FROM MINING TO SKIING:
THE MOUNTAIN INDUSTRY JOURNEY
by Abby Cooper
Many ski towns once started with an entirely different industry in mind: mining. Abby Cooper clips in to explore the relics of the mines in Fernie and Kimberley, B.C., linking turns as much as linking together the stories of a bygone era.
Mountain culture runs deep in our part of the world – a part that is largely reliant on the rich ski history that surrounds us. But do we associate the places we commonly refer to as “ski towns” with the industries that created them?
Explorers in the late 1800s were surely not on the hunt for epic ski terrain. No, they were mostly in search of natural resources. This was the distinguishing factor for the location of these early settlements, and convenient for us ski-loving folk that our mountains are chock-full of resources, including coal, iron, zinc, gold and many others all hidden in peaks beautifully coated in timber. One resource-driven craze after another connected our country through the development of valleys, expansion of railways, and the addition of roads, which link us to the skiing amenities we enjoy today.
While at a glance the mining industry will upturn the nose of the environmentally-conscious, outdoor-minded person, it’s impossible to deny that it has shaped our ski culture into its current state. Prospectors carved access and charted routes into beautifully wild regions covering the immense mountainscape we can now access with ease.
Still a pillar industry for many towns throughout southern B.C. and the Kootenay region, mining has since changed its approach to a more sustainable format and is often conducted out of sight. However, some of the earliest mining took shape in the late 1800s right in the town centers that we currently know as Fernie and Kimberley, and each one has a story to tell.
To connect the past with the present, this winter we ski toured to a few historic mining sites, merging our current ski tourism industry with the one that paved the way for its establishment.
FERNIE/ELK VALLEY, B.C.
It wasn’t a smooth start for the mining industry in the Elk Valley. With limited funds and no railroad for export, it took a determined William Fernie ten years to get the coal industry booming. A major setback followed a fire in 1904, which wiped out nearly the entire settlement, with just enough time to rebuild only to be devastated again by the great firestorm of 1908. Legend of a curse haunted the valley during these times and through the Great Depression. It was believed that the prospectors had done the First Nations wrong in an agreement and that the ruthless force of nature upon the town was the consequence.
Coal ventures bloomed into their full potential across the entire valley in the 1960s with the help of Japanese investments. Mining operations dotted the valley – many of which are still functioning today while a handful of abandoned sites lie on skiable slopes, perfect for adventuring.
The skiing itch struck in the valley in the 1950s as passionate skiers hiked up to the many slopes accessible from town. For two years (1960-1961), various rope tows were moved from one slope to another until the Fernie Snow Valley Resort was formed in 1962, with two rope tows and an A-frame cabin. This was the humble beginnings of Fernie Alpine Resort. The original land was donated by Galloway Lumber and does not hold direct mining history, but the resort should not be missed on any ski journey through the Elk Valley.
Here are a few suggestions on where to combine both past and present industries via ski tour.
- Coal Creek, located a mere 6 km from Fernie’s town centre, was once a booming mining settlement of its own. Dismantled in 1958, the impressive site hosts a large conveyor building (once used for hauling out coal), an electric host, ventilation fans and blocked tunnel entrances. If you choose to tour here you are in very steep and playful terrain; only go when conditions allow. Use the No. 9 Mine Trail as a starting ground to gain elevation and make your own route past the ghost town if you’re craving more vertical.
- Hosmer, B.C., just east of Fernie, hosts some of the most impressive standing mining structures in the area. Park your vehicle next to the 46 intact coke ovens to start your journey, and just across the road you’ll spy yellow gates behind an Old Power House. A few other support buildings sit in great form. It’s not recommended to tour through the building, although they will beckon you to explore them. The underground is laced with weak tunnels, making what appears to be solid ground unstable. Follow the drainage up behind the buildings and gain the ridge for an 800m descent with delightful tree skiing.
- 13km west of Fernie, across the Elk River, you can find the very overgrown coke ovens of Morrissey Mines. Its success was short-lived and the mines closed in 1910. While not the biggest collection of mining relics, you can easily gain the mountain behind on old forest service roads and appreciate the town that once was for a 1000m or more ski decent right back down to your vehicle.
The aptly named North Star Express high-speed quad at Kimberley Alpine Resort pays tribute to the North Star Mine that once operated in the same location. To the ‘lookers right’ of the chair, tucked in the trees, you can still find evidence of old mine shafts and ski past a piece of history in-bounds. North Star wasn’t the only mine, as prospectors staked claims for the nearby mountain laced in lead-zinc, now known as Sullivan Mountain.
For over a century, the Sullivan mines were the heartbeat of the town, complemented by the development of the railway and logging industries. With the mine closing in 2001, much of the area associated with mining is still private property, making exploration difficult and unsafe.
We were able to gain a glimpse at the impressive conversion process. On the outskirts of Kimberley lies a hillside covered in solar panels. Unusable land that was toxic during the peak of mining has found a second life as a renewable energy source generator and is the largest solar mine in B.C. Known as one of the sunniest places in British Columbia, Kimberley is a great place for solar energy and an equally great place for skiing. Kimberley Alpine Resort offers perfectly pitched groomers and, from town, countless backcountry opportunities exist, including the well-known Boulder Hut and St. Mary’s Alpine Park.
→ Read More: Family Life in the Backcountry at Boulder Hut.
With the mines closing somewhat recently, touring past historical mining wasn’t an easy option, but here’s how you can combine the history of Kimberley and skiing.
- Ski tour through Kimberley’s Nature Park, which hosts over 50km of marked runs for cross-country or plenty of up-tracks with delightful tree skiing descents. The parks trail system stems from mining exploration trails and abandoned shafts from the North Star mine. (One of the first signs of the skiing industry transition was in the 1930s and 40s as this area hosted an impressive ski jump.)
- Cross-country ski or go for a flat tour past the Underground Railway Museum in winter to see old equipment, original buildings, and the railway.
- Ski at Kimberley Alpine Resort and try to track down the old mine shafts.
Merging the past and present by exploring the historical mining areas through ski touring left us feeling connected to the land and the people – like we were chasing a legend. As we looked for signs of a former life, we paid our respects to the reasons we have high-speed quads and gear shops today. Little did those miners know that their efforts would go far past earning income for their families. They would change our mountains, introduce the railway, aid in building roads and, of course, help put skiing on the map.
Note: While ski touring is recommended in this article, please note that locations suggested are potentially in avalanche terrain and individual research and trip planning should proceed any outings. Proper avalanche knowledge, training and gear is required. Also note that old mining sites are often fragile in structure and it recommended that you observe them from a distance.
A lover of all things outdoors, Abby Cooper is a splitboarder, climber, hiker, adventurer, photographer and writer. She’s living life one adventure to the next with her dog by her side.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.