Western Living Magazine
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This Rockies town features a resort with one of the highest vertical drops in North Americaand a few other surprise activities to keep you stoked.
We, a group of five strangers decked out in primary colours, huddle up on the steep slope, having just punched through the first few turns of the trip. Some of us lean on our poles, panting over our ski tips. But behind our tinted goggles, all eyes crease in the corners as we unite in a chorus of smiles. The sun overhead beams warmly upon us, as does our guide and mountain host, John Parry. In his mid-60s with a healthy, Robert Redford-vibe, this veteran of ski hills across the country now calls Kicking Horse Mountain Resort his home turf. (He and his family moved here from Quebec a decade ago after months of touring B.C. in an RV, searching for the ultimate ski base.) And for us he’s become the face of this place.We’d each just endured the travails of modern air travel to converge here in the Rockies (more precisely, the Purcell Range) and experience what snowy goodness the nearby mountain town of Golden has to offer. We’ve emerged from the shells of our respective workaday lives, and Parry is the mother goose we’ve imprinted upon—and we now follow in his tracks, his gaggle of goslings. Looking back up several hundred metres to the lip we’d just dropped over to get into the Crystal Bowl, it doesn’t look half as daunting as when, mid-cat track traverse, Parry had grinned back at us then disappeared over the edge. And now here we are, five happy little dots on the side of a vast white basin.While still packing my bags at home, I’d boned up on Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (KHMR): it has the fourth-highest vertical drop in North America (1,260 metres), and 2,800 acres of skiable, lift-served terrain, which seemed like plenty. But once I arrived, I didn’t need to break out a spreadsheet to calculate with confidence that Kicking Horse is more than enough mountain for my desk-jockey legs. Dropping through all that vertical terrain—whatever its ranking—is a lot of fun.Of course, quantity is one thing to measure and relative quality quite another. Depending on which source you subscribe to, Jackson Hole has six more vertical feet than Kicking Horse. So what exactly is the quality, the character that makes these ski resorts, so similar on paper, so different? I couldn’t ask Parry, since he would undoubtedly be biased. For the same reason, and others, I couldn’t ask the ski journalist based in Jackson Hole who later joined our group. And either way, I figured it would turn to tired talk of Champagne powder or esoteric “degrees of gnar.” Instead, I thought, why not just come up with some metrics of my own?Take, for example, the general attitude of the rental staff. Sam, the young Aussie who’d picked Golden from a map as somewhere off-the-beaten-track to spend his season, struck me as most ridgy-didge, sincerely inquiring after my difficult boot fit when he later spotted me wandering around the lodge. Or how about the genuineness of the server’s smile? While refuelling midday in the Eagle’s Eye Restaurant at the top of the gondola (no subjectivity here—this is Canada’s undisputed highest dining experience), I found what I realized to be small-town hospitality even in a place that is now owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, one of North America’s largest resort operators.I’d made the server’s job difficult by switching seats after ordering. (Rosemary-skewered scallops with Parmesan polenta and tomato jam. No limp fries in gravy here.) I’d gotten up to take in the 360-degree epic-ness of what can only be described as the literal embodiment of the proverb “Beyond the mountains, more mountains,” then had sat back down in someone else’s seat. Though I got some chiding, the wavy-haired server’s smile did not wane much in lumens even after I’d requested a third glass of water. It could have been because we were with John Parry. Judging from the constant flow of people who stopped him to say hello (one liftie even bowed), we were likely experiencing the halo effect of riding with the big man on mountain.While still not scientifically meaningful, even off the hill, kicking around Golden during the week, I logged personal bests for hours spent pruning up in hot tubs. At the Northern Lights Wolf Centre, north of Golden, I set an inaugural personal record for number of wolves vigorously petted, which I am confident will last for my entire life. I think “millimetres my eyeballs set back in their sockets from G-forces on a Ski-Doo” is likely also safe for the foreseeable future, too. The record at greatest risk of being broken? Number of return visits to Golden. EPIC DAY TRIPOf the faces I saw in Golden, Rudi Gertsch of Purcell Heli-Skiing is one that’s easy to recollect. As with a European alpine guide character out of a Wes Anderson film, a montage of the sharp-featured legend’s black-and-white personal photos—with bear trap bindings and hemp ropes, knickers with high wool socks—would be almost too period-perfect to be true. Gertsch is one of the godfathers of heli-skiing in Canada, and thus the world. Now in his 70s, the second-generation Swiss mountain guide and cattle farmer still joins clients in sallying forth on the Bell 212s into his 2,000-square-kilometre tenure. He leads the way, picking choice lines through the trees (helping me with my “number of trees successfully skied past without ‘eating wood’” metric). There’s nothing quite as smile-inducing as dropping onto a few successive pillows of virgin powder on your own private path to nirvana, then bursting out of the treeline to find a similarly beaming row of faces waiting below with the helicopter to do it all again. Strangers have become less strange, names have become faces, and numbers, well, remain just numbers.
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