Travelling can be an excellent teacher, and so can outdoor sport.
Combined, they make an even more potent pair. I’ve been hypothermic in
the BC backcountry, broke in Alaska and awed by the magnificence of the West
Coast Trail. But marrying culture shock with a winter sport adventure trip in
Québec taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve
Ice climbing with renowned Québécois climber Francois-Guy
Thiviere at Montmorency Falls reminded me of the importance of enjoying the
journey. Skiing at Le Massif with Vincent Lajoie—a former corporate
climber turned alpine enthusiast—reconfirmed my belief in the
transformative power of mountain sport. Conversing in French with lifetime
ski bum Louis Gravel and his pals at Mont-Sainte-Anne taught me two things:
one, my French is atrocious and two, Québec ski culture is like
nowhere else. And hanging upside down on a zipline on the historic Plains
of Abraham in Québec City during the opening weekend of Carnaval, I
learned that there’s no substitute for a good old-fashioned
Québec winter party.
As far back as 1608, winter has been a major influence on
Québécois culture. That was the year explorer Samuel de Champlain
established the first permanent settlement in Québec City. Back then,
voyageurs traversed the winter landscape mostly by dogsled or snowshoe. It
wasn’t until February 1879 that an ‘A Birch’ made the
first recorded ski trip in Québec’s history, skiing over 300
kilometres from Québec City to Montréal in 45 hours, 35 minutes.
(Basically, that’s like doing five Canadian Birkebeiners in less than
This year marks Québec City’s 400th anniversary, with
celebrations taking place throughout the year (see myquebec2008.com for a
list of all the events). With over 500 000 visitors each year, Carnaval is
the biggest winter festival in the world. And, as the first major event of
the anniversary year, it played a central role in the
After the opening ceremonies were—fittingly—postponed due to a
snowstorm, the events kicked off on Feb 2 with “La Grande
Viree,” a provincial dog sledding championship in the streets of Old
Québec. And with that, my winter journey began in a land famously
captured in the lines of classic Québécois anthem Mon Pays:
“My country is not a country, it’s winter; … my path is not a
path, it’s snow.”
That morning over breakfast at the landmark Château
Frontenac—the starting gate for the race—I discovered that Jean
Soulard, the Frontenac’s executive chef, is also a snowboarder who
enjoys riding at Le Massif. Over the next few days I continued to discover
skiers and boarders in Québec City. With three ski resorts within an
hour’s drive of the city—Mont-Sainte-Anne, Le Massif and
Stoneham—it’s not surprising. Québec has been the home or
training grounds to a legion of World Cup and Olympic skiers and
snowboarders, including Melanie Turgeon, Jean-Luc Brassard, Dominique
Maltais, Erik Guay, Francois Bourque and many more. I couldn’t wait
to get out to the mountains—I had over 100 years of alpine history to
The Québec ski experience is not like being in the Rockies. First of
all, the drive east from Québec City begins with majestic views of the
St Lawrence River and continues through picturesque townships. Cathedrals
tower on high cliffs, their sharp spires piercing the sky. Metres from the
road, chunky ice floes drift with the St Lawrence current. Looking at their
imposing mass, it was hard to imagine braving the icy open waters between
Québec City and Lévis in Carnaval’s annual International
My first impression of Mont-Sainte-Anne was deceiving—it has a round,
squat look from afar. But up close, this impression changes quickly. With
66 trails spread over 430 acres and a 625 m vertical drop, I quickly found
the longest, most punishing runs—like La Brunelle and La St Lawrence,
two double-black bruisers with tight, hard-packed moguls top to bottom. Or
La Foret Noirée (the Black Forest), an eerily deserted glade area that
is haunted, as legend has it, by the ghost of a German baron.
On my first morning I met up with Lise Guay, assistant director of
Mont-Sainte-Anne’s Snowsports School. Guay is 50 and has been at MSA
for over 30 years, but she still kept up a fast pace as we toured the north
and south faces of the mountain. It wasn’t long before we ventured to
La Belle and La Bete (The Beauty and The Beast). New this year, La Bete is
a knee-jarring workout on double black bumps.
If I didn’t know it already, skiing in Québec taught me very
quickly not to judge ability by age. MSA boasts a large contingent of
senior riders who can still hold their own. Most famously, there’s
Charlotte Provencher, known as “The Dean.” She’s 73 and
still competes solo in MSA’s annual 24-hour race. Every year at the
final running section someone carries her skis for her, and she always gets
a standing ovation at the finish line.
I began to understand why so many Québec skiers—including
Melanie Turgeon, Pierre Harvey and Claude Brunelle among the MSA
contingent—had achieved greatness in their disciplines. Endurance,
determination and love for the sport characterized almost everyone I met.
Then, Le Massif—aggressive, wild, untamed, a freeriding mecca. It was
the closest thing I experienced to Western skiing, but without the big
development that is becoming so common out West. Through carefully planned
steps, the ownership is building this lift-serviced mountain into a
backcountry skier’s dream, something my guide Vincent Lajoie was only
too happy to share with me.
When I got there, he was bursting with energy. “When I saw you were
from the West, I figured you’d want to ski hard,” he said.
He’d set up the perfect mountain itinerary for us, starting with La
Choudiere, an unmapped black diamond glade between groomed runs La Pioche
and Le Mur. It doesn’t become an official run until 2008 – 09. From
that alone, I was hooked.
Then we hit La 42, a run that has legendary status as a double-black
monster. As we reached the entrance, we met up with provincial telemark
champion and instructor Claude Pagé. After traversing in, I pulled to
a brief stop to scan the lines. As I did, Pagé came blitzing past,
launching several metres into the air at mach speed into the mogul
minefield below. Landing in a half-lunge, he continued to hammer the tops
of the bumps, using their crests as his pivot points and drawing more and
more kinetic energy from each bouncing turn. It was then I realized: these
guys mean business.
By the time we emerged onto the lower section of La Charlevoix my legs were
noodled, but I barely noticed as an awe-inspiring panorama of the St
Lawrence River loomed below. It was almost surreal to carve the steep
plunge as the water came closer, looking like I was going to ski right into
With the St Lawrence tide flowing at its base, Le Massif is about as
different from MSA as two mountains half an hour’s drive apart can be
from one another. At 806 m vertical drop, it has the longest fall lines in
the East. Due to the river’s proximity, it enjoys a unique
micro-climate where conditions can swing wildly, sometimes dropping close
to a metre of snow in a day. This worked in my favour: the 20 centimetres
of chunky snow that had dropped at MSA over the last couple days was closer
to 40 cm of light, fluffy pow at Le Massif.
With such perfect conditions my thoughts naturally turned to off-piste.
With an innovative management philosophy that prioritizes a pristine
mountain experience, the resort nurtures a strong backcountry culture. It
recently introduced a backcountry discovery program where riders can skin
up into ungroomed territory along the easternmost ridge, known as La
Ligourie. The resort is currently considering a long-term development plan
that includes the possibility of turning the entire La Ligourie area into
an in-bounds backcountry in the next two to five years. Presently, however,
while the bottom is open for the discovery program, the top remains
The concept captured my interest and the opportunity for a lift-accessed
backcountry experience was overwhelming. I had to see it. Avid skier that
he was, Lajoie was eager to take me but hesitant at the risk. Despite his
expert skiing abilities and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the hill, La
Ligourie was uncharted, uncleared, deeply forested terrain. In the end, he
agreed to take me into the top of La Ligourie if we could find an
experienced guide and took some basic precautions.
Enter Claude Lessard. A six-foot tall, soft-spoken Quebecer with a dominant
presence on his 1
90 cm Sugardaddys, he is the skiing partner of local legend Michel Bisson,
a backcountry ski phenomenon whose image graces the resort trail map.
Except for Lessard, Lajoie explained, no one there can keep up to
After absorbing all the history of explorers and voyageurs, I was ready to
get off the map and closer to the living geographical pre-history of
Québec, where people and settlements had never encroached. La Ligourie
lived up to the billing. After a 15-minute trek across the upper ridge,
Lessard lead the way into a dense forest. We had to pick our way through
underbrush and low-hanging branches, over a creek and up the other side to
find our line.
The snow was over waist deep and traverses were difficult, making my
goggles fog up and sweat condense to ice in my usually breathable shell.
But the payoff came when we finally reached a pitch just open enough to
work up momentum between ever-tightening turns. “Keep your hands
inside the ride,” I thought, as I launched into a fresh powder line.
We emerged several hundred metres later, covered in snow and
The rest of the day followed suit as we picked our way through brambles
into fresh lines. Towards the end, we cruised into La Dominique Maltais and
into a series of chutes known as the Temptations, four tight, gladed steeps
that were cleared by Bisson himself, who had studied forestry engineering
before dedicating his life to skiing.
After my tour of La Ligourie, I suggested to Lajoie over beers at the
Summit Chalet that I hoped they’d preserve the backcountry nature of
the area. It seemed like a natural choice for a hill that is so obviously a
skier’s mountain, not a blatant cash grab.
As I left the hill that night I felt torn between professional obligation
and personal passion, as I occasionally do when I discover a great,
lesser-known gem. I don’t get to keep a lot of secrets about the
places I visit, but this was one I wished I could.
Climbing at Montmorency Falls was another of those conflicting moments.
Though hardly a secret, the 84-metre high falls (30 m higher than Niagara)
is one of Québec’s greatest natural treasures. It’s
already an international draw among ice climbers, but they are a smaller
sub-set of climbing culture. Most people who haven’t climbed probably
wouldn’t even consider ice climbing. It seems more treacherous to
climb the ice, less stable than solid rock. I had watched climbers here
seven years ago and marvelled at their courage and ability, but never
thought I’d be doing it.
I was slightly nervous for my first ice climbing experience but with
François-Guy Thivierge as my instructor, I discovered the truth.
It’s not an elite sport reserved only for high performance
athletes—another secret I’d rather keep. It’s important
to have a relatively good fitness level, but you don’t have to be
capable of scaling Everest before you try ice.
It is nice to have a teacher who can, though: Thivierge is headed for
Everest later this season to attempt an ascent, having recently come back
from Kilimanjaro. With over 30 years climbing experience and a large
climbing empire including a climbing gym and three separate operating
leases in Eastern Québec (featuring areas with via ferrata, ziplines
and climbing terrain), Thivierge is a consummate climber, instructor and
Thivierge, his partner Lyn and I trekked the 15 minutes into the falls,
skirting the side of the snow covered, shallow lake. The water roared over
the cliff, spewing huge white clouds of vapour into the cold air. Only a
handful of people were climbing.
We scrambled up a snowy hillside and set up below a steep ice wall as
Thivierge climbed up about 20 metres to set the anchor for our rope. Then
he explained the technique. Using spiked crampons on your feet and ice axes
in each hand, you make your way up the ice carefully, checking each hold by
sight, sound and feel. If you’re not careful, you can easily lose
your hold or loosen a slab of ice. (For this reason, helmets are a
Once I’d listened and observed the techniques, it was my turn. I was
tentative traversing out onto the ice, but I felt secure knowing Thivierge
was on belay. I could tell from watching him that handling the ropes and
belaying came second nature. He could have done it in his sleep.
As I began my ascent, I quickly realized that ice climbing demands your
whole, undivided attention. I trained my focus on route-finding, feeling
the ice as it responded to each move. My confidence grew as I went, and on
my second ascent I managed to surmount a near-vertical wall. The feeling
Before coming, I had imagined myself scaling an entire 80-metre ice face,
reaching the peak in dramatic, made-for-TV style. But as I climbed, I
quickly realized how much skill, energy and time it required. Ice climbing
defeats your expectations, teaches you to adjust your thinking. The true
pleasure in ice climbing is in being on the ice and understanding it,
learning its history and its contours, appreciating its transient nature
and discovering a new route through its crystalline, myriad maze. In other
words, it’s the journey that matters.
Looking out towards the Québec City skyline from an ice ledge high
above the snowy lake, I was elated. This was what I had come here for:
history, culture and exploration in the unpredictable Québec winter.
My trip had proven formidable, fraught with learning experiences. By
navigating in an unfamiliar language, on foreign terrain and in natural
wilderness, I had pushed my abilities and my reserves to the limit and
challenged my assumptions. And through that journey, I had gained a new
Balancing on a thin, brittle precipice of ice 50 metres above ground,
surrounded by the glacial waters of the St Lawrence, the historic
foundations of Québec City, the Laurentian mountains and the lights of
Carnaval in the distance, it’s impossible not to confront your own
personal foundations, to learn about yourself and the world around you, and
become a better person through the process.
That’s what journeys are about. V
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