Everyone in the lift lines was chatting away in French and kissing each other on both cheeks.
The lift mazes, fashioned from wooden fences, wound up to ticket-checker booths that were little log cabins trimmed in red. Sixties-vintage chairlifts with wonky metal safety bars came barrel-assing out of old barns, scooped up unwitting skiers, and swung them madly uphill. In the lodge, skiers unloaded picnic lunches from wicker baskets onto red-and-white checked tablecloths. Hotels were
and restaurants served
Petits Patés de Saumon and Crèpes au Poulet.
I had either been transported back in time or somehow ended up in Europe. Maybe both. I certainly wasn't in Colorado anymore.
Actually, I was in Mont Sutton, Quebec, just 10 minutes over the Canadian border, due north of Jay Peak, Vermont. But as I discovered, it's a world apart from your ordinary North American ski experience. Sutton is not a huge place, and the vertical drop is modest. It does not have Alta steeps or Vail bowls or Taos chutes. What Sutton has are glades. Sous-bois,to use the local parlance. There are 30-year-old glades of birch and maple covering nearly half the mountain's 174 acres. And here's a funky twist: Sutton grooms its glades. They use little circa-1963 Tucker Sno-Cats that can maneuver around the trees and smooth out the snow (sort of). Some of the trees even have rubber around their trunks, because grooming glades is not an exact science.
Still, grooming is a little-practiced art at Sutton. Only 13 or so runs are groomed each night. Fewer on a powder day. The glades and the grooming policy are part of the overall gestalt of the place--which is au naturel.When the area was laid out, boulders and trees were left in place. Trails always follow the mountain's true fall line, even if it twists and turns away from the base lodge. At Sutton, you're not so much skiing downhill as constantly turning a corner. The trail map looks like a spider's web. At day's end, with the trees and rocks and serpentine routes and laissez-faire grooming policy, you're just as tired as if you'd skied Alta or Vail or Taos.
On my first day, I hooked up with Sutton diehard Pierre LeBlanc, a 55-year-old ex-ski instructor, father of an extreme freeskier, and insurance salesman from Montreal who proceeded to make me very tired.
There's a certain strategy to skiing Sutton: "I don't ski straight down a hill," Pierre explained, "I go from place to place. I might ski four trails on the way down." On one run, we took Sous-bois IVa to Sous-bois IVb to Surprise to Sous-bois V, a windy, snow-covered riverbed. That's how our day went--dashing from sous-bois to trail, nipping into another glade, popping out somewhere else. We never took fewer than four trails in a run, and even with the trail map, I couldn't retrace our route. "You can ski here 10 years and not come down the same way," said Pierre.
There's also a special Sutton ski technique. The natural terrain demands quick, short, controlled turns. "In a sous-bois, you have to turn," Pierre told me. And he was right. A few times I resorted to big, high-speed, Western-style arcs, only to come face to face with bark. I started to ski like Pierre. It was safer. And harder. "If you can ski here, you can ski anywhere," he said.
Sutton's unruly disposition is the legacy of Harold Boulanger, who opened the area in 1960. His son Réal was the visionary who insisted that raw mountain determine the ski area's personality. The glade concept was about 25 years ahead of its time. Other Eastern areas have just recently opened new glades to roughen up images smoothed out by a superabundance of groomed boulevards.
Réal had three brothers and two sisters, who in turn had 18 kids. Today, Sutton is still run by the Boulanger brood. Christine is the marketing manager, Marguerite works in the ticket office, Luke is in charge of mountain operations, Benoit is the general mager, and so on.
I met up with Harold's 23-year-old great granddaughter, Marie-Claude Dandenault, child of Sutton and a Montreal cop. Tall and lanky with a gruff voice and a bobbing ponytail, she skis the Sutton way: short, quick turns down the fall line, always in control. We took a run down Sous-bois Poma, a steep, narrow bumpy path through the woods. Of course, on the way down, we hit three other trails I can't remember. In the lift lines below, there were lots of hellos and two-cheeked busses. Marie-Claude knows everybody.
And everybody was decked out. They had on the very latest skiwear and cutting-edge ski gear. Lots of Phenix, Descent, and Helly Hansen outfits in flashy colors. Last year's Rossi's and Atomics and Volants. And all these skiers, dressed to the nines, were loading onto a chairlift installed around the time The Andy Griffith Showfirst aired. Against the backdrop of such a retro family mountain, the high-tech factor seemed oddly out of place.
Stranger yet, one powder morning I ended up skiing with the one skier who bucked the all-things-slick-and-new trend--Marlene Kaplan. She had on rear-entry boots and turquoise Rossi 4S's--garage sale material. Her outfit: wool sweater, several layers of cotton underneath, a brown jacket with the stuffing poking out, and duct-taped navy ski pants. "I've never bought new ski equipment in my life," said Marlene. Despite the antique gear, she ripped. She'd been skiing Sutton her whole life, and it showed. We skied run after run through the sous-bois, darting through the trees and over big bumps covered in cream, powder billowing up around our knees.
After lunch in one of Sutton's cozy on-mountain log-cabin like lodges, we headed for Fantaisie, Sutton's backcountry option. We passed through a gate warning that the area has no patrol, no snowmaking, no grooming, and that a rescue will cost C$150. The run would take us about 750 feet through the woods, and at the bottom we'd pay with a good 15-minute slog out.
The trees were tighter than in the Sous-bois, but still well spaced. I snuck over to the edge and found five untracked turns, then another 10 and 10 more. Marlene was plunging her way to the bottom, thick brown braids flying behind her. I stopped halfway down to catch my breath and look around. I had to remind myself I was skiing the East. Small snow-covered birch branches reached like tiny white fingers toward the blue sky. The run was a flight of fantasy. In fact, the whole Sutton experience was, too.
Destination: Mont Sutton, Quebec
Vertical Drop: 1,500 feet
Skiable Acreage: 174 acres
Lifts: 1 detachable quad, 2 fixed-grip quads, 6 doubles
Reservations: 800-663-0214; 450-538-2646
Tickets: An adult lift pass will set you back C$40, roughly US$27. Better yet, buy a full-day midweek ticket in the afternoon and you get a voucher for a full-day midweek ticket later in the season. Basically a day and a half for the price of one. There are also price breaks for skiers 65 and over and 17 and under.
Going Downtown: The town of Sutton is four kilometers down the road from the ski area. There are lots of little shops selling maple syrup, chocolate, ski clothes, books, and just about anything else you can think of.
Lodging: There are dozens of slopeside condos, small hotels, and quaint B&Bs from which to choose. I stayed at the Gite Vert Le Mont B&B (450-538-3227) on Maple street, a five-minute drive from the mountain. The room was cozy and the breakfast tasty.
Dining: You won't go hungry at Sutton. There are more than a dozen eateries in town, including the Auberge Les Alleghanys, a small bistro where the menu is handwritten every night. Bring your appetite and a translator. If you have a sweet tooth, try a cloying sugar pie for dessert. Very Quebecois.
Drinking: Since Camile's burned down, pretty much the only game in town for après is The Defrost. Located in the hotel Auberge La Paimpolaise near the base, it's a basement bar where you can get amber-colored Canadian nectar served in a mason jar. In the base lodge itself, you won't find a bar. It's part of the elder Boulanger legacy: Harold and his three sons were teetotalers and figured skiing and drinking just didn't go together. As of 1983, you could buy beer or wine at the cafeteria, but the only thing you can belly up to is still a picnic table. "When I went to another ski area and saw a bar, says Christine Boulanger, "I was shocked."
Festivities: Mont Sutton is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season (it's actually the ski area's 41st season), and to kick things off lift tickets will be $5 December 15-17. They're free on the 17th if you were born in 1960.près is The Defrost. Located in the hotel Auberge La Paimpolaise near the base, it's a basement bar where you can get amber-colored Canadian nectar served in a mason jar. In the base lodge itself, you won't find a bar. It's part of the elder Boulanger legacy: Harold and his three sons were teetotalers and figured skiing and drinking just didn't go together. As of 1983, you could buy beer or wine at the cafeteria, but the only thing you can belly up to is still a picnic table. "When I went to another ski area and saw a bar, says Christine Boulanger, "I was shocked."
Festivities: Mont Sutton is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season (it's actually the ski area's 41st season), and to kick things off lift tickets will be $5 December 15-17. They're free on the 17th if you were born in 1960.