Where East Meets West - Ski Mag

Where East Meets West

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The Summit

Deep in the forests of Quebec, vast cirques and powder-filled chutes await.

Last year, in the waning days of February, a wayward tropical front raced up the Atlantic seaboard, bringing warm winds and copious rain to the northern mountains. It was the ultimate horror show: a midwinter meltdown. A month later, I placed a call to the ski hotline at Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, the gateway to Mount Washington's famed Tuckerman Ravine. How was it? "Forget it, man," a laughing voice said. "The entire headwall sloughed off two weeks ago. There's nothing left."

So you could say it was desperation that finally drove me to the Chic-Chocs Mountains of Quebec. North of Maine and south of Labrador, lapped by the frigid waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, they seemed like the one sure bet for a diehard Eastern skier set on squeezing in a few last turns. I'd been curious about the place for years. As a transplanted Westerner, I've always dreamed of an alternative to the cramped, tree-infested Adirondacks or the shrieking, polar White Mountains -- something, well, more Western. Could the Chic-Chocs, with their mysterious allure and poetic name, be it?

I was hopeful. "It's like 10 Tuckermans, side by side," someone told me. And so, bearing that image in mind, I got up one balmy April morning and loaded two pairs of skis -- one Alpine touring, one telemark -- in my car, took the ferry from Long Island to Connecticut, and turned north on I-95.

As the northernmost extension of the Appalachian chain, the Chic-Chocs form the spine of Quebec's remote Gaspé Peninsula, a rocky thumb of land that juts into the Atlantic. For some 60 miles, the flat-topped range forms an almost unbroken wall, rising as high as 4,100 feet, on the south side of the Saint Lawrence. The marine snowpack is relatively stable, and in some places it averages more than 20 feet per season.

The heart of the range, from Mont Logan in the west to Mont Jacques-Cartier in the east, is a national park, which is surrounded by an even larger game reserve. The idea is to protect the unique tundra of the mountaintops, a delicate ecosystem not otherwise encountered south of the Arctic Circle, and, in particular, three small herds of wood caribou, the last such population in Canada. All told, they number about 200 animals.

Because of the caribou, much of the sprawling, glacially carved Mont Albert, the most popular destination for skiers, is designated a Z.P.E., or Zone de Protection Extrême, and thus is formally off-limits. But there's still plenty of terrain. Plus, there's a very comfortable inn, the Gîte du Mont-Albert, at the foot of the mountain.The Gîte is where I found myself after a mere 13 hours and 15 minutes behind the wheel. Built in the '30s as a hunting and fishing lodge for American sportsmen, it's been extensively, if weirdly, remodeled and now looks like a cross between the Chateau de Frontenac and the Bates Motel. Still, at C$100 a night -- about $60 U.S. -- I wasn't complaining.

I found photographer Peter Cole in the dining room, sipping a glass of Chardonnay under the baleful gaze of a giant stuffed moose. Cole had arrived a day ahead of me, fallen in with a group of four Vermont telemarkers, and already skied to the top of Mont Albert. It was a long climb, even though the vertical rise was only about 2,000 feet. Then again, the Gîte's mountain guides say that going up 100 meters in the Chic-Chocs is like going north 1,000 kilometers toward the pole -- that's how drastic the climate changes are.

"How was it up there?" I asked, imagining a scene of primordial silence and majesty.

"Like standing on the wing of an airplane in a storm," Peter replied. "We stuck our heads over the top and nearly got blown off the mountain. I couldn't see a thing." He rubbed his eyes wearily. "They say tomorrow is going to be better."

When we awoke the next morning, the skies were still low and gray -- as they are, on arage, four out of five days in the winter -- but the wind had dropped. We followed the Vermonters up the Champs de Mars, a trail on the opposite side of the valley from Mont Albert. On top there were views in all directions -- a patchwork of scrubby spruce forests, old roadcuts, frozen lakes, and rocky ridgelines -- though many of the summits had disappeared into the clouds. The snow on the southeastern aspects was soft and fluffy, a fresh two inches on top of a firm two-foot base. Dodging saplings and the occasional shrub, we dropped off the summit ridge and found ourselves on fairly steep and wide-open slopes -- back bowls of the Chic-Chocs. Still, I was disappointed. The vertical drop wasn't much more than 600 feet, hardly enough to get started. But the Green Mountain Boys loved it. Maybe it compared favorably with the jungles they normally skied back home, but it seemed to me they were just being Eastern skiers. In other words, rejoicing if it's skiable at all.

That night the Vermonters took us 20 miles down the road to Ste.-Anne-des-Monts for dinner. At Chez Bass, a British-style pub on the shore of the Saint Lawrence, the Chic-Chocs après-ski scene was in full swing.

The Vermonters had learned about Chez Bass from Sebastien Keable, its amiable, balding proprietor, the year before in the Selkirks. Sebastien had lured them with tales of untracked powder. And while they loved the place and were planning to return this spring to ski the steeper (and less accessible) chutes and bowls at the Mont Logan end of the range, they teased Sebastien about the hype.

"Where's all that fresh pow we heard about?" one of them asked Sebastien.

"In Vermont," he said, smirking. It was dumping on the Greens, an 18-inch storm. The Vermont boys already knew about it. Their friends had called to gloat.

Even though it was snowing in Vermont, several hundred miles to the south, it started to rain in the Chic-Chocs. The Vermonters headed home; Peter followed them a day later. I stuck with it, half-heartedly checking out a different trail or peak every day. It was wet down low, and overcast up high. But at least the snow was good.

One day Sebastien offered to show me a few of his spots on Mont Albert. We drove to the parking lot at Ruisseau Isabelle, buried two beers in the snow near the car ("Two, three beers, a little fire, life is sweet," Sebastien said.), then started skinning up the trail. It was like entering a time warp. The few people we met were dressed out of another era: wool-clad trapper types on old wooden, tear-drop snowshoes; 70-year-old skinny skiers in '60s-era parkas; guys in windshirts. The signage was blessedly minimal but for one odd touch: A strip of yellow police tape barred access to the Couloir de Meleze.

At the Lac du Diable, we came out of the woods and got our first glimpse of the Bol des Patrouilleur, the Patrollers' Bowl. If the Chic-Chocs have an equivalent of Tuckerman Ravine, this is it: a many-chuted, east-facing glacial cirque that collects huge amounts of snow. A bit smaller than Tuck's, it nonetheless offers the same range of descents from easy to terrifying. And like Tuck's, it can turn into something of a party scene on warm spring afternoons. The difference is that, at the Bol, 15 or 20 people constitute a party.

At the foot of the Bol sits a little warming hut, La Serpentine. Here, the whole retro, sepia-toned charm of the Chic-Chocs really began to sink in. A plume of wood smoke spiraled out of the chimney. The skis in the snow outside were old and chipped. Sebastien smiled as he stepped through the door -- he knew everybody in the room. He went around shaking hands and making the bise,kissing the girls on both cheeks. Everybody seemed to be eating lunch out of Tupperware boxes.

After lunch, Sebastien and a guide from the Gîte, Jean-Noel, led the charge up the left-hand shoulder of the bowl. The couloirs started just to the right of it, and the farther right you went, the scarier and more overhanging the cornices became. Left was the smart call, and we launched our first run from high on the shoulder. The snow was windblown and a little scrapey, but after a few hairball turns, we dropped into a slot between two large boulders and found much softer stuff below. We sneaked in two more runs in the first, and most secure, couloir, a beautiful funnel with an easily negotiated rock garden in the runout. Then the weather closed in, so we cruised back to the hut.

As we warmed up, Jean-Noel explained the yellow tape at the Couloir de Meleze. Normally the snow in the Chic-Chocs is relatively stable, he said, and avalanches are infrequent. However, the February thaw that caused the headwall at Tuckerman to collapse had coated the snowpack in the Chic-Chocs with a nasty ice crust. Then it started to snow again.

Two weeks later, a 26-year-old Chic-Chocs regular from the Quebec City area was in the couloir and got caught in a slide 100 feet across and, in places, 15 feet deep. The slide traveled over half a mile. His body was recovered a day later. There had never been a recorded avalanche fatality in the Chic-Chocs, and suddenly, this was the second within a week -- five days earlier, a local cross-country skier had been the first.

Six days after I got to the Chic-Chocs, the sun came out. Along with Pierre, Jean-Noel's partner in the guide service at the Gîte, I set out for the summit of Mont Albert, following a picturesque path that climbed alongside the Ruisseau du Diable.

Down low we went on foot. The trail was heavily forested, first with birch, then with spruce. We skinned up at La Serpentine, then headed up the creek, leaving the Bol des Patrouilleur on our right. A whole new landscape opened up -- the entire southern half of the cleft massif of Mont Albert, a series of ridges, cirques, and hanging snowfields that seemed to put the north side of the mountain to shame. One expansive wall held 650 vertical feet of perfect 45-degree snow. You could start on one side doing figure eight's and work your way across, and it would take all day. Alas, Mont Albert Sud was Z.P.E. -- strictly off limits.

A minute later, we came around the corner and my jaw dropped -- a beautiful, cruiser bowl a half mile across had suddenly appeared before us. On the left, a huge wind-formed hollow lurked just below the headwall, giving the place -- dare I say it? -- an almost Western feel.

"La Grande Cuve," Pierre announced. The Big Basin.

"Zone de Protection?" I asked.

"Non,"Pierre said.

"Well, all right!"

Five minutes later, Pierre abruptly froze.

"What is it?" I said.

He motioned for silence. I looked around, then down. His tracks had just intersected a much deeper, rougher trail. At the bottom were deep, wide hoofprints, much bigger than a cow's.

"Caribou," said Pierre softly.

There were four of them, about a hundred yards off. It was difficult to see them at first. Their white winter fur disappeared against the snow, and the black tips of their noses and ears looked just like the rocks that speckled the sides of the cuve.They were slumped and quizzical looking, albino Bullwinkles pondering one of Rocky's trick questions.

Almost immediately, the caribou were off and moving, cranking directly up the steep headwall, each one careful to place its feet in the track left by the one before it. The feet were amazing -- giant webbed, clawed things, like shaggy baseball mitts, that spread wide to dig for lichens -- and support a lot of weight in deep snow.

In a few minutes, they were out of sight. By the time Pierre and I skied up onto the summit plateau, they were gone. We took our skis off and wandered around the icy tundra for an hour, admiring the views of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the lumpy Laurentians on the far side. Then we strapped in and dropped over the edge of the cuve. It wasn't steep -- perhaps only 25 degrees -- but there were six inches of untracked powder ancarier and more overhanging the cornices became. Left was the smart call, and we launched our first run from high on the shoulder. The snow was windblown and a little scrapey, but after a few hairball turns, we dropped into a slot between two large boulders and found much softer stuff below. We sneaked in two more runs in the first, and most secure, couloir, a beautiful funnel with an easily negotiated rock garden in the runout. Then the weather closed in, so we cruised back to the hut.

As we warmed up, Jean-Noel explained the yellow tape at the Couloir de Meleze. Normally the snow in the Chic-Chocs is relatively stable, he said, and avalanches are infrequent. However, the February thaw that caused the headwall at Tuckerman to collapse had coated the snowpack in the Chic-Chocs with a nasty ice crust. Then it started to snow again.

Two weeks later, a 26-year-old Chic-Chocs regular from the Quebec City area was in the couloir and got caught in a slide 100 feet across and, in places, 15 feet deep. The slide traveled over half a mile. His body was recovered a day later. There had never been a recorded avalanche fatality in the Chic-Chocs, and suddenly, this was the second within a week -- five days earlier, a local cross-country skier had been the first.

Six days after I got to the Chic-Chocs, the sun came out. Along with Pierre, Jean-Noel's partner in the guide service at the Gîte, I set out for the summit of Mont Albert, following a picturesque path that climbed alongside the Ruisseau du Diable.

Down low we went on foot. The trail was heavily forested, first with birch, then with spruce. We skinned up at La Serpentine, then headed up the creek, leaving the Bol des Patrouilleur on our right. A whole new landscape opened up -- the entire southern half of the cleft massif of Mont Albert, a series of ridges, cirques, and hanging snowfields that seemed to put the north side of the mountain to shame. One expansive wall held 650 vertical feet of perfect 45-degree snow. You could start on one side doing figure eight's and work your way across, and it would take all day. Alas, Mont Albert Sud was Z.P.E. -- strictly off limits.

A minute later, we came around the corner and my jaw dropped -- a beautiful, cruiser bowl a half mile across had suddenly appeared before us. On the left, a huge wind-formed hollow lurked just below the headwall, giving the place -- dare I say it? -- an almost Western feel.

"La Grande Cuve," Pierre announced. The Big Basin.

"Zone de Protection?" I asked.

"Non,"Pierre said.

"Well, all right!"

Five minutes later, Pierre abruptly froze.

"What is it?" I said.

He motioned for silence. I looked around, then down. His tracks had just intersected a much deeper, rougher trail. At the bottom were deep, wide hoofprints, much bigger than a cow's.

"Caribou," said Pierre softly.

There were four of them, about a hundred yards off. It was difficult to see them at first. Their white winter fur disappeared against the snow, and the black tips of their noses and ears looked just like the rocks that speckled the sides of the cuve.They were slumped and quizzical looking, albino Bullwinkles pondering one of Rocky's trick questions.

Almost immediately, the caribou were off and moving, cranking directly up the steep headwall, each one careful to place its feet in the track left by the one before it. The feet were amazing -- giant webbed, clawed things, like shaggy baseball mitts, that spread wide to dig for lichens -- and support a lot of weight in deep snow.

In a few minutes, they were out of sight. By the time Pierre and I skied up onto the summit plateau, they were gone. We took our skis off and wandered around the icy tundra for an hour, admiring the views of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the lumpy Laurentians on the far side. Then we strapped in and dropped over the edge of the cuve. It wasn't steep -- perhaps only 25 degrees -- but there were six inches of untracked powder and, better than that, a sense of space and wide-open vastness that I'd never felt before on this end of the continent. True, not all of it was open to us, but in the end I decided that was all right. The caribou could have the rest of Mont Albert. They needed it more than we did.

Want to explore the Chic-Chocs yourself? Contact the Gîte du Mont-Albert: 418-763-2288; 888-270-4483; email, gitmalb@globetrotter.qc.ca. Or visit www.sepaq.com.r and, better than that, a sense of space and wide-open vastness that I'd never felt before on this end of the continent. True, not all of it was open to us, but in the end I decided that was all right. The caribou could have the rest of Mont Albert. They needed it more than we did.

Want to explore the Chic-Chocs yourself? Contact the Gîte du Mont-Albert: 418-763-2288; 888-270-4483; email, gitmalb@globetrotter.qc.ca. Or visit www.sepaq.com.

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