Fernie Alpine Resort celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter, with special events culminating in a Fernie Heritage Week in late March.
But first there’s the matter of a new lift. The Polar Peak fixed triple goes to a new summit at 7,050 feet elevation, serving a steep powder bowl that has been a favorite hike-to destination for the local powderhounds. Skiable vertical expands to 3,550 feet, up from 2,800.
William Fernie, a Scots-born gold prospector, had followed gold rushes around the world: to Australia, California and British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley. But when his brother Peter got a government contract to build a road across Crowsnest Pass, Fernie realized that his fortune lay in the coal deposits on the pass. By 1887 the Fernie brothers had staked their claims, and in 1897 the railroad was in place to carry coal from the new mines. The town of Fernie, on the Elk River, sprang into being to serve the railroad and the mines. Thousands of loggers worked the forested slopes to supply timber for mine shorings and railroad ties.
The mines have a tragic history of explosions, fires and cave-ins. The town itself burned to the ground in 1904 and again in 1908, but was promptly rebuilt – the last time largely in brick and stone. Hence the Edwardian architecture of the downtown district. Veteran skiers roll into Fernie’s snowbound streets for the first time and experience a time warp the place looks like Aspen in 1958. Come back at midsummer, after the snow has melted away, and you’ll find that many of the streets remain unpaved.
The mines supported a healthy local economy, exporting coal worth about $1.3 million daily (in U.S. dollars). Workers could afford to ski, and a ski club put up a rope tow in 1961, followed by a chairlift in 1963. Ski school director Heiko Socher took over as manager and eventually bought the ski hill, cutting most of the upper-mountain runs himself. In 1998 he sold the lifts to Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, and the following year the company installed two brand new lifts in Timber Bowl, roughly doubling the lift-served terrain.
The result was a big mountain: more than 2500 acres, with a dependable average snowfall of 350 inches (29 feet). The powder literally draws skiers from around the world. Most of the ski-bum jobs here are held by kids with Australian and Kiwi accents. They form the core of a rocking downtown social life.
The upper mountain consists of no fewer than five vast bowls, all backed up against a precipitous ridgeline. From east to west, the bowls are named Siberia, Timber, Currie, Lizard and Cedar. At least one route down the center of each bowl is marked for either beginner or intermediate cruising. Except for Cedar Bowl, everything funnels back, via half a dozen easy beginner superhighways, to the base area at 3500 feet.
The steep stuff cascades off the ridgelines between the bowls, so an expert needs to know the names of the ridges. From east to west these are Siberia, Diamond Back, the Polar Peak ending in Stag Leap and Skydive trails, North Ridge and Snake Ridge.
The ridgelines run more east than north, which means that each bowl has a north-facing side and a south-facing side. Storms track from the west and northwest, so powder drifts deep on the eastern faces. The result is that no matter what the weather, at least half the exposures have great snow.
It’s British Columbia. A typical winter day means the town lies under a dismal gray cloud. You could look out the window and pull the quilt over your head: bad move. Jump on the lift and, as you rise above 4000 feet, you emerge into brilliant sunshine.
Then there are days when snowclouds pile up against the ridgeline. You can have good visibility below and white-out on top. This is why the top of Timber Bowl is called White Pass, and it’s where the deep powder comes from.
Fernie has more than its share of local ghosts and tall tales, and most are said to explain weather phenomena. Ask a bartender about The Griz, a half-human character who brings snow by firing his rifle into the clouds.
To access the southeast end of the complex (Siberia Bowl, Siberia Ridge and most of Timber Bowl), use the fast Timber Bowl quad lift. Pop over onto the Siberia side for the delightfully long Falling Star, skiable by most low intermediates and rolling almost three miles all the way back to the base area. Traverse high under the radio tower and you get marvelous Morning Glory, an exhilarating gladed powderfield. Move further to skier’s lft and find a double-diamond cliff band called Hell’s Gate. Or follow Siberia Ridge, finishing in a long spine-jarring mogul run.
Or go higher, turn right off the top of Siberia and ski intermediate trails down to White Pass quad. While riding to the top of the lift network, at 6500 feet, gaze up at the astonishing Elephant Head. The ridgeline has that shape. The tusks are on the left, with withers and rump along a half mile of inaccessible ridgeline.
At White Pass Summit you have too many choices. About a dozen different tree runs descend back toward Timber Bowl in intermediate style (try the glades between Highline and Silver Lining) or in expert funk (Black Cloud). The leg-burning Diamand Back follows the ridge all the way to the base area. Or turn into Currie Bowl and pick one of the broad intermediate cruisers to the Gilmar Trail Or traverse far onto the west side of Currie to hit Cornice Chute and the steep woods between Currie Creek and Stag Leap.
Beginning at Stag Leap, you’re skiing the “old” lift-served terrain. These are the traditional trails, reachable without hiking, from the top of North Ridge. To get there from the base, ride the fixed-grip Elk Quad, then scoot over immense, wide-open Lizard and Snake Bowls. On the Lizard side, almost everything is marked for intermediate skiers, except for the traversing cat roads which give beginners an easy way down. Experts will want to follow the Great Bear lift line and peel off into the steep glades of Sunny Side (the northwest side of Lizard Bowl).
Cedar Bowl is quite different. Four broad cruisers (Cruiser, Cedar Centre, Trillium and Blueberry) funnel into the bottom of the bowl. Intermediates should take care not to get sucked into the double-diamond KC Chute, to skier’s left of Cedar Centre.
Several days after a storm, you may still find good powder by taking the high traverse across the top of Cedar Bowl onto Snake Ridge. The double-diamond, east-facing Steep and Deep drops forever off the ridge, but the seldom-travelled Red Tree, skirting the northwesternmost area boundary, may harbor the last of the untracked powder. On the other side of the rope lies serious avalanche country, the tenure (Canadian for permit area) of the Island Lake Lodge snowcat operation.
That leaves the vast complex of mostly expert terrain on the big diamond-shaped wooded face cascading from North Ridge. Heiko Socher cut a big arcing trail here, and from town in looks like a boomerang, to that’s what it’s called, along with the lift that hauls you back to its top. Naturally, neighboring trails got Aussie names: Boomerang Ridge, Kangaroo and Wallaby. Interspersed are Linda’s Trail (named for Mrs. Socher) and Kodiak. All these trails start out pretty damn steep, then level out toward the bottom into blue-green cruisers.
The entire lower mountain is marked green. You can ride Deer Chair and explore to your heart’s content without encountering anything scary, other than expert skiers blasting by en route to another lift ride. In self-defense, ride the Timber Bowl quad to the upper mountain and ski the scenic wonder of Falling Star. It’s also easy to get down Lizard Bowl via Lizard Traverse to Dancer to Dipsy.
The groomed runs off White Pass quad – Highline, Silver Lining and Down Right – can be counted on for delicious snow, as can the lines down Lizard Bowl from the Great Bear lift: Bow and Cascade. If it’s groomed, the roller-coaster power line to skier’s right of Elk lift is great fun.
Some of the steepest runs angle north off the ridgelines, and their exposure means they often harbor dry, windpacked powder. In Timber Bowl, try Big Bang and Mitchy Chutes. In Currie Bowl find Gotta Go and Anaconda. In Lizard Bowl it’s Easter, and in Cedar Bowl look for the glades of Cedar Ridge. On a powder day, any of the tree runs – and they are endless – can be upgraded to expert heaven. And the new Polar Peak terrain will be a fresh challenge.
The most luxurious of the ski-in/ski-out hotels is the Lizard Creek Lodge, which also features the nicest dining room on the mountain. Next door, the Griz Inn Sport Hotel offers some real bargains, with smallish hotel rooms reasonably priced even at high season. Within a short walk to the lifts are dozens of condo units and – even more fun – a cluster of privately-run chalets which operate like bed-and-breakfast places. I like the Black Bear Chalet. Buddy up to the owner-manager and you might get a guided tour of the powder shots.
In town, about five miles up the road, are the motels. For a back-in-time experience, check into the Royal Hotel in old downtown Fernie. This elegant pile, built in 1910, has been luxuriously renovated. And it will put you near the live music in the downtown bars.
In town, locals pick The Wood Bistro for top French cuisine, Ferrelli’s for classic Italian, and The Old Elevator for nouvelle cuisine. The Royal Hotel harbors a good steakhouse. Asian food? That’s the Curry Bowl for Indian, Thai and Japanese dishes. A favorite ski bum hangout is Rip’n Richard’s Eatery (burgers, pizza and pasta) out on Highway 3 at 4th Street.
A version of this article first appeared in The Unofficial Guide to Skiing and Snowboarding in the West (Frommer: 2003).