Can you ride Kicking Horse? Canada's pro-ski resort is now even bigger

Have you got what it takes to tackle the infamous inclines at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort? British Columbia’s pro-ski terrain has expanded to incorporate another perilous peak — an addictive prospect for expert skiers.

By Abigail Butcher
Published 6 Nov 2019, 07:00 GMT
Skiers on a drop-in, Kicking Horse, Canada
Kicking Horse has the highest proportion of 'expert' skiing of any North America (60%). It's quiet, though: a busy day sees around 3,000 skiers.
Photograph by Ken Chilibeck

“There’s a little bit of a jump-in. is that ok?” asks my guide, Gilles. He whips around pine trees in front of me, as we make our way along the notorious CPR Ridge — terrifying drops on either side — to the top of a narrow chute named Coffin Tree. There is indeed a drop-in, about two metres, which Gilles hops as daintily as ballet dancer before tucking in a couple of turns down the 45-degree incline and stopping to watch me, in anticipation. Teetering on the edge, unable to look at anything other than the tree stump positioned dead centre in the landing zone, I wonder where the hell my courage has gone. 

I jump, avoid the tree stump, and land squarely on my forehead. Thankfully, I’m protected by a helmet. I pick myself up, and ski down to Gilles. Not the best start to three days in Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Located in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, near the Alberta border, it’s a tiny resort, founded in 2000 from a community skiing area and the surrounding heli-skiing territory. There are only two main lifts for its 3,486 acres of skiable terrain — an area that grew by a third last winter when new peak, Ozone (8,200ft), was added. 

I’d wanted to come here for years. As a qualified ski instructor who’d done a fair bit of heli-skiing, I thought I was up to the job. A few days in Whistler, Vancouver, beforehand had seen off the jet lag and warmed up the ski legs, and as I drove from Calgary airport out through Banff national Park, along the Trans-Canada Highway, my excitement grew. 

Having arrived at Kicking Horse, I checked into the virtually slope-side, log-built Vagabond Lodge, where the sight of the ski room alone — complete with ski vices, screwdrivers, wax, irons and maps for adventure planning — was enough to turn that excitement into nervous anticipation. Owners Ken and Lori Chilibeck, who built the lodge, have been offering respite to hardcore skiers for nearly 20 years and know what they need. This place, and Kicking Horse itself, is often a hub for those heading deeper into British Columbia’s heli-ski country.

Back to Coffin Tree, and Gilles seems undeterred by my clumsy fall, skiing on at breakneck speed, showing me his favourite lines, including pillows (snow-covered boulders) and chutes (little couloirs, to us Europeans). Kicking Horse comprises five hike-to peaks with a series of ridges and bowls, and myriad chutes that lead down into gentle tree-lined ‘aprons’ of broad, open ski terrain. At the heart of the resort are a handful of shops, restaurants, bars and slope-side lodgings. Eight miles down the road is the logging and railway town of Golden — the base for the Freeride World Tour — which offers more places to stay (at lower prices) and a
lively nightlife.

After ascending on the Golden Eagle Express gondola, we ski various chutes off CPR Ridge and Redemption Ridge, decorated with lurid names like ‘Slap Chute’, ‘One Trick Pony’, ‘Consequence’ and ‘Dare’. They’re all ‘double black diamond’ (North America’s most technically demanding slope grade), offering thrilling challenges in the sort of quick succession that I’ve only ever experienced with an avalanche bag on my back and a transceiver strapped to my chest. Kicking Horse has the highest proportion of ‘expert’ skiing of any resort in North America (60%). It’s quiet, though: a busy day sees around 3,000 skiers. 

We finally call it a day with a late lunch of elk-and-bison bolognese and berry cheesecake at Eagle’s Eye Restaurant, which offers views of the Purcell, Selkirk, and Rocky Mountains from its floor-to-ceiling windows.  

In the capable guiding hands of ski school head Toby, I fare slightly better the next day. We go straight up Ozone, the easiest of Kicking Horse’s five hike-up peaks, ascending over 700ft in about 25 minutes, battling horizontal snow. Visibility clears as we reach the ski area boundary and make jump turns down steep, thigh-high powder. Finally, I remember how to ski. We stop halfway down to make the hike up to Middle Ridge, dropping into Rudi’s Bowl at the back of the in-bounds ski area, where more steep, powder turns are made easy by fluffy, dry snow.

“That’s what we call the red light area,” says Toby, helpfully, when I point up to the scene of the previous day’s face plant from our lunch spot at the Heaven’s Door Yurt cafe. “It’s pretty much locals only. You really need to know where you’re going.” Now he tells me.

Over a glass of wine and canapes with Ken and Lori back at Vagabond, we hatch a plan to ski T2, the peak at the opposite end of the ski area. It’ll be my final day and Ken wants to show me his favourite spot; it involves a 45-minute hike along a hair-raising ridge, skis strapped to your back and, in one area,
rope-hauling yourself up while hoping you don’t drop a glove or suddenly develop vertigo. 

But what riches greet the brave. Ken, his buddy, Patrick, and I whoop as we make fresh tracks in yet more powder, following the double- then single-black diamond Crazy Legs until it hits the blue-level Big Ol’ Bear, which feeds into the resort base. 

That night, I drive down to Golden for beers at Whitetooth Brewing Company and a burger at The Wolf’s Den restaurant. I realise I’m in love with this place. After three days, I haven’t even touched the sides: if that’s not a reason to make a return trip across the Atlantic and Trans-Canada Highway, I don’t know what is.

How to do it 

Ski Safari has 10 nights from £2,229 per person, including four nights’ B&B at Vagabond Lodge, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and six nights at Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel, Whistler (self-catering studio); flights from Heathrow to Calgary, returning Vancouver to Heathrow; domestic flights; shared resort transfers, and four days’ SUV hire. Three-day Kicking Horse Passes start at £162; six-day EPIC Pass starts at £342

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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