Passing Through: Kicking Horse, BC

A big mountain cathedral in British Columbia's Purcell Mountains

SKIER: Andrew Orlich | PHOTO: Reuben Krabbe

Staring off into the expanse of fluted and caked peaks before you, you’d swear you’re in Alaska. That is, were it not for the evenly spaced forest draped off each mountain with its manes of tree beard screaming: “British Columbia.” These are the Purcell Mountains as witnessed from their front range, which you’re now standing on.

Rising 8,000 feet from sea level, above the hard-edged logging and rail town of Golden, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is a multi-peaked big-mountain cathedral with 4,000 feet of vertical whose closest comparable cousin is Jackson Hole. Except this place comes in a blue-collar package that scares away the Jerries.

That means a trip to KHMR and Golden is both affordable and real. You can stay in a timber-frame mansion, a cheap motel full of Swedes, or park you van or pitch your tent just about anywhere. The locus of social activity is an easy five-minute circuit of the three bars in the downtown core with live music almost every night of the week. Hidden in the tattered façade of some of the older buildings are cafés and eateries secretly dishing out some of the best coffee and home-cooked grub this side of Nelson.

Golden does average less snowfall than some of the more precipitous zones in British Columbia (though, more than the Rockies) but the terrain makes up for it, and you get a way bigger share of the white stuff when it does come. To boot, the freezing level is high here, meaning the resort rarely gets skunked. Reliability, after all, is a virtue.

The inbounds repertoire consists of exposed shelves, couloirs and spine-ridden alpine faces the likes of which you’ll have a hard time believing is open to the general public. It’s terrain that’s mirrored almost endlessly in the adjoining backcountry. There is some great fall-line tree skiing here, too, but KHMR is all about the alpine.

From the peak of CPR Ridge you have two options: skier’s left or skier’s right. Or as locals put it: north or south. Spanning out in each direction is succession of bowls with virtually limitless rowdy lines and open shots.

A pow day here is an exercise in timing, making bigger loops farther and farther off of CPR Ridge in either direction as more terrain opens: Redemption Ridge, Feuz Bowl, Terminator. At the flanks of the resort you’ll have to use your own two feet to get to your line, but this is the last stuff to open (there’s a lot of avi control here), so having to hike 10 to 20 minutes just means it stays good longer. Whitewall, Terminator, Terminator 2 and Super Bowl are your end of day or next-morning rewards.

When the day is done, loosen your buckles on the patio of Peaks Bar and Grill, a stone’s throw from the gondy base. Independently owned, they graciously keep jugs of water and glasses in their entryway for thirsty skiers to recharge throughout the day.

Your next stop will probably be the Wolf’s Den, a downtown restaurant in a historic log building warmed by a cast iron stove. You’ll find burgers the size of your head here, and live folk music on Sunday nights. For those looking for a more wholesome take on small-town eats, Eleven Twenty Two is an Asian-fusion restaurant in an old heritage home at the edge of town.

If it’s a Thursday, though, you’ll want to sneak into the Golden Taps Pub early. It’s got a limited capacity of about 90, depending on how rigorous the cops are being. This is jam night, by far the most popular scene in town and your best chance at finding love—which will be competitive if you’re a dude. Some feel the shoulder-to-shoulder atmosphere is a bit tight, but that’s what keeps the fogies out and the beer flowing.

After midnight, make your way to the River House, Golden’s own heavy metal bar. Yes, a heavy metal bar; you’ll always get in here. The walls are covered in the most authentic of gasoline-powered and musically debauched artifacts. The signature drink you’ll get here is a shaft, which is basically hard liquor and coffee that you slam. Buy a round and you’re in with the locals for life.

Your three shafts will keep you going long enough to get to the Rock Water, two doors down, where there’s usually a DJ spinning if a band hasn’t been booked. It’s the biggest venue in town and feels a bit more like a Calgary nightclub—but can be pretty fun on the right nights.

More than anything, the people in Golden will make your visit here memorable. This place is in no danger of getting overblown, so locals here are relaxed and open. They’re proud of their no-holds-barred ski hill and town, and happy to share the good times. Bring your snowmobile if you got one.