As Corinne McKay and Dan Urist carved the open snowfields of 3,700-foot Mt. Logan in the Chic-Chocs, part of Canada’s Appalachian Mountains, they both had the same thought: This is the most amazing snow in the world.
“We skied through a pine forest on a sunny day, and there wasn’t a single track in sight,” says McKay, a French-to-English translator. “We felt like the only humans who had ever been there, and we were reveling in 10 feet of powdered-sugar snow.”
The Boulder, Colo., couple had been exploring the backcountry of an unspoiled French-Canadian wilderness in the Gaspésie National Park in eastern Québec for more than a week last March before reaching their ultimate destination – Mt. Logan, where the sea of white-crested mountaintops and plunging valleys is punctuated with bushy pines and cedars encased in rime.
“Backpacking our gear, sleeping bags and food to the huts along the trail was grueling, but worth the work,” says Urist, a computer consultant. There is indeed plenty of the white stuff – with snowpacks typically averaging 15 feet in an area that receives 300 to 400 inches annually.
Hut-to-hut skiing has become popular with intermediate to advanced skiers who want a unique winter adventure far from civilization – without carrying extensive snow-camping gear. The reward is that you can delve into the wilderness and enjoy challenging skiing on fresh snow in relative solitude – no hordes of people such as you’d find on groomed cross-country trails near major ski resorts. Just you, the snow and a warm, cozy hut waiting for you up the trail. Novice skiers who find hut-to-hut trips appealing can start by going with a guide or other experienced skiers with winter-safety skills.
The principle is simple: Well-maintained overnight shelters hidden deep in the woods are linked by marked but ungroomed trails and spaced several miles from one to the next. Skiers who relish the fun of achieving the goal of reaching their remote quarters by day’s end reserve spots in advance so they can spend the long winter nights in relative comfort. The huts provide bunk beds (whether a mattress is included depends on the location), a wood stove, firewood, tables, chairs and outhouse. You have to bring all your own food, cooking implements, clothing and sleeping bag.
A number of places, including Colorado’s Rockies, Washington’s Mt. Rainier, and California’s Sierras, have established backcountry trails and hut systems. However, the remote location and opportunity for top-notch skiing makes Québec’s Gaspésie Park a premier destination. “Whatever ski conditions you want – steep bowls or high-country traverses – they’re all in this area,” says Paul Weiss, a telemark and nordic ski instructor from Falmouth, Maine. “The Gaspésie is so far north that the tree line is 3,500 feet or lower. As a result, there are big plateaus and steep escarpments above tree line, making fantastic skiing that you can’t do in other places where the forests are too dense. You can ski ravine after ravine with not a person in any of them.”
As You Like It
There are a number of ways to structure a backcountry hut-to-hut ski trip, depending on your abilities and preferences. You can cover a lot of territory by staying every night at a different hut, or you can pack your gear into a single hut and spend as many nights as you like there, making day trips into the valleys and peaks right in that vicinity.
If backwoods cooking and sleeping are too rustic, there’s always the option of staying at the park’s Gîte du Mont-Albert, a luxury hotel run by the Québec Parks System, called Sépaq, from which you can access a dozen daylong ski or snowshoe trips.
Urist and McKay combined all three methods during their two-week ski vacation in the Gaspésie Park. First, they spent a week at the Gîte (“lodge” in French), exploring a different trail every day and returning to the hotel by nightfall. This arrangement introduced them to the area’s terrain and weather before they forged into more isolated parts.
Without having to rough it, the couple got the chance to explore some of the park’s single-day trails such as Lac aux Américains, a glacial cirque perfect for bowl runs with a frozen lake to ski across. “After a full day of skiing, we returned to the Gîte, soaked in the hot tub, then ate an exquisite four-course dinner,” says McKay.
Though they enjoyed the cushy life, the couple was ready for heartier adventure – a weeklong, 100-kilometer trek culminating in their Mt. Logan ascent. To survive in the wintry wilderness, they had to lug a week’s worth of provisions and cooking utensils into the backcountry on their backs. “We packed dehydrated black beans, instant brown rice and granola for a whole week – the lightest things possible,” says Urist. They carefully portioned out their rations along with multipurpose pots to cook them in and a few dishes and utensils. To their gear, they added sleeping bags and pads, headlamps and candles. For safety – even though it added extra weight to their burdens – they carried a tent they could pitch in case they got lost.
As it turned out, they didn’t use the tent, although they were glad they were prepared on the day they took a wrong turn and arrived at their shelter just as darkness fell.
McKay and Urist found hut life surprisingly comfortable, though lacking in privacy. In the Gaspésie, huts accommodate eight, and during peak winter months, most are filled to capacity, having been reserved months ahead.
However, they enjoyed the company of their French-speaking bunkmates – locals from the Gaspé Peninsula – and picked up some hut-to-hut tips. For instance, the Canadians had hired the park’s “Ski Doo” (snowmobile) service, which delivers food and equipment to the hut so you don’t have to carry it.
With sunrise, sunset and mealtimes the only defining schedule, winter life in the backcountry is simple. Predictably, it centers on snow: either melting it for water or carving through it on skis. Typically, McKay and Urist’s day began with an early breakfast of instant oatmeal and hot chocolate made with melted snow. They started skiing at 7:30 or 8 a.m. and made their way, pack-laden, for three to five hours to their next overnight shelter. Because at least one of their bunkmates each night was familiar with the Gaspésie Park trails, Urist and McKay were usually able to follow their tracks, avoiding the exhausting task of breaking trail.
When the couple arrived at their hut, they claimed their bunks, dumped their packs, melted snow, ate lunch, then strapped on their skis again – this time for an afternoon of unencumbered free-heeling through quiet forests, along ridges and once up Pic de l’Aube (Peak of the Dawn) to watch the sun set. Back at the cabin, they prepared dinner as it got dark, ate with the others around the blazing fire in their long underwear and usually fell exhausted into their bunks by 8 p.m. They spent two nights near Mt. Logan so they could make the steep ascent sans backpacks and take advantage of the mountain’s long, open runs and cascading ravines.
Another way of making backcountry ski trips is to stay in the same hut for as many nights as suits your schedule and inclination – a system that minimizes time spent hauling gear and maximizes time for unfettered powder runs. “You can easily find a week’s worth of skiing right around a single hut,” says Weiss, who guides a Gaspésie ski tour every April for the North American Telemark Organization. Last year, his group skied in 19 kilometers to the Mines Madeleine hut near 4,200-foot Mt. Jacques-Cartier, one of the Gaspésie’s only shelters that has electricity.
“The bowls and traverses around this spot were just perfect,” he says. “Every day we did something different – except for one day when we returned to ski the same area right after a fresh snow because we all loved it so much the first time.”
Whatever way you plan a hut-to-hut trek – moving to new quarters every night or staying put – the trip can be as hard or easy as you want it to be, says Weiss. “You don’t have to make a Herculean effort to find great skiing and scenery,” he adds. “The Chic-Chocs mountains are larger than life with their steep bowls, deep ravines and huge dumps of snow. It’s every skier’s heaven.”
Nuts & Bolts
· Location: Gaspésie National Park and the Chic-Chocs are located in Québec on the Gaspé Peninsula, which juts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence north of New Brunswick.
· Detailed information: Go to www.sepaq.com for suggested overnight ski routes, trail maps and more. Select the English version, then “List of Parks,” then “Gaspé sie.”
· Hut reservations: Huts accommodate eight people and are equipped with stoves, bunk beds, tables and chairs. Most have no electricity. Advance reservations are required. Call toll-free at 866-727-2427 or 800-665-6527. The phone will be answered in French, but English-speaking staff can assist you. You can arrange for the optional snowmobile gear and luggage transportation service at the same time. You may also email firstname.lastname@example.org.
· Gîte du Mont-Albert: Situated in the heart of the Gaspé sie, this historic inn has 48 rooms and several cabins. The special Chic-Chocs Package (five nights, two meals daily) is $516 Canadian per person, about $400 U.S. 800-665-6527.
· Weather: Expect between 14 degrees F to -4 degrees F during the day, although temps can go higher in late spring. Mountaintops are always gusty with possible severe wind-chill factor.
· Best months to ski: Conditions for backcountry skiing are good after mid-January. Wait for March and April for optimal telemarking as they’re the snowiest months.
· Maps: For a detailed ski trail map (1:75,000 scale) call 800-665-6527 (cost: $5).
· Avalanche information: www.sepaq.com; AvalancheCentre of the Haute-Gaspé sie (in French): www.centreavalanche.qc.ca.
Whether you are an experienced skier or novice, here are some tips for making your experience more enjoyable:
Be Prepared. “When going to a remote place in harsh winter weather, you must be completely self-sufficient,” says ski instructor Paul Weiss. That includes everything from carrying an avalanche beacon and an extensive first-aid kit to dressing in layers with an outer shell and having adequate sun protection. In addition, you should bring a top-notch repair kit. “Think of anything that could go wrong: ski bindings, gear, poles and even zippers that might break or packs that might tear,” he recommends. “Then bring what you need to fix it.”
Pack Right. Your gear can weigh as much as 60 pounds with food, so you’ll need a hefty backpack, which you can either carry or pull on a sled. Weiss advises the sled, which slows your progress but doesn’t disrupt your balance. If you opt to carry your backpack, make a trial run, skiing with your full pack for several hours so you can adjust to the feel of its weight.
Shape Up. Like any outdoor adventure, training for backcountry skiing is important, especially if you want to cover longer distances and hilly terrain. “You can easily climb a total of 5,000 to 6,000 feet in a single day by going up, down, then up again,” says Weiss. Before undertaking a challenge, do a couple of weekend trips where you ski a fair distance with a full pack. The conditioning can pay off if you have to blaze trail through heavy snow.
Be Prudent. “All the terrain looks tempting,” Weiss says, “but you have to respect the mountains and say ‘no’ to potentially dangerous areas.” Most hut-to-hut skiing is pretty remote, and unlike downhill ski areas, there are seldom rangers or ski patrols to rescue you. Even cell phones may not work.
Backcountry skiers also need basic avalanche training and should be able to recognize dangerous conditions. Before you head out, check the park’s Web site, which has detailed avalanche bulletins. Although you can’t access this information from the backcountry, if you have data on the season’s avalanches and know something about snow stability, you’re a better judge of when and where to ski, Weiss says.