Large snow removal trucks sped across the Calgary International Airport tarmac
as a number of reporters piled into a small twin-prop for a quick, 30-minute
flight to Golden, British Columbia, home of Whitetooth Ski Hill. The story which
held everyone’s attention was the unveiling of a $200-million undertaking: the
Canadian Rockies’ first new ski resort in 25 years.
It will carry the moniker Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, named after the river
which tumbles along the Trans-Canada Highway, from 5404-foot Kicking Horse Pass
at the Continental Divide to its confluence with the mighty Columbia at the
blue-collar town of Golden. Golden is a town starving for economic diversity.
It was founded over 100 years ago as The Cache, a one-building base camp for
Major A.B. Rogers’ Canadian Pacific Railroad survey crew. Over time, the town
learned to capitalize on its ample natural resources. Struggling with the decline
of the timber industry on which it has long based its fortunes, Golden has given
its overwhelming support to the ski resort’s development: a referendum on the
sale of the town-owned Whitetooth Ski Hill to the developers of Kicking Horse
passed by a remarkable 93.8%. When the town’s biggest employer, Evans Forest
Products, shut down temporarily several years ago, townspeople were jolted into
action – and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is the result.
At present, Whitetooth serves 1,740 vertical feet with a slow double chairlift
and a novice t-bar, but look for that to change dramatically starting with the
2000-2001 season thanks to plans by Golden Peaks Resort, Inc., the developer.
The eight-passenger Golden Eagle Express gondola from CWA and Poma will travel
11,266 feet to the Dogtooth mountaintop ridge at 7,700 feet elevation, boosting
lift-served vertical to 3,904 feet. Snowfall totals increase dramatically as
one rises to the ridge, from 240 annual inches at the resort’s base to a whopping
600 inches at the summit. The gondola will provide year ’round access to the
4,000-square-foot Eagle’s Eye Mountaintop Restaurant, a timber and stone building
with 30-foot vaulted ceilings and open views of the Rocky, Selkirk and Purcell
Mountain ranges. An outdoor deck will add another 2,000 square feet of dining
and viewing space.
Other initial projects include a new day lodge, desperately needed for the
expected influx of visitors drawn by Kicking Horse’s respectable statistics.
Whitetooth’s building is charming, but tiny and cramped. With 11,200 square
feet on two levels, the new structure should provide plenty of elbow room for
guests. Two fixed-grip quad chairlifts will also be constructed for the debut
season, supplementing uphill transport provided by the new gondola and the current
double chair. Rudi Gertsch’s Purcell Heli-Skiing operation will establish a
heli-pad adjacent to Kicking Horse’s base. The first base area hotel is expected
to be completed in the second half of 2000.
Over the next five years, an entire mountain village will be constructed at
the base of the resort, 1,500 feet in elevation above sleepy Golden which already
possesses 1,191 beds. Three more hotels, 150 condominiums, 297 townhomes and
65 single-family chalets will add up to 3,000 additional beds, sharing the benchlands
with up to 25,000 square feet retail and commercial space. Future provisions
are in place to boost that space to 80,000 square feet if demand dictates. Summer
activities will include mountain biking and golf (18 holes are already available
at the Golden Golf & Country Club, completed in 1993 and rated among the
top 30 courses in Canada) as well as sightseeing rides via the gondola to the
Eagle’s Eye. An additional two chairlifts will be added during the summers of
2003 and 2004, and two more lifts will be built depending on demand in 2005
and 2006 to open up the north end of the mountain, increasing the resort’s lift-served
vertical to 4,085 feet.
Golden Peaks Resort, Inc. is funded primarily by Ballast Nedam International,
a 125-year-old Dutch construction company best known in Canada as the developer/builder
of the Confederation Bridge which links New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
While new to the ski industry, Ballast Nedam has resort experience in the Caribbean
and, bowing to the need for ski operations experience, has brought in Grouse
Mountain Resorts as a minority equity partner. Their popular Grouse Mountain
Ski Area in suburban Vancouver has taught more people to ski and snowboard than
at any other teaching mountain in British Columbia. Grouse Mountain Resorts
will be responsible for mountain operations at Kicking Horse.
It’s a formula for success: deep pockets from Ballast Nedam, and ski operations
experience from Grouse, married by the driving force of Vancouver architect
and urban planner Oberto Oberti. Other factors enter into the equation, however.
Three million cars annually pass through Golden via the Trans-Canada, providing
ample traffic for an all-year tourist attraction. A mere three-hour drive from
Calgary (162 miles), Kicking Horse isn’t saddled with the development restrictions
imposed upon closer resorts located in Banff National Park (Sunshine Village,
Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay), Jasper National Park (Marmot Basin) and in
Kananaskis Country (Nakiska). The guidelines, established by Canadian Heritage
Minister Sheila Copps and former secretary of state for parks Andy Mitchell
last April, impose limits upon skier capacity and development at ski areas in
Alberta’s national parks. The concern is that increasing recreational and commercial
use will cause irreparable damage to the parks’ natural ecosystems. For now
the hands of these four ski areas are tied, prohibited from undertaking any
new improvements or developments. Even a project as mundane as a lift upgrade
requires an involved approval process which could take as long as five years.
Located outside of National Park boundaries, Kicking Horse isn’t subject to
such restrictions. Far greater snowfall at Kicking Horse provides another distinct
advantage over its neighbors. (Higher elevations, however, make base-area skiing
at the Banff and Jasper resorts more reliable.)
It seemed that all of Golden’s 9,000 residents turned out on March 7, 2000
to witness the unveiling of the new ski resort – free lift tickets have a habit
of creating demand! After presentations from dignitaries including BC Premier
Ujjal Dosanjh, Arijan van Vuure of Ballast Nedam, and Grouse Mountain Resorts
President Stuart McLaughlin, the official Master Development Agreement between
the BC government and Golden Peaks Resort, Inc. was signed, the culmination
of over three years of planning and negotiating – a remarkably short time for
a ski resort proposal. Event emcee and former Canadian Men’s Alpine Ski Team
member Felix Belczyk quipped, "All of these party chairs agree to build
a kick-ass resort for all of us to completely enjoy for a long, long time,"
shattering the formality of the event and drawing cheers and applause from all
present. It even drew faint signs of a smile from the two stoic Mounties standing
watch over the festivities.
The government has agreed to sell 278 acres of Crown land at the base of the
resort to the developers for 10% of market value, and to build a $3.8-million
road to the resort from the town of Golden, to be repaid by future ski revenue.
Kicking Horse will lease an additional 4,021 acres of Crown land under the Land
Tenure Act for the purpose of expanding the existing recreational ski facilities.
"This investment is about giving young adults the opportunity to stay in
the town where they grew up and earn a decent living and raise their own children,"
commented Dosanjh. "This is a great example of attracting international
investment to a part of British Columbia that needs it, but attracting it in
the context of the strongest environmental protection in the world."
Many residents enjoyed an outdoor barbeque on this bluebird day, others
went skiing, while still more took non-skiing rides on Whitetooth’s double chair.
Whatever they were doing, though, they were smiling broadly at the enhanced
economic prospects for their community – a $250-million flood is projected to
sustain Golden over the next decade as a result of the resort’s construction
and operation when ancillary businesses are included. The upbeat mood was invigorating
and contagious. While everyone else celebrated, logging crews with skidders
were already hard at work clearing land for development.
Whitetooth’s existing terrain is by-and-large fall line skiing, reaching just
shy of halfway up the ridge. The trail map reveals a monotonous array of parallel
fingers descending the mountain’s flanks, but Kicking Horse’s plans promise
greater excitement in steep, high alpine bowls above treeline. The joys of Whitetooth
were best experienced this day in the trees between the marked runs, beautifully
spaced and filled with light, barely-tracked fluff. The low elevation of Whitetooth’s
base became apparent when the snow in the woods suddenly transformed into unpleasant
cement several hundred vertical feet above the barbeque below.
Returning to Calgary on the same twin-prop chariot which carried me to Golden,
I couldn’t help but ponder the prospects generated by the addition of such a
sizable resort to western Canada’s already impressive mix of alpine skiing opportunities.
Watch out for the Kicking Horse!