Alert readers will recall my chronicling of the Kicking Horse story since it began as a glimmer in the eye of Vancouver skier-visionary Oberto Oberti. I was an instant convert on the late spring day in 1998 when Oberti and local heli-skiing operator Rudi Gertsch flew me onto a peak thousands of feet above the Columbia River valley at Golden, B.C. We skied lovely alpine bowls, steep chutes and rippling mid-mountain treed slopes before shooting out onto perfectly smooth corn snow on the closed Whitetooth ski hill’s trails.
Oberti explained that he wanted people to be able to ski an entire mountain—peak to valley. This was an Alps-style concept, violating the computerized, digitized, consultant-driven North American approach that forces skiers to turn laps in generic terrain “pods.” With exactly one lift, Oberti would gain the highest lift-serviced point in B.C., creating a simply enormous amount of skiing with one of the highest vertical drops in North America.
Goldenites rallied to the idea—giving a Saddam-sized 90+ per cent “yea” vote. Oberti rounded up multi-billion-dollar Dutch infrastructure concern Ballast Nedam to fund and operate the project. Miraculously ducking B.C.’s routinely decade-long environmental process, Kicking Horse opened a mere five years after the idea was hatched.
With its intricate big-mountain terrain, huge vertical, excellent dry snow (amid plenty of sunshine), iconic gondola and splashy opening, Kicking Horse generated major buzz and instant cred amid the worldwide freeride-skiing revolution. Construction of two condo-hotels, B&Bs and residential clusters followed. But after the initial euphoria, the momentum faltered. Several winters were weirdly snow-poor. Much of the rugged, thinly covered terrain was feisty skiing—made worse by neglectful grooming. While early visitors all loved the alpine bowls, many despised the burly mid-mountain, which offered ice bumps or a flat zigzag trail.
Ultimately there’ll be 13 lifts plus snowmaking. The already vast overall resort area—including the village, golf course and residential zones—will grow only modestly, from 2,750 acres to 4,186 acres. Certain parties had dreamed of driving a truly huge terrain expansion—putting runs and lifts down into Canyon Creek on the mountain’s backside, and maybe even up the next range, creating a gigantic multi-mountain skiing experience akin to the Alps. But that would have imposed enormous operating costs—and seriously impinged on Gertsch’s heli-skiing tenure. “We already have a big-mountain experience,” explains Paccagnan. “Now we need to change the perception and reality by providing that intermediate and beginner terrain also.”
One annoyance is the scheme to relocate day skiers’ vehicles to parking below the main mountain lifts. Currently the day lots enjoy fantastic ski-in, ski-out positioning adjoining the gondola base. But this valuable real estate is to be built over and the parking moved downhill, forcing day visitors to ride a people-mover lift or even a shuttle bus. It may make sense to real estate planners, but it doesn’t seem like savvy public relations to turn Golden’s residents and visitors who use the town’s establishments into second-class skiers.
In total, the plan envisions growing Kicking Horse to about 600,000 skier-visits—four times the current level—elevating it to the first tier of Canada’s resorts. The first new hotel is to be built as soon as possible, and the first new lift in three or possibly two seasons. The first phase would extend over 10 years and add a planned 4,000 new beds, with estimated investment of $800 million.
Paccagnan and Oberti fulsomely praise Ballast Nedam’s vision and long-term commitment, creating the corporate stability needed to generate confidence among the many other players involved in such a dramatic plan. In fact, these largely non-skiing Dutch investors have grasped the mountain’s possibilities far more than some North American experts. Ballast Nedam, Paccagnan believes, recognized that Kicking Horse’s long-term success demanded that it grow: “You can’t save your way to prosperity.”
Ringed by six national parks, Kicking Horse is the only resort with major growth potential in an enormous region—a 360-degree arc extending 100+ km. The other big driver is Golden’s evolution into a more sophisticated, tourism-oriented area. This is supported by improved access such as the (glacial) upgrading of the Trans-Canada Highway, the expanded airport at Cranbrook and possible airstrip improvement at Golden itself.
“This is the perfect timing,” says Paccagnan. “We have an exciting and differentiated product and we aim to create a vibrant community. We want to be known as one of the great, iconic resorts of North America, the hub for tourism for a pretty large region.” Judging from their reaction so far, Goldenites are as jazzed as Paccagnan.