Screaming quads. Cold beers with friends while soaking in the hot tub after a 10,000 vertical foot day of knee-deep pow. Thatâ€™s what itâ€™s all about at Fernie Wilderness Adventures (aka â€œFWAâ€), just outside of Fernie, BC. We wanted to take a moment to describe the FWA experience and do our best to convince you to go there.
Snowcat skiing at FWA is a laid-back, kick ass experience. For a long time now weâ€™ve enjoyed an awesome partnership with them as a testing ground for our skis, for some sweet filming trips for our athletes, and running contests like the Fernie Wilderness Adventures / Revision Skis Giveaway. Most of the FWA guides are on Revision Subtractions, and FWA has a full fleet of Revision rentals to choose from when guests need powder skis. Weâ€™ve gotten to know the guys and the operation pretty well over the years, and they are seriously some of the most chill, well meaning folks in the ski industry.
Our most recent trip wasnâ€™t about filming, testing, or marketing though. It was just for fun and bromance. Coming from the states, four of us flew into Kalispell, Montana, for an easy two hour drive north to Fernie. Along the way you can stop at Whitefish Mountain to get the legs warmed up, or ride at Fernie Alpine Resort when you get to town.
Stay at the lodge!
You can day ski at FWA, or you can stay in the lodge, which is the way to go. Itâ€™s a relaxing, rustic luxury, badass little hunting camp experience tucked into the mountains. The hot tub mentioned above? Itâ€™s heated by a welded aluminum wood fire box which sits right inside of the water, and is cooled by with a stream of ice cold hose water when you need it. Itâ€™s an awesome example of backcountry ingenuity.
And if youâ€™re staying at the lodge, once youâ€™re there, youâ€™re there. You can bring in your own beers (and for Godâ€™s sake, stock up at duty free if you can!), but all of the cooking is taken care of for you when you stay at FWA. No need to run out to the grocery store, or to a restaurant, but Fernie is just a short drive away if a night on the town is in the cards.
Arguably the best part to staying at the guest lodge is that after the day is over, and the dayâ€™s slideshow has been run (FWA provides professional photography to shoot pics throughout the day), the day crowd takes off and sweet silence descends on the cabin. At this point, you have the place to yourself and a small group of friends, and it feels like your own cabin. Pop a beer, sink into the comfy leather couches, enjoy a home cooked dinner, or watch the stars on the deck out back. Crash in a super comfortable bed and sleep good after a long day of catskiing. Itâ€™s awesome.
There are eight guest rooms in the back of the lodge, with single or double occupancy. We were lucky enough to score our own rooms, which was awesome, but if they are booked up a double occupancy room is more than enough for a pair of friends.
Each ski day at FWA begins with the guides and day skiers arriving at around 7:30 or so in the morning. After the safety briefs are given and waivers are signed, the snow cat takes off at around 8:30 for the 45-minute or so trip up the mountain. The first run is generally pretty mellow to help you warm up and to let the guides check out the groupâ€™s ability.
Then, you just go from there depending on the groupâ€™s ability that day, riding lines from alpine meadows, flowy and open ridgelines, to steep and glades. Youâ€™ll drop into aptly named runs such as Heaven, Stellar, Paradise, and Sweetness. FWA operates up to three snowcats, with groups of around 10-12 riders each. You can tag along with a group of new faces, or even rent out your own snow cat for you and your buddies. Expect to rack up from 8-10 runs through the deep, legendary powder that Fernie is known for.
On our second day of skiing, we began skiing with photographer Pat Belisle. After climbing into the snow cat at the bottom of one of the first runs of the day, we were laughing about how nice the snow was. Light, and fast. We were flying through the meadows on the runouts and grinning our asses off. I asked Pat if we were blessed by Ullr with perfect snow, or if this was pretty regular. He just smiled and said “We get this type of snow all the time.”
Thanks to some terrain changes coming down the pipe for the 2016/2017 season, there has never been a better time to go snow cat skiing at FWA. Working with the forest management company which leases the tenure area to FWA, they will build a series of new snow cat routes and glade out a bunch of additional new terrain this summer. What that means is that the snow cats will be able to more efficiently move around the 5,000+ acres of amped up Subtraction playground. FWA has been daydreaming about improved snowcat routes for years, and now is the time to make it happen.
Heli vs. cat?
So, maybe youâ€™re ready to pull the trigger on the ski trip of a lifetime (or at least, thatâ€™s what you tell your wife while also scheming another â€œtrip of a lifetimeâ€ for the following winter). So whatâ€™s the difference between cat skiing and heli skiing? We’ve been lucky enough to have done a little of both and were talking about it with other skiers in the cat who have also heli skied and cat skied. What’s better?
To a lot of people, heli skiing is the holy grail. The birds quickly and repeatedly drop you onto untracked lines. However, you better be in damn good ski shape, as thereâ€™s not much time for rest in between runs. You might be surprised by how mellow many of the runs are (though still amazing nonetheless). Additionally, during storm cycles there may be days when the helicopter canâ€™t fly due to low visibility, and if the operation doesnâ€™t have a backup snow cat…. you’re f*cked. Thereâ€™s no more cruel way to torture a skierâ€™s soul than knowing that the powder is out there, but you canâ€™t get to it.
Snow cats, on the other hand, can run in any conditions and keep you skiing in the trees when visibility is garbage. Additionally, you will often get into more challenging terrain than typically catered to heli clientele, such as glacier milk runs where farmed turns and figure 8 contests are the ticket. And with a cat, once youâ€™re done with a run, you have 10 minutes or so before the cat gets back to the top, plenty of time for a quick rest and to refuel on food and drink. (By the way, FWA stocks each cat with a full dayâ€™s supply of snacks, food, water, and juice.) So, itâ€™s not always true in our experience that heli skiing is necessarily better than cat skiing. They are just different, each in their own good way, and one is a lot, lot more affordable than the other.
Thinking about going to Eff-Double-you-Eh? Here are some tips.
- If you donâ€™t already own a pair of powder skis, FWA has a full fleet of rental skis to choose from, including a stable of Revision Subtraction Powder Skis. Based on the smiles we saw on faces of guests who had rented pow skis, they were glad they did.
- Listen to your guides. They want you to have fun while keeping you safe. They are happy to point you towards whatever you want to ride, from a meadow to a cliff drop. Itâ€™s all up to you. But, stay within bounds. Nobody likes waiting while a straggler who went off course is rounded up.
- There can be friends on powder days at FWA! Take turns dropping in from first to last. There is plenty of powder for everyone. Nobody likes the guy who cuts in front every time.
- Leave some room between skiers. While everyone will have a partner, you donâ€™t need to ski up their keester. Itâ€™s all a lot more fun when you can bomb down the entire run without getting jammed up in the woods.
- Pay attention during the safety instruction. You donâ€™t want to get run over by a snowcat or be a bump on a log if you need to help out in an emergency situation (that being said, FWA has a stellar safety record).
- Go for a few days in a row. You will relish the look of envy when you tell your new friends in the snow cat that yup, you get to do it all again tomorrow.
- Take some backup gear like an extra set of goggles and mittens. There is plenty of room on the cat to stash a small backpack. Make sure you have everything, because once the cat is up for the day there’s no coming back.
- Be a pretty good skier. You donâ€™t have to be an expert, but to have a good time you should be comfortable skiing most runs at a resort. While a lot of cat operations will accept almost anyone in the name of a profit, FWA really encourages strong riders so that everyone has a great time, and tends to shoo away people who might not be ready to cat ski yet. Thatâ€™s a really cool part about cat skiing at FWA.
- Fernie Wilderness Adventures is easy to get to from Kalispell, MT for travel via the states, or via Calgary. Itâ€™s about a 2-3 hour drive from either airport. If you are coming from the US and intend to drink some beer on your trip, definitely stock up at duty free at the border. Canadian beer prices are through the roof.
- Stay at the lodge!
- Tip your guides, (and if staying at the lodge, the hostess). A good amount to tip is $25-$30 for a day of skiing, which goes into the tip pot and is divided up between the guides and snow cat drivers. If you are skiing multiple days you can just pay into the pot after your last day.
Oh, and one last thing.
Come back for the fly fishing:
When the snow melts, FWA turns its attention to guided fly fishing on the waters of the Elk Valley. We havenâ€™t personally been able to make it to Fernie for the fly fishing, but itâ€™s on our bucket list. FWA goes above and beyond to get you to the best secret, uncrowded, remote locations. You will catch fish and you will have fun.