Be prepared to lose your heart on a Québec skiing trip. Discover 75 ski areas, nearly half of which are still privately owned.

Quebéc Skiing, a Love Story is a tale of youthful infatuation. Of love at first sight. Of a lifelong affair. A story of stolen weekends, raging fires, passionate interludes, hushed meals by candlelight. Of faraway alpine retreats, snow-kissed walks in remote country fastnesses, and clinking wine goblets, all to the soft soundtrack of a French chanteuse. Plus some creaky chairlifts, a few mugs of chocolat chaud, a splurge of tire d ‘érable sur la neige, and almost always a pack of Grabber hand warmers. Baby, it’s cold outside.

As the son of a Montreal mother and a Massachusetts father, I am truly the product of Canadian-American relations. And while I’ve skied in 14 American states, my heart – near, far, wherever I am, as a famous Québecker once sang – is held captive by Québec in winter, and by the beguiling slopes and trails of its 75 ski areas, nearly half of which are still privately owned. It isn’t only the snow, which is robust and relentless. Nor the air, cold but crisp, fresh and refreshing. Nor the lodgings, quiet auberges by the side of the road, hidden cottages by the side of the hill. Nor even the food, beginning with soupe à l’oignon gratinée and progressing quickly to the unimaginably rich sauces of French-Canadian cooking, followed by mousse au chocolat, the best you’ve ever had.

Quebéc Skiing
left to right: 1. Jean Lessard 1965. 2. Mont Tremblant 3. Jean Lessard with France and Marc Lessard 1969 4. Ski school antics.

More than all that, it’s the atmosphere that is its allure. Authentic, invigorating, laced with the conviction that winter is to be enjoyed and not evaded, employed and not endured. Every Québec schoolchild knows one line from Gilles Vigneault, the province’s poet, singer and songwriter – Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver. My country is not a country, it’s winter, which in any language is the cold truth of Canada. Québec especially.

“Quebéc Skiing offers an experience that isn’t like those big resorts, at reasonable prices and where everyone feels at home,”

My romance began a half-century ago as a youthful tryst with a T-bar, rooted in my longest, closest friendship with Jimmy Stein, son of Mickey Stein, the visionary developer of Mont Habitant, who with a pair of bulldozers, some dynamite to blow away the larger boulders, and a $600 fee paid to the legendary trail designer Sel Hannah, sculpted a ski area out of a Laurentian hillside. It was 1959, the very year when legendaries like Henri Richard, Jean Béliveau, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and Jacques Cartier played with the Montreal Canadiens and when, perhaps in an homage to the beloved fireplaces of Canada’s ski country, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by The Platters was the number one hit in what was then known as the Dominion of Canada.

Jim and I skied together at Mont Habitant not long after his father’s vision became a reality, and then at the Dartmouth Skiway when we both were students at that capital of collegiate skiing, and even at Mount Cranmore, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But always – always – I was drawn back to ski Québec Canada, to Habitant and the fistful of small hills in Saint-Sauveurdes-Monts – Sommet Saint-Sauveur, Avila, Morin Heights, Olympia, Gabriel, and Edelweiss. And the great Eastern Township resorts that hugged the American border in the southern part of the province – Mont Sutton, Owl’s Head, Mont-Orford, Bromont. And the mighty areas near Québec City – Le Massif, Stoneham, Mont-Sainte-Anne. One of the reasons I want to live a long life is to have a chance to ski the Rue Radar trail on Mont Ste-Marie, and visit Camp Fortune, the area with the very best name in all of North American skiing.


Related content: Destination Québec : Come for the ski. Stay for the play.


All of which is not to mention Mont Tremblant, which became a ski area after Joe Ryan, the ski pioneer from Philadelphia, and Lowell Thomas, the fabled writer and broadcaster, ventured to the summit of the peak that bears its name. A trek that resulted in the development of an idiosyncratic resort that today has the corporate fingerprints of ski behemoth Intrawest, and is now owned by the Alterra Mountain Company, whose portfolio includes Deer Valley, Mammoth, Squaw Valley and Steamboat.

But there is far more to ski Québec skiing than Tremblant. Indeed, at a time when ski traditionalists and even contemporary ski professionals are asking whether mega-ski passes offered by conglomerates are killing the sport, the heart – the bleeding heart – of Québec skiing remains the palette of small, family-oriented areas.

Québec skiing - Solitude at Mont Bromont
Québec skiing – Solitude at Mont Bromont

“Quebéc Skiing offers an experience that isn’t like those big resorts, at reasonable prices and where everyone feels at home,” said Dean Booth, who was the ski school director at several Canadian areas before settling in as the longtime head of Habitant. We once sold tickets from the tiny stand at the foot of the ski hill, and his son now runs operations at the mountain – proof that these are family areas for employees as well as guests.

France Lessard, former head of Rossignol’s ski wear division, concurred. “There is something natural about the sport.” Her father skied for Canada in the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, helped set out the runs and became a ski pro while also operating the ski shop at Mont Sutton. These days there is karaoke on Wednesdays, open mic at the Bar Le Tucker on Thursdays and, at the end of the season, a sugar-shack meal with the traditional 14-hour slow cooked maple ham, baked beans, pancakes, pork rinds and of course pouding chômeur, which roughly translates as poor man’s pudding, and was created during the Great Depression by female factory workers in Québec who poured maple syrup into cake batter.

A video produced at Mont Sutton around 1967 – the year of Canada’s centenary and Montreal’s Expo 67, widely regarded as the country’s coming-out party to the world – gives a sense of the ethos still present at Sutton and throughout Québec. In that video, the skis are close together, knee locked into knee in a way that is impossible with today’s shaped skis. Though you no longer can go up the mountain with individual tickets – 40 for $10.00 – and though T-bars and wooden skis are generally gone, the sense of intimacy remains.

“There’s so much history in Québec, and after competing in the World Cup you go there and feel you’ve returned to real ski culture, rich in atmosphere and really fun. I only wish I could be there more often.”

“Here it is kind of like the old days, with an old-time après-ski atmosphere, made all the richer because these places are not very crowded,” said Lessard. “The person who goes to Tremblant and then goes to Sutton is going to have a totally different experience.”

Last spring, as the last traces of snow were retreating from the slopes of Owl’s Head, Montreal businessman Charles Baudinet strapped on his boards to capture his last runs of the season. “When I’m here, I feel at home,” he said. “I skied here when I was young, my kids raced and coached here, and we just bought ski passes for the new season so we can keep the ski tradition going.”

The personification of keeping the ski tradition going is Baudinet’s ski companion, Marc Richardson. A 50-year veteran of the area, Richardson’s father was an early ski school director at Mickey Stein’s Mont Habitant before – together with his mother – opening the ski school at Owl’s Head. Today, Richardson is one of the high-performance instructors at the arena in Mansonville, with its breathtaking panoramic view of Lake Memphremagog.

Québec skiing Powder
Québec skiing – Powder skiing at Mont Sutton

“The big thing about the small places is that everybody knows each other,” said Richardson. “And people look out for each other. This is a place for people to grow in their ski ability. That’s the beauty of these types of places.”

For many years Bernard Trottier, now 87, owned the recently defunct Mont Shefford ski area near what is now known as the Bromont resort. Trottier began skiing on barrel stakes that he fashioned himself and was, as La Presse described him, une véritable encyclopédie du ski au Québec.

“Shefford and the small areas that are still operating weren’t like the big places even then,” Trottier said. “Skiing is the best sport for the family, and we catered to that. The size and degree of the hill was perfect for families, and we had 150 instructors to handle all the people.”

We can be thankful that Québec skiing offers nearly three dozen family ski areas aren’t the North Country equivalent of the fabled colony of Atlantis – once ambitious and lively, but ultimately lost to history.

“The old Québec skiing experience endures,” said Paul Dalbec, who runs a boutique luxury real estate firm near Tremblant. “This province has remarkable variety and a lot of small hills that develop a lot of racers. I grew up at Tremblant but know these teenie-weenie areas are very popular, and the people who go to them love their skiing. This is not Vail or Aspen.”

True enough. In fact, eat your heart out Vail and Aspen, and Deer Valley too, for you won’t get a meal there remotely like those served at La Grange in Morin- Heights, Québec – my favorite restaurant in North America where I always – every time – order le tartare de saumon, which is out of this world, accompanied by frites worthy of their own feature essay.

For former American slalom racer Mark Taché, whose father Yves Taché was a preeminent racer and member of the Canadian national ski team, the difference between the tiny areas of Québec and the giant ski mountains of Colorado is one of stark contrast.

“Québec skiing meant we skied in a lot of those small mountains during my racing days, and they were great,” said the younger Taché, who today operates the Montana Ale Works restaurant in Bozeman, having retired from competitive racing. “There’s so much history in Québec, and after competing in the World Cup you go there and feel you’ve returned to real ski culture, rich in atmosphere and really fun. I only wish I could be there more often.”

Rue-Sous-le-Fort
Rue Sous le Fort

It is a sentiment echoed by my childhood friend Jimmy, who has played host to me and my family for five decades.

There are the meals – the $4.89 spaghetti lunch at Mont Habitant on Mondays, the Montreal smoked-meat specials on Fridays, and the Sunday evening special, when you can ski all night for $11.25, about the cost of a glass of wine back home in the States.

And then there are the memories. My daughters are the fourth generation to ski at Hill 70, named for a World War I battle, and one of the peaks now at Sommet Saint- Sauveur. Indeed, one of my most cherished possessions is a photograph from 1934 of my grandmother Sadye Marks, at the top of Hill 70, no doubt reached after an early morning train ride out of Mile End station in Montreal and followed by a lunch of thick pea soup with homemade brown bread.

There were my own struggles on the T-bar Jimmy’s father installed right beside the Bonbon trail. And there were times we watched our little girls learn at the ski school that at one time was run by Jimmy’s stepmother, almost certainly the first woman to direct a ski school in Canada. There was the afternoon Jimmy took a formidable 84- inch ice saw, cut a hole in a remote lake just big enough for our daughters, dipped them in the cold waters, and then watched them then roll in the snowbanks. And, of course, our first experience of tire d ‘érable sur la neige, tasting the sweet treat produced by boiling and reducing maple syrup, placing it in a slender line on the snow, and then rolling it on a Popsicle stick to be devoured by eager children and adults alike.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that more than one line of that famous Canadian country-is-winter poem by Gilles Vigneault has a rich meaning for me. There is another line that goes like this: Mon chemin, ce n’est pas un chemin, c’est la neige. Which basically means My way is not a path, it’s snow. For me this winter, when I have moved to Québec – in large measure to take a deep drink of its frosty but friendly winter – my way is not a path. It’s snow. Here in Québec. Here in snowy, warm and wonderful Québec.

Author – DAVID SCHRIBMAN

Article from SNOW Magazine high season 2019/20 issue. View Magazine

Additional Information

Technical information

Mont-Sainte-Anne Le Massif de Charlevoix Stoneham Mountain Resort Le Relais Centre
Number of runs 71 52 43 33
Number of lighted runs 19 19 28
Vertical drop 625m 770m 345m 224m
Longest run 5,662m 5,100m 3,200m 2,055m
Trail ratings
Easy
Difficult
Very difficult
Extremely difficult
15
32
14
10
10
19
18
7
10
10
17
6
7
12
9
4
Distance from downtown Québec City 42 km 75 km 31 km 19 km

Mont-Sainte-Anne

Québec skiing – Mont-Saint-Anne

  • Three mountain faces, with one overlooking the St. Lawrence River
  • One of Québec’s longest seasons, year after year
  • Canada’s biggest vertical drop for night skiing

Le Massif de Charlevoix map

Québec skiing – Le Massif de Charlevoix

  • Breathtaking views of the St. Lawrence River
  • Abundant natural snow
  • Biggest vertical drop east of the Canadian Rockies
  • Nearly 100 acres of off-piste skiing

Stoneham-Mountain-Resort

Québec skiing – Stoneham Mountain Resort

  • Canada’s largest night skiing area
  • Three terrain parks for freestylers, including one with step-up jumps, plus an Olympic-caliber half pipe
  • Eastern Québec’s best après-ski ambience
  • Site of international competitions

Le-Relais-map

Québec skiing – Le Relais Centre

  • A great family resort
  • Located just 15 minutes from Old Québec
  • The most lighted runs in the Québec City area
  • Three terrain parks for different levels
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