Friday, July 17, 2015

First Summits - Polar Peak, Fernie Alpine Resort

We spent a week camping near the mountain town of Fernie in the East Kootenays at the beginning of July and I really wanted to explore Fernie Alpine Resort (FAR) this time.  We always take at least a few days to go camping at Kikomun Creek Provincial Park every summer, located half an hour south of Fernie, but tend to spend our time biking and swimming at camp when we go.  This year, I said:  "Let's climb a mountain!"  It'll be RAD!


Hiking on the Polar Peak Traverse at Fernie Alpine Resort

I sat down to research which hikes we could do at Fernie Alpine Resort, knowing many of them were chair lift accessible (FAR being a winter ski resort after all,) and knew there had to be a summit we could easily reach.  One by one, I crossed the possible hikes off our to do list because they were either "too short," not "big enough" or just didn't sound crazy enough.  If we were going to hike something that included a chair lift boost to the alpine, we were definitely going to do something BIG.

Standing at the top of the Timber Chair at Fernie Alpine Resort

Then I found it!  Polar Peak!  Rad, Epic, and BIG.  The description below instantly made me scream:  "YES!"

"The Polar Peak hike is for the adventurous and experienced hiker. The route has one short section where there is a feeling of exposure. Ropes have been installed for your security. This hike takes between 3.5 and 7 hrs depending on weather and rest stops. The trail is about 5 km round trip to Timber Top with a vertical rise of 240 vertical metres."

"Feeling of exposure" you say?

What I expected from the Polar Peak Hike in Fernie

When I read that description above for the Polar Peak Hike on the Fernie Alpine Resort website, this is what I was thinking:
  • Ropes!  Exposure!!!!! Squeal, jump up and down, Let's do it!!! Noah will LOVE it!

  • We should be able to do the hike in roughly 5 hours round trip, which isn't too bad for a 6 year old, right?

  • 5km round trip?  That's it?? Really, only 5km?  And only 240 metres of height gain?  We get to climb a mountain to the summit and we only have to climb up 240 metres??

  • We get to take the Timber Chair to the alpine!  That's sweet!  Noah hates the boring part of hiking through the trees to get to the interesting stuff.  This is going to be 100% interesting with none of the trudging at the beginning!

  •  How hard can it be?  It's a tourist hike starting from a ski resort with chair lift access!

I was perhaps not expecting an exposed down climb on the hike (see the other hikers far below?)

The "Real" Polar Peak Traverse

What I expected from the hike was a bit different from what we got in the end.  Not only was the hike much more epic, rad, and challenging than I had expected, it was also longer and had a lot more height gain!  This was no walk in the park.  Oh, and did I mention that it was 35+ degrees that day in Fernie??

Scrambling to gain the ridge above the Timber Chair was very tough in the heat

Arriving at Fernie Alpine Resort - Perspective and Reality Check

When we arrived at the day lodge to get our chair lift tickets, we discovered a couple of things that quickly put the trip into perspective.  First, there were TWO ways of doing Polar Peak.  The first (and easiest) was a straight up and down hike on the "Falling Star" ski run (basically a gravel road) that takes you to the White Pass Quad.  From there, we'd just have to climb up to the Currie Saddle on a loose gravel trail and tag the summit.  It wouldn't be very exciting but it would be easy.

Hiking back from Polar Peak on the gravel road that served as a great descent route

The "gravel road" was the recommended route for our family as it would take perhaps 4 hours return and allow us time to make the final chair lift that went down at 4:30pm.  It should be noted that the Timber Chair only runs between 10:30 and 4:30, so you only have 6 hours to do your hike of choice IF you are there ready to board right at 10:30.  We were not.  We didn't board till perhaps 11am.

Meanwhile, the "ridge route" and full "Polar Peak Traverse" had been the hike I'd been reading about in a guide book and I was crushed that perhaps we wouldn't have time to do it.  The full traverse, follows the ridge up and over Elephant Head Peak to Polar Peak from the top of the Timber Chair and is a glorious high alpine ridge walk the whole time.  There is hands on scrambling involved and of course, the exposed down climb to get off of Elephant Head Peak and down towards the Currie Saddle.

Of course we chose to do the full Polar Peak Traverse and Ridge Walk!

The Route to Polar Peak that we Chose

Of course we chose the ridge walk.  With fear I might add.  We were told at the day lodge that it would take at lest 6 hours to complete the full traverse and the person  giving us our tickets definitely looked at us as if we were crazy!  We were picking up our tickets after 10:30am and would only have 5 hours to complete the hike once we arrived at the top of the Timber Chair.   Oh yeah, and we were hiking with a 6 year old.  And it was 35+ degrees!

Hiking the Ridge on the Polar Peak Traverse

I am pleased to say that it actually only took us 4 hours to complete the hike and that we made our chair lift ride back down with an hour to spare!! Yes, we were pretty thrilled.  We moved fast and there were not a lot of breaks on the trail this day.  Noah was a super star though and we had lots of water with us.

Standing on the Summit of  Polar Peak

Trail Stats for the full Polar Peak Traverse

To do the full traverse, it was somewhere between 5-6 km round trip depending on the guide book or website you refer to.  Let me tell you though that it felt longer!  The ridge undulates a lot (see all the bumps in the background of the photo above) and I'm sure there's more distance involved when you factor in all the ups and downs.

As far as height gain, my guide book says there was only 340 metres of height gain. I beg to differ.  Every time we descended off one of the bumps on the ridge, we had to gain the height back again, losing approximately 50 metres every time we went up and over another bump.  I believe I counted 5 bumps!! That would mean, there could have been an additional 200 metres of height gain not accounted for.

Either way, it was a loooooong hike with what felt like a lot of height gain at the beginning to gain the ridge, and then many up and down sections along the trip.  We were seldom just walking along on flat terrain.

Noah points out the four bumps that he had to climb up and over on the Polar Peak Traverse (standing on 5th bump)

How to prepare if you want to do this hike with your family 

One.  Be on time! As already mentioned, you only have 6 hours to complete the traverse and it's recommended you be on the chair at 10:30am promptly!  Arrive at the day lodge to get your tickets early!  There are line ups and it can take half an hour to get your tickets.

A look at the Polar Peak Ridge Traverse from Polar Peak

Two.  There is no shade on the ridge.  It is not recommended that you follow our example and do this hike on a 35 degree day. If it is hot, bring lots of water!! We were approached on the ridge by a group asking if we had extra water they could have and one of the members in their party had to be rescued from the top of the White Pass Quad Chair on descent.

The start of the Polar Peak Traverse

Three.  Know where you are going.  Get a map from the day lodge and make sure you follow signs for Polar Peak via Elephant Head.  You do not want the trail that just goes to Polar Peak (which is the gravel road.)  You should be hiking towards the Lost Boys Lookout and then you will branch off about half a kilometre from that lookout at this trailhead in the photo above.

Ridge walking towards Elephant Head Peak

Four.   Know what you are in for at the exposed section coming off of Elephant Head Peak.  There are cables to help you and most children ages 8+ should have few problems.  Still,  it is good to have an adult go first, guiding the children down the steep descent.  It is definitely exposed and a fall could be fatal.  We chose to bring Noah's harness, some basic climbing gear to attach him to the cable, and his helmet.  We didn't know what we were in for and wanted to be prepared!

The first part of the exposed section is a 10 metre long traverse with cable
The second part is an exposed 6 metre long down climb
Noah loved this part of the hike

Five.  Make sure the kids are having a strong day. This was a tough hike and kids could easily get frustrated with all the up and down on the ridge.  There was some hands on scrambling at the beginning and the walk felt long overall.  I didn't think we'd actually get Noah to the true summit of Polar Peak from the Currie Saddle, but he pulled it together for the final walk up to the Polar Peak Chair lift.

The exposed part is seen in the photo above coming off of Elephant Head Peak
Summit shot with Dad
This was the "true summit" but most people stop at the saddle for the hike down (and no, this chair isn't running)

Would we do this hike again?

The chair lift ride back down

Definitely!  It was awesome, epic, rad, and wonderful in every way!  We got to tag a peak, we spent the whole day hiking in the alpine, and we got a lovely chair lift ride to the high country.

My only suggestion for Fernie Alpine Resort would be to start the chair lift earlier than 10:30am.  In summer heat, I like to start hikes by 9am at the latest. Also, given that the hike was supposed to have taken 6 hours (at adult pace,) most people wouldn't have time to complete the hike in time and be back for the last chair lift down.

For more information on the hike, visit the Fernie Alpine Resort website.  (easier hikes along with guided hikes are also described on the website.)

Special thanks to the resort for the chair lift tickets that were provided to our family so that we could do this hike and tell you all about this awesome place in summer.

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent article! Whenever I leave Fernie I regret not taking advantage of the hikes, bikes and runs available. Next summer I will do this exact hike and perhaps Heiko's Trail!