Fernie–Celebration Of The Lizard

Photos by Greg Von Doersten

“Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.”

–Jim Morrison, The Doors, “Celebration Of The Lizard”

Our ceremony in British Columbia's Lizard Range was one of simple pleasures, one revolving around the ineffable act of deep powder riding. It took place in the epic snow of Fernie Alpine Resort on a densely forested ridge overlooking Siberia Bowl.

Resting, we laughed about the great day we were sharing while Scott fed us killer homemade apple-ginger cookies. Wispy lichen hung like tinsel from the trees, lending a mystical, almost primeval feeling to the scene. The ceremony was unrehearsed–the day was cold and my goggles were wet, but I was more than stoked.

It was just another day in this cloudy paradise for our guides: Scott, Roach, and Diane. Residents of the town of Fernie, these three avid snowboarders have arranged their lives so they can spend every winter day exploring the sinuous tree chutes and monstrous bowls of the Lizard Range that make up Fernie Alpine Resort. Photographer Greg Von Doersten and I had only just met the threesome, but their willingness to share Fernie's secrets had us feeling as comfortable as a couple of old-school locals.

The resort looms imposingly over the town of Fernie, just five kilometers away in the Elk Valley of Crowsnest Pass. Made up of five bowls, numerous descending ridgelines, masses of glades, and 92 defined trails, it drops over 2,800 vertical feet across 2,500 acres. Crowning the entire resort is the jagged crest of Grizzly Peak, Polar Peak, and Elephant Head. Beauty has its price, though, as this awe-inspiring backdrop presents Fernie's patrollers with a monumental amount of avalanche-control work each time it snows, which seems to be daily. Some of the spots where slides are triggered are so inaccessible that they're bombed by helicopter, and the surface lift at the top of Lizard Bowl falls prey to slides enough that it consists of nothing but fixed hooks on a big cable. (Here's a helpful hint: don't try to pull yourself up the liftline–put the curved hook behind the small of your back.)

After a few days in Fernie, the distinctive thunder of two-pound avalanche charges becomes a welcome sound, heralding yet another round of untracked fun. The place averages 350 inches of snow each year, which amounts to a lot of powder days.

For those of you worried that Fernie sounds a bit too gnarly for the whole family, relax–the ski patrol has a penchant for safety, and the grooming crew does a fine job of laying down the daily corduroy.

It's actually a very friendly resort all the way around, with goals of welcoming more snowboarders and skiers than ever before. Indeed, Fernie is in the midst of transforming itself from a burly, untamed powder stash to a world-class destination resort, thanks to its recent acquisition by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which also operates Lake Louise and five other Canadian ski areas. The sick powder, of course, will remain the same–Fernie possesses a unique storm-catching topography that promotes the annual pileup.

The clearest sign of things to come is evident in terms of terrain expansion. Nearly half of the snow-choked terrain we rode was out of bounds until last season. Those areas are now serviced by two new chairlifts, the Timber Bowl high-speed quad and the White Pass fixed quad. The steep trees of the Mitchy Chutes and Siberia Ridge, and the sweet lines dropping into Currie Bowl, would have been far out of reach in previous seasons.

Mirroring debate in other evolving resort communities, Fernie's transformation is the topic of much discussion amongst locals. The Lizard Range has always been a hotbed for dedicated backcountry riders, and already there's talk of the good old days when Currie Bowl was a short hike out of bounds and everye riding there had a familiar face.

Jason, a chef downtown, summed up many locals' views of the expansion when he said, “It's good for business, but bad for skiing.” Napoleon, owner of Fernie's first snowboard shop, Frozen Ocean, laments that the mountain is “losing its soul,” but also admits that business is looking up.

Honestly, backcountry riders aren't being shut down, they're simply being forced to explore new ground. Greg and I toured beyond the boundaries on several occasions and were amazed at the quality of easily accessible untracked terrain. Many locals seem to spend more time out of bounds than in, taking advantage of Fernie's liberal open-border policy.

Perhaps naïveté is the best defense for the development blues. On our first day out we took a mountain-sponsored tour conducted by a fresh-faced Ontario native named Steve–unaware of the expansion controversy, he was stoked just to be riding in such epic surroundings.

Similar enthusiasm radiated from our new friend Roach. Short, stocky, with a mane of flowing curls, Roach operated at all times like he'd just won the lottery, not like someone concerned about getting less face shots. In fact, every time I saw him he was shaking piles of the white stuff out of his head, babbling things like, “Oh my god! That was sooo deep!” often punctuated with the ubiquitous Canadian “eh?”

Back on the edge of Siberia Bowl, I watched intently as Scott nailed a technical line exactly as he'd called it moments before. Following a clean 25-footer into the steep fluff, he accelerated to warp speed, screaming at the top of his lungs. It was hard to believe this same guy could wax philosophical about baking cookies, but that's the unique nature of Fernie; living in such a rugged environment breeds unpretentious, one-of-a-kind characters like Vail breeds fur coats. We looked up some friends we knew were in town, Jason and Shirley, who turned out to be living in a wood-paneled school bus firmly entrenched in the deep snowpack. We also met and rode with Ian, a resident of a loose-knit commune called Fat City. Unfortunately, Greg and I just missed Fat Friday, a party so huge that the ceremonial bonfire was fed by a front-end loader.

Historically, the resilient residents of Fernie have dealt with fires of much scarier proportions. Virtually every structure in town burned to the ground in the summer of 1908, leaving over 6,000 people homeless. The impressive brick-and-stone buildings lining Fernie's downtown went up during the massive rebuilding effort.

The area's coal mine also saw its share of tragedy, suffering through five major explosions. Local historian Bill Quail let me in on one possible explanation for the disasters. According to legend, the town's prospecting founder William Fernie had a tryst with a member of the Crowsnest indigenous people. Understandably irked, the girl's mother placed a curse on the newcomers. Shortly after a ritual curse removal in 1964, skiing came to town and things have looked up ever since.

Fernie is a unique, mysterious, but surprisingly accessible treasure that begs to be experienced. It was clear from our visit that Fernie's indeed being discovered by people from all over the globe. Easy access to work visas has made Fernie a popular place for globe-trotting Australians, and affordable airfares to Calgary for Europeans are bringing legions of Swiss, Germans, and Austrians. Two hitchhiking Japanese boarders I picked up communicated in broken English that they had come to Fernie for “sick pow!”

Try as I might, I couldn't track down the reason why these mountains were dubbed the Lizard Range, although the most popular guess was that the serrated ridgeline of the range resembled some sort of big reptile. Bill also remembered seeing little salamanders with yellow stripes in the woods around Fernie when he was a kid, many years ago. Who knows. Like the Lizard King himself, it's only fitting that some of this special area's secrets remain unrevealed.

Fernie Facts

Getting There: Fernie's located in southeastern B.C. on Highway 3. By car, it's three hours from Calgary, Alberta, four and a half from Spokane, Washington, and only two hours from Kalispell, Montana, all of which are serviced by major airlines. You could also catch an Amtrak to Whitefish, Montana and hop on a bus to Fernie. There's an affordable shuttle to and from the resort.

Eating: Try Gabriella's Little Italy, located in the base area, for awesome Italian food and a nice wine list. Downtown, the Avalanche Restaurant features a great selection of international dishes. Rip & Richard's has a real wood-fired oven and cooks up everything from pizzas and calzones to Southwestern cuisine. On Highway 3, Jamocha's offers bagels in a hipster coffee-shop scene.

Sleeping: We stayed at the Wolf's Den Lodge in the base area and found it to be quiet and comfortable. Go to www.skifernie.com for a comprehensive lodging list or call 1-800-258-SNOW to reach Fernie's central reservations–they can set you up with lodging in town or on the mountain, from condos to motels. The most affordable option is the Raging Elk Hostel, with bunks starting at 16 dollars Canadian.

Getting Out: For a rocking party scene and the occasional live band, you won't be disappointed with the Grizzly Bar, upstairs in the day lodge. For the downtown vibe, try The Royal or The Northern, which gets more live tunes than anywhere else in Fernie. The Pub in the Park Place Lodge seemed like a happening place, too. Keep your eye out for fliers announcing live music.

Snowboard Stuff: Check out Frozen Ocean (250) 423-3042 or Board Stiff (250) 423-3473.

Call the Fernie Chamber Of Commerce for more info: (250) 423-6868.

nders with yellow stripes in the woods around Fernie when he was a kid, many years ago. Who knows. Like the Lizard King himself, it's only fitting that some of this special area's secrets remain unrevealed.

Fernie Facts

Getting There: Fernie's located in southeastern B.C. on Highway 3. By car, it's three hours from Calgary, Alberta, four and a half from Spokane, Washington, and only two hours from Kalispell, Montana, all of which are serviced by major airlines. You could also catch an Amtrak to Whitefish, Montana and hop on a bus to Fernie. There's an affordable shuttle to and from the resort.

Eating: Try Gabriella's Little Italy, located in the base area, for awesome Italian food and a nice wine list. Downtown, the Avalanche Restaurant features a great selection of international dishes. Rip & Richard's has a real wood-fired oven and cooks up everything from pizzas and calzones to Southwestern cuisine. On Highway 3, Jamocha's offers bagels in a hipster coffee-shop scene.

Sleeping: We stayed at the Wolf's Den Lodge in the base area and found it to be quiet and comfortable. Go to www.skifernie.com for a comprehensive lodging list or call 1-800-258-SNOW to reach Fernie's central reservations–they can set you up with lodging in town or on the mountain, from condos to motels. The most affordable option is the Raging Elk Hostel, with bunks starting at 16 dollars Canadian.

Getting Out: For a rocking party scene and the occasional live band, you won't be disappointed with the Grizzly Bar, upstairs in the day lodge. For the downtown vibe, try The Royal or The Northern, which gets more live tunes than anywhere else in Fernie. The Pub in the Park Place Lodge seemed like a happening place, too. Keep your eye out for fliers announcing live music.

Snowboard Stuff: Check out Frozen Ocean (250) 423-3042 or Board Stiff (250) 423-3473.

Call the Fernie Chamber Of Commerce for more info: (250) 423-6868.