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Fernie’s down-home brand of skiing is anything but formal
WORDS • SAM TAGGART
We drove there in the dark, on long, unlit sections of highway running in straight lines from Calgary, Alberta, down to the southern border of Canada and the small coal mining town of Fernie. Our destination: the eponymous British Columbia resort, an under-appreciated, hometown operation with some of the most easily-accessible, awe-inspiring bowl, chute and glade skiing you’ll ever experience.
Hank steered our rental car away from the airport as gusting winds swirled snow from the ground into the air and blew uninhibited across the flat landscape. I sat sandwiched between ski bags and my friend, John, in the backseat. Into the abyss we drove, our headlights the only way to illuminate these country roads. Passing cars and trucks spat up a whirlwind of white, blinding us at nearly every pass. We rode three hours from Calgary to Fernie with the forecast calling for a couple of inches along the way.
Our crew was seven strong with two cars full of luggage and skis. We were college buddies and friends of friends, and everyone had the same attitude: Let’s hit this mountain as hard as possible for three days straight. For a small group with a ski-dedicated mindset, there was no better place to end up than within reach of Fernie’s five legendary bowls, spanning more than 2,500 acres in the Lizard Range.
At midnight, we pulled into the lot of the Raging Elk Hostel. Activity at the bar around the corner from the front desk was winding down while a few college-aged stragglers finished a round of pool. There was an older group there, too, playing a game of dice and hammering back the last Pilsners of the evening; these guys were obviously buddies from way back. With deep voices and overwhelming pats on the back, they told us that they get together every year to go cat-skiing at the nearby Fernie Wilderness Adventures outfitter. One day, we’ll be the ones rolling dice and laughing late, reminiscing about those times we got together to ski, I thought.
Sadie and Joe Howse, the owners of the hostel, checked us into our rooms and gave us a full tour of the place: A three-story building with a sauna, fully-stocked bar and a selection of living arrangements, including communal bunk rooms for larger groups and private bedrooms. In the basement, we found a fully stocked kitchen, ping-pong table, piano, reading area, ski lockers and a tuning bench, as well as a room full of La-Z-Boys, well-loved couches and a plasma screen television, coined “the movie theater.”
Located just two blocks off of Fernie’s main street, the Raging Elk seemed to be the ideal escape for a solo traveler or a small crew trying to save a few bucks on lodging. The place was full of a subdued energy; even after midnight, the basement was buzzing with hostel residents talking about secret stashes and whipping up late night munchies on the communal stove top. There was a quiet corner, too, where a guy calmly sung and strummed a Bob Dylan-style tune on an old acoustic guitar he’d found laying on the couch—just one of a thousand songs that had been played on that six-string before.
Clouds veiled the peach-hued rays of sunrise on our first day skiing at Fernie Alpine Resort. Conditions akin to the interior of a ping-pong ball—an impenetrable, opaque white—plagued the mountain and our “views” were confined to ground level. Navigating our way along cat-tracks in the clouds, we found Currie Bowl—one of the five designated zones within Fernie’s resort boundaries—where we skied fresh, knee-deep snow on east-facing slopes until lunchtime. Visibility was better in the trees, so, lap after lap, we rode terrain that dipped and ducked through old-growth forest and I hooted and hollered at my crew as we wove our way through these hundred-year-old giants, their branches sagging with snow.
Using Fernie’s naturally playful terrain to hop and plow through the six inches of fresh that coated the ground, we painted tracks that bounced around the mountain. We didn’t ask for directions, and, no matter where we skied, we found incredible turns just waiting for us on a platter. For a day and a half, we explored, uninhibited and gleeful, until we were able to coordinate a meet-up with a group of pros that also converged at the resort.
Following lunch, we connected with hometown hero, Dylan Siggers, a shaggy-haired, 24-year-old professional skier with a knack for twisting and spinning off of every natural feature in his path; Carter McMillan, a 27-year-old Calgary native with enough podium appearances in big-mountain skiing comps to stack the resume of someone twice his age; and Mike King, a 26-year-old, Michigan-raised chap who spends summers on his family’s cherry farm to fund winters chasing snow, living out of a trailer hitched behind his pickup truck. Hopping off rocks the size of Escalades, flipping, whirling and bouncing off of every cat track in sight, Siggers, McMillan and King showed us the goods.
Our crew started with a few Hollywood laps underneath the Timber Bowl Express Quad, inducing cheers from the chairlift above. Casual, tweaked 360s and backflips made us an easy spectacle. Back in Currie Bowl, we descended a steep shot through a clearing in the trees called Currie Creek, laden with moguls and hips that acted like trampolines for us and our pro skier friends as we collectively maneuvered downhill. Then, we made our way into Lizard Bowl, which is only accessible via a long ridgeline traverse and an interesting entrance, coined “Corner Pocket.” Assisted by a rope and a grid of old tires that had been buried in the snow by Fernie’s innovative ski patrollers—just enough so their black, rubbery tops were still showing—we held on as we descended, one-by-one, sideways, and clicked-in to our skis, into the north-facing bowl.
At this point, the clouds had broken just enough for us to finally glimpse the surrounding mountains, which shot upwards almost 2,000 feet from where we stood and then out across our field of view, bending to the right and towering above the resort’s in-bounds terrain. The peaks in the Lizard Range don’t sit atop the list for highest elevation in North America, but their imposing, jagged ridgelines, loaded cornices and craggy, beautiful topography made them remarkable, even at a glance.
In the Lizard, we took fast turns through chalky snow and were funneled to the bottom of the mountain where the temperature rose slightly, the snow softened and Siggers showed us an array of natural halfpipes and hits that he’d been sending for years.
Siggers grew up skiing Fernie’s five bowls and had the place mapped out in his head like a New York City cabbie knows The Big Apple. His trail looped downhill, up and over a cat-track, into a gully, which he rode side-to-side like a halfpipe, airing out a few times over some small bushes. Our crew followed, 10-strong, taking Sigger’s line as inspiration for our own, using his habituated knowledge of the terrain to help us match transitions all the way down the mountain.
“I’m gonna do one more,” said Siggers, still frothing, as we came to a stop at a trail junction near the bottom of the mountain. It was nearing 4 o’clock and many of the lifts were shutting down for the day. My crew retired to the Griz Bar at the base area for some live music and a couple of well-earned pitchers of Kokanee. Meanwhile, Siggers, McMillan and King side-stepped uphill to get back to the closest lift and ski one more before nightfall. It’s no surprise a place like Fernie bred an insatiable skier like Siggers. Here, the mountains feed your imagination and the extraordinary terrain helps manifest your dreams.
Finally, on our last day skiing, the fog that veiled our views for much of the trip lifted from the valley, evaporating somewhere high above Polar Peak, Fernie’s tallest point at 7,000 feet above sea level. We didn’t get the chance to ski from the top of Polar—the rime-covered lift only runs a few times a year when the conditions are just right—but it provides skiers access to a southerly ridgeline with an array of 30- to 40-degree chutes that’ll make anyone’s heart race.
Staring up at the untouched, glaring white snow that blanketed Polar Peak, contrasted by a cloudless, sapphire sky at midday, it was a sight enough to make me long for my return. I had several moments like this one during the trip—I, too, was beginning to see the potential of this place, just like Siggers had when he was a kid. Fernie’s playground is abundant, yet to the locals, it’s just the home hill, a place to learn, grow and experience the mountains to their fullest. Like a finger-licking, home-cooked meal, Fernie offers a simple combination of ingredients that’ll satisfy the most insatiable skiers. It’s the kind of place that had me hungry for seconds while I was still finishing the first plate.