When the first ski tourers ventured deep into the Cedar Valley below the sawtooth peaks of the Lizard Range, they could only have imagined how Fernie would be shaped by the sport that had already captivated Europe and the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. but was mostly still the domain of elite mountaineers in the Rockies.
It was the 1940s and those intrepid explorers from the Fernie Ski Club had found their way to Liverwurst Bowl, now part of the terrain at Island Lake Catskiing. A major boost to organized skiing came in April 1955 when the Fernie Board of Trade supported the club’s plan to build a ski hill on Mt. Proctor. The hill would feature a rope tow, chalet, and 1,000ft access road. The Chamber of Commerce backed a bid for the 1968 Olympics during these hopeful early years. To facilitate the application, the infrastructure on Mt Proctor was relocated to Liverwurst Bowl, with plans for further development. The Olympic event was eventually awarded to Lillehammer but the process set the tone for ski developments in Fernie.
“Much benefit should come from the publicity received during the Olympic campaign and in the near future we may see a development on our ski site that could mean a much needed secondary industry in this area.” - Telfer Dicks, Chairman of the committee and local garage owner
Momentum built, and the current location of Fernie Alpine Resort was identified for development. With a donation of land from Galloway Lumber and an enthusiastic army of volunteers, construction quickly began and Fernie Snow Valley Ski Resort officially opened on January 10th, 1962. An A-frame Lodge was located at the current site of the Day Lodge and the Rabbit Ridge Rope Tow and Elk T-Bar offered a variety of terrain between the current sites of the Griz Inn and Bear’s Den. Underground miner Louie Sclippa was the ski hill’s first employee. On requesting a change of work, he was paid by Crowsnest Industries, one of the ski resort’s financial supporters, to cut the ski hill road, clear trails, and operate machinery during the early construction phases. While he never skied, Louie loved his new work and continued at the ski area for seven years, operating lifts, rescuing injured skiers, and taking care of the day lodge. Louie was posthumously honoured for his dedication at the inaugural Fernie Ski Hall of Fame Banquet in 2012, just weeks after his death at the age of 88.
In 1966, Crowsnest Industries President Bill Prentice employed Heiko Socher, a forestry student at the University of British Columbia, to come to Fernie and manage the company’s woodlands. On arrival, the UBC Ski Team alumnus discovered that Bill had also recently founded a ski area in Fernie, and wasted no time becoming a key figure in the local ski industry along with his new wife, Linda. In 1967, Linda opened the ski school and one of the first ski rental businesses in the Rockies, building the A-frame store and office with the help of Margaret Stokie. After 3 years operating their ski school, the Sochers started to envision the hill’s potential. The couple acquired a 30% share in the flagging business and the board agreed to Heiko becoming manager. He set to work on developing Fernie Snow Valley, adding terrain, lifts, and infrastructure, and became well known for his boundless work ethic and dedication to the ski area, constantly picking up rocks and garbage as he went. Heiko’s knack for marketing brought The Griz to life as Fernie’s official mascot.
In the 1980s as snowfall records regularly exceeded 10m per season, Heiko and Linda really began to make their mark. The Boomerang Triple and Elk Quad chairs were installed. The Elk T-Bar was moved, and the old rental shop & ski school office was renovated as the new Bear’s Den, a welcoming mid-mountain retreat. Others were starting to take notice and see the potential — construction on Timberline Village provided the first on-mountain residences; Timberline Condominiums and the Griz Inn opened up the mountain to holidaymakers and vacation home owners. The first Griz competition held in 1978 was a huge success, followed by the Powder-Pedal- Paddle Relay Race in 1982 and Dummy Downhill in 1987. All three events are still held to this day.
A huge number of locals contributed to the early success of Fernie Snow Valley. In 1969, financial support from Kaiser Coal and a public sale of shares enabled the installation of the Bear T-bar, extending the terrain high into the Lizard Bowl and providing access into Cedar Bowl. Early enthusiasts of the “old side” still defend their side of the mountain in bar-room debates and proudly affirm allegiances on T-shirts from Giv’er Shirtworks. In 1970, Guy Guideau added the first ski-in-ski-out accommodations in the Rockies to the burgeoning resort; a modest 2-Season, 20-room motel that stood on the current site of the Griz Inn until it burned down in 1974.
Around the valley, keen entrepreneurs set their sights on alternatives to lift-accessed skiing. Following the construction of the Bear Lodge, Island Lake Mountain Tours opened the valley’s first independent snow-catskiing operation in 1988, later rebranding as Island Lake Catskiing and developing a range of luxury experiences. On Morrissey Ridge, Kim Sedrovic started Fernie Wilderness Adventures Catskiing in the early 1990’s. Both operations continue to attract visitors from around the world, providing extended access to exceptional terrain.
As the ‘90s rolled around and Fernie Snow Valley consolidated its appeal with the addition of the Deer Chair, expanded terrain, and exciting new runs, including Stag Leap and Sky Dive, Fernie embraced a new era of enthusiasm for the ski industry. The Fernie Trails and Ski Touring Club were incorporated in 1991 and secured a permit for Thunder Meadows Hut. A 50-year Crown Land lease was signed with the Province of BC to enable the construction of new chairlifts offering access to Currie, Timber and Siberia Bowls – the “new side” – plus a lodge at the top of the Timber Express Chair. Catskiing was offered in the bowls prior to the construction of the chairlifts. Deciding not to take on the massive financial undertaking and construction of the expansion, Heiko and Linda sold Fernie Snow Valley to Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR) in 1997, and expansion swiftly took hold on the renamed Fernie Alpine Resort.
New resort-style hotels and luxury log homes met the demands of the booming ski travel market and new terrain provided the excitement and fresh lines many had only dreamed about. Combined with non-existent lift lines, fun dining options, and the low Canadian dollar, RCR’s international marketing machine had guests flocking in from the USA, UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand. In town, hoteliers were forming their own relationships with European tour operators, creating a melting pot of international ski enthusiasts who each brought their own enthusiastic style to the mountain and the après-ski scene.
By 2000, Fernie’s spot on the international scene was firmly established and the Resort became a must do on the Canadian circuit. The recession of ’07-08 caused a slowing of development but in hindsight may have been the best thing to happen to Fernie. Without the mega-construction of some larger ski resorts, the proximity of Fernie Alpine Resort to the City of Fernie provides an accessibility and small-town charm rarely found within the ski industry.
The town’s unique charms were recognized by Hollywood in 2009 when Fernie was selected as the central location for one of the biggest ski comedies of the decade — Hot Tub Time Machine; a Disney production followed in 2011. The best of the Fernie Alpine Ski Team (FAST) have wowed at world cup events and local hero Emily Brydon represented Canada twice at the Winter Olympics, in ’06 and ’10.
Seeking new activity options, local volunteer groups have worked hard to provide cross country skiing facilities in recent years. Fernie now offers no less than 5 distinctly different Nordic ski areas, some with warming huts. Most are exclusive to cross country skiers but some include options for snowshoeing, fatbiking and bringing your dogs.
In 2012, Fernie Alpine Resort celebrated 50 years of lift-accessed skiing with a week of festivities including the inaugural Skiing Hall of Fame banquet, honouring those who have shaped the face of skiing in Fernie. The Polar Peak Triple Chair was the crowning achievement of the season, opening spectacular new terrain and bringing the title of “Most runs and most vertical in the Canadian Rockies” to Fernie. With the recent addition of two new day-use huts for ski touring and the announcement that the International Snow Science Workshop will be held in Fernie in 2020, the ski culture of Fernie continues to forge ahead into new areas.
Heiko Socher passed away on October 7th, 2016, leaving a legacy that is celebrated from Historic Downtown to the highest peaks surrounding Fernie. In his signature understated style, Heiko built the cornerstones of Fernie’s recreational heritage that will stand for many years to come and his vision for a new ski resort and village above Ridgemont — Heaven’s Gate — holds untold development potential. As Fernie reflects on 50 years of skiing heritage and remembers the pioneers of the past, it is clear that the future of the industry has never been stronger.
“At this ski show I was at in Calgary, there was a little movie that was playing at the Fernie booth. It was... I couldn’t believe it when I was watching it. I thought it was incredible! It was sunny and there was so much snow! Living in eastern Canada I had never really even seen snow like that. I thought, Where is this place? I can’t believe it. How can there even be this much snow!” - Barry Hulburd, 1973
Be sure to watch Fernie’s new ski film Ascent To Powder – Tale of a Ski Town online!