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Off to the Races

Spend any time in Golden, British Columbia, and you'll eventually hear the story of Sir James Hector and his errant steed. In 1858, Sir James was seeking a rail-friendly route from Alberta to B.C. when he found himself on the receiving end of a vicious kick from his horse. The blow knocked him unconscious for so long that his Indian companions thought he was dead and set off for a nearby valley to dig his grave.

Sir James woke up before they got him in the ground, and, upon further exploration, he did discover a river route through the Rockies. The route became known as the Kicking Horse, a name that not only gave due props to the animal that kick-started Hector's success, but now, more than 140 years later, lends itself to what may be the most exciting ski-area development in years.

Located eight miles outside Golden, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort will sprint into the big leagues seemingly overnight when it opens this December. Surveying it from a helicopter (as I did last spring with Golden-based Purcell Helicopter Skiing) I could see why. First, there's the terrain, which spills off a sky-scraping ridgeline into a pair of high-alpine bowls that drop a good 1,000 feet before reaching tree line. From there, rolling slopes give way to natural glades and tree-lined runs that follow the fall line to the bottom. A new gondola will access 3,550 vertical feet¿more than either Vail or Sun Valley has¿with further expansion (to 4,133 verts) already on the books.

Then there's the snow. Perched on the easternmost flank of the Purcell Mountains, the slopes here regularly wring the last major accumulations out of passing storms¿up to 300 inches a year of the stuff that makes this region the heli-ski capital of the world. Best of all, it will all be accessible for the price of a lift ticket.

Kicking Horse's story is built on the intertwined tales of two other resorts¿one that was barely surviving and one that was struggling to be born. The former was Whitetooth, a small, community-owned ski area that the people of Golden built in 1986. With one chair, a T-bar, and 1,700 vertical feet, Whitetooth was strictly a no-frills hill that relied on regular volunteer days and a four-day-a-week schedule to cut costs.

Enter Oberto Oberti, a Vancouver-based architect and the driving force behind the latter resort, Jumbo Mountain, a proposed but embattled project in the Bugaboos. When Oberti ran into Golden politicos Flec Demmon and Ian Fremantle at a conference in 1996, the three realized that expanding an existing resort¿say, Whitetooth¿might be easier than building one from scratch. With the people of Golden overwhelmingly supporting the idea and Oberti's client, Dutch construction giant Ballast Nedam International, providing the money and muscle, the B.C. government green-lighted the project last March.

Sitting on the deck of the old Whitetooth day lodge on a warm April day, Fred Briggs, the area's manager of mountain operations, squints up at the slushy slopes and sees nothing but potential. "We opened in 1986 with one lift and three runs," he says. "We always hoped someone would take it to a level we couldn't."

To the 8,037-foot level, to be precise. For years, Whitetooth's one chair served 16 runs through the low-angle woods of what's locally known as the Dogtooth Range, stopping tantalizingly short of the snow-stuffed bowls that sat all but untouched up above.

Come December, those slopes will be accessed by the Golden Eagle Express, an eight-passenger gondola that will climb the whaleback ridge that separates the two bowls. (Two other fixed-grip chairs will service the lower slopes.) From the top, experts can traverse the sweeping ridgelines where huge cornices recall Whistler's Harmony Bowl and promise big air and vertiginous turns. Intermediates will prefer the mellower midbowl terrain, getting a taste of backcountry powder without having to work for the pleasure. Farther down, the glades and groomed boulevards of the lower mountain will offer a welcome respite before hopping on the gondola for another go-round.

The first-year investment of C$25 million will include the gondola, chairlifts, a mountaintop restaurant, and a new 9,700-square-foot day lodge. Over the next several years, look for up to five more chairs, half a dozen hotels, and beds for around 3,000. (For now, visitors will have to stay in Golden, home to 20-odd hotels and motels and at least as many restaurants.) Finally, if all goes according to plan, the resort's last two lifts will come online in 2005 or 2006, boosting its final stats to 4,133 vertical feet and just over 4,000 acres, cementing Kicking Horse's status as one of the biggest resorts on the continent. Not bad for a place that was merely wishful thinking only a few years ago.

Info:
KICKING HORSE MOUNTAIN RESORT: 888-706-1117
TOURISM B.C.: 800-435-5622
PURCELL HELICOPTER SKIING: 877-435-4754 or 250-344-5410

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