Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec
"I have written much about many good places," said Edward Abbey, author of scores of elegant treatises on nature. "But the best places of all, I have never mentioned." For more than a decade, I've followed Abbey's mantra, much to the relief of my ski partners. Now with the Quebec government actively promoting ski trips to the remote Chic-Chocs Mountains on the Gaspé Peninsula, it's time to cough up the goods: Quite simply, there is no place east of the Rockies like the Chic-Chocs.
True, for late-season skiing, the Eastern faithful rightly revel in the pilgrimage to New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine. But with all due respect to Mt. Washington, the unadulterated wilderness and vast quantity of skiing 450 miles northeast of Bangor, Maine, shames the Pinkham Notch mayhem. Mont Albert alone-a massif with a four-mile-long plateau top-serves up a dozen Tuckermans, with ample helpings of hair-raising 1,000-vertical-foot drops and a smorgasbord of mellow above-treeline terrain.
Hard to believe that the East has Western-style cirques and good natural snow through late May? Doubting Thomases take note: The 200,000-acre Parc de la Gaspésie sits at 51-degrees north, about the same latitude as Whistler. And like B.C., coastal storms-in this case swirling in from the Atlantic and the St. Lawrence River-drop a ton of moisture, usually as snow. The Gaspé region is perfect for spring and early-summer skiing, but treacherous for flying choppers-which is one reason the East's only heliskiing operation bottomed out 20 years ago.
Fueled by the telemark renaissance of the 1980s-not to mention the cognoscenti's addiction to Quebec's native gravy fries (called poutines) washed down with 7.2 bière forte from Unibroue-the Gaspé quietly gained traction with hardcore skiers willing to log a dozen or so hours driving from Boston or Vermont. In trade for highway time, skiers were rewarded with a network of 16 cozy backcountry huts appropriate for touring or as a base of operations for bashing alpine vertical. Living got a lot fatter with the completion of the year-round Gà®te du Mont-Albert in 1994. The 48-room Gà®te (French for shelter) serves up four-star luxury complete with saunas and a five-course Table d'Hôte of regional cuisine. To boot, it's all paid for with Canadian play money you exchange for 70 cents on the dollar.
Hoping to spur economic development, the Quebec government is in the midst of a $43 million regional modernization campaign-including road improvements and construction of a deluxe backcountry lodge-to make the Parc de la Gaspésie an international tourist destination. Thus far, it's primarily a Canadian-American affair, though the marketing should start attracting the growing global tribe of adventure skiers.
Fortunately, the Chic-Chocs ("impassable" in the native Micmac language) won't be overrun soon. Most days you'll be outnumbered by woodland caribou that roam the park licking lichen, and the Gaspé hadn't gotten any closer to civilization last time we checked. But for skiers willing to invest sweat equity, the improvements in alpine touring gear have made this Canadian spring corn harvest more accessible than ever, though still strictly a hike-to-ski affair.Right off Route 299, less than a mile from the Gà®te, Hogback Mountain provides plenty of intermediate-grade slopes and two 40-degree-plus expert-only chutes. Weather permitting-and in the Gaspé it often doesn't-you can use the summit of Hogback to survey Mont Albert. Heading in to Albert, a modest hike or skin brings you past the Lac du Diable to a day hut, complete with wood stove and full frontal views of the popular Mur des Patrouilleurs, a.k.a. Patrollers Wall. En route, resist the temptation to sneak up closed drainages to titillating bowls, especially during times of caribou migration or high avalanche danger.
Intrepid skiers would do well to explore Mont Jacques Cartier-at 4,167 feet the highest peak in the park-or slog 118 miles to Mont Logan. On Logan, which once served my party a 3-foot April dump, the Ouellet Bowl drops precipitously enough to erase any pangs for Tuckerman's headwall. And I guarantee you won't miss the crowds.
The Gaspé is a bargain after you endure the drive. Five nights at the four-star Gà®te du Mont-Albert, including gourmet dining, is $335 (U.S.) per person, April 21-June 14. Huts run $14 per person. Alpine touring or telemark gear is required. There are no lifts and backcountry hazards abound. Guides are available, but you should know basic French. Contact: Gà®te du Mont-Albert (888-270-4483) or Sépaq (866-727-2427); sepaq.com
Ski Las Lenas, Argentina with Dave Swanwick and Kim Reichhelm. www.laslenasvacations.com/swany/swany_and_kim/