Monday, March 28, 2016

To The Chic-Chocs, We Don't Stop (March 2016)

"What have I done?"  Cowering the backseat of Justin’s truck, I lay my head against the cool window as Justin, Silas, Kirk and I rumbled through the Quebec countryside in the wee hours of the morning.  I was ten hours deep into my thirteen hour journey from Boston to the Chic-Choc mountains on the Gaspé peninsula in Eastern Quebec and seriously questioning whether I should have made the trip. 

Fighting off the virus-of-the-week from the local daycare center, I was wearing every layer of clothing I had brought, and was popping Tylenol like they were tic-tacs.  I was simultaneously freezing cold and sweating buckets, and my throat was throbbing like I had swallowed a cup of hot lava. Despite the fact that I was up most of the night before with a sick baby, I couldn’t sleep. I closed my tired eyes, hoping to nod off, but my cramped body and bouncing head jolted me back to the painful reality of my backseat pain cave.   Even if I survived the night, was I going to be in any condition to ski?  There was no hiding in the backcountry: no lift rides and no ski patrol: no faking it on the skin-track.  Everything would need to be earned.  My doubts, however, were no match for my desperation.   

For years I’ve wanted to visit the Chic-Choc mountains. The insanely long drive, however, made it seem out of reach.  Despite the fact that I routinely made twelve-hour car trips when I was in college, these days anything over five hours seems like a form of torture.  All it took was one shitty winter to redefine the limits of an acceptable driving distance.  One really shitty winter.  Even in far northern Vermont it looked more like mid-May than mid-March.  The snow-less landscape extended as far north as Sherbrooke.  However as we approached the mighty St. Lawrence, snowbanks arose alongside the road, and steadily grew as we headed northeast.  By the time we arrived in Saint-Anne-des-Monts near the end of the Gaspè peninsula, the banks were nearly five feet high.  Old Man Winter had abandoned all but the far northeastern tip of the East Coast.

About two months before the trip we had booked our reservations at the Motel a la Brunante in Saint-Anne-des-Monts, which sits on the outskirts of the park.  We preferred to stay in the Auberge Le Gite du Mont-Albert at the park’s center, but they didn’t show rooms available through the weekend. We did, however, book a room at Le Gite for the first night.  This turned out to be a life-saver given that the Brunante doesn’t have check-in after midnight.  At four o’clock in the morning we rolled into the parking lot of Le Gite, checked in with the night manager and quickly collapsed on our beds.

I spent most of the first day in hibernation while Silas, Kirk and Justin skied the nearby Hogback and Champs-de-Mars.  These spots are easily accessible off of Route 299 which runs through the middle of the park.  The most impressive part of the Chic-Choc experience became immediately apparent in the light of day.  The skiable lines on the mountains were so close you could reach out and touch them from the hotel lobby.  High above Le Gite, the couloirs and open glades are much closer than Tuckerman or the Gulf of Slides to the Pinkham Notch center.  The lines off of Hogback and Champs-de-Mars are a stone’s throw from the road.   Each mountain took only a few hours to climb and ski. When I met up with the rest of the crew after their day, they observed that on a scale of one to ten the terrain was a ten, but the conditions were a three or a four.  A recent spell of warm sunny weather meant that a thin sun-crust had developed on the surface of the snow.  This zipper crust made turns difficult and unpredictable.   A big plate of nachos and a few beers took the edge of my friends’ disappointment, and we prayed for a few inches of new snow and better conditions for our upcoming day with the guides in Mines Madeleine.

Our guides from Ski Chic-Chocs suggested we meet up at MicrobrasserieLe Malbord in Saint Anne de Monts that evening to discuss the plan for the next day.   Le Malbord is a casual microbrew pub that offers a number of home brews along with a good selection of pub food.  We joined the second half of our crew, Josh, Dan and Mike, who had driven up from Vermont that morning.  The bartender recognized our group as he had bumped into them on Champs-de-Mars earlier in the day.   As the night went on the place slowly filled up.  The atmosphere was decidedly relaxed, a theme for most of the places we visited on our trip.  A man sat quietly eating his dinner and reading a book as groups of ladies gathered around high tables sipping beers, conversing and laughing.   We poured over the maps with Gabriel and J.P., who were in agreement that the conditions down low sucked.  We would need to go high to find the goods.

I settled into my bed at Motel Brunante determined to feel better the next morning.  Sweat soaked and restless my alarm jolted me awake far too early.  The doubts rained down on me in the early morning light.  Did I have enough in the tank for a day of hiking and skiing?  What would happen if I bonked?  Despite my doubts, there was no fucking way I was coming this far to sit out another day.  Enough was enough.  I was skiing today. Even if that meant the group had to carry me out Weekend-At-Bernie’s style.  I stuffed some breakfast down into my stomach, grabbed a coffee and hopped in Justin’s truck.  

We met up with the rest of our group at the Discovery Center, just down the road from Le Gite.  The place was abuzz with skiers getting ready to head out for their day’s adventures.  There’s a small store where you can purchase maps, a guidebook and all the sundries needed for a day in the mountains.   After signing all the necessary waivers we eventually piled into the back of an 80’s era ski cat and threw our skis up top.  With enough room for a dozen people, a group of local ladies who were catching a ride to the hut jumped aboard as well.  The twelve kilometer climb up into the Mines Madeleine area flew by as we traded stories with our new Gaspésie friends.  Given the dubious conditions down low along Route 299, we asked about other spots that might have decent skiing.   They raved about Mont Lyall and their description of the skiing around nearby Murdochville also held our interest.  But they all were in agreement that Mines Madeleine was the place to be.

Ski Chic-Chocs has exclusive rights to guided skiing in the expansive Mines Madeleine area, and also provides a taxi service for people staying at the Mines Madeleine hut.  The area is a former copper mine that ceased operations decades ago.  The only remaining signs of the mine during winter are the access roads: low angle tracks climbing the various ridges, perfect for laying skin tracks.

When we stopped at the hut to drop-off our new friends, we got our first glimpse of the Mines Madeleine area.  It was mind blowing.  There were ridges and skiable lines facing every direction.  It was as if someone had thrown the Gulf of Slides into a kaleidoscope and projected it 360 degrees around us.  After a quick stop at the hut, we continued around one ridge and further into the mountains until finally the ski cat came to a stop and back door flew open.   We were greeted with even more snow covered ridges and another multitude of skiable lines.  Full of snow, none of the ridges had ski lifts.  We were in backcountry skiing heaven.

Given the recent warm weather, our guide focused his attention on the north facing lines.  We followed a gentle skin track to the ridgeline above.  After about an hour of skinning we were ready for our first descents.  We gathered at the top of a small bowl with a narrow run-out at the bottom.  The first turns yielded ankle deep powder with no hint of a crust.  We descended all the way to the bottom of the gully where we inhaled our lunches.

We gained the ridge again, following another gentle skin track up the north side to the top.  A large, low angle snowfield that descended about half-way down the gully was the scene of our next descent.  We jumped off small features, wove between spaced trees and found our way back to the skin track.

We climbed once again, this time going further up onto the ridge until we reached a large south facing bowl.  Our guide announced that this was Black Crow Bowl: the steepest bowl on the ridge.   The large cirque hung above a generously spaced softwood glade far below.  Despite the southerly aspect, the snow was still powdery.  We hooted, and hollered as we descended down through the scrub, into a tight wash and ultimately into the tree filled valley below.   We made our way through the woods, and after a short but steep climb, we arrived back at the ski cat.  Exhausted, we piled into the cat and headed back to the Discovery Center.

That evening, at the recommendation of our guides, we went to Chateau-de-Montagne in Saint-Anne-des-Monts.  Perched high above the town, the restaurant looks down upon the village and the mighty St. Lawrence.  The gorgeous views were matched only by the exceptional food.  Among the standouts were the best poutine I’ve ever eaten, a hanger steak that I still dream about and a stuffed pork loin that most of the group couldn’t’ resist.  The bar area has comfortable couches to lounge on while awaiting your table, and there is a spacious downstairs area complete with a pool table, more couches and a big screen television.  With rooms to rent, this is the perfect setting for someone looking for a bed-and-breakfast experience while in the Chic-Chocs.

While we emptied pitchers of beer, our guides made a surprise personal appearance to give us the low-down on the next day’s activities.  Originally the guides thought they were only going to be able to give us one day of guided touring, but as luck would have it we are able to score a second day in the Mines.  The guides took us up to the Mines Madeline hut on the second day, and we set out to ski the “Birches” and the lines down the surrounding ridges. 

Our second day of skiing was markedly colder.  Where the sun had made brief appearances on our first day, it was behind a thick wall of clouds keeping the temperature in the teens all day long.  Light snow fell, and winds howled on the ridges high above.  The snow conditions were downright perfect.  Ankle deep, the snow was still powdery and unconsolidated on the steep slopes.

A well-defined skin track snaked slowly around the mountain and up to the ridgeline.  While I lapped the deep powder in the trees, some of the more skilled skiers in the group climbed higher up on the ridge and sniffed out chutes into the S couloir and the S-apostrophe couloir.  Our marauding band of Vermonters cut steep lines down the rocky ridges above the Mines.  Having cut their teeth on Mansfield’s unyielding couloirs and ravines, they stormed down the mountain spraying powder up into the wind, hooting and hollering, and reveling in winter’s last stand.

We finished the day weaving through the trees and back down to the hut where we awaited our snow-cat ride back out to the Discovery Center.  Despite skiing the better part of two days we barely even touched the available lines in the Mines Madeline area.  Nobody wanted to leave.  There was so much more to explore, so much more to ski.  So much more winter left for the taking.

That night we returned to Chateau-de-Montagne for another world-class meal.  As we sat around a large table in their dining room, laughing and recounting the weekend’s adventures, I couldn’t help but smile and think that thirteen hours doesn't seem like that long of a drive anymore. 

Especially when backcountry skiing heaven and the best damn poutine ever is waiting on the other end.

1 comment:

  1. Great read, thanks for sharing! Planning a trip up there this spring and I can't wait!