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Kicking back on the Eagles Eye patio at Kicking Horse ski resort. (Kicking Horse Resort)
Kicking back on the Eagles Eye patio at Kicking Horse ski resort. (Kicking Horse Resort)

How to get a pampered Euro-style ski experience on Canadian slopes Add to ...

Everyone loves a hockey mom. Except maybe mom, strapped with slavish devotion into an SUV racing from one arena to the next, her waistline expanding, her hamstrings shortening until the day she realizes she has become a spectator in her own life.

Spare her the minor hockey platitudes. She gets it (and most days she even likes it). Once in a while, though, mom wants to feel the crunch, the swoosh, the speed. Mom wants a rush. And if that rush comes at 2,450 metres in the Purcell Mountains with a sexy New York bartender mixing drinks in her kitchen at night and a lean and lanky New Zealander with smouldering eyes dishing up smoked salmon eggs benny the next morning, all the power to her.

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The old adage is true: Happy mommy, happy family. Sure, tubing, magic carpets and fun runs entertain the kids, but for the ultimate family ski holiday, put mom first.

***

Kicking Horse Resort,14 km above Golden, B.C., and a two-and-a-half hour drive from Calgary, Alta., has a reputation that precedes it. Even the name intimidates. It attracts rock stars, daredevils, the guys who party hard and ski even harder.

It's extreme, it commands respect, it demands action. It's not a place for spectators.

And, some say, it's not a place for beginners. But I chose Kicking Horse precisely because it is so extreme, because it offers a pure ski experience: 85 inbound chutes, 128 runs, with 1,260 vertical metres on 1,143 hectares - and relative solitude. (That's another bonus for a beginner - little fear of being bowled over by boarders.)

We booked our trip with Bramble Ski, which organizes European-style catered vacations with operations in Verbier, Switzerland, at St. Anton in Austria and, now, at Kicking Horse. The snow banking the driveway reached up to our noses, and warm brownies and hot coffee awaited our arrival at our chalet. (You can sign on for full- or semi-catered options, depending on your tastes and, more important, your budget.)

Once we were all assembled, the unassuming, award-winning, New York Cooper Square Hotel mixologist Andrew Mirabito - brought to Kicking Horse by Bramble Ski for the season - is shaking classic Negronis, and later a drink he called the A.J. Hector (after the explorer who, along with his skittish horse, discovered Kicking Horse Pass in 1858) but nicknamed The Ejector, because of its potency. Mr. Marabito is also, like all the Bramble staff, a ski guide - the next day he'll set out with the experienced thrill-seekers in our group.

In the morning, after sussing out my utter lack of experience, Bramble Ski decides my 11-year-old daughter and I will hit the slopes with Don (the Donfather) Steinhauer. My daughter learned to ski at Kimberley, B.C., but I am a true flatlander, with only one pre-teen Ontario ski experience under my belt, and the mountain in front of me looks to be a menace.

I fumble down the beginner runs - slowly - to the jarring sound of explosions set by ski patrol to prevent an avalanche. Then we're up the gondola to the Eagle's Eye, the chalet-restaurant perched at 2,347 metres. The ride takes a full 15 minutes, in which time my eyes get bigger, my heart constricts and I wonder what I'm getting myself into. This is the stuff of hot dog snowboard and extreme ski videos. These are runs for people who wear headcams and post their footage on YouTube. I am not these people. I am a hockey mom who knows her way around goalie gear and ArenaMaps, not chutes and the newly opened, advanced and expert-rated Super Bowl. What was I thinking?

Like I do in Toronto traffic with the clock ticking toward game time, I get Zen with the moment. I put my faith in the Donfather. He wouldn't bring me up here if he didn't think I could do it. He believes, I believe. But when I step off the gondola, I can't believe my eyes. I am standing at the top of the mountain, staring into the backcountry that makes the most experienced skiers catch their breath with anticipation. Jagged peaks, crumpled avalanche-poised snow, thin cold air ... last night's braised pork belly skewers and buffalo tenderloin crostinis are long forgotten as we stand in awe of the elements daring our descent.

We cross a nerve-racking narrow snow bridge and brace for the first steep. Flat light makes the terrain look scarier than it is and before long we're looking back, marvelling at the sight behind us. Muscles quivering, we run into friends from Ontario who tell us they've just reported a couple of ne'er-do-wells for trekking out of bounds. In an avalanche-prone year - with a weak base covered with so much snow even nonagenarians in Golden can't recall a better year - boundaries are treated with utmost respect.

Our friends disappear down black diamond runs; we head for "Easiest Way Down." It's a 10-kilometre traverse that zigzags across the mountain (the road the groomers use), offering just enough vertical to give a rookie the thrill of finding her groove. A helicopter from the Purcell Helicopter Skiing company buzzes overhead, snowboarders zip by, the Donfather pauses to share well-timed stories of local lore that are just long enough to let our legs recover for the next stretch ahead. Cold water and hot chocolate at the Heaven's Door Yurt Café revive us, and the sight of skiers plunging down tree-dotted chutes inspire motion. We plow ahead, down steeps and around corners that open to wondrous views. To our immediate left, nausea-inducing drops. To our right, a steep rock face with gaps framing evergreens crushed by the heavy snow. We have to stop for pictures, unable to pass by without recording the moment.

Before I know it, we are closing out our descent on the beginner runs on which we started the day. We've done it. The Donfather coached this beginner through a life-changing, confidence-gaining experience. Definitely time for a beer.

***

Back at the chalet, a bunch of us pile into the lower-deck hot tub to compare experiences. The diehards rave about the Super Bowl and their guide and my daughter leans out of the tub to make miniature snowmen in the snow. Fully recovered, we don mountain-casual attire and venture out for another trip up the gondola to the Eagle's Eye Restaurant for a five-course, wine-tasting gala event. Bramble Ski has hooked us up with Amy, who runs the daycare, as our babysitter for the evening, and after a kid-friendly meal upstairs at the Eagle's Eye, they head back for a Glee marathon in the chalet's media room. The adults relax into the night ahead.

The kids are happy. More important, Mom is happy.

Globe Travel stayed as a guest of Bramble Ski and Kicking Horse Resort.

Follow us on Twitter: @tgamtravel

 

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