Arriving at the airport in Gaspé, Quebec, our driver tells us we got here just in time.
“Tomorrow will be hot,” he says. “Minus 6.” As in -6 C is a hot day. Yikes.
The hour-long drive from Gaspé to Murdochville lands us in the small and quiet town just around midnight. The only place that’s open is the ski chalet at Mont Miller, so we head there. There are about 12 people in the bar, many of them still wearing ski and snowboard boots. The bar itself isn’t much; it’s the upstairs part of the chalet and features foldable plastic tables, folding chairs and a fireplace. But that isn’t stopping anyone from having fun. We order a couple pints and play some foosball on their wonky table. The bartender goes outside and sets off some Roman candles.
Welcome to the Chic Chocs.
• • •
Talk to nearly any eastern skier and the Chic Chocs will be on their bucket list. The reason no one actually goes? The epic drive to get there. Murdochville is 15 hours from the GTA in perfect conditions. And you can guarantee driving conditions will suck during ski season. We were lucky enough to fly to Gaspé.
Add to that the fact that the ski scene here is a bit of a mystery. Even in this digital age, a quick look through the old interweb is more confusing than enlightening. A muddle of websites don’t answer the basic questions: Are there any ski hills? Is it all touring? Is there anywhere to eat?
That’s exactly what we intend to find out.
• • •
In the morning we walk into the lower section of the Mont Miller Lodge, where it’s reminiscent of a northern logging camp: Grey benches and tables made of two-by-fours serve as the furniture. The 12-20 people eating here are all buzzing with that about-to-go-skiing energy. They all seem to know each other. We go to the kitchen window, hand in our meal ticket and are greeted with friendly smiles and plates of delicious home-cooked breakfast. The portions are ginormous.
The lift is open today on Mont Miller, the one resort in the region. With a vertical drop of 310 metres and 33 trails, it’s all accessed by a single T-bar. And there isn’t a lineup all day long. Not even on the Sunday of the Family Day weekend. At the top of the T-bar we can see all of Murdochville and have views off into the distance where snowcapped mountains obscure the horizon.
While we don’t get the blower pow everyone hopes for on a ski trip, there is lots of snow. And as evidenced by all the wind turbines on top of the mountain, it’s always windy here. Which means tracks are quickly filled in again. But the region gets hammered; on average, almost seven metres of snow can fall here each winter.
The skiing itself is not for the beginner. There are no magic carpets and there are only a few mellow runs down the mountain. Everything else is steep tree skiing. It’s challenging but fun. And we know it would be legendary after a fresh dump.
In the afternoon, we’re told to be at the top of the T-bar for 2 o’clock. The helicopter will pick us up there and drop us at the top of Mont Porphyre. And it does. It’s a short ride across the valley, so before we know it, the heli is dropping us at the top of Porphyre and we’re watching it list over the edge. Dropping in, we’re into some of the tightest tree skiing this side of Blue Mountain’s Old South Glades. But it’s an exciting and fun run.
We laugh and shout down the mountain until a cat picks us up to take us to the chalet. We soon find ourselves back in the bar (in ski boots) where we meet the godfather of the Murdochville ski scene, Guillaume Molaison.
The town of Murdochville essentially died in the early 2000s. A copper mine—the only reason the town existed—closed in 1999. In its heyday the town had a population of 5,000. But after the mine closed there wasn’t much left. Houses were dirt cheap. That’s when Guillaume started his eastern ski empire. He scooped up a duplex, then a quadplex with mortgages as low as $25 a month. He soon acquired the ski hill, along with the chalet, and rights to run cats on Mont York and Mont Porphyre. And it’s been building ever since.
Now running as chic-chac.com he offers everything from hotels to guided ski touring packages, heli-ski or cat ski packages and everything in between. Simply put, if you’re going to ski in Murdochville, you’ll be using one, if not all of Guillaume’s offerings. And, on top of that, his website is one of the best for the region.
• • •
On our second day, we’re treated to a full day of cat skiing on Mont Porphyre. The cat ride up is a bumpy but fun ride with 10 of our new best friends. Our guide, Camille Hudon, tells me she works in the hospital during the summer as an emergency physician.
Our other guide, Benjamin, looks to be about 21 but tells me he’s a mechanical engineer in the real world. Everyone we meet has a fascinating story. The two forty-somethings tell me they’re originally from France and love speed flying. Another guy in the cat grows recreational cannabis in Maine. And everyone can really ski.
Dropping in on one of Porphyre’s many runs, most of them named after Guillaume’s prolific progeny (he has five kids), it’s a steep drop, a few quick turns and you’re into it: deep snow that goes on and on and on. While the trees are still tight, the grade of the slope and the quality of the snow make it an incredible descent. We whoop and holler through the trees and I’m surprised the guides aren’t worrying about losing us. But the guides are casual compared to their western counterparts; we do have avy gear, but there are no run-throughs on how to use it. We do five laps on Porphyre before skiing back down to the cat where it takes us across the valley and up Mont Miller for one sunset glory run back to the bar. It’s one of my best runs of 2020 (that is a compliment).
On our final day of skiing, we take a short but cold snowmobile ride with some rippers over to Mont York. Another of Guillaume’s skiing tenures, there is a ton of skiable terrain here, all of it steep tree skiing that is not for the beginner. We trade out the sleds for skins and start touring. Our young guides are absolute animals when it comes to ski touring; they prefer the SFU (Straight Fucking Up) technique to the switchback method I favour. But we get three laps in and watching these guys shred down the mountain is an absolute pleasure. My skiing isn’t nearly as pretty, but the runs are well-spaced. There’s tons of snow for fresh tracks and it’s a real hoot skiing with these guys.
That night, it’s one of the staff’s birthdays. They all dress up in camping attire and party ‘til the wee hours. We know all of them now. And to my mind, that’s the telltale sign of a great ski hill: one where you spend a few days and even the locals know your name by the time you leave.
While we did spend three days skiing in the Chic Chocs, it feels like we barely touched the place. We only walked from our hotel to the ski hill, skied Mont Miller, Mont Porphyre and Mont York. That’s all we did. We ate every meal at the Mont Miller chalet (it’s pretty much the only place to eat). We didn’t check out the true alpine of the Parc National de la Gaspésie, nor the ski town of Sainte-Anne-Des-Monts. We still have no idea what it’s like over that way.
But that’s just the way travel is, isn’t it? There’s never enough time and there’s always more to see. Going to the Chic Chocs is no longer on my skiing bucket list. Going back to the Chic Chocs is.
Excerpted from Mountain Life Blue Mountains, Winter ’21.