Resort Skiing: Kicking Horse
I've been at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort all of two minutes when I'm nearly run over by a snowboarder as he bursts into the base lodge, his flowing curly locks rimed with ice and snow so that he resembles a fleece-clad Viking. A ski instructor at a family-oriented mountain an hour away, he and all the other area pros come here to ski for play. "This place is sick," he says. "It seems like there's always powder."
The newest ski resort in Canada, Kicking Horse has 4,100 vertical feet of terrain ranging from open bowls and groomed cruisers to backcountry bushwhacks and double-black-diamond chutes. With such variety, it presents an excellent entrée to powder skiing. Personally, I'm hoping to ease into the powder experience gradually. Having grown up on the East Coast, skiing sporadically on the steep, icy runs of Vermont and Maine, I'm schooled in a New England philosophy of the sport: you can't have fun if your legs are broken. I'm able to get down those blue squares more or less intact, but I don't usually go for death-defying challenges.
The resort's major downside is that there's hardly anything going on at the base, which consists only of a sunny day lodge and a ski-rental trailer. More development is planned over the next few years, but for now, there's just one option if you want to stay at Kicking Horse itself: a pair of lavish suites perched atop the highest peak, on the penthouse floor of a high-priced restaurant called the Eagle's Eye.
This chalet is a sanctum of luxury and solitude fit for James Bond—the nearest human habitation is 10 miles away as the crow flies, and one vertical mile down, via a VIP gondola. My only company for the evening will be the private concierge and the cook. After settling in my room, I go downstairs to the bar. On one wall hangs a huge Native American carving made from a single piece of 500-year-old cedar. The opposite wall, all glass, is filled with an ever-shifting palette of sunset and mountains—some peaks pure fields of brilliant white, others cloaked in gray, some covered in heavy, dark forest. Between the altitude, the drinks, and the view, by the time I sit down to a dinner of baked goat-cheese crostini and Denver-cut venison, I'm practically hallucinating.
The next morning I rise at seven to fuel up on eggs Benedict and hash browns. At this altitude, in winter, there's no such thing as eating too heartily or wearing too much clothing. Dressing takes patience: silk underwear, polypropylene layer, insulated pants, sweater, ski pants, fleece, shell, neck warmer, wool hat, goggles. At five below, even the slightest crack between goggles and neck warmer will let in a razor-sharp edge of cold.
My ski instructor, Dani, meets me after breakfast, and we head out into the glare of the morning sun. The snow is lovely but also potentially deadly. In the past two seasons in British Columbia, 12 skiers have been killed by avalanches. When the snow piles too deeply, an avalanche can be set off by the slightest disturbance—such as a skier in search of untracked territory. Typically, a big chunk will cleave off, tumbling like powdery white water, bringing more and more snow with it until a churning mass weighing hundreds of tons is rumbling down at 80 miles an hour.
To control the threat, ski patrol teams launch air-propelled bombs from plastic howitzers. Dani and I watch from the summit as a team opens fire at an opposing slope. A sharp bang is followed a few seconds later by a loud explosion, and a cloud of smoke and flying snow erupts on the brow of the ridge. The debris spills down in a long gray streak, petering out a few hundred feet farther on the slope. The side of the mountain fails to collapse in dramatic fashion, as I had hoped. We go skiing.
Dani is only 22, but he carries himself with Yoda-like poise. His instruction method is unlike any I've ever experienced. He tells me to ski very slowly through the heavy snow, turning in sync with my breathing: "Breathe in, breathe out, turn; breathe in, breathe out, turn." Under his guidance my form begins to improve, with one major problem: I keep forgetting to hold my hands out in front of me. Whenever I get distracted, they drop, and my form goes to hell. "Keep your arms forward," Dani reminds me, with infinite patience. Eventually, we ease into thicker, ankle-deep powder that's been chopped up by previous skiers. Now I really have to concentrate: torpedoing under the surface, my skis turn only gradually and will use any excuse to veer off in random spits and spurts. It's easy to lose focus, because those famous snow clouds keep blowing in, obscuring the chunked-up powder with flurries and mist. Sometimes I can hardly tell which way is up.
But the skis learn to obey my commands, turning more fluidly in parallel, and with enough finesse to keep me from careering off the side of the run, only occasionally jackknifing me into a face-plant. On the last run, an unearthly patch of light appears overhead, cutting through the swirl of snow and framing three gold-hued mountains. It takes me a moment to realize that the mountains are not hanging in the sky at all, but simply appearing through a break in the clouds. That realization doesn't diminish the eerie power of the apparition. "A vision!" I say. "I wonder what it's trying to tell us."
Dani knows. "It's saying, 'Keep your arms forward.' "