How to get the backcountry skiing experience in Montreal's backyard
A growing movement is redefining how and where people ski off-piste in Quebec
Backcountry skiing is a pursuit that most associate with the remote mountains of the Gaspésie or the towering ranges in Canada's West, not with the hills and mountains around Montreal, where fresh powder is considered relatively rare — and is usually tracked out by crowds by mid-morning.
But more and more people are discovering that there is backcountry skiing in Montreal's backyard, and that elusive untouched powder is within easy reach.
"If there's a lot of powder, you might be patient enough to wait for the lift," said Saint-Sauveur resident Edith Viens. "But if you want to have a good powder run, you need to go look for it. And the way to look for it is backcountry skiing — because it can take you places where the lifts won't take you."
Viens is one of many enjoying the sort of enlightenment era for backcountry skiing in Quebec, with a growing subculture redefining not only how it's done but also where it happens.
"That's our job, to show that there are places and to build more of them," said Maxime Bolduc, the head of the skiing portfolio at the Fédération québécoise de la montagne et de l'escalade (FQME), a not-for-profit dedicated to self-propelled mountain sports.
"We want destinations to be easily reachable by car from Quebec City and Montreal — not just Gaspésie."
It requires specialized equipment — a hybrid of downhill and cross-country gear that permits climbing up and getting down — and vigilant attention to safety, given you're far away from ski patrols.
There are safety considerations that apply in the Eastern Townships or the Laurentians, just as they would in a high alpine environment. It's important, first of all, to ski with experienced people, in groups of atleast three, Bolduc said.
Also: avalanche risks are real, even in Quebec.
"If you have a slope, snow and people, there's going to be an avalanche problem," said Pierre-Olivier Bédard, a cofounder of Estski, a website dedicated to backcountry skiing in eastern North America. "It's a different context in Quebec. You can get stuck in an avalanche in a forest or in a gully. You will not get buried, but you will hit a tree and be injured from trauma."
But as long as you take the necessary precautions, backcountry is absolutely worthwhile, Bolduc said.
"You do it for the sense of freedom," he said. "Because you're sick of waiting for lifts, and always dealing with crowds and ice. Because you want to be near nature. Because of the extra physical workout. Because it's a more complete sport."
A growing subculture
Those devoted to backcountry have observed explosive growth in recent years — although that doesn't exactly mean crowds.
The FQME has promoted and supported mountaineering in Quebec for the last 50 years, but the skiing portfolio is only three years old. In that time, membership within the skiing section has grown about 200 per cent annually, and now stands at around 1,000 members, Bolduc said.
The morning after last week's major snowfall was a weekday, so Viens went to Ski Chantecler in the Laurentians, reasoning that she could get first tracks at a resort that only runs its lifts on weekends. There were 20 or 25 others already there with the same idea.
A few years ago, Viens and her friend Katia Leblanc founded Vielles PO, a group devoted to encouraging more women to ski in the backcountry.
"We're not in our 20s anymore, and we felt that in the Laurentian community, even on the web or social media, we weren't really represented," Viens said. "We couldn't recognize ourselves and our way of living. So we wanted to try to encourage women, like us, who don't really know what they're doing, to push themselves and push their limits."
Closer than you think
The growth in interest means growth in places to pursue that interest.
Ski resorts are waking up to the idea that some patrons might not want to use their lifts; defunct resorts are being reborn as venues that serve self-propelled skiers; there are community-run efforts to develop new backcountry sectors; and ski evangelists are preaching backcountry to those disillusioned with long lift lines and pricey lift tickets.
The FQME maintains a list of backcountry facilities on its website, and has been developing backcountry access at various locations, including Mount Kaaikop, a mountain near Saint-Donat with an elevation of 838 metres (Mont-Tremblant's elevation is 875 metres).
In Val-David, Mont Alta shut down its lifts a few years ago after being in operation since 1951, but has now reopened as a privately owned, do-it-yourself ski destination. Mont Plante, also in Val-David, is similarly enjoying a second life as a lift-free hill. The FQME oversees three other former ski resorts: Mont Carmel and Mont Saint-Mathieu (rechristened Mont SM) near Trois-Rivières, and Mont Brillant, within the boundaries of the Valcartier Canadian Forces Base near Quebec City.
Mont-Tremblant has a $10 pass and designated trails to get to the top for those who don't want to use the lifts; many other full-service resorts have similar tickets.
To Viens, this is a clear sign of backcountry's growing stature. A few years ago, many resorts were much less accommodating.
"I think we can compare this to snowboarding," she said. "At the beginning, snowboarders couldn't go on the same trails as skiers. Now it's normal to see everybody together."