by Lisa Kadane
It’s 10:00 a.m. and I’m playing flip cup inside the Bear’s Den yurt at Fernie Alpine Resort in the southeastern corner of British Columbia. I don’t normally start my ski day by downing a party cup of Kokanee beer mid-mountain, but it’s Griz Days—an annual March festival celebrating the mythical bear-man (a.k.a. “Griz”) responsible for shooting down powder from the heavens onto this Rocky Mountain playground. My team, part of a private event, is on a mountain quest that involves suds-chugging, skier-cross body checking, and human curling down at the base (where skiers on tire tubes become the “rocks” in this Olympic sport takeoff).
Between “events” we’re screaming down runs of perfect corn snow, booting it over cat-track lips and shooting rooster tails of slush into the warm air with every turn. Spring skiing in Fernie is a delicate balance between lazy laps and beer rewards. Unless it’s puking snow. Then, it’s go-time. For a couple hours, anyway.
In a town where locals have been known to burn skis as an offering to the Griz and where the community rallies annually to watch a parade in his honor, it’s really not that unusual for skiers to mix in a little booze to boost their spring shred, or simply call it early and head to the Griz Bar patio for a pitcher or Burt Reynolds-branded shot-ski.
Beyond the resort’s party reputation, anchored by a string of raucous spring festivals that kicks off with Griz Days and culminates with Fernival on closing weekend (April 11-12), what incites the pilgrimage to Fernie in the first place is the snow—you can get over a foot of powder on closing day, and Fernie has seen close to 40 feet of snow fall in one season. Fluffy flakes settle enticingly into five pearly-white alpine bowls strung below the jagged limestone teeth of the Lizard Range, connected by a series of cat tracks perfect for sneaking in jumps between pillow drops. In effect, March and April don’t necessarily mean spring skiing—Fernie can deliver pow across its 2,500 acres till the end.
“In my 11 years patrolling, I can ski to the base on closing day, and there’s over 350 cm (137 inches) in our plot,” says head patroller Kevin Giffin. “We get epic powder, and we’re steep. We naturally draw that 18 to 35 crowd because of our terrain. Eighty percent of it is dark blue getting to black.”
To experience a favorite locals’ steep-and-deep tour, begin at the top of White Pass, traverse Currie Bowl to the Saddles, and drop into Lizard Bowl via one of four chutes (once down, stay in the trees in Easter Bowl, for nice face shots through beautifully spaced spruce trees). Then, catch a lift up Great Bear and traverse across Cedar Bowl to Snake Ridge and rip up the resort’s deepest snow down some of its gnarliest pitches. It won’t kill you, but this circuit will make you a believer.
“Fernie is underrated with freeskiers because it’s not known for its huge cliffs, but it’s such a fun hill,” says Dylan Siggers. A competitive big-mountain freeskier himself, Siggers is perhaps best known for his viral videos showcasing his hometown’s legendary conditions, and spring “burrrlapz” sessions involving copious flips and endless sidehill tranny-finders.
“The laps are fast and there’s so much good terrain. There are so many natural features and jumps and cut-outs in the spring,” he says. And if Mother Nature doesn’t line it up just so, Siggers and his friends beef up the natural hits, a practice not exactly endorsed by the hill, but one on which management is willing to look the other way, especially toward season’s end.
“Last spring we built a whole bunch of big booters down Bear. It looked like chaos—everyone weaving in and out and hitting jumps.”
Authentic ski town… with quirk
The mythology surrounding Fernie’s powder can be a bit much at times. Take the Extreme Griz competition, held during Griz Days; a contest Giffin calls, “an endurance test based on beer drinking and stamina.” (He clinched the title one year by doing body shots off all the female judges.) But for the most part, the historic town, located three miles north of the ski hill, and the eclectic mix of outdoorsy folks who populate it, keep things real.
Originally a coal-mining town, Fernie’s compact main street features heritage brick buildings constructed after a 1908 fire. The ski hill opened in 1963, initiating the town’s transition to a tourism-based economy. Now, there are boutiques, great dining options and even more drinking choices—Fernie has more bars per capita than most ski towns, with 14 for a population of just 4,000. Weekends are always pumping at The Royal or The Northern Bar & Stage with live bands or DJs.
“Fernie has this really weird, cool mix, from the coal industry to tourism,” says Giffin, who came to Fernie for the outdoor opportunities but stayed because of the close-knit community. It’s a town that supports local acts like “stoke-folk” band Shred Kelly and local athletes like Canadian alpine skier Emily Brydon. And when it comes to supporting homegrown spring skiing events such as Hot Dog Day, the entire town of Fernie is all in.
Hot Dog Day
This annual tribute to the classic 1984 ski flick Hot Dog… The Movie takes place the first Wednesday of April (fittingly, April Fool’s Day this year). It began in 1999 when 12 buddies dressed up in stretch pants and clicked in to skinny skis at the resort, then ended their ski day drinking beer while watching Hot Dog at the Park Place Lodge. Though the movie was filmed in Squaw Valley, it struck a chord with locals and Hot Dog Day is now “ridiculously out of hand.”
“Now it’s 2,000 people dressed up in retro gear and every bar in town shows [the movie],” says Giffin. (Festivities really ramped up after the movie Hot Tub Time Machine was filmed in Fernie in the spring of 2009.)
On the hill, bands of “tight and bright” throwback skiers travel in groups, carrying backpacks full of booze. They drain cans on the chairlifts and occasionally toss empties into the slush. Party central is on blue run Wallaby off of the Haul Back T-bar, where hot-doggers build a jump and let 80s nostalgia fly over the hill in the form of twisters and crotch grabs, while zinc-nosed onlookers worship the sun and cool off with more Kokanee. (Fernie Alpine Resort organizes an official Kokanee Retro Weekend in late March, but Hot Dog Day is the 80s event to hit.)
So entrenched is the annual tradition, it inspired Shred Kelly’s latest music video, says band member Sage McBride.
Shot in one take by Siggers, the video follows three band members as they belt out Sing to the Night while skiing down the green run Holo Hike, through two underpass tunnels. The trio are dressed in classic 80s ski ensembles of stretch ski suits in primary colors, skinny skis and fanny packs, and extras ski in and out of the frame pulling off an awesome series of spread eagles and daffys on side jumps. McBride loves spring at Fernie for the sunny days and forgiving snow, but Hot Dog Day holds a special place in her heart.
“It’s any excuse to wear 80s gear,” she says. “There’s even a lady in town who rents out 80s ski gear if you don’t have your own. She has, like, 300 outfits.”
I’m already planning my follow-up to last year’s Griz Days booze-a-thon. It may involve lazy laps in a Roffe ensemble on my 193 Elans, but I’ll try to refrain from naked table sliding after hours at the Griz Bar—there’s a limit to how much I can drink while wearing stretch pants, after all.