I admit my attitude was iffy as I stood shivering in flat and bleak Cap-Chat, Que., having spent more than 24 hours travelling by plane and bus to reach a destination, the Auberge de Montagne des Chic-Chocs, that was still two hours away, deep in the remotest corner of the remote Gaspé Peninsula. A handful of other would-be skiers and I waited to board a rumbling chenillette – a Ford van with tank treads instead of wheels – for the final 45-kilometre trek into mountains that seemed at the time to be mere allegations.
Despite having devoured the brochures, I just wasn't ready for my first sight of the amazing Chic-Choc range, which rose at the first turn of the chenillette like an alpine mirage of snow-capped peaks behind the forested hills in the middle distance. No jumped-up hills like the Laurentians, the Chic-Chocs are a striking massif of jagged outcrops, sheer drops, genuine alpine bowls and bowel-loosening couloirs that would be world famous if they were located in Wyoming instead of the utterly unknown Gaspésie. In height, they are similar to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, with 25 mountains over a kilometre high, but more closely clustered, far steeper and almost permanently snow-capped.
I did my best to make amends for my early doubts two days later while relaxing with new-found friends in the spa of the almost embarrassingly luxurious lodge, which sits in magnificent isolation at the centre of a 360-degree panorama of postcard peaks. Having devoted some decades to the pursuit of wild snow, I declared, in fractured French, that I could not easily recall a better day of powder skiing than the one we had just enjoyed together. Experienced skiers all, they heartily agreed.
Mind you, no keen skier will be unhappy in mountains that can produce 90 centimetres of snow over the course of a stormy two-day visit. Nearly a metre – three feet! – of fresh on a bottomless base, with steep descents in every direction through perfectly spaced trees, low avalanche hazard … and you one of seven skiers within 50 kilometres or so.
It's true that such stupendous dumps can also happen out West in places like Rogers Pass. But there's no staff preheating your lunch cabin at the bottom of the big drops there, or taxiing you en chenillette back to a four-star auberge with an intimidating wine list at the end of a hard day's skiing.
Despite the pampered comfort, skiing the Chic-Chocs is as hard as you want it. Led by our uncannily strong sylph of a guide, Laurie Dumas, our group of seven skiers managed an honest two kilometres of vertical travel on our big day: three 330-metre climbs up and three swooping, whooping runs down through trees subtly thinned to make us all feel like heroes, snow to the waist in spots.
I dawdled on the up-track in order to avoid having a super-fit, 60-year-old Québécoise clop, clop, clopping impatiently behind me all the way to the snow-saturated summit of Mont Nicol-Albert. And when my companions went back up for another half run, I slogged back to the cozy refuge, happy to contemplate the pleasures that awaited back at the lodge.
Such is the sophistication of the Chic-Choc lodge, where everything an outdoor purist could want is served with a winning smile, and every corruption that he or she disdains – the crowds, the noise, the chairlifts and grooming machines, the cheap-jack condos and wind-whipped trails cut like hydro corridors down the mountains – is strictly interdit.
Nothing is unique, but I can't think of any other set-up so skillfully designed to suit the particular whims of that tiny minority of skiers who prefer to "earn their turns." The fact that the lodge also caters to snowshoe hikers, thus allowing a small number of skiers to further monopolize the slopes, only sweetens the proposition.
But why stumble about on snowshoes in such superb terrain? With three guides catering to a few dozen guests at a time – and all the necessary equipment supplied as part of the package – the Chic-Choc lodge offers an ideal introduction to alpine touring, also known as ski randonnée, the purest and most exhilarating form of the best sport ever. Hinged bindings, soft boots and climbing skins stuck to the bottom of the skis make ascents efficient and enjoyable. Everything locks down cleverly for the descent, which can be accomplished with normal parallel turns. Or you can ski telemark-style, the acme of deep-snow elegance. The lodge supplied me with the latest touring equipment, including fat powder skis so easy to use they felt like cheating.
The lodge also supplies each skier with a two-way radio and an electronic beacon to aid rescue in the event of an avalanche. Although avalanches regularly claim lives in the Gaspésie – one person every two years, according to guide Yann Barriault, and not necessarily skiers – the risk is lower than what one would expect to encounter in any natural terrain out West. That's a huge plus in my mind.
So is the auberge, where the winter guests are all French-speaking Quebeckers and every meal – served at two long refectory tables in proper ski-lodge style – is loud and convivial. This is deep Quebec at its most impressive, thanks in no small part to a provincial government whose generous subvention built the auberge seven years ago when long-standing plans for a private development fell through. Different staff tell different stories about how much it cost, with some saying $6-million and others saying $10-million. Suffice it to say that if the Auberge de Montagne des Chic-Chocs was a commercial proposition, it wouldn't exist. Vive le dirigisme!
"The basic idea was to put the Chic-Chocs on the map," lodge manager Alain Laflamme said. And that it has done, with several other backcountry operations having since sprung up in the Gaspésie, many of them offering effortless ascents by snowcat – but none of them with the pristine quality of the original auberge.
I came to these mountains as a jaded skeptic and left bedazzled, almost numbed by the intensity of three days that felt like an entire season. It was a mood that guide Sandra Huot recognized as we crowded into the last down-bound chenillette after our deep-snow romp in the Chic-Chocs.
"Pleurait pas," she said. (Don't cry.)
It was an effort.
IF YOU GO
Winter packages at the Auberge de Montagne des Chic-Chocs begin at $580 a person for a two-night stay, based on double occupancy, with three nights available from $870 a person. sepaq.com/ct/amc
All meals, snacks, outdoor and safety equipment is provided, along with transportation to and from the lodge's office in the village of Cap-Chat. The rub is getting to Cap-Chat, which is almost 500 kilometres north and east of Quebec City. Most guests arrive from there on buses chartered by the lodge. The nearest airport is located at Mont-Joli, 133 kilometres east of Cap-Chat, but there is no scheduled service during the winter.