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Bowled Over

Features
By David Oliver Relin
posted: 02/26/2002

When a hidden powder stash like Fernie, B.C., doubles in size, it won't stay secret for long.

Say you're lying down, or -- let's be precise -- rocketing headfirst on your back down an icy chute. How would you approach your predicament? Would you find the zenlike serenity to plant your mind firmly in the present, and, as you accelerated to the terminal velocity of Gore-Tex on wind-packed snow, admire the crenelated crest of the Lizard Range vibrating holy white against a hot blue sky?

I couldn't.

As I struggled, and failed, to flip over and get my boots beneath me, I was preoccupied almost exclusively with where, exactly, those exposed rocks were that I spied from the top of the cornice, and just how fierce a collision my helmet was designed to survive.

But as five, then 10, then 15 seconds oozed by in cheesy Hollywood-style slow motion, I found myself thinking about the bird that had appeared as my buddy Pablo and I stood over this intoxicatingly steep chute. The bird had hung just in front of us, wings cupped to catch the gusting air. Then it settled on top of a gnarled spruce, cocked its head at us and made an unpleasant, phlegmy sound, like a 70-year-old cigar smoker clearing his throat. "That's got to be a bad sign," Pablo said just as I jumped off the cornice.


Until recently, Fernie was British Columbia's secret powder stash. The ski area sprawls across a 7,000-foot ridge in southeastern B.C.'s Lizard Range, three hours southwest of Calgary on a serpentine two-laner. With just one modest on-mountain lodge and a single pokey T-bar to the summit ridge, Fernie offered nothing but skiing in its funkiest form.

But the snow! Positioned to catch wave after wave of ocean-born storms that roll down the Elk Valley, Fernie routinely racks up nearly 30 feet of B.C.'s best powder each season. The frequent snow gave birth to a legend about a mountain man called the Griz, who was raised by bears, lived in a cave on the mountain, and fired his jumbo-sized musket at the clouds, coaxing the skies to return fire with snowy fusillades of their own. Fernie began throwing a party honoring the Griz each winter, where booze was drunk, parades were held, things were burnt.

Five years ago, Charlie Locke, who owned Lake Louise and 10 other Canadian mountains, bought the area. A year later, he began radical surgery. He slapped high-speed quads into three bowls that had been hike-to terrain, doubling Fernie's size. He also broke ground on a ski-in base village, planning to provide -- oh, the sacrilege! -- amenities. Last year, Locke's team tore out the original summit T-bar and replaced it with yet another quad. The resort's lift-served terrain ballooned to 2,500 skiable acres, spread over nearly 3,000 feet of very vertical terrain. Fernie had become the size of Snowbird.

To the horror of people who considered Fernie their own private paradise, word went out across skierdom. The ensuing bum rush transformed the village of Fernie, a sleepy coal-mining backwater three miles from the mountain, into a ski town. The week I arrived, locals who longed for the unbuzzworthy old days suffered the final indignity: Rolling Stone's yearly "Cool Issue" named Fernie the coolest place in North America.


Last season, thoughts of Fernie's deep powder and steep terrain tormented me through an unusually dry winter in Tahoe. Finally, in mid March, I set aside eight days, shrugged off responsibility, and headed north.

At sunset, after riding a 737, a prop plane, and 60 miles of blacktop I shared with two timber trucks and one imperturbable bighorn sheep, I aimed my 4WD rental truck up Fernie's access road and got my first look at the imposing wall of snow suspended between Grizzly and Polar peaks. My lips formed an involuntary "whoa!" as all five of Fernie's high-alpine bowls flooded the windshield. They were stacked whitely end to end like a whipped cream stash of the gods.

The base village seemed an aftehought by comparison, just a half-dozen low-key stone and timber structures, more like ranger stations in a national park than Lake Louise-style grand hotels. I dropped my bags in the Cornerstone Lodge and had a look around. As I sipped local ales with 30 après-ski stragglers in the Griz Bar, with its aging posters of '70s hot-doggers, I realized rumors of rampant development were greatly exaggerated. By 7 p.m. the base village already felt half-asleep. Fernie may not be as funky and homegrown as it used to be, but it isn't exactly Whistler Village, either.

I had three days to get my bearings before my friend Pablo arrived. Pablo has only one gear: overdrive. So, on my first morning, I was looking forward to a few leisurely cruisers on B.C.'s best snow. But something was terribly wrong. The sky was optimistically blue, the pines bracingly green, and the snow...brown. The powder capital of B.C. had no powder at all, and precious little snow. A freak weather pattern had pushed the jet stream north for weeks, sending Fernie's usually dependable powder up toward the Arctic Circle.

I rode the new Great Bear Quad into the heart of the original ski area, Lizard Bowl. As I gained altitude, spring rewound back into winter and my mood lifted. Fernie's five vast inbounds bowls loom above tree line and spill, in a riot of free-form fall lines, down 2,811 vertical feet to the valley floor. Separating each bowl from its neighbor are sheer ridges, peppered with chutes and glades. Everything I could see in every direction was skiable. The stable snow meant little danger of avalanche, and nearly everything was open. I set out to explore as much of it as I could.

By the time I drove the 60 miles to fetch Pablo from the tiny airport in Cranbrook a few evenings later, I had settled into the peculiarities of a ski vacation in remote British Columbia. Over my morning coffee, I followed the breathless front-page coverage of Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko's poor performance at the World Championships: "Oh, Elvis! O Canada! A nation suffers with you!" I stopped using the scan function on the truck's radio, since it always spun all the way around and stopped on the same station.

On the deck of the Griz Bar, Pablo took in the silent fireworks display of sunset on the Lizard Range and the après ski crowd, a smorgasbord of laughing Aussies, Swedes, and locals. Then I performed the exchange rate magic trick I never tired of. "Two Trees," I said, peeling off a twenty. The waitress returned with frosted mugs of the B.C.-brewed pale ale, along with C$22. "I get the feeling I'm going to like it here," Pablo said.

First run next morning, with the unerring ability of a desert rat to sniff out water, Pablo found The Saddles. Or maybe it was the gauntlet of signs warning: Extreme Terrain: Experts Only, and Caution: Avalanche Zone. In either case, The Saddles is Fernie's testing ground: four heart-stoppingly steep, 500-vertical-foot chutes that catapult skiers either to glory or to the offices of orthopedic surgeons.

We traversed the ridge until we stood, tips yawning into space, on the cornice of Corner Pocket, the nastiest chute of them all. We peered over a ten-foot drop into a funnel so narrow that one missed turn would bank-shot you off the limestone walls before spitting you out the spout. I pushed off, the bird released its evil squawk, and -- well, you know the rest.

After my misadventure we steered clear of The Saddles, finding something almost as challenging everywhere else we turned. We readjusted our spines, slam-dancing down Sky Dive, a cat-track-wide bump run that plunges 2,000 vertical feet in full view of the base area. Eat it here, and you become an instant dork.

Spared dork status, but breathing hard, we rode the new Great Bear chair with Jules, a B.C. local whose duct-tape to Gore-Tex ratio was about dead even, and his telemarking Aussie girlfriend Sophie. Jules was peeved by the changes at Fernie, particularly the new C$54 lift-ticket tariff after the new lifts went in. Even worse: To make way for the new summit lift, the area dynamited a cave next to the original T-bar, a cave that the locals had designated the home of the Griz. "That's why the snow sucks this year," Jules said. "It's the curse of the Griz."

But a few laps later, we rode with Josef Pavlovic, a 68-year-old Croatian émigré who's been a Fernie devotee since he learned to ski in 1969. Since he retired as a machinist, Josef said, he and his RV have spent each winter camped out in Fernie's parking lot. Josef also mourned the destruction of the Griz's cave, if only because it was the spot he used to change into the powder blue speedo he's famous for sporting on warm spring days. People talk about "good old days this and that," Josef said, "but I like what they've done to Fernie. Maybe it was more romantic back then, but now you have more choices."

And how. Fernie has 106 named runs, but you could double that number if you slapped a sign on every gladed pitch that free-falls off the area's five ridgelines.

When we finally got up the nerve to aim for Corner Pocket again we were almost relieved to find a wall of closure signs. We asked a patroller, Brett Mason, if The Saddles were going to open.

"Nah," he said, "they're icy, and some guy took a sick fall there yesterday so we're keeping them closed." Pablo and I tried to look indifferent, to hide our guilt. "But I'm opening the Concussion Chutes if you want to follow me." We traversed the narrow ridge between Lizard and Currie Bowl, pulling avalanche closure signs. We imitated Brett's healthy disregard for P-tex and sidestepped up over boulders to a pinnacle on the ridge. From there we had the option of sustained descents down Barracuda or Cornice Chutes, two natural halfpipes plunging 1,500 feet to the runout of Currie Bowl. Brett shouldered the cumbersome avalanche signs and, ripping speedy GS turns, surfed the banks of Barracuda before disappearing into the trees. Pablo and I chose Cornice. The sun had warmed it to corn and, side by side, we slashed high-speed arcs to the bottom, neither of us wanting to fall behind and drown in the other's speedboat wake of wet, flying snow. It was far from the snorkel-deep pow of local legend (though snorkels might have come in handy). But we hiked back up to ride wave after wave of sloppy, untracked corn, and we wrung every ounce of fun out of a sopping spring day.


In the evenings, we roared three miles to town. No one would mistake Fernie for Aspen or Telluride. On the wind-blown Western-style main drag, hardware stores and vacuum cleaner repair places are still holding their own against glitzy gift shops.

But signs of change are there. One night, we wedged our way into the new Eldorado Lounge. Here, we were forced to concede that Rolling Stone had a point. A Vancouver art-funk band called Spygirl set the crowd shimmying. Aussie snowboarder babes in the season's most perfectly disheveled fashions ruled the dance floor with sunburned B.C. backcountry gods. Blue-haired English retro-punkers sipped blue drinks from martini glasses. There was no avoiding the evidence: The international youth culture had discovered Fernie and claimed it as an outpost.

On our drive home, snowflakes fluttered teasingly around streetlights, then dumped faster than the wipers could clear them. It was like driving into the exhaust chute of a giant snowblower. Before passing out, I offered up a beer-fueled prayer to the Griz, begging him to keep the white stuff coming. At first light, we woke to the sound of artillery shells.

We toted our hangovers over to the Timber Bowl chair and slumped on when it opened. Fernie was transformed. Green had disappeared from the spectrum. We traversed blindly across Currie Bowl in the whiteout, and found the access gates to the Concussion Chutes. Trying to re-create our climb with Brett by touch, we labored up through thigparticularly the new C$54 lift-ticket tariff after the new lifts went in. Even worse: To make way for the new summit lift, the area dynamited a cave next to the original T-bar, a cave that the locals had designated the home of the Griz. "That's why the snow sucks this year," Jules said. "It's the curse of the Griz."

But a few laps later, we rode with Josef Pavlovic, a 68-year-old Croatian émigré who's been a Fernie devotee since he learned to ski in 1969. Since he retired as a machinist, Josef said, he and his RV have spent each winter camped out in Fernie's parking lot. Josef also mourned the destruction of the Griz's cave, if only because it was the spot he used to change into the powder blue speedo he's famous for sporting on warm spring days. People talk about "good old days this and that," Josef said, "but I like what they've done to Fernie. Maybe it was more romantic back then, but now you have more choices."

And how. Fernie has 106 named runs, but you could double that number if you slapped a sign on every gladed pitch that free-falls off the area's five ridgelines.

When we finally got up the nerve to aim for Corner Pocket again we were almost relieved to find a wall of closure signs. We asked a patroller, Brett Mason, if The Saddles were going to open.

"Nah," he said, "they're icy, and some guy took a sick fall there yesterday so we're keeping them closed." Pablo and I tried to look indifferent, to hide our guilt. "But I'm opening the Concussion Chutes if you want to follow me." We traversed the narrow ridge between Lizard and Currie Bowl, pulling avalanche closure signs. We imitated Brett's healthy disregard for P-tex and sidestepped up over boulders to a pinnacle on the ridge. From there we had the option of sustained descents down Barracuda or Cornice Chutes, two natural halfpipes plunging 1,500 feet to the runout of Currie Bowl. Brett shouldered the cumbersome avalanche signs and, ripping speedy GS turns, surfed the banks of Barracuda before disappearing into the trees. Pablo and I chose Cornice. The sun had warmed it to corn and, side by side, we slashed high-speed arcs to the bottom, neither of us wanting to fall behind and drown in the other's speedboat wake of wet, flying snow. It was far from the snorkel-deep pow of local legend (though snorkels might have come in handy). But we hiked back up to ride wave after wave of sloppy, untracked corn, and we wrung every ounce of fun out of a sopping spring day.


In the evenings, we roared three miles to town. No one would mistake Fernie for Aspen or Telluride. On the wind-blown Western-style main drag, hardware stores and vacuum cleaner repair places are still holding their own against glitzy gift shops.

But signs of change are there. One night, we wedged our way into the new Eldorado Lounge. Here, we were forced to concede that Rolling Stone had a point. A Vancouver art-funk band called Spygirl set the crowd shimmying. Aussie snowboarder babes in the season's most perfectly disheveled fashions ruled the dance floor with sunburned B.C. backcountry gods. Blue-haired English retro-punkers sipped blue drinks from martini glasses. There was no avoiding the evidence: The international youth culture had discovered Fernie and claimed it as an outpost.

On our drive home, snowflakes fluttered teasingly around streetlights, then dumped faster than the wipers could clear them. It was like driving into the exhaust chute of a giant snowblower. Before passing out, I offered up a beer-fueled prayer to the Griz, begging him to keep the white stuff coming. At first light, we woke to the sound of artillery shells.

We toted our hangovers over to the Timber Bowl chair and slumped on when it opened. Fernie was transformed. Green had disappeared from the spectrum. We traversed blindly across Currie Bowl in the whiteout, and found the access gates to the Concussion Chutes. Trying to re-create our climb with Brett by touch, we labored up through thigh-deep drifts to the pinnacle above Cornice and Barracuda.

Then, finally, the goods. The snow was smoking cold as we surged down parallel chutes. It was too early in the morning for thought, only instinct, as we floated 1,500 effortless feet, scrawling S after perfect S, like demented kindergartners filling an endless whiteboard. I kept pace with Pablo's whoops as they echoed over through the trees, or maybe they were my own, because my mouth was definitely moving, too. After a powderless week at the powder capital of B.C., I finally understood what the fuss was about.

We opened our eyes the next morning to find the blinding snowblower still in full effect. So we buckled our boots and climbed to where we always knew we'd end up -- back at the cornice of Corner Pocket. No closure signs were in sight; almost nothing was visible at all. I jumped in before I could change my mind. I fell, then I sank and fell at the same time, and snow boiled up into my mouth.

Blinded by whiteout and snow spray, I felt the sides of the cliff funnel closing in, like two oil tankers approaching in the fog. That was all the incentive I needed to keep my legs pumping. Time stopped ticking by in seconds and was measured instead by a tightly wound metronome -- sink and turn, sink and turn.

At the bottom, I turned uphill and stopped triumphantly just in time to be cross-body-blocked into a drift by Pablo, who had exploded out of the mist. We picked ourselves up, laughing in a flurry of high-fives. Then we heard that awful phlegmy squawk echo out of the void. Pablo turned his head toward the spot in the whiteout where we could sense the huge black bird sitting in that gnarled spruce. "Shut up!" he shouted. And then we were both hopping and yelling like lunatics, shouting into the wall of white. "Shut up," we yelled, "Shut the f--k up!"



Click on the related link below for Destination: Fernie, British Columbia.thigh-deep drifts to the pinnacle above Cornice and Barracuda.

Then, finally, the goods. The snow was smoking cold as we surged down parallel chutes. It was too early in the morning for thought, only instinct, as we floated 1,500 effortless feet, scrawling S after perfect S, like demented kindergartners filling an endless whiteboard. I kept pace with Pablo's whoops as they echoed over through the trees, or maybe they were my own, because my mouth was definitely moving, too. After a powderless week at the powder capital of B.C., I finally understood what the fuss was about.

We opened our eyes the next morning to find the blinding snowblower still in full effect. So we buckled our boots and climbed to where we always knew we'd end up -- back at the cornice of Corner Pocket. No closure signs were in sight; almost nothing was visible at all. I jumped in before I could change my mind. I fell, then I sank and fell at the same time, and snow boiled up into my mouth.

Blinded by whiteout and snow spray, I felt the sides of the cliff funnel closing in, like two oil tankers approaching in the fog. That was all the incentive I needed to keep my legs pumping. Time stopped ticking by in seconds and was measured instead by a tightly wound metronome -- sink and turn, sink and turn.

At the bottom, I turned uphill and stopped triumphantly just in time to be cross-body-blocked into a drift by Pablo, who had exploded out of the mist. We picked ourselves up, laughing in a flurry of high-fives. Then we heard that awful phlegmy squawk echo out of the void. Pablo turned his head toward the spot in the whiteout where we could sense the huge black bird sitting in that gnarled spruce. "Shut up!" he shouted. And then we were both hopping and yelling like lunatics, shouting into the wall of white. "Shut up," we yelled, "Shut the f--k up!"



Click on the related link below for Destination: Fernie, British Columbia.

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