PHOTO: Will Wissman
Winter storms hammer the mountains like in Wyoming's Tetons. The snow is as light and deep as Alta, Utah. The town looks like a fishing port on the Norwegian coast, but the road signs are in French. The sea cliffs are straight out of a harlequin novel. The ocean is Arctic. And the locals are…from another planet.
Like the one who had been guiding us through the high peaks of the Chic-Choc Mountains in northeastern Quebec all week. Just yesterday, he told us that local hot tub parties get so wild, men get pregnant.
"Men?" Marcus Caston asked.
"In dee aut-tub," our guide said.
This wasn't the first misunderstanding of the trip. Since photographer Will Wissman, skiers Tyler Peterson, Caston, and I arrived on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula—and saw the 4,000-foot silhouettes of the Chic-Chocs leaning over the St. Lawrence River—nothing seemed to stack up. First off, the mountains were bigger than we expected. And steeper. And filled in with hero powder. Quarter-mile-long box couloirs corkscrewed off the peaks, and powder-filled cirques connected the ridgelines. Down lower, steep glades of old-growth pine ran almost to sea level, making the vertical as long as something you might find out West. But we weren't out West. We were 12 hours northeast of Boston. And with a massive nor'easter bearing down on us—that awe-inspiring perfect storm particular to the East Coast—it looked like it was only going to get better.
Eastern skiers are trained from birth to consider chest-deep powder, above-tree-line skiing, and dreamy pillow lines the domain of the Rockies. Growing up in northern Maine, I'd heard of the Chic-Chocs, but always assumed that they resembled the White or Green Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont: good, relative to the East. But the Chic-Chocs are not just a range. They mark the terminus of the Appalachian Mountains, a 1,500-mile-long chain that snakes down the East Coast from Quebec to Alabama. Meaning, when they drop off, they really drop off, leaving marathon precipitous runs practically to sea level.
Our guide, Alex Robert, picked us up after breakfast the first day at the "Gîte" du Mont Albert—a four-star 1950s, Euro-style lodge set in the middle of the Gaspésie National Park. Robert was driving a two-car, Scandinavian military snowcat that we immediately christened the Alpine Assault Vehicle. Ski Chic-Chocs, the outfit that owns the rig and that Robert works for, was founded in 2006 by Stéphane Gagnon—an ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) guide with 30 years of experience. The outfit now holds the sole permit for mechanized access to the park, offering "cat-assisted" skiing throughout most of the range. So when we got to a cat track above the Mines Madeleine hut, we were on our own.
Robert pulled out a map before we loaded up and answered a few questions we had about where in the hell we were (and why few skiers seemed to have discovered or boasted about it before). The 160-mile Gaspé Peninsula that frames the Chic-Chocs reaches into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence like a giant bear paw, due southwest of Newfoundland and 200 miles northeast of Quebec City. Violent tectonic folding along the St. Lawrence fault millions of years ago created the landscape, and it hasn't changed much since. The peaks look like Play-Doh mountains—white, brown, and green smashed and twisted together. Sea cliffs 100 feet tall border the northern shore and hunks of rock the size of skyscrapers jut from the ocean.
The vertical as long as something you might find out West. But we weren't out West. We were 12 hours northeast of Boston.
The Chic-Chocs sit on the northern coast of the paw, in the heart of Gaspésie National Park. The park is shaped like a football, with the best and highest peaks for skiing near the northeastern border, including the adjacent McGarrigle Mountains. Twenty-five peaks rise above 3,000 feet, topping out at 4,160-foot Mont Jacques Cartier. Glacial ice plowed the tops off most of the peaks, leaving long plateaus for summits. For skiers, that means once you skin to the top, you can cruise the flats over much of the range before picking where you want to descend. With up to 300 inches of snow every year, you can ski almost every aspect of the Chic-Chocs by January, often in deep powder.
Most skiers access the southern peaks in the range, around Mont Hogs Back, because you can park right at the base and skin from there. But the mountains in the northeastern corner of the park are a world apart. Thing is, without a lift from Ski Chic-Chocs, access to the base of Petit Mont Sainte-Anne, near the old Mines Madeleine, takes four hours. Thankfully, we didn't have to worry about that. Thirty minutes after loading into the cat, we attached skins to our skis and followed Robert up a wide ridge to the summit of Mont Marie-Victorin.
The subalpine firs on top were loaded with snow and bowed over. Low clouds obscured most of the peaks, but every now and then we caught a glimpse. The summits were treeless and broad, like the top of a clamshell, but where the flanks rolled over, they were nearly vertical straight down to the valley. When the clouds cleared a half hour later, we saw a giant peak to the north—a crescent swoop of rock and ice.
The neighboring summit was called Black Tooth, Robert said, named for a black fang of rock jutting from a pristine white ridge. Wind whipped over the summit plateau, and we buttoned up and dropped over the backside. Robert led us to a tight glade that reminded me of skiing in Maine as a kid. Which is to say, you could barely find enough space to make a turn before hooking a tree with your tip. We picked our way down 200 vertical feet before Robert found a steep, open slot. Wissman and the crew skied the fall line to shoot some photos and Robert led me skier's left. When he stopped, we were standing on top of a 500-vertical-foot sluice through the trees.
He nodded, and I took off first, carving around a boulder, then between two giant pines. The snow was untracked condensed powder. I sank in over my boots and picked up enough speed to make a turn. The trees were spaced about 20 feet apart, with large openings in between, and I floated around them, bashing through the snowdrifts stacked behind each tree well. At the bottom, the chute narrowed and I ducked beneath a small ledge to another opening that plunged 300 vertical to the valley floor.
I stood in a daze for a minute at the bottom. The snow reminded me of Telluride and the glades were like those in B.C. Yet these mountains were so incredibly different from anything I'd skied before, mostly due to the fact that we could see the Atlantic from the top—and the great lighthouses and granite cathedrals perched on the edge of it. That, and the fact that there wasn't a single soul in the mountains besides us.
The name Gaspé derives from a Micmac Native American word that translates as "land's end." Traveling there—to the end of the largest mountain range east of the Mississippi—is like making a pilgrimage to the nexus of All Things East Coast. The ocean is wider and colder; the mountains are lumpier and steeper; the people are from another time; and, in general, one gets the feeling that you have arrived in a New World, a wild and sparsely populated expanse that has yet to be tamed.
The Vikings discovered Gaspé first, followed by the Italians, Basque settlers, then Breton fishermen. But it was Frenchman Jacques Cartier who sailed up the St. Lawrence in 1534 and claimed the region in the name of the King of France. Since then, Acadians, Loyalists, English, Jersey, Irish, and Scottish settlers have made the forbidding peninsula their home. The resulting patchwork of languages, genes, cuisines, and cultural identity is what locals now simply call, Gaspésie.
The nor'easter arrived the next day with gale-force wind, so we met Robert at a pub and toured Gaspésie culture on Route 132. The road tracks the northern edge of the peninsula no more than 50 feet from the ocean. Driving along, it becomes immediately clear that life on the 49th parallel revolves largely around staying warm. Massive folds of sea ice extended a mile from the shore; cars lurked in driveways half-buried by the snow. Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, gateway to Gaspésie National Park, looked more like an Arctic fishing outpost than an outdoorsy mecca.
Robert explained what living on the Gaspé as a skier was like as we drove. The peninsula itself is divided into five regions: The Coast, The Haute-Gaspésie, Land's End, The Chaleur Bay, and The Matapédia Valley. The language is different there, even from Quebec: Casse-Croute is a snack bar where all matters local are discussed; club-au-homard (lobster club sandwich) is the lunch of choice, along with the standard poutine (French fries covered in cheese curds and gravy), and tarte au sucre (sugar pie).
In the winter, the region is all about skiing—mostly because the fishing industry has died out and winter tourism is one of the last means of survival. The sport has been a part of Gaspé culture for more than a half century, when locals started glading their backyards and putting up rope tows for ski clubs. The Centre de Plein Air de la Haute-Gaspésie, in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, has kept its T-bar running and trails cleared since 1966-67. In the 1980s, a heli operation popped up for a few years. A few locals, like Ski Chic-Chocs guide Pierre Luis Desrosiers and his wife, Marie, keep the tradition going by thinning the woods behind their house to teach their six children to ski. The week we were there, Pierre Luis said his 75-year-old father was in the middle of a seven-day hut trip through the range.
Robert pointed out one of the oldest lighthouses in Canada on the side of the road and a monolithic stone cathedral set directly on the ocean. In the summer, when the whale migration starts, he said he camps on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence at a site so close to a feeding ground he can hear the whales breathing as he falls asleep. He also hangs out at the almost-world-famous Sea Shack—the "Auberge Festive" hostel-commune-party-center eight miles east of Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, where, apparently, even men can get pregnant.
We stopped at the Sea Shack on the way home and met the manager, Guillaume Rioux, near a tie-die painted bus that doubles as a jewelry shop during the warm season (July and August). Guillaume was classic Gaspésie stock—like a bear wearing a human suit. He gave us a tour of the bathhouse, designed like a Japanese onsen, and an outdoor bar where bands play 100 feet from the St. Lawrence. In the summer, he said, travelers pitch tents for a quarter mile down the beach to hang and party at the Shack.
Walking around the compound, it felt like a maritime Woodstock—with travelers, hippies, and anyone looking to ski the Chic-Chocs arriving at all hours and sometimes staying for months. That, I realized, was another distinctive characteristic of the Gaspésie. It is pristine—untouched by chain hotels, high-end tour groups, overpriced ski shops, high-speed quads, and luxury SUVs. There is no attitude; there are no people. As wind whipped across the highway on the drive home that night, and the first snow of the storm swirled down, the Chic-Chocs felt like the Old West, before the condos and mansions arrived. Or maybe it was the Old East, before anyone arrived.
It was still snowing when we woke up. Great sheets of white crystals slammed into the lodge and spiraled in vortexes across the parking lot. We watched the storm from the Gîte's white-linen dining room: black coffee, eggs benedict with local smoked salmon, and homemade bread and jam.
Robert showed up an hour later. Snow had drifted up to five feet deep on the road to town, and the highway was closed between Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and, well, the rest of the world. He was driving an 800cc snowmobile with a bright yellow and blue-topped sled, which we assumed was for transporting humans. We loaded our skis into a cargo sled hitched to the back of the banana boat, climbed in, and took off for the Mines Madeleine.
It was hard to talk over the wind when we stopped, so we affixed our skins and followed Robert into a stand of pine. The pine soon turned to birch, and the flat approach became a steep flank reaching up to a cliffed summit. We were on the southern edge of the Petit Mont Sainte-Anne cirque, near Mont de la Table, on a run called The Birches. We zigzagged straight up the last face and topped out near the bottom of the summit cliffs. Last year, a snowboarder got avalanched there. His board was caught between two trees and he was buried. He didn't have a transceiver on. His friend dug him out after seeing his boot.
Ski Chic-Chocs runs the largest avalanche training program in the East, and all of the guides are certified. Robert decided not to chance it and headed down from where we were. Snow blowing off the cirque had collected in the trees, and the powder floated over my knees as I followed the opening, big pines swaying up above but not a breath of wind on the slope. A wave of snow lifted over my head on one turn, then another. The rest of the run was just as deep, winding around papery birches and boreal pines. The pitch was steep, too, enough to blast through the powder and still have to check your speed. We skied three runs, face shots all the way to the bottom, then loaded into the banana boat to warm up at the Mines Madeleine hut.
The Chic-Chocs felt like the Old West, before the condos and mansions arrived. Or maybe it was the Old East, before anyone arrived.
The hut is set at the base of Petit Mont Sainte-Anne and was the old office of the silver and copper mining facility there. There were people in the hut when we arrived, a crew of 30-year-old Canadian men having a reunion. Their gear was scattered all over, skins drying by the stove, a stack of pancakes on the table. They fed us and gave us coffee and talked to us about skiing in Quebec. One said he jig-sawed his first snowboard out of a toboggan: "Can't beat the speed." He used 2x4s as straight backs and Sorels with ski-boot liners for boots.
The group's mascot was a redheaded Scotsman who didn't stop telling jokes for 45 minutes. On the hike in, he said he was two hours behind the crew and thought he was going to keel over. Robert told him that scenario happened last year. A guy skinned up with his buddies for a bachelor party, fell behind because of a bad knee, took a wrong turn, and ended up on the summit ridge. It took the sheriff three days to find his body under the snow.
The storm finally stopped on our last day. It left almost four feet of snow—about average for a nor'easter, Gagnon said. We met him above the Mines Madeleine hut where he was plowing a cat road for us to use. He said the Chic-Chocs usually get one major storm a month from December through April, with a few "streamers" that fill in—lake effect-type blizzards that roll off the St. Lawrence. The result is the best snow in the East, by far, and consistent powder on many aspects most of the winter.
Our first run in the cirque was under a clear blue sky. The snow wasn't as deep in the open as it was in the trees, but it still billowed around our knees. We headed to the center of the bowl next, where Peterson made long, swooping turns down a steep entrance, then between two rocky ridges. Caston followed with a beautiful line to skier's left, a contrail of powder following him down the skinny chute and into the trees.
We hadn't seen the eastern side of the park yet, so Robert led us over the backside of Petit Mont Sainte-Anne toward Mont Jacques-Cartier for our last run. We walked for an hour through dwarf pines and across a high plateau, looking down on dozens of frozen lakes and bizarre geological humps and moraines. When I asked if he had ever traversed the entire range, Robert explained that another interpretation of the word Gaspé was "impenetrable barrier."
The Chic-Chocs are home to the last herd of caribou south of the St. Lawrence and we searched for them from the rocky ridges, scoping each cirque as we passed. Looking out at the rows of peaks around us, I realized that we'd been skiing a tiny fraction of the range. There were so many descents to choose from it was hard to settle on one. We finally dropped in on a steep face above a kettle lake near 3,871-foot Mont de la Table.
The run touched 45 degrees at the top and was wind-scoured. Just behind us, three box couloirs etched into the side of Mont Roland-Germain looked like something straight out of Montana's Beartooth Mountains. Below was 1,500 vertical feet of turns, and thick, deep powder at the bottom.
We skied two neighboring chutes that met up halfway down the slope. At the confluence, we dove into the fresh powder, around glacial blue ice formations and tiny "whip" saplings. The turns kept coming, and we fell into line once again at the bottom, shooting through the final choke and gliding out onto the lake.
Gagnon was waiting for us in the middle of the lake with the Hägglund cat—and a blaze orange briefcase holding six locally crafted Pit Caribou ales. We sat in the snow and looked at our tracks, while toasting to the best skiing we'd had all year long—East or West. The turns were brushed onto the slope, like no one had ever skied there before. As far as we were concerned—sitting in the void between mountains and the sea—no one had.
This story was originally published in the September 2014 (43.1) issue of POWDER.