Words and Photos by Jamie Walter
Those that have grown up skiing the east have likely heard stories of the fabled Chic Choc Mountains of Quebec. These tales started when the East’s most adventurous skiers journeyed into the depths of the Gaspé Peninsula in search of this holy land - a place which looks and feels like anything but the east coast. The alpine has the same appearance as the rounded peaks and open bowls of Colorado, the sprawling spruce forests grow similar to those in British Columbia, the small Québécois towns scattered about feel comfortably European, and the snow is in a league of its own. Word quickly spread about this mecca of skiing located just a days drive northeast of the major resorts in New England and Quebec; now, the Chic Chocs are considered a bucket list worthy destination for any east coaster.
Behold the mighty Chic Chocs. Mont Albert, as seen from Mont Lyall
Not being the kind of skiers to shy away from a good adventure, we figured it was about time that the Newschoolers crew go explore the Gaspésie region. We rounded up an all-star squad including skiers LJ Strenio and Sandy Boville, filmer Max Trudel, Newschoolers’ Associate GM David Zorko, and myself. All of us have East Coast roots, which made this opportunity to finally see the legendary Chic Chocs for ourselves that much more special.
The heart of the Chic Chocs lies seven hours northeast of Quebec City and getting there from almost anywhere else requires committing to a full day’s drive. My travels started bright and early at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine; it would take me nine and a half hours to make my way up along the St. Lawrence River and back up into the mountains. The picturesque scenery along Autoroute 20 and Route 132 helped pass the time - the road winds through quaint seaside villages for a while, before squeezing down to a narrow strip of pavement sandwiched between the ice-filled waters to the left and large steep bluffs that come crashing down to the right. It’s the type of scenery that looks more like Norway than Quebec.
The mountains that drop down into the Saint Lawrence look more like Scandinavian Fjords than maritime Quebec
The pastel cottages of the Gaspé Peninsula
When I arrived in the mining town of Murdochville, it felt like I had just made it to the north pole. Massive three-meter-tall snow banks line the snow-covered streets and the only vehicles parked in front of the town’s one restaurant are snowmobiles. A brutally cold, persistent wind drifts snow against the neat rows of houses originally built by the former mining company lending the place a true arctic air. At its peak, Murdochville could support 5,000 residents, but ever since the mine’s closure in 1999, the town has been struggling. Its current population sits around 750 people, and houses are on the market for less than $50,000 Canadian.
However, a recent shift in the regional economy has managed to keep a pulse beating in the quiet Quebec town. Along with a massive wind turbine development that has dotted the surrounding ridgelines with tall white structures, the boom of backcountry skiing has also begun to draw more tourists, business, and money to the region. Surrounded by the most snow I had seen all year, along with some impressive looking mountains, I could immediately tell that this place had something special in store for us.
To our great surprise, the Ski The East crew happened to also be in town during our trip. Here's their signature Subaru during the 5pm rush hour at Murdochville's only gas station
Our crew would spend the next two days checking out the local cat skiing operation run by Auberge Chic-Chac. While it’s the only cat skiing experience on the East Coast, they set a high standard for any operation, east or west. The hostel-style lodge is located in town and hosts breakfast and dinner for its guests, along with a bar for après shenanigans. The food was outstanding, including the lunches they packed on the cat for us each day.
And then there’s the terrain. With two separate zones accessed by cat - Mont York and Mont Porphyre - there’s no shortage to choose from. The larger of the two, Mont York, features 15 different long and steep runs, several of which contain sizeable natural and artificial features making the terrain a backcountry jibber’s paradise. The other zone, Mont Porphyre, is closer to town and offers scenic views when you get dropped off above treeline. While the 12 runs there are a bit more mellow, they offer great skiing in well-maintained glades. Best of all, both mountains are exclusively accessed by Auberge Chic-Chac; you won’t find anyone poaching the stashes except for your buddies on the cat with you.
Unloading the Cat at the top of Mont York
The Cat making its way back across the ridge and down for another pickup
Hopping out at the top of Mont Porphyre
The ridgeline of Mont Porphyre
Our first day started with a hearty breakfast at the Chic-Chac headquarters, followed by a safety talk with our guide, Alexis Roy. He reminded us that the terrain we would be skiing is legitimate, remote backcountry, and made sure we all had avalanche beacons, shovels, and probes (Chic-Chac provides loaner avalanche gear to those that don’t bring any). Once everyone was equipped, we piled into a cat alongside the crew from Ski The East, and before long we were rumbling down the 45-minute approach to Mont York. Sandy and LJ took this time to brush up on their French vocabulary; while I understood nothing that they were saying, I’m fairly confident that Max was feeding them the wrong words...
Before too much damage could be done to the skier’s understanding of the local dialect, we were jumping out of the cat for our first run. It was a beautiful day - the sun was shining, temps were comfortable around -5 Celsius, and there was 10 cm of fresh snow waiting for us in the woods. We excitedly clicked into our skis and dropped in. Instantly, my expectations were blown out of the water; the trail had a great fall line that was nice and steep, the trees were perfectly spaced, and the snowpack was soft and deep. Even with a dozen of us mobbing down one glade, there was enough space and fresh snow for all. Hoots and hollers echoed through the evergreens as we bounced and turned our way down to meet the cat. If this was one of the “shorter and more mellow runs” as Alexis put it, we were in for a treat the next two days.
Zack Masi, sending his first hit of the day
Zack Masi stepped up to the biggest platform...
...and flipped a few more times than he had planned
The taste of good skiing started a feeding frenzy amongst the crews of skiers, who were now chomping at the bit to go check out the manmade features of the other runs. Within no time we were getting lap after lap in some unbelievable zones full of platforms, pillows, and jumps that ranged in size from two to ten meters. The boys weren’t afraid to start sending it - backflips, 360’s, and other tricks were immediately popping off left and right in this backcountry playground. Ski The East riders Andreya Zvonar and Zack Masi got particularly sendy the first day. Andreya launched a few massive threes, and Masi threw a first hit backflip off the largest platform that resulted in a gnarly tomahawk straight into a grove of trees I was in (he walked away unscathed, thankfully). As you would expect, LJ and Sandy both found some more creative lines and may very well have been the most stoked skiers of us all. On our final afternoon, we took the cat over to Mont Porphyre for a sunset run. Even though the snow there was affected by some recent winds, we still were able to enjoy the impeccable views of Murdochville and surrounding mountains to cap off two incredible days of cat skiing.
The guys stayed grounded, at least long enough to find a few pow turns. LJ Strenio
Sandy's plane was canceled the first night. But Air Boville showed no delays upon arrival
Our cat posse, made up of the Ski The East & Newschoolers crews
The next day brought a welcomed change of pace - it was time to earn our turns. With guides Alexis and Léa Bernier leading the way, we hopped in our cars and headed west away from Murdochville. The 45-minute drive ended at the pull off for the Mont Lyall trailhead, where we readied our skins with a few other local skiers. Our climb began through a beautiful evergreen forest and the overcast skies began to clear as we gained in elevation. The snow only got deeper and the views only got better as we approached treeline. Ahead of us was the summit ridge of Mont Lyall, which offers several chutes and open faces that eventually funnel into maintained glades that were cut by the same forest engineers that worked on Mont York. Surrounded by such prominent mountains and west-coast-esque terrain, it was hard to believe that we were still in Quebec. A quick lunch of premade sandwiches on the summit refueled us for our descent, which was surprisingly long compared to what felt like a fairly easy approach. Had we not started to run out of daylight, it would have been a quick and easy spot to bust out a few more laps.
Walkin' in a winter wonderland
Mont Lyall's offerings
Spot the skier? It's LJ
Sandy finding some killer snow
Instead of returning back to Murdochville, we continued on to the Gîte du Mont-Albert, located just a few kilometers down the road from where we had skied. This beautiful hotel sits inside Parc national de la Gaspésie and is hands down the most convenient place to stay near the mountains. As you could imagine after a solid day of touring, we were palpably excited to enjoy the three-course dinner they offered. We ate like royalty that night as we looked over our next objective in the Chic-Chocs Backcountry Touring Guidebook at the table (a must have for anyone looking to do touring in the Chic Chocs).
The following morning we set out for Mount Albert, a giant plateau with broad bowls lining its perimeter. Getting there required a 5km approach, but we were able to rest our legs at a conveniently located warming hut at the base of the bowls. While we ate, Alexis and Léa discovered some fairly sketchy snow and instabilities in the snowpack near the couloirs we were planning to ski, including fairly recent avalanche debris. We decided as a group to ski some protected low angle terrain instead; while it was unfortunate we wouldn’t be able to check out some of the area’s best lines this time around, having knowledgeable local guides with us made the decision much easier.
The beautiful Gîte du Mont-Albert
Sandy and LJ enjoy a breakfast date just before Valentine's Day
A meal fit for a king... or a bunch of hungry Newschoolers who had been skiing all day
Sandy returning from a zone we decided not to ski
Not to be outdone, Zorko laid down a few nice turns on some not-so-nice snow
The moody Chic Chocs won this day, but we'll be back
Despite the snow shutting down our last day of skiing, we still had an unbelievable time exploring the Chic Chocs. It was truly an experience unlike anything else on the east coast - a place where big mountains meet the always grateful attitude east coasters are known for. Seeing the scene developing so progressively gives me high hopes for the future of the region. And I’ll certainly be making the pilgrimage back there very, very soon.
Until next time...