plun • der /ˈpləndər/ verb To pursue powder forcibly and at all costs, without regard for other basic human needs. It is a fierce activity, best practiced at Fernie, BC.
By Drew Pogge
Powder fever makes crazy people of us all. Competition for first tracks can be fierce, the hunt for glory can be blind, and a certain old adage about friends on a powder day has an undeniable kernel of truth. On the deepest days, when lift lines vibrate with the collective energy of an entire crew, and ecstatic hoots and hollers echo around the mountain like deranged birdsong, the language of skiing becomes downright combative; we crush lines, slay spines, slash turns, blow up pillows, and stomp jumps. And in rare places like Fernie, BC, where snow falls by the bucketful and skiing is simply a way of life, people unabashedly and unapologetically pilfer, pillage, ransack and loot the mountain like hedonistic Viking fiends. Skiers are powder plunderers, all.
When I was at Fernie a few years ago, 38 centimetres fell on top of 30 from the day before, and everyone was delirious with the chase. There was no time to stop for food: we ate wet, pocket-smooshed sandwiches on the lift. There was no time to hydrate, which was actually good, because there was no time to pee, either—if any of us had stopped, we wouldn’t have seen our friends until the lifts ground to a halt. It was the kind of day that seared pixel-sharp memories into our otherwise time-battered grey matter: snapshots of mossy, snow-drooped trees, skiers submerged in motion, and flashes of light filtered through frozen crystals. These are the images that replay forever on the highlight reel of my life—the real bounty of our mountain plunder. And they’re why places like Fernie are so remarkable.
Smack-dab in the East Kootenay region of British Columbia’s legendary “Powder Triangle,” where moist coastal storms and cold interior temperatures often violently converge atop the southern end of the Canadian Rockies, snow falls to the tune of nine metres per year. Highway 3 (part of the so-called “Powder Highway”) connects Fernie with the rest of the world, and provides storm chasers an easy target: when it’s firing (and it’s frequently firing), there are few places better for deep skiing.
Fernie started out as a coal mining town in the 1880s—and there are still five active coal mines operating in the Elk Valley. It seems dichotomous for a town to be supported by both fossil fuel and recreation, but it’s worked for Fernie. Maybe the soul of a community is defined by its diversity, rather than its singularity. Like most industrial towns, Fernie has seen its share of hard times, including two disastrous fires that wiped out most of the buildings in town, and a long, difficult economic slump from the 1920s into the 1960s. Then skiing arrived in the valley, and Fernie began mining white gold in addition to black.
Even in the rough-and-tumble early days, miners would hike up the surrounding hills to ski back down—with seven months of snow, it was one way to remain sane. Whiskey may have played a role, too (and still does, if we’re being honest). By the 1950s, a rope tow was installed, and Fernie Snow Valley Ski Resort officially opened in 1962 with one rope tow and one T-bar—and a bold (but predictably unsuccessful) bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games.
Located just five kilometres from town, the ski area is very much part of the fabric of the community. To visit Fernie is to experience the town as much as it is to experience a resort. But since that first season, growth has been steady, and Fernie Alpine Resort has become a destination resort (part of Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which includes Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, Kimberly Alpine Resort, and others), with all the slopeside lodging, restaurants, and other services you’d expect. But somehow, Fernie has managed to retain a strong sense of identity—no doubt in part due to its relative remoteness, dramatic terrain, and reliable powder.
From virtually anywhere in town or on the mountain, Polar Peak (2,149 metres) is the dominant feature on the skyline. It rises above Fernie as a saw-toothed sentinel of the craggy Lizard Range. When the Polar Peak triple was strung to the top in 2011, it was a watershed moment for Fernie—there are not many resorts that can boast such dramatic lift-served terrain. It’s a beautiful ride when the weather is clear (and often on weather hold when it’s not), with views reaching as far south as Lake Kookanusa and north to Banff National Park, and accesses more than 1,082 vertical metres of continuous fall-line powder skiing.
Even before the Polar Peak chair, however, Fernie boasted exceptional ski terrain—there’s a medley of aspects and pitches spread over a bear’s paw of five distinct bowls, split by sharp ridges. For all of its looming, in-your-face alpine drama, it remains a place of nooks and crannies, where locals still covet hard-won stashes. And the backcountry options that begin just beyond the boundaries are world-class—it’s a sea of awesomeness in all directions.
But even more than its charming town and spectacular skiing, the thing that sets Fernie apart is the people. Coal miners coexist with city dwellers, and even as second homes continue to proliferate, prices rise, and the trappings of modern resort-dom come to roost, there is palpable pride here. Because everyone, regardless of social stratum, is a skier and are genuinely good people.
So, come—plunder, pillage, raid, and ransack the powder that falls softly and silently all winter long. Because at Fernie, even though everyone is crazy with powder fever, there’s plenty of bounty for all.
Sleep: If you’re looking for budget options, the Raging Elk Hostel is a smoking deal. However, if you’re looking for a little more comfort, the Lizard Creek Lodge is a great slopeside ski-in/ski-out option.
Après: The Griz Bar is one of the most authentic in ski-dom (it’s been around since 1962), and a day at Fernie would not be complete without a drink there. (Try the Mogul Smoker, a Griz signature drink.) In town, the family-owned Fernie Brewing Company brewery is a popular local hangout.
Don’t miss: Griz Days, usually the first week of March, is the town’s biggest winter festival, complete with parades, snowmobile drag races, log carving competitions, and, of course, smooshing races (like a fast-moving human pocket sandwich).
From Cranbrook, drive an hour and 15 minutes to Fernie. Near the southern border of British Columbia in the Lizard Range, Fernie gets an impressive 9 metres of snow annually.