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Fabulous Fernie

B.C. ski resort offers visitors BANG for their buck

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IT'S not every day you wake up with a bang -- unless you're at Fernie, it seems.

You know it's snowing big time at Fernie Alpine Resort when you're jolted from your sleep by a thunderous BOOM.

Such was our experience several mornings during a weeklong visit to this southeastern B.C. destination resort last February.

Fernie has some of the steepest in-bounds terrain of any resort I've visited. The resort has five bowls offering beginner to expert skiers (and snowboarders) a variety of runs, ranging from wide open cruisers to bush-whacking trails in the trees.

Many of those areas are prone to avalanches, and Fernie's dedicated team of professional Canadian Ski Patrol members spend a good deal of their time assuring a safe playground for visitors. During my family's stay, we woke up to the concussions of avalanche control work (blasting) a few mornings before 8 a.m. As a result, it was not uncommon to have an entire bowl closed for a portion of, or the entire day.

No problem. There was still vast terrain from which to choose.

One of the areas I would have liked to explore more was the Cedar Bowl, the bowl area closest to our home base on the mountain, the exquisite Lizard Creek Lodge. I discovered it on Day 2 of the trip and spent a couple of hours doing laps of intermediate to expert runs in shin-deep powder. The plan was to check it out further the next day because A) it has great terrain; B) the skiing masses seem to ignore the area; and C) the forecast called for an epic powder day.

Those plans were dashed because, apparently, the snow was a bit too epic; avalanche control resulted in the area's closure for the remainder of our stay.

Pity.

There were only four more bowls and in excess of 100 other runs to choose from at this worthwhile ski destination, which now has 10 lifts and 140 marked runs and boasts the most snow, runs and vertical in the Canadian Rockies.

Fernie celebrates its 50th anniversary in the 2011-12 season with a new lift, Polar Peak, which will give it the biggest vertical in Canada's Rocky Mountains. The lift will add an above-tree-line bowl-skiing experience with more than 22 new runs in the Lizard Range.

The town of Fernie, and the nearby resort, are located on the eastern edge of B.C.'s Powder Highway, an area that includes eight alpine skiing resorts, 10 cross-country clubs and more than 40 snowcat, helicopter and backcountry skiing operations.

I have to admit I went into this vacation with low expectations. Fernie has a bit of a reputation (deserved or not) for iffy snow conditions, with rain or mild temperatures resulting in challenges.

For the best snow conditions, you need to get high and stay high. It's an approach that's true at many resorts and especially at Fernie. On our first day, you could literally feel the snow conditions deteriorating as you made your way down a run. Soft snow up top became sticky-heavy mid-mountain and was reduced to a slushy substance near the village base area.

That all changed with the generous helping of freshies Mother Nature provided for the remainder of our visit. It started with a light snowfall Tuesday morning (Day 2) and gathered steam in the following days. It dumped more than 60 centimetres (two feet) in 48 hours.

Fernie averages 875 centimetres (29 feet) of snow per year and enjoyed a near record of over 1,128 cm (37 feet) last season.

Of course, with the generous snowfall came the crowds of powder pigs seeking fresh tracks.

Not a problem. The resort's lift system has a capacity of 13,716 skiers per hour, so lineups at the lifts weren't too onerous.

Surprisingly, though, finding untracked powder was a bit of a problem if you didn't catch the first chairlift rides up the mountain. Those fresh-snow seekers do a good job of chewing up the fresh terrain, forcing adventurous late starters to venture into the trees for their powder fix.

Our first morning there, my wife and I put our two daughters in a snowboard lesson while we took a tour of the mountain with Jez from ski school, a native of Wiltshire, U.K., who now calls Fernie home. In a couple of hours, he managed to show us what the resort's five alpine bowls have to offer, from long cruisers for intermediate skiers to steep chutes and heavily gladed areas for the more adventurous.

Fernie has something for every level of skier and certainly delivered during our visit.

Huge terrain with substantial snow base and plenty of fresh snow? Check.

Surrounded by the Rockies with spectacular views from every angle? Check.

The Lizard Creek Lodge offers upscale slopeside accommodations just steps from the Elk Quad chairlift. We enjoyed exclusive use of the outdoor pool, hot tub and patio for the majority of the visit.

Lizard Creek features a beautiful riverstone and log lodge with grand fireplace. It has a variety of suites in the lodge and condos in two separate wings. Lizard Creek was at the high end of accommodations on the mountain, but the budget-conscious can find less expensive options at the resort, in town or along the highway between the two.

The resort offers several on-mountain and slopeside dining options and a well-stocked (for a mountain resort) grocery-liquor store.

The turn-of-the-century coal-mining town of Fernie is just five kilometres east of the ski area. Its downtown area features several unique shops, restaurants and bars. There's a convenient shuttle service for those who sleep at the resort but want to wander into town to sample the nightlife.

Fernie Alpine Resort has pretty much everything you'd expect at a popular mountain resort, including a wide variety of activities for kids and families away from the slopes.

It's part of the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies conglomerate that includes nearby Kimberley, Nakiska (near Calgary) and Mont-Sainte-Anne and Stoneham resorts in Quebec.

Observation: If you're somewhat adventurous and a decent skier, it's easy to get from one side of the mountain to the other without having to ride multiple chairs. I was just starting up the White Pass Quad, on the far side of the mountain from where we were staying, when my daughter got on the walkie-talkie to say she was coming out to join me for some afternoon runs. Within 15 minutes, I joined her at the base of the Elk Quad. I had managed to traverse the majority of the mountain, including several gladed areas, without having to ride another chairlift.

Rob Knodel is a Free Press copy editor who missed his true calling as a ski bum.

IF YOU GO:

-- Contact RCR Central Reservations (1-877-333-2339) or visit www.ski.fernie.com for more information on the resort.

-- Visit www. tourismfernie.com for more information on the resort and other attractions and events in the town of Fernie and the surrounding area.

-- Fernie resort is a three-hour drive from Calgary International Airport, 75 minutes from the Canadian Rockies International Airport in Cranbrook, B.C. Both offer car rentals or a shuttle service.

-- Lizard Creek Lodge offers one of the best ski-in, ski-out locations on the mountain, fine accommodations, a spectacular lodge/lounge/dining room with grand fireplace, exercise room, saunas and massage services, and an outdoor pool and hot tub offering tremendous views of the slopes and surrounding mountains.

-- Visit www.powderhighway.com for more information on the multitude of skiing operations located within the boundaries of southeastern B.C.'s Powder Highway.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2011 D6

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