Club Holiday To Fernie, March 2010

Reporter: Elizabeth Moore

I had no interest in going to Fernie - too far away, too cold, not my idea of a nice Spring skiing holiday. But when we were told there were two places available, for some reason we signed up - at least a good deal and good company were assured.The flight was long, but the views out over Greenland and north-eastern Canada were amazing - thousands of miles of glaciers, mountains, sea ice, frozen lakes and eventually vast areas of land fenced like grid lines on a map, running north to the horizon. ‘Greeters’ in cowboy hats welcomed us to Calgary airport, “Good Morning!”, and we had time to pick up some hot dogs and beginner’s stick of beef jerky for the three and quarter hour drive to Fernie. On the way for those lucky enough to see it was the Big Country experience, the long empty road through grazing land, roaming cattle, ranch signs, nodding donkeys, broken-down shacks and the snow-topped Rockies in the background. Interesting features pointed out to us on the way by Liz, our Inghams rep, were the town where they filmed Unforgiven and the scene of Canada’s worst mining disaster called Frank Slide where a town called Frank got in the way of a mountain.

Our hotel, Wolf’s Den Mountain Lodge, with a tableau of stuffed wolves over the reception desk, was friendly but a bit too basic which was disappointing for several of us who were expecting something better. Rather like a ski-in motel, it was one of a cluster of timber buildings that make up the Fernie resort, including some smarter accommodation with facilities to suit the non-skiers amongst us. Some people spent their first lift-pass-free day acclimatising in the hot-tub while others hit the slopes with a view to using their free days to go snow-cat ‘steep and deep’ skiing. No meals were served, so people went out for breakfast for granola or muffins or stayed in and microwaved their own porridge. We would have gone out for breakfast except nowhere served either pancakes or maple syrup, which was a surprise!

What about the skiing? For the uninitiated it was a very different experience from the Alps. No queues, almost nobody about, mostly skiing within the tree line on broad groomed slopes with the licence to go anywhere your sense and ability allows. The free-ranging nature of the resort means that the piste map, signing and markings are minimal and vague so you can’t tell what you’re letting yourself in for at first. The groomed runs are mainly blue: mostly steep but wide and with good snow and approximate to difficult blues, reds or even blacks in Europe. Everywhere else, except for a couple of cliffs, is within an avalanche-protected and patrolled area, so potentially ski-able. The ski-ability is down to the individual but depends on your technique and confidence - there’s a double-black diamond where lack of snow required that let yourself down on a rope over a curtain of tyres to the start (didn’t do that one myself) and limitless other suicidal options of interest to experts or little kids. They’re probably easier if there’s more snow. There are lots of lovely ungroomed routes through trees and it’s all very scenic.

It was warm and sunny the first few days and so became rather soft at the bottom of the resort, though there was plenty of snow cover everywhere. ‘Legendary Slush’ (not powder) became Fernie’s new slogan. Some of the party had a day-trip to Kimberley (covered by our lift pass) and enjoyed its more regular piste system. A light snow fall later in the week opened up the skiing possibilities and provided some insight as to what the resort usually offers.

Most days we had lunch at Corner Pocket, where they served first-class Alberta steak, and also bison burgers, very tasty. The après-ski bar of choice was the Griz Bar where many pitchers of beer were swigged - actually no choice as everywhere else (including the only place serving tea & cakes) closed before the lifts closed - crazy. The resort was pretty dead in the evenings so people got the bus into town - the buses were a bit unreliable but the drivers were as friendly and helpful as could be. We caught the tail-end of the Griz Festival (floats with cannons firing t-shirts into the air) and went to an ice hockey game. Fernie was once a coal-mining town and the skiing day and nights are punctuated by the wailing horn of trains going through the valley - two engines upfront, one in the middle and another at the back, hauling a hundred wagons of coal. The town is like a wild west set with wide streets and flat-fronted buildings.

I personally tested all the facilities the resort offered, taking the trouble to fall and need the services of Fernie ski patrol and a run down the mountain in the blood-wagon - very carefully done, with one person side-slipping down in harness in front, and someone else following holding a rope to brake if required, and Steve taking photos. Luckily the first-aid point was right next to our hotel. All the SCoM party were very sympathetic and helpful, and offers of painkillers and medical equipment abounded, thank you Derek, Neil and everyone. I didn’t have to pay for the rescue - it’s covered in the lift pass, so lucky that one of our party was able to benefit from it, instead of a stranger.

All in all, Fernie’s a fantastic resort, though probably best suited to the adventurous skier. It’s small (and very friendly) but the skiing is unlimited and the slopes are empty. If it wasn’t so far away we'd go every year. We might anyway.