PHOTO: Trent Bona
"Should we do the secret line inside the secret line?" asks Brady Starr, an off-duty ski patroller, as we take turns body-belaying down an old climbing rope affixed to a spindly dead tree.
"Sounds like an idea," I answer nervously, passing him down my skis to the entrance of the Dutch Wallet—a run named for Ballast Needam, the engineering firm from the Netherlands that originally built Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.
The run's moniker is unofficial. It's not on any trail map. Once you're in, there's a ramped-up shelf that effectively makes a 500-foot-long couloir out of the big wall on skier's left. But that isn't good enough for Starr today: There's already one track in it. He wants to ride another shelf below, a hanging ribbon of snow that follows 200 feet of cliff band into a mandatory straightline.
These aren't the kinds of runs most resorts would let pass. But this isn't a normal resort. The railroad town of Golden, BC, is a burly place that makes its own rules, and the trademark attitude at Kicking Horse has always followed suit.
"If we marked one cliff, we'd have to mark them all," says Starr, who, in his civilian wears, loves that the mountain's alpine skis like the backcountry. "And there are a lot of frickin' cliffs!"
The run's moniker is unofficial. It's not on any trail map. Once you're in, there's a ramped-up shelf that effectively makes a 500-foot-long couloir out of the big wall on skier's left. But that isn't good enough for Starr today: There's already one track in it.
With only The Golden Eagle Express Gondola to get you from the bottom to top, Kicking Horse is for those who love Euro-style vertical (4,000 feet of it), and have a keen sense of timing. The expansive ridgelines open in stages on pow days: first Bowl over and CPR Ridge. Then, you may bide your time on the Stairway to Heaven Chair, lapping the short trees of Redemption Ridge while waiting for Feuz Bowl to open. Or you may sneak in one or two more empty gondola laps on CPR while everybody else froths in the Stairway line.
As the bombs go off, bowl after bowl opens, spanning north and south of the gondola. Terminator, Terminator II, and Whitewall require five- to 15-minute hikes, and sometimes only open the next day. With leg-pounding descents to the bottom and the inbounds earn-your-turns terrain opening last, even when it's busy, the pow always lasts for days.
After Starr and I grease our line, we watch the masses feast on White Wall: a mini Alaska-like face that you get about two laps to hit once it opens before it's done. One of the paradoxically beautiful things about this place is that, with so much open alpine, you can see how to get to almost everything you'd want to ski. Then, of course, the few obscure lines are just that much more obscure, if you're so inclined.
Now owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR), Kicking Horse has matured into a full-bodied resort with enough amenities and intermediate and beginner terrain to entertain snow sliders across the spectrum. But for purists, the original draw of the virtually lawless alpine is still the main appeal.
As Starr and I settle into the sunny Peaks Grill's patio in the gondola plaza, a slow procession of friends rolls in. This is the best people watching spot on the mountain. Everything funnels back to the gondola base, which gives the immense mountain a remarkably small feeling, and makes the plenitude of good turns and good buds, fortunately, far easier to find than the Dutch Wallet.