It's a typical story in Canada. Local resource industries go in the shitter and a badass mountain chain in the middle of nowhere—which had, in the past, occasionally sent up reports of epic skiing—suddenly bumps onto the tourism radar. Tenures are opened and development money thrown around by the provincial government. Where there was no infrastructure and only occasional ingress, there's now access and options galore: a surfeit of guiding services; backcountry lodges, both basic and luxe; hut-to-hut traverses, cat-skiing; roadside hotels and restaurants.
Given the sine-wave of global recessions and financial meltdowns of the past decade, it was no surprise to hear that this scenario was unfolding yet again in the Great White North. Was it the rise of one more fabled sub-range in the vast B.C. Interior? Yet another attempted resurrection of Alberta's Kananaskis Country? No. (Although both of those are happening.) This time it was 5,500 kilometres to the east, in the Chic Chocs mountains of Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula.
The Chic Chocs—actually two ranges that include both the eponymous chain and adjacent McGarrigle Mountains—offer a post-glacial alpine landscape similar to Mt. Washington, highest peak east of the Mississippi located in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Mt. Washington is known for the flat-topped glacial cirque of Tuckerman Ravine, a famed springtime ski pilgrimage for eastern shredders. But the Chic Chocs offer a sea of such cirques with lower treelines, greater vertical, and higher snowfall. Also similar to Mt. Washington, wind in the Chic Chocs tends to the extreme, moving large amounts of maritime-influenced snow from one side of a range to another in a matter of hours. In the past this made for a tricky ski experience that relied on luck or local knowledge for those brave enough to make the 10-hour drive east from Montreal. But current high interest in out-there winter adventure and the availability of tourism money have combined to make these difficult mountains a desirable destination: more flights and buses now service an area where there are suddenly more backcountry businesses than anyone can keep track of.
Distinctions between the side-by-each ranges are seldom made by visitors, but the geology differs with the more mineral-rich McGarrigles supporting several mines back in the day. At Madeleine Mines, an abandoned copper and silver tenure, Ski Chic Chocs (skichicchocs.com/en/) now provides snowshoeing, touring and sled-assisted backcountry ski touring, aided by a network of mining roads and, on occasion, a weird Scandinavian military cat with two passenger compartments arranged like a train. Cat- and/or sled-skiing has also popped up in the mining town of Murdochville in the interior of the peninsula, and at La Vallée Taconique (valleetaconique.ca/e_pages/profile.html), an abandoned ski area above the coastal village of Mont-Saint-Pierre with views to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
On the non-mechanized side there are several backcountry cabins, a growing hut-to-hut network, and at least two functional "glading co-ops"—town-based ski clubs that have thinned-out, treed mountainsides for powder skiing. There's also the venerable Gîte du Mont Albert (sepaq.com/pq/gma/index.dot?language_id=1) in Parc Nationale de Gaspésie, a classic structure from the 1940s that's as close to The Shining as it gets in the East and the only hotel of its kind in a Quebec national park. A four-star affair reminiscent of the Alps, every room at Le Gîte has a window on Mont Albert, the biggest and baddest of all Chic Chocs peaks. Weekends see Le Gîte fill with ski tourers aiming for Mont Albert or the nearby chutes of Mont Logan. On the western end of the range you'll find the height of Chic Chocs chic in the amazing Auberge de Montagne des Chic-Chocs (sepaq.com/ct/amc/index.dot?language_id=1). Perched at an altitude of 615 metres in the heart of Réserve faunique de Matane and reached via a two-hour drive up logging roads in Mattrax-equipped vans, the Auberge is unique in Eastern North America: an upscale heli-ski style lodge with a four-star chef and spa facilities that also features four-star ski-touring in a vast wilderness. A number of steep runs have been gladed out near the lodge, and bowl-and-chute streaked peaks can be accessed on all sides via tours of one to eight hours. At each of these venues guides are available.
Much as British Columbia's vaunted powder industry relies on the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke, the safety linchpin of Quebec's nascent backcountry explosion is Avalanche Quebec, which produces daily bulletins in French and English (avalanchequebec.ca). The Centre also co-produced an excellent guidebook to the region's ski descents. It's one of the continent's most thorough efforts, and though it's only in French, there are so many photos, maps, and colour-coded symbols that you don't need a French-English dictionary to understand what's going on.
Though snowsport journals and movie crews have been beelining to the Chic Chocs for years, don't expect these sawed-off peaks to become the Next Big Thing. They're still kind of out there, but if you're willing to put in the travel effort, no other backcountry ski adventure in eastern North America offers this kind of diversity.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.