples of other mountains with huge amounts of avalanche terrain: Alta and Snowbird in Utah, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Kirkwood in California, and Jackson Hole, Wyo. It's the kind of stuff-couloirs with rock outcroppings-that you feel thrilled to ski...and a little concerned that maybe you can't.

The terrain provides more than the usual trials for Parsons and his team. Kicking Horse's patrol had just a few months to develop a safety program for a wild mountain that the public had never skied. "As you get off this gondola, you're in the start zones of all the big avalanche terrain," explains Parsons, who spent 10 years patrolling at Lake Louise. "It's a good challenge."

Kicking Horse's staff is full of people like Parsons: Young but extremely experienced ski-industry worker-bees who were excited at the opportunity for career advancement and a new challenge at the same time. The director of the Kicking Horse Ski School, for example, was just another instructor at her home resort of Whistler-Blackcomb. The area manager was managing food and beverage at Panorama. Parsons saw no opportunity to advance at Lake Louise for at least another decade, due to that patrol's well-established roster of senior members. The birth of Kicking Horse gave Parsons-and a cadre of others like him-the chance to move up in their careers. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for five years," he says.

But the reasons for the involvement of those at the top of the Kicking Horse food chain are a different story-one that no one interviewed for this article has capably explained. The $140-million, seven-year development has three investment partners: Ballast Nedam International of the Netherlands, Grouse Mountain Resorts of British Columbia and the Columbia Basin Trust. Ballast Nedam, one of the five largest internationally operating contracting firms in the world, has built bridges, soccer stadiums and Caribbean resorts-but not ski areas. (The general manager sent by Ballast Nedam to oversee the project's first year, in fact, did not ski the mountain until his last week on the job.) Kicking Horse's managing partner is Grouse Mountain Resorts, which operates a popular 212-acre ski hill in Vancouver, B.C. Grouse Mountain receives a full two-thirds of its revenue visits from tourists who come to dine and check out the view-not ski. Suddenly, all the falters and quirks begin to make more sense.

"Kicking Horse is a very big mountain and Grouse Mountain is smaller," admits Grouse's McLaughlin. "There are many more logistics involved in operating Kicking Horse because of the vastness of the terrain. But the synergies are really there on things like people-movement, programming, food and beverage, and the whole summer sales side of our business.

"There are always hiccups," McLaughlin admits. "We were very ambitious in trying to start from a standing stop and in nine months open a ski resort. We have to be patient. We don't expect that we're going to explode onto the scene immediately. We have to grow."

Another Whistler? That's not what anyone is saying anymore. Now they're saying, "Not another Whistler. Some place special. Some place wild. Far from the maddening crowd."

"Kicking Horse will be more of a hideaway," says Arijan van Vuure, president of Ballast Nedam's operation in Golden. "It will be more natural. It will be less glamorous. But it will definitely be world-class."

In the province of British Columbia, if not all over the world, the success of Whistler as a resort destination created a lot of hunger in those who weren't in on Whistler's ground floor. And that is true whether you're talking about ski patrollers and instructors, real-estate developers, mountain management or ski town locals who wish they had bought a piece of land way back when.

For the dusty town of Golden, however, it's more than just hunger. It's an opportunity to survive. "This was a town at a standstill," explains a local logger skiing Kicking Horse on his day off. "Now there are a lot of new faces. I like the change."ng anymore. Now they're saying, "Not another Whistler. Some place special. Some place wild. Far from the maddening crowd."

"Kicking Horse will be more of a hideaway," says Arijan van Vuure, president of Ballast Nedam's operation in Golden. "It will be more natural. It will be less glamorous. But it will definitely be world-class."

In the province of British Columbia, if not all over the world, the success of Whistler as a resort destination created a lot of hunger in those who weren't in on Whistler's ground floor. And that is true whether you're talking about ski patrollers and instructors, real-estate developers, mountain management or ski town locals who wish they had bought a piece of land way back when.

For the dusty town of Golden, however, it's more than just hunger. It's an opportunity to survive. "This was a town at a standstill," explains a local logger skiing Kicking Horse on his day off. "Now there are a lot of new faces. I like the change."

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