Pros: Big & Varied Terrain; 2000' of Vertical; Lots of Steeps, Good Tree Skiing. Usually has Good Snow.
Cons: Long Traverses; Crowds on Weekends, Skis Out Quickly, Overblown Sense of Self-Importance, Potential for Rain & a Price Gouging Mentality
Fernie is my home mountain & I ski it around 35 to 40 times a season. Its located about 10 minutes from the town of Fernie, BC which can be seen from the slopes. It’s on the eastern slope of the Lizard Range of the Canadian Rockies and consists of 5 bowls divided by ridges which offer some very good steeps and tree skiing. All told there is around 2,000 acres of inbounds terrain of which I would say 50% black or a very deep shade of blue. There are also many back-country skiing opportunities in the area and three nearby cat ski operations.
Fernie styles itself as having "Legendary Powder". This is more marketing hype than the honest goods. It is true that given its geographic positioning, Fernie catches more snow than many nearby areas. Usually 30 feet (10 meters) of snow falls in an average a year but this can be decidedly more or less depending upon the particular year. Five years ago it rained all the time and there was mud at the top of mountain in mid-February and four years ago it seemed to snow a foot of powder every single day. Fog or thick overcast is often prevalent, especially in early & mid-winter. In short, it can be hit or miss. As I write this (December 01st, 2010) there is a base in excess of 3 feet and it has had a total snow fall in excess of 7 feet. If this holds up the 2010-11 season should be a very good snow year for Fernie.
Fernie is owned by the Alberta oil tycoon Murray Edwards who, as far as I can tell, isn’t a skier. Rather it appears to be a business investment that runs on the philosophy of bleeding every available penny out of the operation. As a result the lift prices are high & the on-hill amenities are expensive. This philosophy resulted in Fernie listening to its lawyers and closing down of all of its terrain park features. Nonetheless, the operation is well run and well maintained most of the time. There is a wide range of the typical on-hill facilities but for night life people head into Fernie which has some pretty good bars and restaurants.
Turning to the skiing, the lower ½ of the mountain is basically green & the upper half is black and blue. The grooming is just so-so and therefore Fernie is not the best choice for those who seek out velvety corduroy runs. For that Whitefish Montana is the better choice and is about 2 hours from Fernie.
For those, like me, who seek out steep & deeps and who like tree skiing, Fernie is a very good hill indeed. The most varied of the steep & deeps are accessed from the five ridges that separate the bowls and lead to some very challenging skiing terrain. The problem with getting to many of these ridge areas is that long cruising traverses are required but once one gets to where one is going the rewards are worth the trip. Even when not skiing the ridges, there are large flats in the bowls which prevent one from skiing top to bottom without crossing some less than inspiring terrain. There are two notable exceptions to this traverse problem. The first is the north aspect Cedar Bowl accessed immediately off of both the Great Bear Chair and the Boomerang Chair. The second is the terrain under and flanking Boomerang chair itself.
Fernie is extremely popular with people in Calgary Alberta, which is about 3 hours away. Many of them have condos on the hill or own property in the town of Fernie. On weekends the place can be really crowded. This can result in the whole mountain being skied out in a matter of hours. Still, the crowds do not usually cause long lift line waits unless areas of the mountain have been closed due to avalanche control.
Closure for avalanche control can be a pain. Given the 5 five bowls are located under a 1,000 foot cliff face of the Lizard range, snow control after a really good dump can take some time, leaving large areas of the mountain closed for skiing and results in even heavier traffic in the areas that remain open. This problem may have been somewhat ameliorated by last summer’s installation of a line along the Lizard ridge which should facilitate the dropping of explosive charges.
There is much one can say about specific runs on Fernie but for the best information concerning these matters I suggest you check out Craig Morrison’s interactive Google Earth Map in which he has traced all of Fernie’s runs and has entered his reviews and pictures of those runs. It is really quite illuminating and can be found at the following link: http://www.redtree.com/far#googlemap. In addition, Craig has set up a smart phone application on which you can locate your position on the map and obtain information while skiing the mountain. The link for the app is at the bottom of the page of his map.
All in all, I would say that Fernie is a very good but not great mountain. There are many who will rate it higher than me and I acknowledge that my familiarity with the hill may well have breed a degree of contempt. Having said all of this, I do not think any visitor to Fernie who is looking for some really good and varied skiing will go away disappointed (unless, of course, it rains).
Here’s my list of other very good and challenging mountains to consider that are within 3 hours or so of Fernie: (1) Castle Mountain, Alberta which is south of the Crowsnest Pass; (2) Red Mountain which is just outside of Rossland BC; (3) Whitewater in the hippie time-warp town of Nelson, BC; (4) Kicking Horse in Golden BC; and, (4) Revelstoke near the town of Revelstoke BC (this mountain has the highest vertical of any mountain in North America). For those who are looking for more family orientated and less adventurous ski experience, Alberta’s Lake Louise, Sunshine & Nakisika, all east of Calgary, are good choices as is Whitefish (formerly Big Mountain) in Whitefish, Montana and Panorama which is located about an hour north of Cranbrook BC.