Tours & Turns in the Chic-Chocs
52 HOURS; 1130 MILES BY CAR; 15 MILES BY LEG; 4,000 FEET OF ELEVATION
Every good road trip begins with a helping of uncertainty as to what exactly lies ahead. When you’ve been someplace before, it doesn’t have quite the same feeling as that first time into the unknown. And even if you know people have been there before and skied it before, it just feels different when it’s your first time.
And so it was that our group of backcountry adventuring dads found ourselves loading up the car for an all-nighter, 500+ mile drive to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula and the Chic-Choc Mountains. As if to send us off in a fitting mindset after what has been a rough season so far out east, it was raining and 50 degrees on the third night of February in Burlington, VT. Such has been the 2015-16 season, where we’ve been paying back the piper for last winter’s all-time conditions. Each one of us was secretly wondering what lay ahead; it was also raining in the Chic-Chocs that night and none of us had ever laid eyes on those mountains before. Plus, we only had about a day and a half to fit in some backcountry turns (if we could find them) before we were due back to our dad duties.
Bleary-eyed and groggy standing in the Tim Horton’s parking lot in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts the next morning, our guide Ely had just explained that the only safe terrain we could access that day was “about 9 kilometers in.”
There was an awkward pause as we all looked at each other and considered what exactly we had gotten ourselves into. But with no snow to ski on in the backcountry at home, 13 miles on rain crust sounded ok.
An hour later, all worries had vanished as we skinned through some heavy falling snow and into the Mont Albert massif. Our guide had a tricky job of navigating us to a safe zone on a day where the avalanche ratings were considerable everywhere above tree line from the overnight rain.
But despite the challenging conditions, the tour was incredible...traversing through a series of drainages and valleys ringed with bowl after bowl of enticing terrain. It's unlike anything else in the east: it had more of an arctic feel to it because the tree line is so much lower that far north. Blindfold somebody and drop them here and it’s certain that Quebec would be near the bottom of their list of guesses.
Final destination for the day was Le Grande Cuvee, a mellower bowl on the backside of Mont Albert. Like any good mountain range, this one made you feel very, very small in the middle of so much wilderness.
And though the turns were nothing to write home about (rain crust sucks!) it was still nice to be pointing the skis downhill in such a beautiful place. All skiing is good, some is just better than others.
Day 2 dawned colder with snow spitting from the sky. The best news was the avalanche rating had returned to “low” which meant it was time to venture farther above the tree line.
With our feet reminding us of the 13 miles logged the previous day, we headed just outside the park boundaries to a popular spot packed with all kinds of terrain features and an easily accessible skin track.
Whereas the first day's tour was through a mostly treeless alpine area, day two saw us skinning through western-style pine glades on Mont Lyall’s steep slopes.
Within a few hours we topped out on the summit to some great views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Chic-Chocs have literally every kind of terrain you would want to ski. Big alpine bowls, steeps, cliffs, chutes, couloirs, glades, gullies, and everything in between. If you think that eastern skiing is all ice and boring groomers, get yourself to the Chic-Chocs to be proven wrong.
We chose to take on a chute of perfectly spaced trees. After all of the driving, lack of sleep, aching feet, miles of skinning, rain crust and avalanche danger, these were the best turns of the trip. Steep and deep we were finally able to break through the persistent rain crust and carve into the dense powder below.
Hands down the best backcountry run of the season that left us all with big shit-eating grins on our faces.
Next we knew, it was back in the car facing 10 more hours home. Trips like this live large in the mind, with tons of buildup and anticipation…followed by the afterglow that slowly fades in time. Needless to say, it was the best 20 hours of driving for 45 minutes of skiing we ever did.
The only question that remains for us is: how soon can we get back?
IF YOU GO
When planning your trip, start with the Avalanche Quebec website to get a handle on conditions, avalanche danger and weather.
Expe Adventures offers guiding services both inside and outside the park for reasonable rates.
There are a variety of options to crash in the area. We chose to stay at the centrally located Gite du Mont-Albert which has hotel rooms as well as outlying cabins.
And lastly, when you arrive stop by the visitor's center next door to the Gite. It's got daily conditions reports, maps and guidebooks which are all helpful despite only being in french (pictures help!).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Miller is the co-founder of Dogy Down Films, a group of dads who chase backcountry powder before chasing kids and work deadlines around. Based in Burlington, Vermont, they are working on a follow-up film to their debut effort 'The Way Up' which chronicled the 2014-15 season in the New England backcountry.