Fernie (BC), Canada – “You’re in,” Heather
told me, “one of the original group has broken his shoulder.”
Let me tell you, I’ve never been so happy to see someone driven
off the mountain in an ambulance in all my life. All it took was a week on
the waiting list, 240 Canadian dollars and another early morning and I was
finally going cat boarding.
If you tell people you’ve been cat boarding or cat skiing in
Fernie, British Columbia, they all instantly think of the same place: Island
Lake Lodge, which is a legend in its own lifetime and as such, is booked up
years in advance due to its vast array of epic terrain. Needless to say, I
wasn’t going to Island Lake Lodge, I was going to Fernie’s other cat operation:
Fernie Wilderness Adventures.
Fernie Wilderness Adventures is based a 15-minute drive out
of Fernie, and caters to all manner of winter sports including snowmobiling,
cat skiing and boarding, ice fishing and wildlife tours. They have one snowcat,
which provides 12 people with access to the 1,000 acres of terrain above their
lodge. I was picked up from the front door of my hotel at some ungodly hour
of the morning (why is it that these powder trips always start in the middle
of the night when most of us should be tucked up in bed?) and introduced to
Graham and Elaine, an English couple who were going cat skiing as well. Once
at the lodge, we had breakfast, signed (yet another) waiver, picked up our
transceivers, met our guides and driver, and we were ready to roll.
I’d never been in a snowcat before, and neither had most of
the others, so we foolishly sat in the seats that faced downhill and I spent
the next 45 minutes desperately trying not to fall into the lap of an aging
American surgeon as we chugged slowly but surely to our first run. That was
the last time I’ll do that, I can tell you. Subsequent trips in the cat weren’t
quite as long, so it wasn’t too bad sitting on that side.
The snowcat was always nice and warm inside, which was good
until you forget to get all of the snow off of your clothes, at which point
you started to become quite damp. All of the fantastic food and drink for
the day was stashed under the seats, in order to be eaten while we were climbing.
This allows for more runs in a day, as there was no need for a proper lunch
The 12 of us were split into four or five groups to allow us
to keep an eye on each other, in case anyone got into any trouble. I spent
most of the day partnered with Elaine and Graham, and we worked well together,
making sure that each other were OK and hadn’t fallen into a tree well or
lost a ski. We had two guides with us at all times, one of whom would ski
down first while the other would wait at the top of the run until we’d all
emerged safely at the bottom.
The terrain at Fernie Wilderness Adventures
is predominantly treed, or at least the stuff that we saw was, so if you’re
not a fan of the woods, you’d be better to stick your name on the waiting
list for Island Lake Lodge and start saving up. The weather in the morning
was bitterly cold and windy, but it was snowing heavily which allowed us to
ride the same runs over again once our tracks had filled in. Considering this
was Fernies worst snow year for quite some time, there was plenty of untracked
powder for everyone. The runs varied in length from 900 to 1,200 vertical
feet, typical of a snowcat operation, and we completed nine runs in all. Snowcat
runs are seldom any longer, for if they were, you would have to wait for the
cat at the bottom of the run. The time it takes the cat to descend is roughly
the same amount of time that you take, allowing more vertical feet to be skied
in a day.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the
snow to be as good as it was, and it was undoubtedly the deepest powder I’d
seen on the whole two-week trip – including a heli day. The trees ranged from
relatively well spaced to tighter-than-tight, but there was always a relatively
open way down each run if you preferred. We were restricted to the gentler
areas due to avalanche risk, but with a more stable snowpack thereis something
to please even the more advanced powder hound. Fernie Wilderness Adventures,
however, seems to aim themselves squarely at the intermediate market as the
majority of their terrain is most suited to intermediate skiers and boarders.