Fernie: Growing Pains

Fernie (BC), Canada – Ever since Charlie Locke’s "Resorts of the Canadian
Rockies" (RCR) purchased Fernie Snow Valley in June of 1997, rechristened
it Fernie Alpine Resort and doubled the size of their lift-serviced terrain
during the 1998/99 season, the southeastern British Columbia hill has been transformed
overnight from a ski-bum secret into a darling of the ski media. Construction
of a sprawling base village and newfound popularity has many local Fernie skiers
mourning the loss of their "private" ski resort, but others see Fernie
on the cusp of breaking into the big-time. Here at First
Tracks!! Online
, we were on a mission to determine what the fuss was
all about.


Fernie trail map (click on image to open a full-size version in a new browser window)
Fernie trail map (click
on image to open a full-size version in a new browser window)

The new Cornerstone Lodge (photo Marc Guido)
The new Cornerstone
Lodge (photo Marc Guido)

Tucked into the Elk River Valley near the borders of both Montana and Alberta,
Fernie is a relatively easy three-and-a-half-hour drive from Calgary via the
prairie and the low-elevation Crowsnest Pass. The ski area itself is a couple
of miles west and only a couple of hundred feet in elevation above its charmingly
blue-collar namesake town, which was rebuilt on ashes following a devastating
fire in 1908. Positioned to trap moisture approaching from the west and southwest,
Fernie’s well-deserved reputation for prodigious snowfall is statistically confirmed
by their 344-inch (875 cm) annual average. 2,811 vertical feet (857m) are accessed
via one high-speed detachable quad chair, two fixed-grip quads, two triple chairs,
two t-bars, one platter lift and one handle tow.

Upon arrival at the slopeside Griz Inn Sport
, we were greeted by the mud and temporary signage which accompanies
new development completed through the Fall and Winter seasons. While the Griz
and the adjacent Wolf’s Den Lodge have been in place for years, RCR is on a
building binge, including such decidedly upscale slopeside condotels as the
Lizard Creek Lodge, the Snow Creek Lodge and the Cornerstone Lodge – complete
with private, heated underground parking. Some properties, such as the newly-opened
Cornerstone, include retail and dining space, but all sport banners announcing
"Now Selling!" One has to question the size of the current market
demand to absorb this number of residences, all of which have come onto the
market at roughly the same time.

Also for the moment, Fernie’s base area is experiencing significant growing
pains. Although a master development plan is in place to tie all of the elements
together, for this season the growth is scattered over a significant area, with
few methods established to move guests from one property to another. As a result,
there’s no cohesiveness, no "village" feel to the resort – rather,
it feels like a haphazard collection of lodging establishments. It’s acknowledged
that the construction’s timing allowed little to no opportunity to landscape,
etc., but until the village is further established, the base area will continue
to possess this discombobulated atmosphere. Day skiers this season were frustrated
by cramped quarters in Fernie’s hopelessly obsolete and outgrown base lodge,
a situation also on the drawing board to be rectified.

Our hotel-style room at the Griz was clean, adequate and certainly priced right
($85 CDN/night for up to 4 people), but hotel guests are relegated to the basement
with cinderblock walls. Upstairs units are of a larger size, and naturally carry
a higher price tag. Access to the Elk Quad is right out the door of perhaps
the nicest ski hotel locker room that we’ve ever come across. Other hotel amenities
include a restaurant and lounge, guest laundry, indoor pool, two outdoor hot
tubs, and a small boutique.

Primary at a ski resort is the mountain itself, however, and we set out to
discover Fernie with Craig Morris, the webmaster of Craig’s
Unofficial Fernie Alpine Resort Page
. Craig is a true skiing animal, and
through his efforts to share with us his favorite Fernie haunts, his energy
level nearly killed us!

At the base of the Bear T-bar (photo Marc Guido)
At the base of the
Bear T-bar (photo Marc Guido)

Riding the "butt hook" is rewarded with beautiful views of the Elk Valley (photo Marc Guido)
Riding the “butt hook”
is rewarded with beautiful views of the Elk Valley (photo Marc Guido)

Fernie’s low elevation is notorious for rain events on its lower slopes, and
with the recent lack of fresh snowfall the springtime sun baked a rather nasty
crust onto the surface of the lower altitude runs. This mattered not to Craig,
however, as we worked our way along Fernie’s sprawling ridge from south to north.
Fernie in essence exists in four large bowls named (from south to north) Timber
Bowl, Currie Bowl, Lizard Bowl and Cedar Bowl. The terrain is a mix of open,
above-treeline skiing at the upper elevations, with trails slinking through
straight, towering evergreens lower down. Above each bowl, the ridge’s summits
of Elephant Head, Polar Peak and Grizzly Peak loom as dominating cliff bands
reach skyward for up to an additional one thousand vertical feet above the lift-served
terrain. This topography leads to another of Fernie’s infamous curses: avalanche
closures. Following ample fresh snowfall, often the only lifts running include
the Elk Quad, Bear T-bar, Mighty Moose T-bar and Deer Chair – the "Fernie
Triangle." The trick to finding freshies is to follow the opening schedule
as avalanche control in various regions of the resort is completed. These days,
however, you’re unlikely to be alone in your quest.

The mountain is further informally divided into the "old" area and
the "new" resort; Cedar Bowl and Lizard Bowl comprise the former,
while the latter is formed by Currie Bowl and Timber Bowl. The new Leitner Timber
Bowl High-Speed Quad launches skiers midway up the new area, while the higher
terrain here is accessed by the White Pass fixed grip quad – another Leitner.
The White Pass area is an entertaining mix of low-angle slopes, speckled with
trees and multiple hillocks to up the excitement ante for a few short turns.
If one hugs a traverse along the shoulder on skier’s left separating the White
Pass region from Currie Bowl, however, steep couloirs known as the Knot Chutes
tumble between imposing rock walls back toward the White Pass lift, while the
precipitous Anaconda Glades and Gotta Go fall away into Currie. A third option
from the top of White Pass is to traverse across the top of Currie Bowl into
what is known collectively as the Concussion Chutes, increasingly steep, treed
lines which drop off of the opposite side of Currie from the ridge separating
the Currie and Lizard Bowls. Out-of-bounds prior to the mountain’s expansion,
these chutes were known to frequently slide before the introduction of avalanche
control here as a result of the resort’s growth.

It requires a succession of three lifts to reach the top of the "old"
area, starting with a long, slow ride aboard the Elk Quad and culminating in
an agonizing trip up the Face Lift handle tow, affectionately known to locals
as the "butt hook." In between, the Bear T-bar holds challenges of
its own. Look for this situation to be rectified before next season, however,
as plans are in the works to replace a portion of this lift network with a brand-new
quad. To the climber’s right of this trio resides the Boomerang Triple Chair,
a haven of steep bumps and trees.

Finally, on the northern end of the resort lies Cedar Bowl, a sprawling collection
of gentle, open slopes and steep trees, many of which terminate in narrow, natural
half-pipes which drain the bowl to the area of the Haul Back T-bar. This lift
returns skiers and riders to the rest of Fernie’s lift and trail network. The
views from Cedar of the town of Fernie below and Mount Fernie beyond are spectacular.

Fernie offers some seriously challenging terrain, and while not all is for
experts, one really ought to be a strong intermediate skier to fully appreciate
the resort’s offerings. Those of lesser ability would be unfortunately relegated
to the tamer greens accessed by the Elk Quad, Mighty Moose t-bar, Timber Bowl
High-Speed Quad and Deer Chair – all low-elevation skiing. Those accustomed
to blue square terrain at their favorite resort may find themselves a bit over
their head on some of Fernie’s intermediate terrain.

After a day of being beaten senseless by Craig, we retired to the newly-opened
Kelsey’s Restaurant for a planned evening of tasty food and relaxation. While
they delivered on the former, they hopelessly failed to deliver the latter.
Service was a true abomination, and when issues were brought to their attention
it only seemed to get worse. To their credit, I gave them another shot the following
day and had a very enjoyable lunch. It’s understandable to find issues at a
restaurant which had only been open for four days, but we hope that Kelsey’s
finds their stride as it provides a reasonably economical dining option right
on the hill. In the meantime, folks – please dim those interior spotlights a

With limited options for nightlife at the resort, we ventured into the town
of Fernie in search of merriment. Looking west from the town, Fernie Alpine
Resort literally looms high above Main Street, dominating the horizon. Friendly
locals were found at the Northern Hotel Bar (561 2nd Ave.) for a few games of
pool accompanied by a talented band. It’s unlikely that a tourist has found
their way into this establishment in a long, long time. Several similar watering
holes also exist in town.

Timber Bowl at the top of the White Pass chair (photo Marc Guido)
Timber Bowl at the
top of the White Pass chair (photo Marc Guido)

Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep roam wild in Crowsnest Pass (photo Marc Guido)
Rocky Mountain Big
Horn Sheep roam wild in Crowsnest Pass (photo Marc Guido)

Day two was far more relaxed sans Craig. We spent the bulk of our time up high
to avoid the dreaded sun crust, enjoying fluffy delight in the White Pass area,
on Anaconda Glades, and in the upper reaches of Lizard Bowl. Skiing Fernie and
finding the best snow requires one to think, as different elevations and nearly
a full range of exposures can vary snow quality widely from one location to
the next.

We bid adieu to Fernie at the conclusion of ski day two, heading east to Alberta
past coal strip mines and across the Crowsnest Pass to Castle Mountain Resort
near Pincher Creek. A short and simple 90-minute drive from Fernie, a combination
of the two ski mountains would create a memorable ski week. We left Fernie entranced
by its terrain, yet frustrated by its growing pains. For further skiing options,
a day shuttle bus links Fernie with RCR’s Kimberley Alpine Resort, approximately
90 minutes to the west, and snowcat skiing in Fernie is available at nearby
Island Lake Lodge. An Inter Resort Transfer Service operates on Sundays during
the season to connect skiers with Intrawest’s Panorama Resort, Banff/Sunshine
Village and RCR’s Lake Louise.

Lodging opportunities in Fernie vary widely, from pricier but still reasonable
digs at the resort to a youth hostel in town – and everything in between. Twenty-seven
seasonal and 12 daily, weekly and monthly on-mountain RV sites give even the
thriftiest ski bums a place to bed down. Kootenay Taxi offers a daily Ski Hill
Shuttle Service linking properties throughout the Elk Valley with the lifts.

To reach Fernie by air, one generally flies into Calgary (Alberta), Cranbrook
(British Columbia), or Kalispell (Montana). Ground transfers are available through
Dewdney Coach Lines from the airports in Calgary (3.5 hours) and Cranbrook (1.25
hours). The airport in Kalispell, Montana is a two-hour drive from Fernie via
rented auto. Oddly enough, it seems that Australians, New Zealanders, and especially
Brits have discovered Fernie ahead of neighboring Americans. As is the case
in much of western Canada, their unmistakably accented English was audible nearly
everywhere that you turned. Canadian skiing is far more price-competitive than
heading to Europe, and many English flock across the pond for extended stays
of at least two weeks, and often for several months. Americans should take note
of their European cousins’ discovery, as the current exchange rate makes skiing
in British Columbia and Alberta very attractive, indeed.

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