POINT OF DEPARTURE
March 20, 2022, Saint-Jean, Quebec. I wake up way too early the morning. Unlike most people, however, I have no interest in sleeping in. Today, Éric, Gabriel, Jean-Michel, Jean-Philippe and I, Marc-André, are leaving on a ski adventure in the Chic-Chocs wildlife reserve in Quebec’s Gaspé region. My bags are packed and I’m raring to go!
As soon as Jean-Michel arrives at my place, he puts his gear in my car and we leave to pick up Gabriel… and the game of Tetris commences. In my little Nissan Juke, we need to cram in three guys and a tonne of equipment. Jammed into the back seat and up to his neck in gear, Jean-Michel made us laugh when he announced he was giving up on his plan to get some work done on his laptop. Fortunately, just 250 km away, we’ll finish our trip in the comfort of two Loki Expedition units, an Icarus edition and a Falcon. With the steering wheel stuck up under my chin, we take off towards Quebec City.
Three hours later we pick up Éric, who’s waiting with an ear to ear smile and, with some help from the jaws of life (virtually) we extricate ourselves from my car and transfer all the gear over to the two Loki-equipped vehicles. We are sorely tempted to take a break to stretch a bit but Jean-Philippe is waiting in Rivière-du-Loup and we have quite a lot of driving ahead of us. (And anyway, we get to switch drivers while one of us snoozes in the back… yet another LOKI Expedition perk!)
And so finally, with Jean-Philippe installing himself in the Falcon, the whole team’s there and we are officially on our way to the Chic-Chocs mountains.
SEEKERS OF WHITE GOLD
The trip’s ultimate objective? Getting that one last big skiing HIT of the year…literally and figuratively. On one hand, the LOKI Expedition team needs pictures of the Icarus and Falcon in a winter environment. On the other, my crazy schedule meant I hadn’t yet taken my usual big ski trip of the winter. Mixing business with pleasure is going to work out perfectly.
This is by no means a sure thing. It’s the end of March, there’s not an inch of snow left on my lawn, and there’s no guaranty conditions will still be good in the mountains. Also, because of wildly fluctuating weather, we have to exercise extra caution and stay on top of avalanche warnings. But the prospect of looking for white gold, soaking up the snow-covered alpine views and getting in some real powder skiing once more before the season’s over is just too tempting, and so onward we go, brimming with enthusiasm.
HEADING FOR THE CHIC-CHOCS
Over the past 10 years, Gabriel and I have regularly made the trip to the Chic-Chocs. In winter, incessant winds coming in off the river sweep the snow away so aggressively that very little remains on the sides of the highway leading to the reserve. And every time we come, at the sight of these sparsely snow-covered cliffs, we start experiencing snow anxiety.
Normally the feeling goes away when we leave the coast and travel inland: that’s where the mountains and snowbanks reveal their true selves: an immaculate white carpet as far as the eye can see.
But this time, even before we turn off into the farmland abutting the river, there is no such feeling whatsoever. It had snowed so much over the previous few days that even the coastal strip is covered in a thick white blanket. Are we dreaming? Thinking about what’s waiting for us in the mountains, we are as giddy as children. The feeling travels from one vehicle to the other and we feel the excitement mounting. Things are seriously looking up!
Arriving at 11 p.m., we park the two LOKI Expedition at the foot of Mont Lyall, front row seats for our climb up the mountain the next morning. But there are still two critical things to take care of before we can hit the hay.
First, we need to scrutinize the weather report, the avalanche bulletin, and the snowpack analysis before we can start strategizing on which paths we’ll use for our ascent. Next, we need to get our ski and safety equipment ready, to increase our odds of being the first on the mountain. For our videographer and photographer, Éric and Jean-Philippe, it’s also the time for checking and packing their respective gear.
Tired but happy, we finally get to bed. There are not a lot of hours before the alarm goes off, but thanks to our LOKI Expedition, we’re already at our departure point and we’ll be sleeping in total comfort.
MAKING TRACKS ON MONT LYALL
Mont Lyall is known for being a wonderful mountain that’s moderately developed (just enough, actually!) with different kinds of trails, relatively open glades, big bowls and dozens of interesting corridors. So we weren’t surprised to see other skiers arriving in the parking lot while we put our climbing skins on our skis.
We tested our avalanche beacons and started on the 1.4 km hike to the ascent trail. Once on the mountain, we start analysing which trails have already been skied on and visualizing which are still virgin, to make sure we get fresh snow. The wind gets stiffer as we ascend and we need to stop at intervals: it’s important to eat and drink regularly and try to keep dry despite the huge physical effort by stripping off/adding layers depending on whether we are too hot or too cold.
At the summit, we are literally whipped by the wind. Need to get the skins off in a hurry and get ready for the descent!
SURFING ON HAPPINESS
The wind gusts have blown off the powdery covering. We start out skiing on ice and hard-packed snow. Fortunately, it was only a few metres before we hit the deep powder we came all this distance for. And believe me it was worth it! We literally had the sensation of swimming in the snow, which came up to our knees or even higher sometimes! The feeling of pure freedom was indescribable.
All day long we totally immersed ourselves in this ultimate privilege, now and then spontaneously belting out cries of joy. The pure happiness of adventure infected us to the point where we forgot our burning thighs, which would normally see us pausing several times during a descent.Still, we took the time to enjoy the gorgeous views, do a few jumps and shoot a few sequences, since that was the other part of our mission.
When our skiing day was done we got back on the road to Lac Saint-Anne to park the trucks for the night at the foot of Mont Miller in Murdochville. That way we’d be so much closer to Mont Porphyre, where we’ll spend our second ski day.
That night, we all get together in the Falcon to have dinner and relive the highlights of our day. Éric trades in his camera for some pots and pans and makes us a delicious meal of duck risotto. Thanks to all the amenities onboard the LOKI Expedition, we have everything we need to cook and enjoy the meal which caps off a truly memorable day.
WHEN THE WIND RISES
That same night, the flurries intensify and the next morning the wind is blowing hard, even at the foot of the mountain. Large flakes fall in blasts so you can’t see even a metre in front of your nose!
After breakfast, we make our way to the base of Mont Porphyre and go through the same routine as the preceding morning: check the avalanche report, beacons and other equipment, install the skins... and we’re off.
The approach has us crossing a lake to get to the climbing trail. Even if this mountain doesn’t have a tonne of altitude, we had been advised to try the Dalton section, where we’d find four corridors that were particularly well oriented for the snow accumulation. Even if the snowpack was substantial, Mont Porphyre generally presents a moderate risk of avalanche because it isn’t very high and its tree cover is just dense enough.
After 30 minutes we reach the top and the wind rages even harder. But it isn’t until we start our descent that the impact of the nonstop snowfall hits us: the trails are absolutely in-sane!!! At times the snow is up to mid-thigh…with every turn our skis produce a wake so high the powder whips our faces. Imagine hurtling down the slope while crashing through a curtain of snow kicked up by your own skis! It is indisputably a backcountry skier’s paradise.
MURDOCHVILLE SNOW COUNTRY
That night we decide to do a bit of touristing. It’s fascinating: while at home we were getting out the lawn mower, in Murdochville the snowbanks reach up to the eaves of the houses. It’s no wonder that thousands of skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts visit every year.
For dinner, we stop at Quartier Général, an old church that’s been repurposed as a restaurant. This unique setting is a natural gathering spot for skiers, who spend their time sharing their day’s experiences and suggestions for future backcountry treks. After a hearty meal, our energy reserves are replenished and an idea starts to take shape: we were only a couple kilometres from Mont Miller and our dream of skiing it at night could actually happen. In no time we are looking up at the slopes, the climbing trail is carefully selected, we suit up and away we go.
We light the way with headlamps, but at times the lights from the nearby village are enough. The wind picks up, the snow starts falling again and without nighttime ski goggles the level of difficulty goes up a notch. On the other hand, Miller is a highly managed mountain and relatively small, so less dangerous. Out of caution, we agree to meet up at the half way point. It is like skiing through a cloud. While the ultra-fluffy snowflakes fly all around us, we plow through the snow ridges created by the wind, hitting each with a muted WHOOMPH. Our single descent is certainly worth a thousand, just for the uniquely memorable experience.
NEVER TOO MUCH
The night descent satisfied our hankering for further adventure that night, but still we are hypnotized by the continuously swirling snow. Weather report in hand, the next day looked particularly good for skiing, and it didn’t take much to convince us to extend our stay another half day.
Upon our return to the LOKI Expedition, after carefully spreading out our gear on the drying racks in the mudroom, we head for Mont Lyall to spend the night.
The next day, Éric and Jean-Philippe have to leave, but Gabriel, Jean-Michel and I take one more crack at the slopes. Gabriel’s probe reveals that, even where the snow accumulation is modest, there is over 2 metres of snow on the ground!
The storm relents and only a few clouds remain in the sky. The sun casts its orange hue on the mountain. The higher it rises, the more it fills us with energy. We wouldn’t be the only ones leaving tracks on Lyall today, and a lot of skiers quickly make their trail choices and hit the slopes without further delay. We, on the other hand, decide to be patient and, as we would later find out, it turns out to be a wise choice. Closer to the summit, an opening divides into three separate runs that are completely covered with fresh snow. We each have our own private playground!
For safety’s sake, we do the descent in two stages but, without the film crew, we can go at a faster pace. Pumped up by the feeling of having the whole mountain to ourselves, we let loose like never before. Our turns kick up white clouds for metres all around us, we scream, and we exult in every second of our run.
Moments like these, we would like to live over and over again. Now we need to get back on the road home, but we promise ourselves we’ll return once again to the Chic-Chocs. Because the passion for skiing the backcountry never goes away… it only grows the more you do it !