Active Outdoors: Powder ski heaven in Quebec’s Gaspé

  • Chic Chac Playground. If steep mountains, tight trees and deep powder aren’t quite enough challenge for you. Chic Chac has the answer – huge jumps. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

  • Steep and Deep at Chic-Chac. York Mountain near Murdochville, Quebec is covered in untracked powder even days after the last storm. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

  • It’s all fresh tracks, all day long when you are Cat skiing with Chic-Chac in the Chic Choc Mountains of Quebec. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

  • Cat Skiing in Quebec. Who needs a chairlift? At Chic Chac in Murdochville Quebec, the powder is deep and a snowcat gets you to untracked terrain. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

For the Monitor
Sunday, April 02, 2017

MURDOCHVILLE, Quebec – If you’d like to experience western powder skiing without having to get on a plane, I’ve found the place for you! The calendar says it’s spring, but you’d never know by the look or feel of this place deep in the heart of the Chic Choc Mountains. The snowbanks are 20 feet high and it snowed non-stop for 30 hours earlier last week.

We arrived here on March 25 under absolutely clear skies with the temps in the low 20s. The first morning, as the sun came over the top of Mont Miller to our east the temperature outside was 10 degrees. The alpenglow on the peaks across the valley was breathtaking. It would have been a lot colder if the breeze had quit overnight and allowed for radiational cooling, but it seems the breeze never quits here.

Murdochville was once a copper mining town, but the mine closed in 2002. They tried to shut the town down, but the people refused to let it die and a local company called Chic-Chac is helping to transform this mountain town into the backcountry powder ski Mecca of the East. They average seven meters (23 feet) of snowfall annually, and there’s well over five feet of settled snow in town on the ground. Chic Chac is a young, vibrant company that’s doing it exactly right. They feed you great food (this is Quebec, after all), they house you, and they give you guided access to skiing as good as you can imagine.

My buddy David and I left his home in Portland, Maine, on Friday morning, drove four hours up to Mars Hill on the Canadian border and spent the afternoon skiing absolutely flawless corduroy at Bigrock Mountain, in Mars Hill, Maine. This is a perfect midpoint stop on the long drive to the Gaspé. Bigrock has 1,000 vertical feet of terrain and only one double chairlift to the summit, which means no crowds on the slopes. A thaw and refreeze kept us out of the woods.

On Saturday, we crossed the border and drove another six hours, the last two hours on winding roads through gorgeous mountains covered in what appeared to be five feet or more of snow. Every once in awhile, we’d see a cluster of cars beside the road and ski tracks leading away to some semi-secret powder stash. Tempting!

Our first day, we skied Mont Miller, which has a thousand vertical feet and one T-bar lift to service it. Crowded it isn’t. Mont Miller faces south, so the high March sun was softening the snow. It had been days since the last snowstorm, but we were still able to find untouched snow in the numerous glades. Mont Miller was a warm-up, so we didn’t explore everything. We had to save our legs for the best to come.

On Monday and Tuesday, our group of 10 with two guides rode a snowcat to explore York Mountain, where Chic-Chac has cut 15 wide glades through the thick spruces. Because this is a north slope, there had been almost no melting. On Tuesday, it hadn’t snowed in more than a week, but the wind was constantly blowing in fresh snow and the base was more than seven feet deep. I made more turns in untracked snow in this one day than I had in the entire season in New England. Truly a great day.

That afternoon it started snowing, and by Wednesday morning we had a fresh eight inches, and it continued snowing all day.

This was very serious skiing – much of York Mountain is steep, the snow is deep, and there’s no grooming. You’d better be able to control your speed and make turns where you need to make them in whatever the mountain throws at you. If you are familiar with “Paradise” at Mad River Glen, “Castlerock” at Sugarbush, “Tramline” at Cannon, or “Burnt Mountain” at Sugarloaf after a major snow dump, you have a good notion of what this skiing is like. The guides assured me they have easier runs on nearby Mont Porphyre and some gentler glades on Mont York for people who can’t handle steep and tight. They want you to be safe and have fun.

I have to admit, I’m an experienced tree skier and I was scared spitless on my first run on York. But I stuck with it and, by the second run, was skiing more comfortably. By the third run, I was having fun. By the end of the second day, I was wishing for just one more run.

The other skiers we were with (a group from Quebec City) were better than me. They treated this like a terrain park, launching huge air off cliffs and the jumps Chic-Chac has built to make these steep tree runs even more challenging. My buddy David pushed his limits to ski with them. I chose easier lines and stayed in control. They had fun, I had fun.

Cat skiing offers one real advantage: the long ride back up between runs lets your legs recover. That, and a long lunch break (lunch provided) in a wood-stove heated shelter made it possible for me (11 years older than anyone else in the group and 40-plus years older than some) to keep up. We still skied 8,000 vertical feet of powder each day. That’s a lot of turns!

The only bad part of the trip is leaving. The remaining group is scheduled to use the helicopter Chic-Chac has on standby to access even more fresh powder tomorrow. Trust me, we’d rather be going with them than driving home.

All in all, it’s been an incredible trip. David and I are already scheming to come back next year and stay longer. The packages Chic-Chac offers make it affordable. We’ll alternate skinning backcountry lines, lift serviced, and Cat skiing as the budget allows. We’d love to do a day of heli skiing, but that’s not in the cards. But skiing this good, this close, is just too perfect to resist. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

April Fun

There’s snow in the forecast for much of New England and there’s still a lot of snow on the slopes. Many areas are staying open a week later than planned and many are dropping ticket prices to entice skiers to the slopes. Instead of moping around wishing for spring, try getting out and enjoying the last hurrah of winter.

(Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email him at timjones@easternslopes.com.)