At the top of Polar Peak and Fernie Alpine Resort, we let our ski tips hang over the backside. Before us, the Lizard Range unfolded with its approachable ski slopes divided by steep jagged ridges. From that stance, it would be easy to see why this sub-range of the Crowsnest has attracted skiers for over a hundred years if you could see anything. But we could not. In an absolute whiteout, we lost sight of the ski area boundary rope immediately and fell into a convex bowl of milk with nothing but gravity for reference.
Our goal was to find the Thunder Meadow backcountry hut some 5km away. Luckily, we had a GPS track to follow and quickly reached the security of the forest. The northeast side of the fabled Lizard Range is a series of repeating ridges copied with slight variations as you go north from the ski area. Looking from town, you can see the options clearly: Cedar Bowl, Fish Bowl, Liverwurst Bowl, Orca Bowl and Cabin Bowl, named after the hut we were trying to find. At the end of the range, just beyond Cabin Bowl, lies Island Lake Lodge Catskiing.
But we dropped into the other side of these mountains, the side you can’t see from town, even on a clear day. The route from Polar Peak to Thunder Meadows starts as a steep bowl but then transitions into a long, gentle slope north to the bottom of Easy Street, a 450 vertical metre run that you can climb directly to the cabin.
Friend-of-Fresh, Rob Heule, and one-time Fresh athlete, Colin Puskas, had rented the Thunder Meadows hut for three nights in mid-February in hopes of enjoying some full-moon skiing. Luckily, we reached the hut before sunset, barely, and were able to eat a quick dinner and dump our gear before heading out into the dark.
Skiing by moonlight can be an exciting and otherworldly experience. The moon’s white light illuminates south-facing slopes enough for skiing but does little to bring trees into focus. Any shadows are blackholes to be avoided. But on our first night, the clouds never cleared, and the moon never truly shone, so we poked around near the hut by headlamp and got the lay of the land. Darkness makes everything more intimidating. Even short slopes looked like possible avalanche terrain until we revisited them by daylight. So we made turns down a mellow run back to the cabin and settled in for the night.
Thunder Meadows is a rustic A-frame with a sleeping loft above the kitchen/dining area and a wood stove. The only table, a 4ft x 3ft painted piece of plywood, quickly became a cluttered mess of camera bodies, lenses and batteries drying between dirty bowls, cups and utensils that were waiting for the last morning to be washed just once. Water bottles, freeze-dried meal packages, chocolate bars and Pringles were splattered between gloves, hats and headlamps.
To accommodate the nighttime skiing, our group of grown men took to napping in the afternoon like kindergarten kids. We would duck out for an hour or two of scoping terrain during the day, then retreat to the hut and wait for night to fall.
Operated by the Fernie Trails and Ski Touring Club, Thunder Meadows has been a skier’s escape since the original was built in 1978. The area gets so much snow that the tall A-frame hut gets buried and nearly hidden. Snow stairs drop eight feet down to the front door, and you need to watch your head as you duck a horizontal beam halfway down. The immediate terrain is gentle and inviting for skiers, especially when covered in the kind of powder Fernie is famous for. Beyond those slopes, adventurous skiers can find plenty of steeper terrain to play on.
Sounds like paradise - but the wind! It dropped below gale force at times but never did it stop. The ski resort is placed strategically on the sheltered side of the Lizard Range, but the predominant southwest wind blows right up Easy Street to the hut and accelerates over the ridge. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised. As you drive through the Crowsnest area, you see the wind all around you. Trees are bent, high ground is stripped bare, and vegetation huddles and hides in every hollow.
On our second night, that wind blew the clouds away, so when the sun set at 6:04, we were waiting at mountain top with cleat lenses in our goggles, ready to drop in as soon as the moon shone. Rob hiked a steep south-facing couloir, then clicked in and linked perfect turns between the black walls. Meanwhile, Colin was slashing powder turns for the camera. The climax of every turn was a pop of bright white, a blinding explosion of snow as moonlight, headlamp and flash reflected off airborne snow.
As the moon rose higher, we all turned our lights off and skied around the black blobs of trees, focusing on the smooth white carpet just illuminated enough to be fun. It’s easy to get mesmerized and lose your way, but all lines on this side of the pass lead more or less to the hut.
The skies were cloudy again on our last night, so skiing became a light show. Rob and Colin skied by headlamp while the rest of us pointed their torches at the slope, and the camera’s flash burst. Stark shadows danced on opposing snow slopes, black skiers grew huge, stomped on the tiny mountains, then shrunk and disappeared, like shadow giants acting in a silent movie.
The ski back down to town, under sunlight this time, was easy and enjoyable. Rob, Colin and the camera crew were happy with what they captured, and we were all satisfied with what we got to ski. You’ll be able to check out some of that footage next fall when Rob releases his next film project. In the meantime, book some time at Thunder Meadows hut. Don’t forget a headlamp.