You could have called it having a bad day.
Though it was likely my own fault, no matter which way I twisted the radio dial it seemed intent on offering nothing but saccharine, auto-tune pop and frantic-sounding traffic reports. I was swearing — in French, of course — at the tractor-trailers passing me in the middle of a screaming whiteout, trying to displace my car into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. My shirt was stained with St. Hubert barbeque sauce and the eyes gazing back at me in the rearview could have been the ghost of René Levesque — purpled and drooping like a Basset Hound from the week's constant entrainment of toxic substances. It had started with the usual stimulants — strong coffee and good wine — but when the annual Quebec Winter Carnival kicked off, my descent into diuretic hell began in earnest: beer, wine, shots, Grand Marnier in every coffee and endless slugs of noxious, noisome, headache-inducing Caribou. Had I been in Quebec too long? Probably not long enough: it took some getting used to.
I'd tried to chase the cobwebs on a tubing hill set above the historic Plains of Abraham, but that had only frozen them in place. Next up was the adrenaline-rush of an activity that had been on my bucket-list since childhood, but ice-canoeing through the swirling floes of the St. Lawrence River succeeded only in confirming that those who did this professionally were both heroes, and insane. Now, convinced the solution to regaining health was at hand, I ease off the highway just past the town of Beaupré and into the parking lot of venerable Mont-Sainte-Anne.
If I said I grew up skiing the sweet lines of this 625-vertical-metre eruption of the Laurentian Mountains east of Quebec City known as "The Côte-de-Beaupré's crown-jewel" I'd be lying... but only technically. I never visited as a kid, but as a naïve-ish adult gaining foothold in the East's larger mountains as a telemark racer and instructor back in the '80s, Mont-Sainte-Anne had provided a kind of skiing watershed that made you feel all growed up: it was hella steep, its consistent fall-lines covering much greater vertical than other Quebec resorts, and the snow — even the manmade stuff — generally good to great. People here fell into three categories: passionate, crazy, or just plain mad about skiing or snowboarding. It was the kind of vibe that could top up your tank if you were a few litres low on inspiration. And, like Whistler in the west, all of this would click through the 50-year mark in 2016.
Over 20 years before its official opening, pioneers were already scouting the hill as a location to host the 1946 Canadian Winter Championships, for which François Pichard and Henri Picard, among others, cut the mountain's first trail, La Pionnière beginning in 1943. Competitors had to climb by foot up the mountain carrying all their gear and the piste was groomed by local volunteers who climbed up on skis to sidestep the hill. Ten trails and four lifts were available on the mountain's inaugural weekend in January 1966, and the resort made its appearance on the world scene that season with the Du Maurier International, followed the next year by Canada's first Winter Games. Over the years the mountain was mostly owned by the province or other pseudo-government organizations. Private ownership arrived in 1994 under Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which also purchased nearby Stoneham in Quebec City. Since then, investments have mostly seen the cutting of new gladed trails, lift upgrades, and improvements to snowmaking.
When it first opened, Mont-Sainte-Anne was the first resort in Eastern Canada to operate gondolas, which quickly became the mountain's symbol. This winter, two of those gondolas will be painted gold to mark the 50th anniversary. Management is also hoping to throw visitors back in time with an historical photo booth located in a gondola at the base, a timeline across the wall of the main lodge, a giant painting by local school kids, and the sale of 50 pairs of Mont-Sainte-Anne-branded Rossignol skis. The acme of celebrations will be a big shaker on Jan. 16, exactly 50 years after the opening, that will include 50 per cent off lift tickets and more. Located at the base of the mountain in the base village, the Mont-Sainte-Anne ski museum showcases various documents and objects related to the history of skiing in Québec and is bound to be central to the hoopla.
Returning to Mont-Sainte-Anne after an absence of a few years you're always impressed with the vertical white ribbons in which it appears draped, visible from all directions and pretty much an entreat to get off the highway and get up there. That's precisely what I'd done, wasting no time warming up on blue-square Beaupré before stepping over to the real goods: the S the Super-S and La Crête, steep and relentless fall-line runs with few equals in all of the East. With new snow on the ground there were other things to check out: a raft of new glades like The Black Forest were great, even better in that on this midweek day, they still had powder in them. The view of the St. Lawrence from the 800-metre summit was, as usual, spectacular.
Ripping up the corduroy first thing next morning was also a sensation; reconstituted snow and neige nouveau mixed with impeccable grooming at -20C was sublime and reminded me of my early days here. I'd made 10 runs before I knew it, buoyed by that rejuvenating feeling that only good skiing can bring, reminding me of what those living here have known all along: you can always count on Mont-Sainte-Anne to make a bad day better.
They'd been doing it for 50 years.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.