SAFETY BE­FORE SCHUSSING

Snow-level as­sess­ment para­mount at Kick­ing Horse Moun­tain Re­sort near Golden, B. C.

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - AN­DREW PEN­NER

Less than a minute into our de­scent off the Stair­way to Heaven chair, my guide for the morn­ing, Toby Bar­rett, stops on the wind­scoured ridge and we gaze over a scene of, well, blow­ing snow. “Vis­i­bil­ity isn’t great to­day,” he says. “But the leg­endary Ozone area is over there, on the other side of White Wall.” He points to a mas­sive moun­tain of ice and rock that hangs omi­nously into the pris­tine, pow­der-plas­tered Feuz Bowl. “This is the type of ter­rain that Kick­ing Horse is fa­mous for.”

Kick­ing Horse Moun­tain Re­sort, about 270 kilo­me­tres west of Cal­gary and near Golden, B.C., is also fa­mous for some­thing else: Cham­pagne pow­der. Lots of it. On av­er­age, more than seven me­tres of it dumps down ev­ery year.

Throw in the ex­treme ter­rain — in­clud­ing steep chutes, cliff bands, bowls, cor­nices, couloirs, ex­posed ridge­lines and so on — and all of that snow is a bless­ing that comes with plenty of chal­lenges for the snow safety team at Kick­ing Horse.

On this morn­ing, thanks to the storm and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing 28 cen­time­tres of white stuff overnight, Feuz Bowl is still closed. And so is White Wall and the Ozone, a mouth-wa­ter­ing new 267-hectare ad­di­tion at Kick­ing Horse that has pro­vided plenty of ex­cite­ment for freeskiers and the dou­ble-black “clan” that reveres this re­sort. It’s the largest ter­rain ad­di­tion of any ski re­sort in North Amer­ica and vaults Kick­ing Horse into fifth spot for the high­est ver­ti­cal in North Amer­ica. It now tips the scales at 1,315 me­tres.

“Be­fore we open any­thing, in­clud­ing the new Ozone area, our avalanche snow safety team has to go through all the req­ui­site checks to make sure it’s safe,” says Bar­rett, guest ex­pe­ri­ence man­ager at Kick­ing Horse re­sort. “This is dif­fi­cult, hazard-strewn ter­rain that re­quires a lot of work to main­tain and, wher­ever pos­si­ble, elim­i­nate the as­so­ci­ated risks. Af­ter a ma­jor snow event, it’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant. In one way, this place is like a desert. The ‘sand’ is al­ways shift­ing and we’ve got to stay on top of it. Our first pri­or­ity is and will al­ways be skier safety.”

And, given the fact that Kick­ing Horse has plenty of dou­ble-black­rated ter­rain — much of it ac­cessed only by boot-pack­ing up ex­posed ridge­lines — this is eas­ier said than done. “We do ev­ery­thing we pos­si­bly can do,” Bar­rett says, “but bot­tom line, there are in­her­ent risks with the sport. I think ev­ery­one un­der­stands this. There is no ques­tion that much of the ter­rain here, es­pe­cially the north-fac­ing slopes in the alpine, is home to some of the steep­est, most chal­leng­ing in­bounds lines that you can ski on the planet.”

Af­ter sur­vey­ing the snows­meared scene on the ridge, we pounce down the south side of Redemp­tion Ridge into thigh-deep pow­der and float through a cou­ple dozen turns.

In spite of the poor vis­i­bil­ity, it’s a heav­enly lit­tle lap off the Stair­way to Heaven Chair. On the next lap, we meet up with Kyle Hale, head of snow safety at Kick­ing Horse.

Hale has been up since 6 a.m., gear­ing up for the day, check­ing fore­casts, snow­pack and in­struct­ing his crew of 20 on the most crit­i­cal tasks for the morn­ing.

Not sur­pris­ingly, open­ing the up­per bowls (there are five at Kick­ing Horse) is go­ing to take some time.

He has as­signed teams to tackle each bowl, re­port to a su­per­vi­sor, and de­ter­mine what steps need to be taken to open them.

But be­fore any of the up­per bowls can open, tops on his list is throw­ing a few ex­plo­sives on the snow­choked “Knob,” a gnarly tower of rock that’s sit­u­ated im­me­di­ately above the heav­ily traf­ficked cat­track skiers use to ac­cess the most pop­u­lar runs at Kick­ing Horse.

“If we get a slide off the Knob, the con­se­quences could be very se­ri­ous,” he says through his ice­coated beard.

“Hun­dreds of skiers pass through here ev­ery hour. It’s a spot we are con­stantly mon­i­tor­ing. We blast it reg­u­larly to re­move any snow load. Most skiers go right un­der­neath it and are un­aware of the po­ten­tial risks here.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, most skiers are also un­aware of all the work that goes into se­cur­ing the ski­able slopes.

Thanks to boot-pack­ing the snow in the bowls early in the sea­son (an ar­du­ous, time-con­sum­ing task that takes hun­dreds of man hours by the crew), ski-cut­ting (a process that in­volves criss-cross­ing the slopes by a crew with skis on) and bomb­ing weak lay­ers, there is plenty of work that’s done to con­trol con­di­tions and mit­i­gate risk.

“I think the main mes­sage for skiers is the fact that our in­bounds ter­rain is not, in fact, just ‘nat­u­ral’ in terms of the lay­ers and what’s un­der­neath,” Hale says. “That’s why it’s so crit­i­cal that skiers stay in­bounds. The ter­rain may look invit­ing and iden­ti­cal to what’s in­bounds, but out of bounds the weak lay­ers per­sist and have not been man­aged. The risk level can go from com­pletely safe to lifethreat­en­ing in just a few feet.”

Thank­fully, on my sec­ond day at Kick­ing Horse, the storm passed and the stun­ning vis­tas reap­peared. I rode up the gon­dola, made a few turns to the Stair­way to Heaven Chair and got a crys­tal-clear view of the Ozone to the north and the snow-smoth­ered Rock­ies to the south.

With Feuz Bowl open and vir­tu­ally un­tracked, I aired off a ledge into the gleam­ing glo­ry­land.

The snow safety team had deemed it safe. And that was good enough for me.

An­drew Pen­ner is a free­lance pho­to­jour­nal­ist based in Cal­gary. You can fol­low him on In­sta­gram @an­drew­pen­ner­pho­tog­ra­phy.

We do ev­ery­thing we pos­si­bly can do, but bot­tom line, there are in­her­ent risks with the sport. I think ev­ery­one un­der­stands this.

PHO­TOS: AN­DREW PEN­NER

The breath­tak­ing view is not the only rea­son this lift is called Stair­way to Heaven Chair. If you’re not care­ful on White Wall to the right, you could be in real dan­ger.

Safety man­ager Kyle Hale and se­nior pa­troller Brad Allen mon­i­tor the slopes at Kick­ing Horse Moun­tain Re­sort.

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