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