Rumours rumours rumours. There’s big rumours in Fernie these days. Enough to set off any freerider’s seismometer. What’s at stake is a possible, and what appears to be a most likely, capital improvement at Fernie Alpine Resort that would put a new lift to the top of Polar Peak. Yes, it’s almost true, that the long awaited and much philosophized about addition, that would shuttle intermediate and advanced riders to the top of the majestic peak at Fernie could potentially be happening. Now, let’s be 100% clear. In absolutely NO way has official word from RCR been announced. Officially, this new lift is nothing more than towers being stored in a parking lot for a local business that needed the space. Apparently, these towers are headed to Dawson Creek, but there also happens to be some suspicious looking machinery in the parking lot. This is the kind of equipment that would be required to build a new lift. So far, RCR is in no way acknowledging that a new lift may be being built. That makes this story nothing more than a rumour about something that may or may not be true. However, unofficially, the word on the street is that the big change is coming and as long as they can get the necessary road built (which you can potentially see from town already ) and the many other infrastructures secured, it’s going to happen. That makes this rumour, what seems already to be, the worst kept secret in Fernie.
Freeriders have longingly looked up at Polar peak for decades. The Curry Bowl headwall, is a reasonable slope that intermediates could ski, and the additional vertical and the summit experience a lift to the top would bring seems like a logical step in the progression of the famed resort. But it’s really the fringe terrain that could be easily accessed, that could really get an expert freerider excited. Indeed, the trees seem to have ears in Fernie and even speaking of this rumour, that the lift is going in this summer, is like setting fire to red pine needles on a lower branch of a dead tree; it’s impossible to contain and it burns wildly out of control. Let’s hope that loose lips don’t sink this ship in this case, because the bottom line is that this is something that everybody wants.
Polar Peak: Proposed liftPolar Peak: Proposed lift
So if it’s true, what does it mean for expert freeriders? The answer is that it’s a big deal. The lift, which would potentially be a short but steep triple chair, rumoured to be from Nakiska, would be installed in Curry Bowl and take people to the top of Polar peak. If it happens, the Curry headwall would probably often be open, when conditions allow and it would open up some great skiing. But the story here is not so much that there will be a lot more terrain to ski because Fernie already has 6 big bowls with tons of skiing. The big issue is that access to these bowls will be more regular. Allowing the public in to Curry bowl is hard to safely manage on big snow days (and years) due to safety concerns of overhead snowpacks. This is not a knock to snow safety at Fernie, and let’s be clear, the snow safety team at Fernie are among the hardest working and best organized in Canada; but they have a hard job. It’s a simple fact that managing overhead danger is exponentially easier from the top down compared to from far a way with (underpowered) guns. A new lift to the top, in theory, means that patrol can more-safely mitigate big overhead hazards by getting skier compaction on the upper terrain. It means that the big looming pillows of snow that keep the bowls closed on powder days (and weeks) become a reduced hazard because of skier compaction on them. Even if it’s just patrol ski-cutting the slopes regularly, this is will greatly reduce the potential for massive avalanches off the high slopes and this all means that getting into the zone will happen quicker. It also means that there’s a much longer run to ski too, which in this case is a great bi-product. I’m suspecting the safety advantage this lift would bring has been probably the biggest driver for it’s development. Last year, there was an under publicized in-bounds avalanche at Fernie that was probably the kind of event needed to sear the importance of a fundamental, structural investment in avalanche control system changes into the psyche upper management. This event, which wasn’t the first in-bounds avalanche off this face, was perhaps the final straw, if you will, that put a new lift into the essential, must have pile. Maybe it took too long, but you do have to give the big wigs credit. This time they are not ignoring the problem and they are, potentially, putting forth the best solution possible by putting in a new lift.
I’ve already said that this story is based on a rumour, so take this news for what it is: speculation based on shaky information or even possibly mis-information. But on a hot summer day it’s fun to let your mind wonder off speculating what else this new lift would mean. By taking people to the top of Polar Peak or any peak for that matter, which is in my opinion, is a fundamentally crucial mountain experience, there will be a number of options that may present themselves for freeriders. First, the amount of rad terrain that could potentially be available to experts is tantalizing. The Polar Chutes and the amazing Lizzard Headwall, which is a permanent closure would be, in theory, easily accessible. Polar chutes are a large alpine feature with little definition in them on cloudy days. Compare them to Whitewall at KHMR or Whitehorns at Lake Louise. They are rad but would probably be low priority for patrol getting things open on a powder day.
They could offer great spring skiing however and it’s hard not to imagine going 100km/hr down them on a bluesky day, late in the year. The other and more alluring terrain is the famed Lizzard Headwall. A serious and exposed face with technical, expert terrain. Basically, the kind of slopes we live for. It’s hard not to imagine the possibilities of a Delirium Dive like gate (at Sunshine Village) that would allow experts to access the advanced terrain if they have beacons and partners. This would open up a new world to the inbounds experience at Fernie Alpine Resort and make it a must stop for traveling freeriders. Skiing the Lizzard as inbounds terrain is of course a dream and one that would probably take several years to materialize, even if the new lift gets erected this summer. Patrol will no doubt, slowly ease into what having a lift to the top would mean and their focus would no doubt be on new snow safety strategies that the lift enables. Opening the Lizzard would most likely be a low priority pet project for them. Whether we like it or not, experts make up such a tiny part of the market for ski resorts that our wants and needs are seldom at the top of the list. But there is hope. Fernie has a long tradition in catering to expert freeriders even if the market is not large; they also have a will inside the patrol team that has a strong desire to see cool things happen, which is the only way that good things get done. I remember competing in the freeski competition when they allowed the finalists, to compete on the Lizzard Headwall, for the very first time. The 20 or so of us who got to ski it, were apart of the first ever sanctioned descents of this face. Of course people had been skiing those lines, as poaches, for years but to do it with official blessing is a whole other can of worms that is not always easy to convince upper management to open. That small event, in 2003, may have perhaps begun to pave the way for what would be stellar terrain accessed by a new mythical lift.
Maybe it’s going to happen. Maybe it isn’t. RCR is certainly not saying anything at this time. But it’s fun to dream about and Fernie might possibly make a very cool move this summer that would make freeriding there even better.
-written by Tim Grey
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