Brought to you by Kicking Horse Mountain Resort – Report from week of 10th February 2020
Golden! It’s been overlooked by some as just another truck stop on the Trans Canada Highway, as a placename in the made-up Kootenay Rockies Powder Highway, and derisively as East Revelstoke. However, good things can’t be kept hidden forever. Stunning scenery and mountains are part of Golden’s DNA and with mountains comes skiing, mountain-biking, hiking and other recreational opportunities to the Golden area. We had planned a week-long backcountry ski trip to Golden Alpine Holiday’s Sentry Lodge. It was all too easy to tag a few days of extra skiing on by staying in Golden to check out the town and see what it had to offer.
Bottom line is that Golden is a working town with an industrial veneer in an insanely beautiful setting. Peel off the outermost layers of the Golden onion and you start diving into the “secret” of easily accessible outdoor recreation, a town with a ridiculous number of good restaurants per capita and a welcoming friendly community of people who love where they live.
Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
Obviously Kicking Horse is the go-to for skiing access in the Golden area. It’s also worth a visit in itself because its location is incredibly convenient being a short drive off the highway. KHMR is also huge having lifts that go from valley floor to the alpine.
KHMR is located just 6kms west of Golden at the foot of the Dogtooth Range (themselves a sub-range of the Purcell Mountain Range). The mountains surrounding Golden have dramatic relief. The Dogtooths are no exception with the town being located at an elevation of 800m above sea level, KHMR’s base elevation being at 1200m and the Dogtooth peaks where the KHMR lifts reach being at 2400m asl.
This means that no visit to Golden to ski is worthwhile without KHMR being mentioned. In turn, there’s a lot of cool things to see (and eat) in Golden if you’re visiting KHMR.
Colder. Golden and the surrounding mountains are deep in Interior BC. The location breeds that cold, light, dry “champagne” powder trumpeted in skiing magazines around the world.
Located 1-hour drive east of the Rogers Pass backcountry ski mecca (where storms go to party), the Kicking Horse area itself doesn’t get the insane totals of the further-west Monashees or Selkirk range. However, when wet “atmospheric river” Pineapple-express storms destroy areas further west resulting in light drizzle raining-to-the-top forecasts at Whistler, Revelstoke or Big White, KHMR frequently escapes and stays cold.
Indeed, the very week we were in Sentry Lodge just north of Golden one such storm massacred the snowpack of most of BC with hurricane-force SW winds and freezing levels rising to 2600m in Whistler and 2200m in Revelstoke. Meanwhile, snow fell at Kicking Horse’s base and plastered the alpine making for epic blower pow.
Snow and wind transport. Not only does Kicking Horse and the Golden area stay just that magical few degrees colder, but Golden also has a peculiar advantage afforded by fortunate mountain placements by the good graces of your deity of choice. Prevailing winds are SW and NW with the southerlies being from where moisture-laden storms come. Golden doesn’t get as much snowfall as many other locations further west with average snowfalls for the winter being 730cms in the alpine (Whistler 1181cms; Revy 1372 cms). Also of note is that snowfall totals tend to also spike into March and April when visitor numbers tail off.
The lesser quantity of snow is however offset by snow quality. The Dogtooths are oriented NW to SE. Slopes are perfectly positioned to catch moisture from incoming storms as the moisture-laden storms mash into these mountains. Whatever snow then falls is transformed and multiplied by the magic of wind loading. Kicking Horses’ bowl orientation often results in the transmogrification of snow totals so that 1cms of new transforms into 5cms of dry powder.
Terrain and opening. KHMR’s terrain is ridiculously big. It’s among the largest resorts in North America and has the fourth largest vertical drop at 1315m which all sounds amazing until you realize that KHMR is, relatively speaking, deserted. On the three days we were at KHMR there was good reason to think that a zombie apocalypse had taken out the world; the slopes were literally bare of people. Lift-lines simply do not exist.
So you have snow. You have wind-transport. You have alpine ridgelines that seem to stretch on forever. What this means is that you have choices
It really is hard to convey how much access there is to alpine and terrain at KHMR. Picture a 4.5km long ridgeline with 6 alpine bowls all controlled and opened by a relatively small KHMR safety team. There are more steep chutes, gullies, and micro-bowls than one can easily describe and again ….. nobody to fight with for access.
It’s also worthwhile noting that the liberal Canadian policy with respect to inbounds access and ski-at-your-own-risk laissez-faire attitude is very much alive and well at Kicking Horse. It truly seems very European in that someone picked a chunk of big beautiful mountains, plunked a gondola down and then said to the users – well have at it! Terrain, where you can kick off an avalanche and kill/injure people below, is off-limits. Anything else goes.
The only downside to KHMR lays in the fact that there is a paucity of infrastructure (lodges, huts, and lifts) given the size of the terrain. There are effectively three lifts (the main Golden Eagle Gondola, the Stairway to Heaven fixed quad and the OG Whitetooth-era Pioneer fixed 2 person) with the lifts being confined to a band roughly midway along the N-S band of the KHMR ski area..
Most of our runs ended up either cycling the alpine Stairway to Heaven chair or going top-to-bottom off the gondola. This wasn’t an issue as our ski conditions were perfect with good snow in the alpine to base from top to bottom and excellent coverage (KH had a well above average 550cms of total snowfall already by the time of our late January trip). One however wonders how much more options there would be if there was a gondola mid-station or a lift or two serving terrain further north along the Ozone area or south along the Terminator Peaks as this would save traverse time.
The lift situation at KHMR also means that one might also spare some thoughts and prayers for families, for diverse ability groups or little kids who may very well destroy their legs doing KHMR top-to-bottoms. It could possibly also be an issue for early season or late season as there simply isn’t as much snow statistically speaking lower in the valley as compared to the alpine (KH snow stats here). At that point it might be nice to cycle laps just in the higher mountain but given the lift layout opportunities to do so are limited.
Although KHMR statistically has a decent amount of green and blues (20 + 20%); the reality is that it’s more geared towards stronger skiers. That doesn’t mean that beginners and diverse groups can’t have fun together. It just means that much of the terrain might not that accessible for weaker skiers.
Where to stay
There is a lot of accommodation in town as listed by Tourism Golden. But a biased tip. Don’t stay on the highway strip unless the noise of trucks is your thing. We were provided accommodations at the Glacier Mountaineer Lodge slopeside at KHMR. Rates vary of course but mid-week slopeside of approximately $ 130 to $ 180/night for a room with kitchen that comfortably sleeps 4 is a ridiculous deal (I believe one gets a capsule coffin at Whistler for that price).
Where to Eat
I swear there are more good places to eat per capita in Golden than in almost any other Interior BC town we’ve visited. It’s not really that hard to believe I suppose. Golden is on the TransCanada. Fresh, good ingredients are easy to get. Residents are discerning eaters. For every slap-dash Chinese buffet (gut rot at the Red Diamond anyone?) there is a good sushi, good pub food, good Indian.
Our tip is the same as with dining in Revelstoke on a budget. Find a Passport to the Kootenays coupon book (Top Notch Clothing in Golden sells this). Get some local recommendations and very likely there will be a 50% off coupon for food in that book.