Caterpillar – A road trip exploring the lesser-known peaks of the eastern Rocky Mountains
With just 10 lifts and 2,500 acres of skiable terrain, Fernie is proof that you don’t need to be big, brash and corporate to provide a fine ski experience. Its average annual snowfall is 30ft, meaning the slopes are usually cloaked with white. Indeed, on my two previous visits, I spent most of my time skiing fluffy, shin-deep powder. However, the lack of recent snowfall means we’re largely restricted to the pistes, so we blast down an array of blue runs, scarcely spotting another skier despite the bright sunshine and spring-like conditions.
But this is a road trip, and Route 93 beckons — so after a quick lunch surrounded by hipsters at Big Bang Bagels in downtown Fernie, I hit the highway, heading south towards Montana.
A two-hour drive takes me over the US border to the ski resort of Whitefish, a 3,000-acre resort with 14 ski lifts that sits above the town and lake of the same name. I check into the cosy ski in, ski out Kandahar Lodge and, the following morning, access the slopes via the Big Mountain Express chairlift, which takes me to the resort’s highest point, the 6,817ft-high Summit House restaurant.
As the lift ascends, I look over my shoulder for ever better views of Whitefish and the plains leading south towards Flathead Lake. Closer to the summit, I turn my attention to the nearby Glacier National Park and its mighty walls, crags and peaks, including the 9,376ft Mount Saint Nicholas — its shape reminiscent of the Matterhorn — and the 10,147ft Mount Stimson, the second-highest peak in the park after Mount Cleveland (at 10,479ft).
Some of the terrain at Whitefish is pretty wild: the Big Horn black diamond slope, for instance, is more cliff than ski run, and there are plenty of challenging glades and chutes to provide all the excitement any thrill-seeker could want.
The recent snow drought once again means I spend most of my time blasting down the groomed pistes, but I’m far from disappointed. The Inspiration route swiftly becomes my favourite; a sublime blue ridge run, it starts off from Summit House and allows you to floor it all the way back to base. And since queues for the lift are virtually unheard of here, especially mid-week, I get to ski lap after lap for as long as my legs can handle it.