March 14, 2008 //

Will Work for Powder

HikerThe most celebrated powder stash in eastern Canada has no cellular phone towers or lift service. The only high-speed quads you’ll ?nd in Gaspésie’s Chic-Chocs are ?xed to the front of your thighs. For the classic eastern alpine touring experience, climbing or switchbacking the mountain with skins on lets you truly appreciate every descent you will later enjoy. And by the end of your trip, those quads will feel pretty much detachable as well.

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My friend Manon Bourbonnais and I decided it was time for a girls’ ski week late March of last year, and the best snow this side of the Rockies was still hidden a few hours away in the Gaspé Peninsula. Leaving from the Montreal airport with little luggage since we’d learned that all the gear would be provided on-site, we took a two-hour flight to Mont-Joli in a Dash 8. From there Marika, our host, drove us to the Gîte du Mont Albert, where we would stay for the night. Feeling excited by the breathtaking scenery, we decided to make the most of this beautiful spring day and venture out on a short outback ski hike. After our guide, Sylvie, trained us in the use of our safety gear, including an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, she joined us on the outing.

We began the three-km ascent up Hog’s Back Mountain near the lodge. The wind hit us pretty hard as we approached the summit, and although it was March, we quickly donned our shells and face warmers. The view from the top was astonishing—at least it was according to my camera since I could barely see through my fogged-up glasses from all the heavy breathing. Finally, we skied down in about half an hour, which was bliss. Even though it had rained earlier that week, we still had a good 15 cm of powder on top of the crust.

On day two, we decided to get an early start. We cross-country skied up for five km to the Serpentine mountain hut, thankful for the added “skin” traction on the uphill climb which seemed to go on forever. To ease our whining, the Gîte had prepared us a delicious lunch, which we enjoyed in the on-mountain shelter while warming our toes by the woodstove. Visions of the sauna danced in my head, so I let Manon and her legs of steel take on a more challenging run with our guide while I made my way back to base camp.

By the third day, we moved on to the best-kept secret of the region. The Chic-Chocs Mountain Lodge required an additional threehour trip, but the secluded haven surrounded by endless mountains and virgin forests was well worth it. The level of service experienced was remarkable; as our gregarious group pulled in, the entire staff greeted us outside with bells ringing—quite literally! The chef offered us large thermoses of coffee, tea, chicken broth and hot chocolate for the trek, and we were invited to sneak into the kitchen anytime for refi lls. A snowshoe outing not to be missed is the trail leading up to the striking Hélène waterfalls.

What truly impressed us most was the fact that there is still a place out there where the honour system is in full effect. We helped ourselves to pretty much everything, including drinks at the bar, writing down our finds on a piece of paper to tally up at the end of the trip. We wrote our names on our chosen bottle of wine, and kept it conveniently tucked away for the next night. That far away from civilization no one is going anywhere, so it’s a perfect environment to trust your comrades. Dinners are hosted “Italian family style,” passing around the big dishes of gourmet food and talking loudly across the huge table. Head chef David Boucher sat down to eat with the guests and guides every night, so we knew we were safe.

These talented cooks are destined for greatness. The dinner menu included salmon with ginger granité and sesame oil salad, roast duck, morel and truffl e oil sauce, mashed celery root, asparagus and green beans with wild rice—there are also caribou or vegetarian options every night. For dessert, we dove into the homemade cinnamon ice cream and apple streusel cake. The beauty of working so hard for your runs is that you get to eat as much as you want without feeling the least bit guilty! As we planned our hikes for the next day, we requested a hearty boxed lunch with heavenly homemade granola bars. The chef will happily share all his recipes—if he remembers them!

As for nightlife? Unless you ride a moose to the nearest town (Ste-Anne des Monts is 2.5 hours away by snow coach—there is no car access), you pretty much learn to slow down and enjoy a good game of cards, read a book by the towering four-sided fireplace or, in our case, play charades while trying to teach the 14 international guests (the lodge can accommodate up to 36 guests) the colourful local language. As native Quebecers, we served as interpreters all week for the other guests, but most employees get by in English just fi ne. Most nights we were in bed by 9:30 p.m. after a full and rewarding day.

The following morning four of us decided to go skiing on this picture-perfect day toward Mount 780, named for its elevation above sea level. Being from the east (or the “heast” as Yann our guide would say, a true Gaspésie native), we were in our element on that crust. The afternoon delivered on its promise as Yann led us to Mount Matawees (Mi’kmaq for “porcupine”), where the snow was much fluffier and lighter.

We were chatting happily and snapping pictures until we noticed Yann, our tireless guide, removing layer after layer down to his T-shirt, despite the sub-zero weather. We soon learned that was the signal for “Achtung: Steep climb ahead!” Suddenly all chatter stopped, replaced by the racing of blood through our veins. At this point I missed, for the fi rst time, even the most uncomfortable T-bar.

But despite our throbbing calves, skiing that afternoon made the pain disappear; as we plundered bottomless powder, the kind that easterners only dream of, the slate was clean. Too soon we had to put on our skins and head back to the lodge, where we partook of another amazing feast and evening of relaxation.

On the following morning, we boarded the snow coach (an oversized snowcat or la chenillette) for a 20-minute ride to Le Frère du Nicol-Albert Mountain. On the way, we had to negotiate countless moose running on the tracks; they seemed to be stampeding past each other to get to the nearest watering hole, not unlike patrons in a Tremblant bar on a Saturday night. The surreal scene made us laugh—it was reminiscent of a Moosehead beer ad.

Once our driver dropped us off at the base, we began the switchback climb that took us roughly an hour. Anxious to get some vertical in, our guide announced that we would be the very fi rst to actually ski down the new run on the east side of the mountain. We packed it in after three full runs under sunny skies that day, ending our trip on a memorable high note. I vowed to go back earlier in the season to experience the legendary snowfall, and Manon contemplated leaving everything behind to join their guiding program.

The Chic-Chocs’ French slogan rang true for weeks after we arrived home: Le Chic d’y aller, le Choc d’en revenir, which loosely translates to The Chic is in the coming, the Shock is in the going.

How true!

Chic-Chocs – facts & stats

HIGHEST PEAK: Matawi Mountain: 1,073 metres

LONGEST RUN: 4 km long on Matawi Mountain.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Early January to late March.

GUIDE QUALIFICATIONS: J-F, the head guide, has more than 21 years of experience and is Level 1 Canadian avalanche certified; all guides are also Sirius certified, with one full-time biologist on staff, Luc. Yann, our guide, has eight years of experience. Guided tours are highly recommended to familiarize yourself with the terrain and learn insiders’ info.

WEATHER: Two factors contribute to the Chic-Choc mountains micro-climate: altitude and its location on the edge of an important mountain range. One snowfall alone brought 90 cm of fresh powder last season. Avalanche danger is lower below subalpine terrain. High winds can be a factor, reaching more than 110 kph last March. Bring lots of warm layers—a cold day could feel more like -30 degrees with the wind chill. That said, the weather has never prevented people from going out since the experienced guides can usually find a sheltered trek. Chic-Chocs avalanche report and snow conditions

COST: Three-, four- and seven-day packages are offered at $295/day rate. The price includes transfers from Cap-Chat, double-occupancy accommodation, meals and snacks, experienced guiding service, and all outdoor gear (boots, poles, skis and skins, snowshoes, even overboots) and safety equipment. Due to the remote location and scheduled activities, bringing children under 10 is not recommended.

MORE INFO: 800/665-3091, Chic Cocs or Chic Chocs Mountain Lodge


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Chic Chocs Mountain Lodge, Quebec

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