Fernie, B.C. is powder heaven for skiers.
The wall of jagged limestone peaks behind Fernie Alpine Ski Resort in British Columbia will take your breath away.
For decades, this place was a SKIER’S mountain. Wimps and novices, heck, even intermediate skiers need not apply.
Ah, but change comes eventually, if a place wants to keep up with the world. So today, along with those finger chutes (more than you can count) and the heart stopping cornices and the ski-with-a-snorkel powder, there are these cruisers– long, wide, creamy, groomed-to-perfection runs that just beg you to slide down in lazy turns.
Or maybe bomb really fast … the kind of runs where you can log 12,000 vertical feet in two hours without breathing hard.
And, of course, there are also the bison burgers and short ribs.
Well, this is the west. You didn’t expect French onion soup to be the star at the day lodge, did you?
This is not Vail. It’s not Tremblant. It’s not ultra high end with trendy night life and a crush of Bogner multi-thousand-dollar ski suits.
Um, no, it’s naked table sliding. But more about that … and the bison … Later.
Good Skiing Any Time
My group of friends arrived amidst an uncharacteristic snow drought. It had been two weeks since a minor dusting and a full month since a decent dump. Off-piste wasn’t a good idea. But there were all those well-groomed intermediate runs and we bounced up and down the chairs until I could barely stand.
“We’re about the size of Breckenridge (2,500 acres), but they’ve got 40 chairs and we have five,” said ski instructor Keith Liggett.
Frankly, they don’t need any more chairs, though I’d love to see a few of the fixed grip chairs (say, Boomerang) replaced with high speed quads. On a busy weekend, Fernie gets maybe 7,000 skiers.
“We could handle twice that,” Liggett added.
Well, that means you have your own private powder stash. No ropes holding off the hungry hordes, no elbowing, no wincing to the sound of a dozen boarders and skiers aiming for your shoulder blades.
I visited Fernie 10 years ago when there were two bowls. Today, there are five and, apparently, this is the greatest amount of alpine bowl skiing in the Canadian Rockies. Ten years ago, skiing the bowls meant some sucking up of one’s guts. Today, there a good dozen groomed runs down every single bowl.
If you can ski powder, you SHOULD ski Fernie’s powder. Average seasonal snowfall is 37 feet. That’s FEET. And yes, that’s a LOT.
By Day Three, it started to snow. So a few of us dived into Cedar Bowl, which has six named intermediate runs along with the usual welter of black expert stuff. The boys ditched me to go ski the couloirs and I stuck with Cedar Bowl, finding so many paths through untracked powder, I lost track.
While most folks head for Lizard Bowl, a maze of gentle intermediate ways down the powder, I discovered the way to beat the crowd (well, the imaginary crowd) was Cedar with Boomerang chair. In addition to the open bowl, there’s a tangle of groomed black runs through the trees, which is great when it’s snowing so hard, you can hardly see your hands.
The other secret is Siberia Bowl and a loooooong intermediate cruiser called Falling Star. If you want to accumulate vertical, fast, there’s nothing better, especially since it’s served from Timber Chair, one of Fernie’s two high speed quads.
What’s new? Last season the resort installed a new chair to the top of 7,000-foot Polar Peak. This used to be a hefty hike, reserved for experts. Honestly, it still isn’t a run for novices or even low intermediates. But in addition to the “oh my god” run down the face, there is also a cat track which means secure intermediate skiers can go.
And the trip is worth it. This feels like the top of the world. Nothing in view is higher and below, the town of Fernie spreads like some Google Earth map.
Cool Town, Tasty Bison Burgers
The town Fernie, by the way, is cool. Its history lies with coal mining and, in fact, the ski hill was built to give the local miners something to do in winter. The buildings are all brick and stone by law (thanks to fires that burned the town down in 1904 and again 1908). Though meat and potatoes are de rigueur, there’s also a sushi restaurant (Yamagoya) that is always packed and a chocolate shop (the Beanpod) that makes chocolate by hand the old fashioned way.
Bringing us to the bison.
Bison is well known as the healthier alternative to beef, mainly because it has less fat. Years ago, when I encountered my first bison meal, you could tell the animal had been a beast of the open range. You could almost taste the prairie, though some folks said that was more likely a good dose of gaminess.
Today, the critters are farmed like cattle and, honestly, it’s hard to tell the difference. Except, since bison can be drier, it needs to be handled with special care. A good, flavorful sauce for the burger, for instance, and a loving slow cook for bison short ribs.
The short ribs I had at Corner Pocket, the restaurant in the Griz Inn at the base of the resort, were so tender, I cut them with a fork. The sauce was bold, rich and, of course, I wanted to know how.
To make this, Chef Frederik Bergkvist said he first sears the ribs, then slow cooks them four or five hours (about 325 degrees) in a broth that includes beef stock, red wine, water, apricots, apples, cherries, carrots, onions and celery. This mash is later pureed to become the sauce.
Later, I got to nibble the burger (do NOT order it well done) which had a wonderful ‘special sauce’ that would be the pride of any burger joint.
The meat, by the way, comes from Carmen Creek Ranch in nearby Alberta.
“We wanted something a bit different, something with a bit of edge,” explained manager Claude Perreault.
The bison burger is their signature lunch dish. At dinner, the short ribs are what most folks (after a hard day of skiing) order. Vegans need not apply.
One night after skiing, we hit Kelseys Bar & Grill, which is right in the middle of the resort base. I never did get to a proper dinner because I couldn’t stop eating the breaded, fried calimari, the potato skins and four cheese spinach dip, all washed down with the best Caesar (think bloody Mary, but so much more) I’ve had in ages. It combined vodka, Clamato juice and spices with a rim of celery salt). My mouth waters just thinking about it.
And our last night, we hit the Griz Bar. Sadly, I didn’t have my cellphone with its decibel-measuring app, but the beer was choice. This place is the famed center of naked table sliding, wherein folks with arguably thick skin strip to their nothingness and body surf a 25-foot-long lacquered, beer-lubed table. Locals swear it does happen, usually after an hour or so of partying when some big group of friends is in town.
My last day in Fernie, it REALLY dumped snow. You could hardly see your knees. So I kept to Boomerang and the black groomers in the trees, which at this point, were ankle deep in powder. I had two hours and racked up those 12,000 vertical feet.
Such a shame I had a plane to catch. — Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
Fernie Alpine Resort is located in the southeast corner of British Columbia just northwest of Glacier National Park in Montana. In good weather, it is a two hour drive from Kalispell, MT, an hour and a half from Cranbrook, BC, and three and a half from Calgary, AB.
The ski season runs December to April. There are 142 runs with a total vertical drop of 3,350 feet, five alpine bowls, seven chairs and a T-bar. On average, the resort gets up to 37 feet of snow a season.
* The Brickhouse Bar & Grill is known for its jazz and indie rock.
* Northern Bar & Stage, for straight up rock
* The Royal Hotel has game nights … Name That Tune, Trivia, Bingo and also DJ’s and bands
* Fernie Hotel and Pub is where you go for great fish and chips and soccer on TV
* The Pub Bar & Grill in Park Place Lodge is a cool beer hall kind of place
* The Griz Bar on the hill has bands on the weekend and, if you hit it right, naked table sliding.
Want to try Chef Frederik Bergkvist’s fabulous saucy bison burger? We’ve got the recipe.
Fernie Alpine Resort: www.skifernie.com/