This year, as always, Owen and I had planed for most of the winter to make it up to Canada to ski and snowmobile, but as usual, work, good snow in Jackson and a host of other reasons kept us from making the trip until March. Last year our trip landed us in Kickinghorse and Revelstoke around the same time, during cycle of good snow, and light. This year most of the US suffered for snow, while the interior of British Columbia had been getting pounded regularly all season.
Having had shoulder surgery in the fall and a longer than planned recovery, Owen was not pushing to go early, worried about riding the snowmobile and getting crazy on skis, while still under doctors “orders”, or for all of us who like to play, futile suggestions, to not fall on his shoulder. Finally feeling up to it, we decide to make the journey once more, and once more I was an hour late to begin the drive north, to Fernie, a little town of about 6000 local residents, just an hour or so across the border.
Crossing through Montana, which had also been having a great snow year; the mountains get more dramatic as we move north, stoking our excitement and by the time we get to the border we’re giddy with the anticipation of exploring new terrain, meeting new friends, and of course some Poutine; a French Candian dish of French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy.
We breeze through the border without a hitch, having answered the gatekeeper’s questions successfully, thank god he didn’t ask me my favorite color… blue… no red; and we make the rest of the drive to the little town. The towns in the interior are small, like really small, with a few good restaurants and bars, and a small community of die hard local skiers and riders, who in the winter ski, work and do little else, isolated from the main populous of the country.
Here in Fernie it seems to be a small group like in Golden and Revy, and meeting a friend of Owens, Amanda Romanchuck, a freeskier and esthetician who had fled whistler because of typical housing issues and struggling to survive as a regular person in a ski town, right away we get introduced to one of the local legends Ross Janzen a 40 something ski bum, who is the man here in Fernie.
Ross has the personality, look and demeanor you would expect form someone who has been living the ski bum life since it existed. His clear Smith lifestyle prescription glasses, permanent beanie with brim, long hair and well grown mustache, a tribute to the style of his day, with his friendly personality, knowledge of the area, local community and the entire ski scene here, making him someone every visitor should meet.
Rolling into Fernie around 10pm, meeting Amanda at one of the two good late night restaurants gives us our first encounter with Ross, who blazes into Navados, the delicious Mexican restaurant and tequila bar with quite the fan fare, giving big hugs and eliciting shouts and high fives from most of the staff and patrons. Over the next three days we’d spend more time with Ross at the bars and chance meetings on the mountain, solidifying his status in our eyes as Fernie’s local ski personality.
After our 12+hour drive, some great tacos and good tequila, Owen and I head to bed, making our way to our ski in ski out accommodations in the quaint old chalet, aptly named Slope Side, where we promptly pass out ready for some fun in the morning.
Our first day starts as a week of over 50CM’s (centimeters, or about 20 inches) ends and a high-pressure system rolls in. With a high of 10 degrees Celsius for our first day of skiing, almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit, we had planned for spring skiing, and while we were sure it would take a while for the snow to soften up, we planed to get a jump on our day and begin to explore a mountain we expected to be a frozen sheet of ice this early in the am.
Our first run down is on a beautifully smooth groomer and as we begin to ski from lift to lift, we find small pockets of good snow on most north facing aspects, learning that like other big mountains, Fernie has the elevation and the weather to hold snow for days after a storm, even when its well above freezing. Today it’s the cold air that is keeping the reflective sun and warm temperatures from affecting the snow on the northern aspects, and as we tool around the resort, we find more good turns, fun terrain and even another fixed rope, like last year in Kickinghorse, to lower yourself into a bowl. This time the rope seems a little unnecessary given the lack of steepness and the width of the chute, but maybe its there to manage the inexplicable stack of car tires that are laid out across the chute; either way as we come across the rope excited to climb into something steep and see the strange pile of tires, it seems sensible to grab the rope and jokingly pretend like it’s “Extreme” rolling and sliding over the tires while Owen laughs shooting some video of the ridiculous setup.
Our day continues on like they always do, skiing around, looking at the new terrain and shooting some photos for the resort, who has invited us out to ski and capture their mountain to entertain the throngs of social media hungry skiers, hopefully encouraging them to come out for some late season turns on the small resort. After shooting a few fun photos and getting our eyes on the terrain inbounds we decide to find out way to a patrol shack to get some info on the stability and the program with the sidecountry and the notorious headwall, their premiere run that we had heard tell tails of.
As you come into Fernie you get a good view of the resort, the big ridges that run east from the summit wall lead down to the prime terrain on their north and south aspects, separated by large alpine bowls that have typical names like Timber Bowl, Cedar Bowl and Siberia Bowl; and some not so typical names, like Lizard Bowl and Curry Bowl; not as spicy as it sounds. Above it all looms this massive face with spines, chutes and cliffs that from below almost seems too big and gnarly to be The Headwall, unless of course everyone here is as nuts as Ross; or maybe us? We stare at the face from a distance, discussing how there is no way this could be the headwall that everyone skis, wondering where the famous big run that we had planed to ski is?
Spoiler alert; turns out the big face that looms ominously over the resort, is the headwall, and while it does have a lot of no-go lines, or lines that would take us some more time, or comfort than were going to get on this trip to ride, it does have a bunch super ridable and fun looking steep terrain, already marked with a few lines that we marvel at, pondering the likelihood of us attempting them and even a couple that we gasp at, assuming its Ross getting crazy skiing close out chutes and doing nutty sidesteps over exposure. Looking up it from the bottom, realizing we still cant get a legit perspective on the size and steepness, our minds dive into the possibilities, as our appetites are wet planning our descents, and as Sherlock Holmes said “The games a foot”.
But first-things-first, we need to figure out the where and the what before our excitement has us skiing into something that doesn’t go, or perhaps were not supposed to be doing. On our way to find patrol, fate saves us some time, as one of the orange coat ski patrollers gets on the lift with us and does his best to explain how it works here. It turns out that the access to the sidecountry in Fernie is challenging, not because of exposure, or complicated rout finding, or even the avalanche danger on the runs we had hoped to ski. What we would learn later, is that it’s the danger above the resort that keeps the Polar Peak lift, that accesses the top closed and the risk of the headwall sliding on the traverses below, that keeps the upper terrain in Lizard bowl to the north inaccessible in the afternoon when it warms like today, or worse like this year where a bad snowpack has kept the Polar Peak lift closed all season, until just a week before we showed up.
The patroller on the lift does take the time to tell us that headwall is permanently closed and a big no-no while the resort is open, but it’s Canada where the general panic people have about their liability doesn’t exist in the same way as in the states, so here at Fernie they have found a grey area in the form of a ridge top party, that we would eventually find ourselves in.
I’m sure most people who roll into an area blind and get some directions from locals skiers find themselves out there, confused and wondering if they are in the right spot. For those of us who are experienced enough to just venture out into the unknown, sometimes it becomes clear when you get there, and sometimes you get through it, wondering if you were in the right spot al all. So armed with our word of mouth info from someone who’s only known credential is that he had become a ski patroller, we decide to head out to North bowl, just past the north boundary, doing our best to stay high on the traverse north, looking for the treed pillow face we had been told to check out.
Staying as high as we can, skirting below the ropes and signs that have been put up mid day to close the travers we had hoped to take, we wind up coming in way to low into Curry bowl, but can see the bottom of the fun pillowed and treed terrain that has everything from little pillow lines and decent size drops, to mounds of snow on half broken trees that provide natural rails and airs, coated with that fat BC snowpack that sticks to all it touches, smothering it, breaking branches and turning everything in sight into crazy Dr. Seuss terrain to ride. So with a few small airs, we make our way to the bottom and decide to head back up to the patrol shack on the top, to get some more beta on what else we might do.
This time at the top of the Polar Peak lift, after taking some photos in some awesomely placed lounge chairs, we look out the different ridges, seeing a few tracks, wondering again do we follow, will we need our touring gear, and how the hell to we get into and out of the sidecountry today. Standing around we come across another oranged coated ski patroller, who this time tells us to imagine he’s not wearing his orange jacket, as he explains what really goes on here. While you can’t ski the headwall while the lifts are open and would be pretty brazen to go out there in plain sight, thumbing your nose at the ski patrol and putting all those random tourists traversing blindly below in jeopardy, the ski patroller explains that once they have closed and swept the mountain, they are not too concerned about what dumb shit we might get into. He mentions also that we will be on our own, looking at the two of us and immediately knowing were ready for that, but also the type of kooks that would get ourselves into trouble hoping to ski something big, which of course was our plan. So armed with the info that the grey area, as far as patrol is concerned, is a flat spot just past the backcountry gate that is “out of sight”, where we’ll wait while they sweep the mountain, we plan a few more runs and a quick trip to the room to get some beers, before coming back up to the spot that might be out of sight, if the 10 to 20 people who were gathered there didn’t jut hang out all over the ridge.
Of course we push our luck, taking two more awesome spring runs before we are in a desperate dash to the mini fridge in our room, to stock up on some beers for the wait/party necessary to ski The Headwall. Making it back up to the base of the Polar Peak with only a few minutes to spare I crack a cold one for the ride up, already reveling in our day and also trying to tap down my nervousness wondering if The Headwall is truly as big and steep as it looks from a far, knowing our next look at it will be from the top as we drop into the darkness of the shade of the setting sun.
At the top we join the 20 or so locals who make this pilgrimage most afternoons, enjoying a sort of pre après. It seems for the group, that I’d imagine all knows each other, this is just a mellow time to chat with friends, talk about the line they plan and who’s going where. Of course having a blast on the first day of our vacation, something that is painfully obvious to the locals, Owen suggests that I climb and ride one of the crazy rhymed up pine trees that is bent over perfectly like in one of the Doctors children’s books.
I’m just a big idiot and child, and for me the mountains, while I treat some of our skiing seriously, mostly just trying not to be killed goofing around some place dangerous, the mountains and nature are like a moon bounce, into a ball pit, into a slide and I’m that snot nose kid who jumps, rolls and goes head first into the snow, dirt, or trees, acting stupid and giggling through every moment. Now, about ten feet off the ground up in this frosted over tree, Wyoming style riding the bull while Owen laughs and gets the shot, the rest of the locals who had been having another chill afternoon join in on the laughter and peoples excitement over the chance to ski their main run that has been closed most of the season starts to show itself though their relaxed demeanor.
We wind up spending about 30 or 40 minutes waiting until the posse leaves their holding area, hikes the 100 vertical feet back to the summit and starts to spread out over the large ridge, each group finding their pre discussed lines, knowing the others and what each person likes to ski. With more than enough space on the headwall for the adventurous to pick lines through and two big couloirs for those just here to shred a big run, there is no powder frenzy, or rushing to get a line before it’s hammered. Here in Fernie the small group of friends and acquaintances, knowing this is the last run of their day, takes their time, skiing it almost as one huge group, watching each other for safety and sharing the stoke before they all head down to the bar.
Of course Owen and I are only going to get a coupe of days up here before we move on to the next adventure, so we decide to make the most of it dropping into the bowl behind the headwall and then booting back out to the ridge. Lining up what I thought would be a small air, then going about 30 feet and as bouncing another 20 out of it, I get even more nervous for our run on the headwall, having just misjudged the size of the terrain, thinking about how all day we could not really get a grasp on the scale of our main objective.
Once we reach the ridge the last of the locals are already dropping in and by the time we get to what we hope is our line, a blind rollover, into a face, into some treed spines flanked by close out exposure on either side, the last group at the bottom skis away, leaving just Owen and I up top hoping as usual as we drop in, that we are in the right spot.
Its not typical but sometimes I do go first and once I make a few hesitant turns over the rollover testing the snow, the anxiety of unknowing fades into the familiar feeling of skiing steeps and one turn leads into another taking me all the way to the bottom, bringing laughter and a typical giggle as I radio back up and let Owen know that it’s steep, sloughy, blind and everything we love and he should not hesitate to just let it go.
The turns in the flats after our run are some of our best, cruising in the untouched smooth runout that sits inbetween the headwall and the cat track that traverses the top of Lizard Bowl, rarely seeing skiers. As we stop to look up and revel in our day and its final accomplishment, the thought that, luck on our journeys is what we make it, and after 5 years of traveling together, while this was the worst snow we had experienced, the opportunity to ski The Headwall on the first day of our trip, when those who live here had waited all season for a day like this in not lost on us.
Its hard to believe but even after an epic day, Fernie is even more dead than Jackson this time of the year and by the time we get down to the bar they are already closing, offering us a round before they kick us and the six locals we had met up top, who are still hanging on.
It’s crazy that each place I visit to ride elicits so many of the same feelings; and while some resorts and backcountry areas are, as far as I’m concerned, far superior to others, Fernie is far from the bottom of the list and who knows what other fun we might have had if we had more time to get to know the place, a guide to show us around, or been here a week earlier to hit one of their best storms of the season.
Either way, in our two days at the resort, or the two we spent down at Amanda’s house our time in Fernie left us with plenty of great memories. From our two runs on the headwall, one each day because that’s all you get, to watching Owen dig his tips on a front flip after being cut off by a kid on the resort, trying to get speed to hit a little bump while we were struggling to shoot photos on our first morning, a shot that turned out sick when he got it. Fernie will always be on the short list of places to visit when we head north and new friends like Amanda and Ross will be people we run into for years in the mountains.