Fernie Canada – Lost in Snow

photos by Steve Ogle

They call it the “Fernie Factor”. A forecasted 5 foot snowfall miraculously quadruples overnight, and before you’ve digested your omelet and hash browns you’re gathered with other early birds beneath a bluebird sky, listening to a fusillade of detonating bombs being dropped by certification at Sunshine Village Ski Resort and one of the examiners avalanche techs onto the fat cornice that curls like a frozen wave offered me a job at Fernie. He told me they had two T-bars. I thought, high above Lizard Bowl.

FernieSo it is today, as I wait with Robin Siggers, Fernie Alpine Resort’s operations manager, for a green light from the red coats to drop into Lizard, one of five bowls cradled by the limestone peaks of the Lizard Range at this legendary resort tucked deep into the southeast corner of British Columbia, less than 60 miles as the crow flies from the Montana border.

Most mountain towns worship Ullr. In Fernie they pay homage to their own version of the snow god; the Griz. The legend stems from a sighting of a musket-carrying, grizzly-coat wearing mountain man dwelling in the Lizard Range. He fires his musket into the clouds to unleash powder and is often spotted skiing. Locals love this special powder snow.

Today, with Siggers as my guide, we grabbed an early lift up Elk Chair, carved some tidily swept carpet down to the Great Bear Express, and now are chomping at a Lizard Bowl untracked, save for those of a few patrollers that are like signatures on a vast and crumpled parchment. With a nod from his staff, I follow Siggers and launch the traverse cat track, landing in the snorkel-deep fresh, each turn a mouthful of oxygenated fluff. Here snow often falls in coastal quantities, but with interior dryness, thanks to the Lizard Range, an anomalous string of peaks that runs perpendicular to the axis of the Canadian Rockies, and seems to generate its own generously re-circulating weather patterns.

Vancouver-born Siggers first rolled into Fernie in 1976 with a freshly-minted ski instructors’ certificate in the glove box of his beat up car. Forty-four years later he clearly still has the stoke. “I did my certification at Sunshine Village Ski Resort and one of the examiners offered me a job at Fernie. He told me they had two T-bars. I thought, ‘I’m not going there – I’m from Whistler,’ Siggers says with a chuckle. Curiosity got the best of him. Car loaded with ski gear, he made the long drive to Fernie, a coal mining town founded at the turn of the 19th century on the banks of the Elk River. On its doorstep was an obscure little ski hill called Fernie Snow Valley run by an independent-minded, hardworking German forester named Heiko Socher. The snow never seemed to stop falling and Siggers never left: It’s a pilgrimage that’s been repeated by many a skier since.

“I sold my squatters shack in Whistler and went to Fernie. At the time there might have been a dozen of us getting after the powder and traversing into the bowls,” Siggers says, wistfully recalling those early days and pointing to one of the tree-lined couloirs that threads down from a ridge between Lizard and Currie bowls. “We used to boot pack up and ski the Cougar Glades, then have to bash our way through alders to get back to the ski area.” That was long before the ski area expanded its boundaries to incorporate Siberia, Currie, and Timber bowls. The Gilmar Trail is a tribute to one of Siggers’ old cohorts, Pat Gilmar, who mercifully hacked out a path in the alders to make the traverse back to the resort easier.

FernieLate in the morning, Siggers ruefully leaves me in the hands of his son Dylan. We meet at Lost Boys Café at the top of Timber Chair. Dylan is a cliff-hucking, park jibbing 24-year-old who rides for LINE skis and is a talented videographer. I quickly get a taste of the younger Siggers’ style; often backwards and ten feet off the deck, as we rip down Puff to the base of the White Pass Quad, on the hunt for steeps and freshies. We spend the remainder of the day mining the steep lines, salt and peppered with cliff bands and rocks, that spill off the ridge between Currie and Timber bowls.

After the lifts stop turning, satiated from an all-you-can-eat day of powder skiing, Dylan and I reunite with Siggers the elder at the Griz Bar ─ an après skiing, slopeside watering hole. We sidle up to a thick wooden table the length of two shuffleboards. Its surface has been polished by a curious, late night Fernie tradition, the thought of which causes me to reflexively remove my elbows from the table.

The walls of the bar are papered with photos of skiers with moustaches in garishly colored stretchy pants, and others in various states of undress. When John Cusack and Director Steve Pink scouted ski resort locations to shoot scenes for Hot Tub Time Machine, their search ended at Fernie, which seems to have one ski boot perpetually lodged in the 1980s. If Pink needed to fill scenes with extras, locals dove into their retro tickle trunks and arrived on set en masse.

FernieFernie may have the ‘80s in its DNA, but it is the spirit of Heiko Socher that looms large over Fernie’s ski culture. Socher, who passed away in 2016, was emblematic of a pre-corporate time in the ski industry when ski hills bore the stamp of a maverick owner’s individuality. Socher would wield a chainsaw to cut runs, wrench broken down snowcats, and often walk around the resort base picking up not only trash but also sticks that appeared out of place. Chalk it up it to German fastidiousness. But at the same time Socher had a slice of cowboy spirit. “Heiko definitely wasn’t afraid to cut steep runs,” Siggers tells me, as the bar fills and the volume of chatter increases. Only after an inbounds avalanche knocked over a lift tower at the bottom of Lizard Bowl was he compelled by government regulators to establish an official avalanche control program, which Siggers ended up joining. “Those were the days when the ski industry was really fun,” he says. It’s hard not to share some of Siggers’ nostalgia. In 1998 Socher sold the resort to Charlie Locke, a pioneering Albertan mountaineer-turned-ski resort entrepreneur and a maverick in his own right. At the time Locke was in expansion mode, growing an empire known as Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR). Locke realized Socher’s dream of building more lifts and greatly expanded the ski area south to include Siberia Bowl.

However it wasn’t long before creditors came knocking, RCR went into receivership, and contractors were left hanging and unpaid. The portfolio was scooped up by N. Murray Edwards, reclusive Forbes 500 Alberta financier, major oil sands investor, and co-owner of the Calgary Flames. Big business aside, thankfully, at its heart, Fernie remains a core skier’s resort.

A large part of Fernie’s appeal is the town at its base. Mountain mining towns tend to foster cool ski communities. Fernie is no exception; founded on coal mining, it remains as much a resource town as it is a ski community.

That afternoon I stroll 2nd Avenue, before hanging a left into The Valley Social to meet owner Dan Whillans. This is coffee nerd central, with new blends served each week. Whillans says he had fallen “in love with coffee culture” in Toronto before moving out to Fernie in 2014 with no plan other than to ski as much as possible. In 2016, Whillans, opened The Valley Social and trusts in the conviction that great coffee in a welcoming environment breeds great community.

FernieThese days there’s a buzz in Fernie’s boutique beverage scene, whether of the caffeine or alcohol variety. Back in 2003, long before hipsters with man buns and plaid shirts started twisting the taps at craft breweries across North America, Fernie Brewing Co. was launched out of the Pask family’s garage. Its beers, like Project 9 Pils (named after a popular local mountain biking trail) and First Trax Brown Ale, reflect the brewer’s roots in Fernie’s outdoor adventure culture. And not one but two craft distilleries are in line to open for the 2018/19 ski season. “We’ve been tweaking our recipes for the past six months,” says Trevor Semchuk, co-owner of Lost Boys Distilling Company located just a few blocks from downtown. Semchuk says Lost Boys will produce handcrafted Canadian whiskey, and as they age the first batch, they’ll also distill artisanal gin.

I’ve penciled some pampering into my itinerary, so I show up early for my appointment at Spa 901 my first ever facial. The Miner’s Special is more than a nostalgic nod to a forgotten time: It’s actually geared toward miners who work the underground coal shafts around Sparwood, and are in need of a good scrub to clean the pores of coal dust. Though I haven’t been doing time underground, I prepare for some pampering, with, I admit, an unsettling sense of impending emasculation. “As soon as we changed the name to Miner’s Special, we started getting a lot of men for facials,” my esthetician, Jessica Riley, tells me when I ask how often males opt for a facial. Sometimes it really is all just in the name. After the facial, I head into Griz Fest ground zero. After the requisite axe throwing competition, revelers grasping cans of Fernie beer in mittened hands hoot and holler as fireworks fill the sky, then turn their attention to the outdoor stage, where local three-piece power trio Small Town Dirtbags jams. That’s my cue to head to Nevados to meet friends for dinner. Housed in a wide-windowed, one-story, brick-walled corner building, this popular restaurant has brought a spicy pan-Latin American menu to the wintry streets of Fernie. Renowned for its selection of more than 30 artisanal tequilas and mezcals, I take the bartender’s advice and order a mezcal that’s as smoky as a peat soaked highland whisky. I decide to pair the spirit with an appy of patacones. The restaurant slowly fills. I look outside the window. Snowflakes flutter and sparkle in the street lights; just another overnight refresh.

FernieThe next morning, I’m lined up once again with the Siggers and 30 others waiting for the patrollers to drop the rope on the cat track traverse that leads to Snake Ridge on the resort’s northern boundary. The rope drops, signaling a Le-Mans-style start, and we aim for the far end of the ridge. Two minutes later, I’m staring down a planar, 1200 foot vertical, 35 degree slope. I do some quick mental math a half dozen tracks at the most slice an otherwise blank canvas. If it wasn’t for Fernie’s competent pro patrollers, who manage more than 120 avalanche paths that loom above or hang within the resort’s boundaries, I’d be intimidated dropping into such a steep slope blanketed with 30 inches of fresh. I point the boards downhill, gather some necessary momentum, then smear a turn, sinking up to my thighs in March bounty. The “Fernie Factor” has been my good fortune all week. Thanks Griz.