Skiing Fernie, The Friendliest Place on Earth
Riding the I-90 jet stream out of Seattle, Eric and Marilyn set their GPS for little known Fernie, B.C., compelled to go there by rumors of unchallenged powder stashes and abundant adventure alternatives. Nine visually entertaining hours later we land in the darkness of the Alpine Resort under heavy overcast skies; unable to make out much of anything except that we had arrived.
A few notes here for the uninitiated: Even though Fernie Alpine Resort ranks number six on Outside Magazine's list of North America's 15 best ski resorts, the skier traffic suggests that it is still relatively undiscovered. Absent of an International airport our guess is that it will remain mostly unchanged by skier impact for years to come.
Located about 60 miles north of the U.S. border, and about that far from Alberta, Fernie has bucket loads of terrain for every skill level, and even advanced skiers will find plenty of black and double black diamond steeps to explore.
The adventurous may want to make their way up Polar Peak when the Patrol opens the up-country gate. 'Falling Star' is a 5km/3mi long intermediate run with wide open cruising that has lots of powder stashing ability. The Lost Boys Café, at the top of the Timber Bowl Express Chair, is the perfect place to take a break, and enjoy lunch with a view. The Fairy Tale Trail, above and to the left of the Deer Chair in the woods, turns into a twinkling wonderland at night where families can let their imaginations run wild as they ski. The Thunder Meadows Hut makes a fantastic one day out-of-bounds adventure on a good weather day, while the close by Island Lakes Lodge provides a 5-star Cat Skiing alternative.
The resort village combines traditional mountain charm with ski-in/ski-out accommodations cornerstoned by the Griz and Wolf Lodges. The Village Griz Bar is the place for apres ski, serving daily food and beverage specials, offering good cheer, and live music.
On that stormy day we arrived at Fernie, backed up against the spine of the Lizard Mountains (mid-range in latitude between Banff and Glacier Park), we discovered the resort’s position adjacent to the S. Rockies tends to generate what locals call the 'Fernie Effect': weather on a bee-line from Mt. Rainier has a habit of stalling and dropping its load right here. During the night the good thing was that the 'Effect' chose the first day to make a deposit, the bad news was that the near white-out conditions complicated our intended backcountry overnight to the Thunder Meadows Hut. For us, this was unfamiliar terrain, but we decided to try anyway. Having laid our cards down on a vertical savings approach from the ski area, we traversed by braille in uncertain conditions across 'Cedar' and 'Fish Bowls' and then up '2,000 foot Ridge'.
As Eric led to the high point in 'Liverwurst Bowl', this usually faster approach than the standard 'Cabin Ridge' finally shut us down. Sometimes the mantra "never give up altitude – traverse" conspires against you.
In the touchy, slabby avalanche prone snowpack we turned around unknowingly within 100 ft. of the 'Liverwurst Pass' crux, and the direct line down 'Easy Street' to the hut sanctuary. Choosing a more expeditious exit, I took up the rear as Eric and Marilyn swooshed the untracked slopes of 'Liverwurst Bowl' to its beginning. In the flat ground of its lower reaches a rag-tag team of Nelson-Revelstoke-Fernie skiers came out of the trees to meet us. Uncertain of our next move Marilyn asked if they knew the quickest way out. The response: "Eh, we don't know, we were following you". A quick course correction across the valley brought us to the Island Lakes access road and a clear escape route through the Mount Fernie Provincial Park.
It was here in our sweat-backed stupor that we encountered what was soon to become a Fernie theme – "this place sure is friendly". Having dawdled in conversation behind our Canadian friends we found upon exiting that they had waited for us and even walked part of the way back up the trail so that they could give us a ride. Incredibly thoughtful, since we had no idea when the next opportunity would present itself, we loaded into the back of their pickup and in 20 minutes were delivered to the doorstep at Wolf Lodge. Offering compensation in appreciation, our new friends simply said, "No worries, pay it forward".
After our hapless start we shift gears back at the Fernie Alpine Resort by slapping on our carving boards to surgically explore what we had only heard about in whispers. Crafted around Five Legendary Bowls (Siberia, Timber, Currie, Lizard, Cedar) Fernie is like Disneyland on snow; something for everyone, with constantly changing natural terrain, wrapped in the friendliest culture you can imagine. With the Village / Lift music setting the mood, we headed for 'Shooting Star' in Siberian Bowl. Lacing back and forth adjacent runs, to our amazement the fresh corduroy remained untouched, allowing us to totally let them run at arc warp speed. Where were the skiers? We certainly weren't on-hill early-birds. As we bellied up to the Thunder Express for another ride, Eric and Marilyn were all grins. Here we get the scoop from the engaging lifties that mid-week crowds are typically nonexistent, and weekends are not much different; the local population is moderate, and Calgary is 3.5 hours away on dry roads. Returning to the Lost Boys Café at the top of the Express, a helpful local chimes in as we consider our next exploratory move. He gave us a number of insider suggestions that we preceded to rip in succession. We all agreed he was a nice chap, who honestly cared about our experience.
With constantly undulating terrain we puzzled over comparisons. Delightfully unique, Fernie revealed a little bit of Alta with its serpentine gullies, Sun Valley with its collection of wide open bowls, challenging with a touch of Jackson Hole steeps, all in a setting capped by the craggy limestone cliffs of the Lizard Range Crest. Not terrifyingly steep like parts of Blackcomb, the expert terrain and recurring powder, however, can only be matched by Island Lake Lodge, the next door cat-skiing operation. What makes it really different is the folds in the landscape that create numerous aspects, change-ups in the fall-line, variations in pitch, all within a quick impulse of attitude on any given run. When we wanted a totally different experience, we just point our skis left or then right. This place was becoming addictive with a unique character outside our experience.
Having farmed most of Siberia and Timber Bowls, Marilyn turned to cross Currie Bowl with Eric and I in close pursuit. Rounding a corner into a treed traverse, we catch a glimpse of one of the area's more curious attractions. As three youths are springing up and down a rimmed alpine fir, a fourth is saddled belly first on the natural launching pad, getting the best of the Indiana Jones like ride. What a crack-up! Maybe we'll take that in on the next lap.
Teetering on the crest of 'Corner Pocket' after sniffing our way down the Currie/Lizard ridge, Marilyn and Eric recoil at the labyrinth of ropes-nets-tires arranged in concert to ease access into Lizard Bowl. One of a half dozen couloir entries into hidden powder stashes; it was not so much the lace-work, but more the bone-yard of rocks that surfaced due to avid skier traffic that caused hesitation. Pondering the value of their $500 edges, they watch as a wild-eyed crazy local did a high speed, snowboard plunge along the left margin - seemingly skipping over all obstacles. Deciding to turn to live another day, Eric leads off down the convoluted ridge to a more rational entry into 'Lone Fir'. Two days after the storm this secret stash still gives up the goods in uncut powder, and we can only imagine during a big powder dump the kind of pow potential this place would offer.
Being crafty originals of the early 'Hot Dog' days (Eric invented the daffy and was one of the first to do a Mobius Flip, and Marilyn was a top 20 competitor on the Colgate Tour), I continued to chase them down line after line of unrepeated drops, all with quality results. After a couple of days of seemingly endless options we finally cross over to Cedar Bowl so that we could ski away from Fernie having mostly canvassed the area boundary to boundary. Chanting that "hot doggers never die, they just ski the sides," Eric gets us locked into the 'Steep & Deep' faces on the outer edge of Cedar Ridge, which require a return on the Haul Back T-Bar - to Boomerang Triple - to Great Bear Express Quad in that order to make a complete cycle. See Gordy Skoog's video of skiing at Fernie.
Leaving a lot left to be filled in-between, we finally make preparations for a night/day at Island Lake. Located just around the corner, we transition easily after a full Fernie ski day to catch the evening cat to the Lodge. Amazing! A world class Alpine Resort, powder cat operation, and backcountry hut all within neighborly reach, and packed with powder. When does that ever happen?
As we reluctantly pack the van for the return drive I ask Eric and Marilyn what ski adventure is next on their plate. Their enthusiastic response, "After the Kokanee Glacier Hut in March and the next big snow, we're going to Fernie, the most skier friendly place on earth."