Two Worlds Collide
Living a life of decadent skiing isn’t all dream vacations to B.C. powder lodges and sunny slopes in the Alps. For the majority of us working stiffs, skiing means two words: Spring Break. Caught up in the mad rush to the mountains, bundled with rug rats and burdened with luggage, there’s an art to surviving this week. While I admire those who seek the solace of skiing amid the capital craziness of life, I now have new respect for those who brave the general mayhem and disorder known as Spring Break. The annual school pilgrimage turns many ski resorts into a scene from some Hollywood epic, as if a children’s crusade from some forgotten medieval era had detoured to your local mountain town. I had accidentally experienced the extremes of Spring Break from the thick of the child carnival at Bromont, Quebec, and later recovered my sanity in the solitude of Sutton.
Bustin’ a Move to Bromont
Go East, Old Boy, said my editor. Return to your old stomping grounds. During my graduate student days I had spent many a weekend riding in Quebec, blitzing through thin alders at Sutton and carving the 4:00 p.m. corduroy at Bromont, catching late-night storms during a nuit blanche, and erstwhile learning the meaning of “nipply frostbite.” I love these Eastern Township hills, and in any case, it was time to return and settle an old score with my alma mater.
With my far-too-fat DPS Wailer 99s in the plane’s belly and a PhD defence not yet prepped, I flew to Montréal from my western outpost home in Whistler. Whipping down the A-10 to Bromont in a fully tinted Dodge Durango, getting one oilfield per km and nearly taking out several small vehicles thanks to a blind spot that runs from the hood to the trunk, I sped past three Sûreté du Québec cars with radar guns poised but never heard a siren nor saw a single flashing light. I took this as a sign.
Upon arrival, a scrum was taking place between battle-hardened families jockeying for position in the hotel lobby of Le Chateau Bromont. Fighting off swarms of progeny wired on 10-cent candy, I checked in and gained the relative refuge of my room, which was strategically positioned between the ice machine, the elevator and the hot tub complex. All night and every night, it appeared child labour was sent to mine ice from the machine. Perhaps parents were attempting to survive Spring Break with the aid of mixed drinks. Eventually, the machine broke, but this only elicited a new ritual of ice machine pounding, during which I continued to learn more of the creative side of the Québécois language. Well before dawn, I was awoken by the tromping of little ski boots to the elevator; and by afternoon, the hot tubs were bubbling to the brim with the miniature crowd.
There was nothing to do but go for a languorous swim, I thought; the hotel does feature a pool. It’s at this point that I realized I was going to have to resort to unusual methods to stay sane. Everywhere I turned, there were territorial fights over deck chairs and towels by armies of well-armed toddlers. Children were stacked vertically in the pool, trying to see who could get closest to drowning without dying. It was a savage, coming-of-age ritual among the Québécois youth.
Feeling strangely vulnerable to low-blows in my board shorts, I glanced up, and made one critical observation: I was being watched. The hotel is built like a panopticon, of the sort designed by 19th-century institutional architect Jeremy Bentham: the gift shop, the bar and the fitness centre all gaze in upon the pool, which is surrounded on all sides by story upon story of indoor windows and artificial plants. With that, I decided to save my swimsuit for Spa Balnea, which I had booked for the next day. That night I had dinner to attend to, at Les Quatre Canards, the Chateau’s four-star restaurant.
Dinner was a protected bastion of gluttony for consenting adults. By the time I had finished devouring a stunning four courser of confit guinea fowl salad with caramelized pears and dried blueberries, a deliciously red rack of spring lamb with thyme juice and smoked paprika, and some chocolatey fudge delicacy whose name has long since been digested—all topped with a bottle of paired old-world wine—I realized that the restaurant was the last sanctuary from the toddler tide.
On hindsight, I could have come earlier to avoid the Spring Break crunch, but then I would not have witnessed the spectacle of hundreds of children debarking daily toward the hill in a crazed rush reminiscent of the second coming of the Mongol horde. But once the flock departed, Bromont’s sept Versants wonderfully absorbed them all—and likewise did the resort’s eight lifts allow me to seek and find sunny groomers with nary a soul to be found.
Slicing big GS turns at speed, I railed over consistent coverage thanks to recent investments in snowmaking. Yet it was somewhere out in the desolate black diamonds of the Versant des Épinettes—save for me and a gangsta’ skier picking his way down—that I found myself doing weird and unrecommended things, as I began straightlining steep bumps on fatties. While the end result was a backslap to the head and a nod of respect from the bandana-clad G-kid—who said something to the effect that “tu prends ça très vite!”—I was having a personal ball. Meanwhile, repeated speed tests down the Versant du Midi proved I could clock Bromont’s backside in a full race tuck in under 14 seconds while dictating notes into my digital tape recorder. As my smile became frozen to my face in the afternoon’s golden light, I realized I was having a damn fun time. Likewise did Bromont’s bistro-bar, La Débarque, make up for my growing alcohol and cholesterol deficiency, with Quebec brews on tap—a fine pint of St. Ambroise, no less—and fried foods to stuff my belly with warmth.
That evening, I returned for some ninja nightskiing, whipping down the brightly lit runs until well past the bedtime of the young’uns, and going undercover by sneaking off into the unskied alders for a few leftover stash rounds by headlamp. All of which reminded me as to why I once called Bromont home with my season’s pass as a McGill student. The mountain excels at aggressive pricing strategies. Its Sweet Pass lands a season of skiing, summer mountain biking and water park access for only 200 clams. It has regular Nuit Blanche parties for teens and twentysomethings with DJs and carnivalesque nightskiing action. It caters to families with kids, but as I also discovered, well-retired riders just out for a few laps. Its success is no mean feat in a sport that’s aging faster than it’s growing.
As I reflected upon my good times in a meditative state at the exquisite Spa Balnea—where I had just been bent back into position by a masseuse who went transnational on my nude exterior, mixing up Thai traditional with novel Californian techniques—I realized I was going to miss the place. Soon, Spa Balnea was likewise having its effects: after trying every fruit smoothie on the menu coupled with angel food salads, I felt cleansed and pure, ready to renounce all fermented beverages forever. But a short sleep later and it was already time to drive to Sutton. Further debauchery awaited.
Slarving Sutton with style
Getting the tinted-window tank up to landcruising speed, I took off southeast along the two-lane backroad with visions of branch-bashing on my radar. Watching the passing minivans and packed wagons, Spring Break was ending and Quebec resorts would soon return to norm. Arising above glistening fields of frozen white, appeared the long and gladed ridge of Mont Sutton.
Skiing Sutton is all about exploring its 60 treed trails and connecting them through its 204 “junctions.” With nearly half of its terrain gladed, Mont Sutton teaches all abilities the fine art of dodging timber, and its forested descents reward the rider seeking secret stashes in the powder-loving microclimate. This is skiing on a human scale, where, over generations, the mountain has been cultivated to elicit surprise and pleasure at every turn. But Sutton also represents something intangible to ski culture, and thus all the more precious and unique: it’s where the spirit of Old School adventure, where the sous-bois—the woods—matter more than the big lights. Sutton is at the heart of Eastern skiing, not just in Quebec, but in North America, and it is for this reason that it should be on any Canadian skier’s bucket list.
My lodging in Sutton was a study in contrasts to the bustle of Bromont. I was bunking at Le Pleasant, a former Victorian mansion catapulted into the 21st century with contemporary art, from glazed prints of frozen ice by Kristian Verono to elegant abstraction from Sylvian Tremblay, while glittering, avant-garde chandeliers by designer Jonathan Adler hang suspended from exposed beams. My attic room had been impeccably renovated with a boutique ensuite, while the dining room’s menu mirrored the modern presentation and class of the place. Best of all were the epic lox bagel breakfasts, worth the price of admission alone for the thick and creamy hollandaise. Once out the door in the morning, Sutton is a 10-minute drive east.
The rest of the day is a blur of what the Québécois call bon temps. It was in every way a glorious round of forest-schussing, punctuated with cold beers at Chalet Alt. 840m, where on the mountaintop terrasse I basked in views of the entire northeastern United States, with Jay Peak the only other spire in view. After catching the last chair up, I devoured with sticky aplomb freshly made maple taffy—unbelievably, after seven years in la belle province, I’d never had one—and stumbled to the Chalet bar (this one, Alt. 400m) for a nachos-fuelled, tabletop-dancing après.
The day’s celebratory spirit, low-key crowd and affordable local brews on tap restored my faith in the church of skiing. I had spent the sun-drenched day riding every one of Sutton’s venerable lifts, from old wooden two-seaters to its modern detachable quad, as we ripped and rolled through the numerous charismatic glades, with my local mountain guide Mireille picking and choosing routes seemingly at random. A few times I broke free of the zigzagging approach, railing direct lines through the still available pickings in the branch-bashing glades, skidding my fatties onto narrow trails at mach speeds with western turns, all much to the amusement of the carving-and-swishing Quebec crowd.
With Sutton under the belt, it was time to retire to Montréal, hand over the keys to the black beast and prepare for the real-world defence of a doctoral dissertation. Getting away to ski old familiar territory was just the life medicine I’d needed. Plus, I had learned two things: (a) as a childless thirtysomething, surviving Spring Break at any ski resort in Quebec really isn’t all that hard with the right balance of fermented beverages; and (b) you can write a PhD defence presentation the night before, even with a skier’s sunburn.
Tags: Bromont, Chalet Alt 840, Eastern Townships, Jonathan Adler, Kristian Verono, Le Chateau Bromont, Le Pleasant, Les Quatres Canards, Mont Sutton, Québec, Spa Balnea