1. At Monashee Powder Snowcats lodge northeast of Vernon in interior British Columbia, which can easily lay claim to the best skiing in Western Canada, you travel in the same snowcat day after day. Over time the conversation becomes familial.
Steamily unbooting after eight hours of skiing steep trackless powder, a former ad man named Doug Checkeris is talking to Bruce Paitich, an orthopedic surgeon, and Andrew Pilacinski, a custom home builder, about hors d'oeuvre. The lads are here from Toronto and Montreal with four other pals. Some are visiting for their fifth year in a row.
“Are we going directly to the hot tub or to the bar?” Doug asks.
Bruce: “I say bar.”
Andrew: “Do you really need to ask?”
Bruce: “Is this a spring roll or a chicken wing night?”
Doug: “Spring roll.”
Bruce: “Really?” His tone is one of astonished wonder. There is a reason for this: The mountains make you appreciate small luxuries.
2. At Le Massif de Charlevoix, the as-yet unheralded ski resort northeast of Quebec City that boasts the best skiing in Eastern Canada (and the highest vertical east of the Rockies), you have conversations with strangers run by run, day by day.
At the moment, for instance, in the après-ski bar at the Summit Lodge, where the Quebec singer Pascale Picard (who has opened for Paul McCartney) has been belting it since the gondola closed an hour ago, a bank manager named Marie-Claude Boulanger is explaining why she comes to Le Massif despite a three-hour drive from the Eastern townships.
There are fewer beginners, there are no crowds. And “at 41 with kids,” she says, “I have no time for myself. But I can be here and be genuine.”
People tell you things after a brisk day skiing in a brilliant locale. There is a reason for this as well.
3. If you are wanting to ski powder, you should cat-ski in the Monashee Mountains, the first high range to greet moisture-laden clouds from the Pacific Ocean as they pass over the interior of British Columbia. There is always powder snow in the Monashees.
But maybe you prefer to ski in the East. Maybe the thought of sitting in the back of a snow-caterpillar with 11 other snacking skiers as it trundles its way above treeline along the spines of 2,590-metre peaks fills you with claustrophobic horror and a fear of avalanches. Maybe you'd like to spend one day skiing and another absorbing the history of Canada's founding city, interrupted by brilliant meals and nights in spectacular hotels with your partner who's not all that keen a skier in the first place.
In that case you should go to Le Massif, the rambling, still-evolving knot of snowy mountains perched on an ancient meteor crater 75 minutes northeast of Quebec on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in the Charlevoix, a region as famous for its history and food as it is for its copious snowfall. One night while I was there, 25 centimetres swirled down out of the sky.
I'm not saying you can't go to Mont Tremblant or Whistler, if you don't mind the crowds. What I am saying is that there is better skiing to be had in both ends of the land, and that I have found it.
After that, if you insist on arguing about which is better, East vs. West, that's your compulsive little problem. My suggestion, dudes, is: embrace both.
4. To get to Monashee Powder Snowcats lodge, you fly to Kelowna, B.C., drive an hour north through Lumby to Cherryville, transfer to a tire-chained yellow school bus driven by an ex-RCMP detective and Hall of Fame softball pitcher named George Kuich, who in turn churns another hour and a quarter, much of it up a snow-clogged logging road to a parking lot. There, a snowcat – a large cabin set on caterpillar snow treads, $300,000 new, $70,000 used – takes you another hour up the first part of a 150-kilometre network of snowcat-made snow-roads that give Monashee Powder access to more than 160 runs on its 66-square-kilometre tenure of exclusive ski territory.
Once you're finally up there, snow and terrain abound. The lodge and separate sleeping quarters are full of pleasures: hot tubs (two, both outdoors, covered and uncovered), massage therapists, dining room, staff of 15, pool table, gear store, two bars, excellent wine list, on-slope photographer, en-suite bathrooms and showers in every room, in-house chef (Dave, a mad snowmobiler) and baker (Fiona, a rock climber with Haida tattoos on her precision-cut triceps, who I meet as she returns to the kitchen from the hot tub in her bikini top to make a rhubarb compote and pistachio crème anglaise for her caramel meringue – oh, and, where was I?, a large screen TV on which to view the day's crop of video ski-porn, which is what everyone does before and after dinner each evening, all the while oohing and mmming and saying things such as “when you land that fakey, then we'll talk.” This is a ski vacation. It's total immersion. You would be surprised how engaging a conversation about refurbishing a set of snowcat treads can be.
5. Le Massif, perched as it is in Quebec and closer to civilization, presents a less unilateral approach to its pleasures. You fly to Quebec City, whereupon your options multiply. As of this month you can take a passenger train from Quebec City's legendary Montmorency Falls to Le Massif. You get off the train and step onto Le Massif's gondola, and reverse the procedure at day's end. This is a fantastic thing to do, given that the train is très relaxing, has WiFi and offers full-course meals by the same people who run the kitchen at Fairmont le Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie, Charlevoix's grandest hotel.
Because Le Massif is still a work in progress (which is part of its charm), it has no slopeside hotel yet, although overnight train/hotel packages are available on weekends. But if you make the scenic hour-and-15-minute drive from Quebec City to Le Massif by car, you can stay in nearby Baie-Saint-Paul (20 minutes north) or La Malbaie (40 minutes, ditto). Your correspondent spent a very pleasant night at Auberge La Muse in the former, where I drank local Quebec microbrews and contemplated sweetbreads in puff pastry and duck cooked in a reduction of Charlevoix honey. As I ate I watched two local women in the busy restaurant flirt with their dates. The women were wearing plunging leather spaghetti-strap camisoles despite the fact that it was minus 12 outside. Rural Quebeckers bow to nothing.
After another day of powdery skiing, I drove back to Quebec City for a last night at Auberge Saint Antoine – the city's finest boutique hotel, built on the site of a 17th century warehouse. Whatever you do – I mean this seriously – eat at Panache, its restaurant, celebrated for modernizing traditional Quebec dishes. My meal, one of the best I've eaten in a restaurant, began with an amuse-bouche of celeriac and shrimp graced with basil and clementine jelly and a glass of 2009 California Tamas zinfandel. It got even better from there.
6. A lot of the charm of both Le Massif in the East and the Monashee Powder Snowcats in the West stems from the fact that their histories as ski resorts are recent, within graspable living memory. Le Massif was a purely local attraction until the late 1980s: Three hundred skiers a day climbed the hill or rode up by Ski-Doo and school bus. Its steepest run, La 42 – on a part of the mountain that was deemed difficult enough to host the women's Olympic downhill but not the men's when Quebec City made a bid for the Winter Games – was a 45-minute trek from the top of the hill.
Daniel Gauthier, who started Cirque du Soleil with Guy Laliberté in nearby Baie-Saint-Paul, had skied Le Massif since he was 10. After learning in 2002 that the hill was on the skids, he bought it. “I wanted to ski that mountain, and they were almost in bankruptcy,” he explained to me not long ego. So far he has invested $75-million of his own money and $195-million from others to clear runs, build lifts and a hotel and a model farm, and refurbish the railroad that follows the river up from Quebec. His goal is “appropriate development without destroying the soul of Charlevoix.”
Tom Morgan, the walrus-like oil and gas geologist who owns Monashee Powder Snowcats, first skied the trees in his territory as a guest in 1999, back when the “resort” was a huddle of fixed-platform tents. Within five months he and his wife Carolyn were partners with the owners – $50,000 for 25 per cent of the operation. By 2004 they had doubled down on a new lodge and a second one at Mustang Powder, another cat operation; when the partnership disintegrated a year later, the Morgans were left with the original lodge they have since expanded and modernized. “I was in love with the romance of the cat operation,” Tom says. “I had no idea of the realities.” But the cat-skiing business in B.C. is only 30 years old, which is why the history of the mountains feels close at hand and personal even to a visitor. You could almost be part of it.
7. At Le Massif, especially if there is new snow on the ground, you want to run the glades first, removing your skis to make an easy boot hike 15 minutes further up the mountain for some of the best tree skiing in the East. The trees can be tight, but as the instructors say, you aim for the spaces.
I spent a morning making four runs through the forest, a vast silent outdoor church: Each one was 45 minutes to the bottom. I skied the other side of the mountain for steep groomers, and then into the middle for moguls. Jean-Luc Brassard, the Canadian Olympic gold medalist, makes Le Massif his winter base these days: I watched him thread a bump run at full speed, a tightly tucked tornado of turns. People cheered as he blew by; women waited in the gondola line at the bottom, hoping to ride up with him. “It's not a mountain,” regulars say of Le Massif. “It's like our lover.”
When you've skied the hill out, you can snowshoe or snow-cat up to the new luge run, to race down again on a face-first skeleton sled or (preferably) a classic wooden Austrian sit-up luge steered by the feet and hands. The luge course is 7.5 kilometres long and takes an hour to fly down if you stop at the warming hut halfway there. The hairpin turns are named for articles that fly off your body (Virage d'la tuque, Virage du foulard), and you hit 40 kilometres an hour very, very easily. Let me give you some advice: Turn high and early. The run is already so popular (at $30 a go) it's booked every weekend into April (but weekdays are open). French Canadians have always been keen tobogganers, which is why Krieghoff so often painted them sledding.
This is the sort of thing you think about as you carve your way down Le Massif, looking out at the St. Lawrence River. From the top, surrounded by history, you can see where the country started, and feel the waiting weight of its past. Out West in the Monashees, where you see no one all day, dropping into the weightless whiteness is the opposite sensation: You leave the bonds of the human and the past behind, until you gratefully come to a stop and join your pals again. In both places it is the same encounter, merely enacted from opposite directions.
8. One of the things people talk about in the back of a snowcat as they trundle their way to the top of a mountain 10 and 12 times a day is whether helicopter skiing is better than cat-skiing. It's certainly more expensive: a minimum of $6,700 for four days of bare-bones heli-skiing vs. a bargain of between $2,000 and $3,200 for the same stretch in a cat (January is cat-skiing high season, but it snows until April). Helicopters get higher faster, but they can't fly when it's foggy or snowing heavily, whereas a cat can roll in any weather. There is some (debatable) thinking that cat-skiing is safer. Helicopter guides frequently have to make quick decisions about whether a slope is safe to ski, within a vast flyable territory, whereas a cat guide has more time to assess conditions in a smaller territory that he moves through every day. Cat guides certainly seem calmer, and they last longer in the job.
Karl Klassen, the chief guide at Monashee Powder, spends half his time as the Canadian Avalanche Association's public warnings manager in Revelstoke. He has been in the guiding game 30 years, and sees his delicate and difficult job as “putting together a well-thought-out risk management plan” that will keep his clients both safe and happy. He also brings his 10-year-old son up to the Monashees. Having observed him in sober action and meticulous daily guide meetings, I would let him guide mine as well.
9. What I remember best about the Monashees were the last runs we took. We'd been skiing for two days under cloudless skies – at least 23 runs, some 6,400 metres of vertical, through trees thick and thin, down wide bowls, even off half a dozen peaks that normally don't get skied more than twice in two years. But on the third and last morning the lodge was solidly fogged in.
We climbed into the cat and made our way up the ghostly mountain. You could just see tracks from the previous day in the woods, artifacts proving we had been there.
Then the cat poked through the cloud cover, and we climbed onto a bright peak to ski a slope called Epiphany. Karl Klassen told a joke. “What's the difference between God and a mountain guide?” he asked. “God doesn't think of himself as a mountain guide.” We laughed anyway. Then Karl showed us what we were going to ski, hazards to watch for, and where to head so that we all got fresh snow but still ended up together at the bottom. He did not mean it as a metaphor, but maybe it was. Maybe the metaphor is one reason people like to ski.
Below us, the valley was filled with boiling cloud. But up above we could see for miles. For a few moments it was all ours, and it skied that way, too.
IF YOU GO
West: Fly into Kelowna airport and book a shuttle bus ($65 return) or rent a car to reach Monashee Powder Snowcats, a little over three hours away. Off-season rates (March, April) start at $450 a day. 1-866-678-7669. For more information visit monasheepowder.com.
East: A return trip aboard Le Massif ski train (breakfast, lift ticket and an après-ski meal) costs $229. Lift tickets at the hill are $67. For more on Le Massif de Charlevoix, go to lemassif.com.
For more on Auberge Saint-Antoine in Quebec City, go to saint-antoine.com or call 1-888-692-2211. From $189.
For more about Auberge La Muse in Baie-Saint-Paul, go to lamuse.com or call 1-800-841-6839. From $99.
Travel arranged by Tourism British Columbia and Tourism Quebec.