Tag Archives: British Columbia

16/12/11 – Winter campervanning in Fernie in Fall-Line magazine

Nick and Bethan, the plucky campervanners

Two of the most brilliant people I met last winter were Bethan and Nick Lowe, who spent a ski season living in a campervan in Fernie, a great resort in British Columbia, Canada.

Happily for them, it was a fantastic snow year, and Bethan – who arrived an out-and-out beginner – was able to master powder skiing on Fernie’s scores of lovely, ungroomed, gladed (and often very steep) runs. Nick turned out to be a superb patient fiance (check out this post – http://tinyurl.com/d845cgm – and see if you recognise who I’m talking about) and it turned out to be a great way to spend a winter in the mountains at very low cost.

Chilly but cosy: the happy couple's home sweet home

My article about Nick and Bethan is out now, in the current issue (101) of Fall-Line, the excellent ski magazine. Find it in the newsagent, or to have a look at the piece – “Maximum Freshies, Minimum Cost” – here, follow this link:

Maximum Freshies, Minimum Cost – Fall-Line magazine, issue 101 

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Filed under Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw

31/8/11 – This new lift should be a cracker – but how to choose between the 22 ways down?

Fernie's ski area, which is due to expand this season with a new chair lift to the top ridge

I heard this week that a tasty piece of terrain is due to open up this winter in Fernie, my favourite Canadian resort. Well, I admit Fernie is the only mountain I have skied so far in North America, but that’s by the by: the place is known for its steep, gladed ungroomed slopes and when I was there it lived up in a big way to its slogan of ‘legendary powder’.

The new chair, apparently a three-seater, is being built on Polar Peak, a mountain locals already hike up when conditions allow, to give them a steep, open descent. I believe this is also a route up to the headwall, an extreme descent for the seriously intrepid and for freeskier competitions.

Polar Peak is peeping out on the horizon, behind the 'fingers' of Stag Leap, Skydive and Decline on the wooded hill

The top of Polar Peak rises behind Currie and Lizard Bowls, beyond the top stations, and will provide those crucial extra feet of altitude that will allow Fernie – which marks its 50th anniversary as a ski hill this season – to boast that it has biggest vertical in the Canadian Rockies, at 3,550ft. For Europeans the extra feet are probably no great shakes, as plenty of Alpine ski areas have a far greater vertical drop (measured in metres in Europe).

What is intriguing to me, though, is that the new Polar Peak lift is due to provide an extra 22 runs. This is something that amazed me on my visit to Fernie: there are only a handful of lifts (five meaningful chairs and one t-bar) yet the lift map details something like 117 runs.

The slope in the background rises up to Polar Peak - at least I think this is the one. PIcture by Chris Johnson

I thought this was a gimmick at first, but most, I was surprised to find, are identifiable and merit their status as individual runs, even though many are not groomed and marking is patchy. (As is usual in North America, all are avalanche-controlled.) Of course some of these runs are short and some lie close together, but I defy a mountain in Europe to have anything approaching this ratio of lifts to runs – sometimes it’s the other way round.

As I never made the hike up Polar Peak during my stay in Fernie, I’m looking forward to riding up next time I visit. I’ll leave you with a blog post by a man who knows Fernie better than anyone, Brit-turned-local Bill Handley, describing a day spent hiking up Polar Peak (three times…) http://tinyurl.com/3rzf5lq

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Filed under Canada, Off-piste, Transport

18/7/11 – Is it too soon to dream about powder?

Well, there are a few blue runs - picture by Nick Lowe

Last week I found out where the Ski Club of Great Britain plans to send me as a leader next season. I’ve been asked to return to Fernie in British Columbia, Canada, where I spent three weeks earlier this year. I’m delighted as I had a great time there. It means I’ll be able to re-use not only the several unattractive serious-sub-zero neoprene masks but the map that is still in my head of hundred-plus runs (most of which are ungroomed: see previous posts such as these http://tinyurl.com/6g6p9l6 and http://tinyurl.com/6knhh5y).

Fernie has extra appeal for Brits this year because you can fly much closer than you could in past years, to Cranbrook an hour away rather than Calgary nearly four hours away, with Inghams. I hope to give this a try.

This was the weather we liked

The resort’s slogan is ‘Legendary Powder’ and last season, it certainly was. When a New Zealander friend of mine, Chris Johnson,visited me there in February, it snowed every day – and on average every other day of my entire stay. I soon loved the trees as they make for good visibility in all conditions and the snow stays better among them for longer. They are almost everywhere, as the top station is at less than 2,000m. See what it was like here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VECeNhuTLc.

When I spoke to Matt Mosteller (read his blog at www.skircr.com/matts-blog) from the tourist board a month ago, he said there was still four metres mid-mountain, two months after Fernie’s lifts had closed. When I go next year I’d also like to visit nearby Red Mountain – another ‘steep and deep’ spot – and White Fish, just over the US border in Montana. I also want to buy a ‘ski skirt’ of the kind worn by locals to stop them getting a wet behind on chair-lifts.

Just to explain, Ski Club leading works as follows. Competent, confident skiers and boarders can apply to enrol on the two-week Ski Club of GB leaders’ course, which is held each December in Tignes, France. Applicants need two references who will attest to their ability  on two planks (or one), as well as to their off-piste experience, and they must attend an interview. The course cost me around £2,000 once I’d paid fees, travel and extras. It involves tuition on and off-piste, snowcraft, avalanche essentials, basic rescue, leadership, Ski Club policy and so on. Some of the teachers are respected names, such as mountain guides Nigel Shepherd and Kathy Murphy and technique guru Phil Smith.

From a skiing and social perspective it’s a highly worthwhile course, whether or not you plan to ‘lead’. See the blog posts of December 2010, starting with this one – http://tinyurl.com/69mgah9 – to find out what goes on. If you pass, you may be sent for a few weeks to one of the Ski Club’s 34 resorts that host leaders. Each leader appoints a skiing meeting time and place six days a week, plus a daily ‘social hour’, and members in those resorts can join the leader for free – at a specified level each day, from intermediate to advanced, including ‘near-piste’ off-piste some days. Non-members can sign up for a free taster day, and sometimes the leader will organise a group to go out with a mountain guide.

During my time in Fernie, between one and half a dozen members came along most days. Only on three days in the three weeks did the members want to ski on piste, which illustrates the sort of skiers who love the place – and the ‘in-bounds’ and ‘out-of-bounds’ system, plus the very clear closed signs, made it easy to choose safe powder routes. I was glad I had no days with no ski buddies at all, as I’m not a fan of skiing by myself.

The system and leaders’ course has been around since the 1960s and it works pretty well – although the club has plenty of leaders at the moment so beware, if you sign up to this year’s course I gather they may not guarantee you a ‘slot’.

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Filed under Canada, France, Link to film, Off-piste, Transport

19/2/11 – Fernie: steep, ungroomed and snowy

A minimum of a fortnight's ban from Fernie is the penalty for crossing this rope

When I completed the Ski Club of GB leaders’ course in December (see previous posts) and was offered Fernie, British Columbia, as my first three-week leading slot, I suspected I’d landed on my feet. “Wow!” sighed fellow leaders. “Lucky you!” I’ve been here 10 days now: lucky me indeed – and lucky everyone who has visited this mountain lately. As Europe yearns for a few flakes, and visitors to the Alps return home with tanned faces and skis full of holes, in Fernie I’ve barely seen blue sky, and the last four days we’ve skied nothing but powder.

I’m here to ski with Ski Club members and find them the best runs and conditions, so I’ve had to get to know the place thoroughly. In Where to Ski and Snowboard 2011, editors Dave Watts and Chris Gill report that signage is limited, though they say it has improved lately. They also note that there is masses of steep ungroomed tree skiing. On both counts they’re spot on.

There are no markers as such on either groomed or ungroomed runs; signs indicate the top of most runs, some perched in trees. I spent my first two days here skiing with Andy Soar, the leader from whom I’m taking over. A regular here, he devised a clever route taking in the ridges between Fernie’s five bowls to show me some of the 112 in-bounds runs. As leaders we’re allowed to take members anywhere in-bounds and open, whether groomed, marked, tracked or not, but nowhere out of bounds.

It has taken me a few days to feel at home on the steep tree runs – although because the snow is lighter and easier than it typically is in Europe the gradient matters less. And I’ve bought a helmet: the snow-laden trees aren’t as soft as they look. Fernie’s lift system, at least, is simple – there are six chairlifts, one t-bar and one beginner button. And because none of them are too flashy or fast, more people are probably going up at any one moment than coming down – meaning plenty of room on the slopes.

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Filed under Canada, Off-piste