By Nick Heil | Photography by Chris James
Cowboy Froy is neck-deep in the engine compartment at the back end of the Blue Pill, his 1948 Bombardier "L'Auto-Neige" snowmobile, while his girlfriend, Caroline Lebel, sits up front cranking the ignition and feathering the gas pedal. The Blue Pill, which looks like a kind of snowcat but can barrel along at 40 miles per hour, is to be our taxi into eastern Quebec's Chic-Choc Mountains—a sprawling assortment of cirques, bowls, chutes, and gladed steeps that is reputed to offer the best backcountry skiing east of Colorado.
"Hold it! Hold it!" he shouts. "Okay. Now try it."
The Chic-Chocs jut up along the northeastern edge of Quebec's Gaspé Penninsula, a phallic landmass the size of Belgium that thrusts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence across the channel from Newfoundland. For many years, winter backcountry in the Gaspésie, (Gas-pay-zee), as the French-speaking region is known, was enjoyed almost exclusively by locals. Recently, though, the Chic-Chocs—a seven-hour drive from Montreal, 12 from Boston—have emerged as a legit ski-touring destination. Thanks to Roy and a few others in the nascent skiing community, the area now boasts several guiding companies, a full-service cat skiing operation, two luxury lodges, a deluxe hut system, and a state-funded professional avalanche center that reports daily snow conditions.
But not only had I never heard of the Chic-Chocs, I'd only ever heard the words "backcountry skiing" and "East Coast" used in the same sentence when discussing New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine, and a few hard-to-access lines in the Adirondacks. I live in New Mexico, but I'd learned to ski in Pennsylvania, aka The Land of Frozen Granular, at a 500-vertical-foot pimple called Ski Liberty. The place was so small that I could hear Bad Company playing over the base-area loudspeakers while I off-loaded at the summit. I skied there until I realized that most people actually avoid night skiing in the rain.
The Chic-Chocs, however, are different: exceptionnel, in local parlance. "It's the West of the East," said Paul Tardiff, a contractor from Bangor, Maine, who has been making annual forays here with friends for 15 years. The Gaspésie is also the childhood stomping ground for pro skier Hugo Harrison. And Meathead Films, a Burlington, Vermont ski-film company that celebrates eastern skiing, is so enamored with the Chic-Chocs they've featured them in their last four movies. "It's like Newfoundland, but with trees," Geoff MacDonald, the Meatheads co-owner tells me. "Big table mountains, steep rollovers, a few pinnacle peaks with some crazy cliffs."
Alas, after two hours standing in the cold, it doesn't look like I'm going to see any of it. But just as I'm about to bail out for consolation turns on Mont Tremblant, the Blue Pill produces a thunderous fart, followed by a mushroom cloud of black smoke and a steady diesel growl. It lives! Moments later, I'm braced on a bench seat, flying down a snow-covered road while Roy wrestles the large steering wheel like some kind of mad backcountry bus driver. The cabin, which is made of plywood, painted Viagra blue, shaped like a giant suppository (hence the nickname), and punctured with a row of round windows, groans and creaks like a German U-boat. Through the small portals I can see an increasingly wild, wintry world appearing; an alpine version of Brigadoon, the enchanted lost village of Scottish legend, only with big, skiable white peaks that flicker and beckon through the maritime mist.
Roy's camp at Mont Blanc is 15 miles southwest of the park, but it requires an hour's drive along the shoreline, and then another hour inland, via Blue Pill. In addition to Roy and Lebel, we're accompanied by three skiers on a tour of the range with their gangly hound, Gadjo. Not surprisingly, Roy rips—both up and down—as does everyone else in the group, including Lebel. It's all I can do to keep the group in sight as we march up Mont Blanc early that afternoon. At one point, tired of waiting, they short-rope me to Gadjo. I've backcountry skied all over the Rockies, and spent weeks at altitude in the Himalayas. Now I'm being dragged uphill by a mongrel Gaspé dog. It's humiliating, but, to everyone's delight, efficient.
We regroup at the top, a broad, rounded dome with views of the St. Lawrence River, where we dine on gorp and pheasant terrine (the place is French, after all). Following lunch, we scoot to the edge and stare into the mouth of a 1,500 vertical foot couloir with an intense 50-degree entrance. The gorp and pheasant suddenly loosen inside me. I might have felt more game had I been on my own equipment, but the airlines lost my gear in transit, and I'm stuck with ill-fitting alpine boots, stiff downhill skis, and a pair of kids poles that are barely longer than drumsticks. The first skiers drop in, gouging turns and spraying corn. I'm wondering what Gadjo is going to do—it seems way too steep for a dog—when he bolts past me and sails off the cornice, proceeding to straight-line the entire chute, blowing by the skiers, completing not one but two complete somersaults on his way down. I'm glad I'm no longer hitched to him.
"Want to have an orgasm?" Roy says from behind me.
His girlfriend giggles. Roy cracks a smile, the first one I've seen since we've met. "C'mon, this is all chopped up now," he says. "We're going to ski a different line. It's called Orgazmatron."
We sluice down a west-facing 35-degree spruce grove in silky snow. I relax, find the sweet spot on my funky gear, and pace Roy and Lebel through the trees. "Now you understand the name," he says before we crank out two more laps. Later, we shuffle back to the yurt as the sky washes with pastels. In camp, Roy simmers pork stew and shortly we're all wolfing down dinner and sipping burgundy from tin cups, our stockinged feet steaming by the cast-iron stove.
The second day involves a series of powdery, north-facing chutes that are as so steep they leave my quads quivering. They are as thrilling as they are challenging, and we ski until stars are visible and Roy drives me back to my car in the Blue Pill. Halfway out, a moose appears in the headlights, trotting ahead of us on the trail, and we slow to a crawl. When Roy sees an opening, he guns it. As we speed by, the animal pulls alongside in full gallop, its giant eye framed in one of the Pill's circular portals. I'm delirious with fatigue, but a single refrain repeats in my head: The Chic-Chocs rock.
It's a fleeting disappointment to return to the Gîte (rhymes with "zit") du Mont-Albert, the lodge in the heart of the Gaspésie park that's my home for the week. But I readjust quickly after a hot shower and a snifter of single malt at the bar. If Roy's outfit is high adventure, this place is simply high-end: A recently face-lifted 60-year-old structure with a glass-walled lounge framing nearby Mont-Albert.
The next morning, I meet Stephane Gagnon, owner and chief guide for Ski Chic-Chocs cat skiing. Gagnon is easy-going and perma-tanned. He worked as a ski guide in western Canada for more than a decade and he helped launch the local avy center in 1999. In 2007, he received a five-year cat-skiing concession from the Socie'te' des e'tablissements de plein air du Que'bec—Sépaq—which oversees the province's 22 provincial parks.
Gagnon takes me out to a massive basin called Madeline Mines, which is pocked with abandoned 1,500-foot-deep, open mine shafts identified only with some flimsy fencing. "Make sure you keep your eyes open while you're skiing," Gagnon says, half-joking. The cat grinds up to the ridge and we hop out onto mountains that look like mesas; as we descend I have the bizarre sensation of skiing down into the Earth. We drop onto a leeward slope and chop up a crusty bowl. Conditions aren't great, but it was "cold smoke just two days ago," Gagnon says, adding later, "I know it's not the same as a Western product, but it's pretty special for Quebec."
The Chic-Chocs aren't particularly tall—they top out at about 4,000 feet—but because they start near sea level, the relief is impressive. The range is exposed to weather from all directions: Alberta Clippers, Manitoba Maulers, and good ol' fashioned Nor'easters. Storms tend to deposit decent snow, about 200-inches annually. Most of the park's guests pass through during the summer, when about 130,000 international visitors check out the Gaspésie, compared to the 30,000 who come in winter. There is keen interest among park officials to increase winter tourism, but it's running headlong into the park's top management priority, protecting the caribou.
Woodland caribou once roamed across New England—until settlers encroached on their habitat, confining them to Canada along with Celine Dion and curd-slathered French fries. The Chic-Choc caribou struggled to adapt, declining in numbers for 25 years until some careful habitat conservation stabilized the herd. Problem is, what's good for the caribou ain't so good for the wintertime tourists. When I inquire about a long and enticing line visible from the gîte that splits the face of Mont Albert, I'm told it's only been skied a couple of times, under a special permit.
Later in the week, Stephanie Lemieux, a forecaster from the avalanche center, takes me on a tour to the Patroller's Wall. When Lemieux's not tending to her fieldwork for the avy center, or playing banjo in a bluegrass band, or preparing for a 17-day self-supported ski traverse in British Columbia's Coast Range, she's usually out ripping it up while taking notes for her forthcoming guidebook on backcountry skiing in the Gaspésie. Few people know the area's nooks and crannies better.
The Patroller's Wall is a steep cirque in the ominously named Vallée Diablé, the Valley of the Devil, where pro film skier Hugo Harrison and a cameraman were nailed by an avalanche in 2002 (both survived). These mountains in eastern Canada are, in fact, quite avalanche prone. The avalanche center was started with provisional funding in 1999, prompted in part by the worst slide in the Province's history—a class-five avalanche in the Inuit town of Kangigsualujjuaq that killed nine people and injured 25. The center now employs four full-time staff, including Lemieux and her boyfriend Phillip Gautier, who conduct snow-stability surveys in pairs every other day. The avy center is a big reason why the Chic-Chocs have become so popular of late: This range has become a full-featured testing ground for snow science and winter recreation, the only one of its kind in eastern North America.
On our long, flat approach to Patroller's Wall, Lemieux stops for a mini-lecture. "This entire basin is one giant terrain trap," she says, pointing with her ski pole and explaining how the upper chutes funnel into the lower drainage. "Look around," she says. "No trees." I realize we're standing in the middle of a quarter-mile wide swath of denuded forest. "Don't freak," she adds. "It takes a 50-year event for the debris to reach this far."
She aims her binoculars at the upper ridge, and frowns. "Tracks," she says. I can make out faint squiggles in the chutes above—surprising not just because the terrain is sketchy, but because it's also part of the closed caribou habitat. Lemieux explains that the park warden recently fell off his snowmobile and dislocated his shoulder. The locals have taken advantage of his absence to poach forbidden lines. No wonder. The Patroller's Wall is unskiable. We only make it halfway up its rock-hard face before deeming it imprudent to go higher without crampons and ice tools.
It's warmer the following day, promising workable corn, and we head out early for Mont Hog's Back, not far from the Patroller's Wall. Francois Boulanger, the park director, joins our party of four. An urban refugee from Montreal, Boulanger, a fit 58, has been running Gaspésie National Park for 25 years. He knows skiers complain about the caribou closures, but that hasn't softened his position. "A lot of people don't realize how hard it is for the fawns to survive a winter here," Boulanger says. "If there are people around, they're alert, they aren't eating. And if they aren't eating, they get weak. If a storm comes..."
From the top of Hog's Back, I can see down the spine of the Chic-Chocs with the St. Lawrence River shimmering to the north. For the first time I realize just how much skiing is possibl e here. But even more glaring from our lofty vantage point are the neighboring clear-cuts—enormous barren rectangles creeping right up to the edge of the park's protected land. The park isn't Brigadoon. It's a very real bio-island, a tiny pocket that remains, for now, much the way it was a century ago.
Boulanger heads back down the trail as we prepare for a sporting descent: the North Couloir of Hog's Back. It's blossomed into a gorgeous Saturday and a small crowd has gathered on the summit, one of the most accessible high-points in the entire park. We've skinned to the top in a little more than an hour, and that includes a stop for a picnic lunch. One by one, we drop in and make swooping arcs into spongy spring snow. It's a consistent 35 to 40 degrees, 1,500 feet straight down to the road. We ski right to the asphalt, where we stick out our thumbs. After a few minutes a sedan comes along. It's Boulanger. Fitting, I think, that my last run is punctuated by hitchhiking a ride from the park director.
Before flying out of the tiny municipal airport at Mont-Joli, I check out the monthly dance parties held at a hotel in St. Anne, where the theme this evening is African-disco. A DJ stands behind a set of turntables and the walls are decorated with woven baskets and tribal rugs from a world-market store in town. The place is packed. All this time, the quaint fishing village has been hiding a ski town. The Meatheads, the film company from Vermont, have arrived, and they mill around near the bar. They'll be spending the next week in the Chic-Chocs, working on a new film, the title of which will be either Gnar Wars or Return of the Shredi—they haven't decided.
The night before, during dinner at the gîte, Lemieux said, "The whole idea of the avy center was to provide a point around which everyone could get organized—the skiers, search and rescue, the park. We can help each other, working on trails, improving access and communication. We're the pioneers."
But of course with the pioneers come the problems: the caribou, the unreliable conditions. The Chic-Choc's merit the hype I'd been hearing: the skiing here is steep, deep, and cheap. But, "you have to come with a spirit of adventure," Lemieux says. As we eat, the dining room begins filling with smoke. The chimney has caught on fire. The waiters begin urgently ushering out the guests, wine glasses in hand, like a scene from the Titanic. Then our plates are delivered to the bar and we resume our meal as if nothing has gone wrong.
For more information visit:
Gîte du Mont-Albert: sepaq.com/pq/gma
Gaspe Avalanche Centre: centreavalanche.qc.ca
Ski Chic-Chocs: skichicchocs.com
Vertigo Adventures with Francois Roy: vertigo-aventures.com
From the 2010-11 Winter issue