Le Massif: At the Crossroads

Petite-Rivière-St.-François (QC),
Canada –
Le Massif de Petite-Rivière-St.-François is a mountain
at a crossroads. Throughout its relatively short life, the resort with what
may well be the longest formal name in the ski industry has prided itself
on maintaining harmony with its natural surroundings and eschewing traditional
ski area development. A CDN $24.8 million investment last season, however,
places Le Massif on the launching pad to the big time. The first season with
the new facilities brought record-setting attendance of 115,000 skier and
snowboarder visits to the resort. February visits were up 13% over the preceding
year, despite the fact that the 2000-2001 season broke snowfall records throughout
the Northeast. Likewise, March visits were up 10% from a year earlier and
claimed a one-day record of 3,620 visitors. The mountain’s colossal expansion
could be the doorway to its success, or a threat to its very nature, depending
upon your point of view.

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A COMFORTINGLY FAMILIAR PICTURE

Ocean-going frieghters ply the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence below Le Massif's trails. (photo: Marc Guido)

Ocean-going frieghters ply the frigid waters of the
St. Lawrence below Le Massif’s trails. (photo: Marc Guido)

The pungent aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted
up the stairwell of Gîte Tourlognon and into my tastefully appointed
room. I donned the supplied plush terrycloth bathrobe and stood at the sink,
splashing frigid water on my face to wipe the cobwebs from my eyes and to
try to erase them from my brain. It was late February, and this was the final
stop on a nearly two-week whirlwind tour of mountains lying on either side
of the 45th parallel, a journey that clocked no fewer than 1,000
miles on the odometer of our poor overworked rental car. If only it were
as simple a task to resurrect my ski-weary legs.

Across the hall, large picture windows framed
a stunning scene. From our lofty perch some 2,000 feet above the frozen St.
Lawrence, the warmth of a rising sun proudly announced the arrival of a new
day. A lonely freighter plied the ice-choked waters below, the distance dwarfing
the 500-foot behemoth to little more than a speck. Some 15 miles or so afield,
the plains of the river’s south shore gradually rose to meet rolling hills
that spilled away toward the Maine border.

The view was comfortingly familiar, for I count
Le Massif as a friend. I had frequently made the pilgrimage to the resort
for seven years running, and that very same vista waits around each turn as
one skis the mountain. “Mountain” is a peculiar word in this instance, however.
A scant 45 miles northeast of Québec’s capital city, here an immense plateau
stretches right to the water’s edge, where it plunges nearly 2,600 vertical
feet to railroad tracks that hug the river shoreline. Skiing and snowboarding
takes place along the brink of this plateau, tumbling toward the river like
the many boulders lying in the tidal flats below.

After 11 straight days of skiing, though, I was
in no hurry on this particular morning. It was just as well, for the relaxed
pace allowed us to linger over a delicious sampling of poached eggs and fresh,
flaky croissants in the comfortable inn’s breakfast room. Throwing back a
few final sips of coffee, we bid our hosts Irénée Marier and Lise Archambault
adieu, and headed back uphill to the ski area.

YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH A LOT WITH $24.8 MILLION

Yes, I said “back uphill.” Previously, the only
way into the resort was via a descent along the precipitous dead-end
access road on which lies Gîte Tourlognon and several other travelers’
abodes. For the 2001-2002 season, however, Le Massif constructed a brand-new
access from Route 138 as part of its gargantuan summer development, essentially
turning the resort into a giant upside-down ski area. A new “base lodge”
located at the summit greets arriving guests with the same stunning views
previously reserved for time spent on the slopes. The new entry also brought
Le Massif some 20 minutes closer to Québec City and only 20 miles east of
the enormously popular Mont-Ste.-Anne. Because you now arrive at the top
of the mountain, instead of at the bottom of the lift, it’s now for the first
time possible for travelers from Québec City to be taking their first run
at Le Massif at the same time as they would at Ste.-Anne.

A huge new summit lodge greets guests as they arrive at Le Massif. (photo: Marc Guido)

A huge new summit lodge greets guests as
they arrive at Le Massif. (photo: Marc Guido)

By relocating the loading terminal of the existing double chairlift on Grande-Pointe further down the mountain, the runs in that third mountain sector were increased by 131 vertical feet. (photo: Marc Guido)

By relocating the loading terminal of the existing
double chairlift on Grande-Pointe further down the mountain,
the runs in that mountain sector were increased by 131 vertical feet.
(photo: Marc Guido)

Click here to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window.

Click image to open a full-size trail map in a new
browser window.

While the 2,000-guest capacity of the new summit
lodge is huge in its own right, its design is consistent with Le Massif’s
philosophy of congruity with its natural surroundings. Walls faced with natural
local fieldstone, both inside and out, and natural wood beam construction
yield a comfortable refuge from the elements in harmony with the mountain.
While greatly expanded from the much smaller cafeteria in the former base
lodge, the food service at Le Massif has maintained its standard for quality,
creative offerings using healthy local ingredients. Ski school, rental, and
retail operations have all been relocated to the summit, although the base
facilities have been maintained to support overflow crowds.

What mattered most to this writer, though, was
the impact of the on-mountain development. Le Massif installed a second base-to-summit
high-speed detachable quad, this time ascending the adjacent peak of Cap
Maillard
. Previously home only to the resort’s signature mogul trail,
La “42”, this secondary mountaintop was actually raised by adding a
huge mound of rock and dirt to its crest. The added vertical was necessary
to create La Charlevoix, an FIS standard downhill trail mapped by revered
alpine course designer Bernhard Russi and implemented into an alpine training
center for Canada’s elite athletes, the first such facility east of the Canadian
Rockies. The very start of La Charlevoix at the top of the aforementioned
mound is accessible only to racers via a short surface lift. Another new
surface lift brings guests back to the new summit lodge from Cap Maillard
without having to first descend to the base, and as well provides a broad,
gentle teaching area for first-timers. By relocating the loading terminal
of the existing double chairlift on Grande-Pointe further down the
mountain, the runs in that third mountain sector were increased by a full
five tower spans and 131 vertical feet.

$24.8 million goes a long way, especially when
roughly $20 million of it comes from the government, and Le Massif wasn’t
yet done spending the loot. The resort built a new 60 million gallon snowmaking
reservoir to supply 75% of the mountain with manmade snow. The proximity
of Le Massif’s lower slopes to the relatively warm, humid flow of the St.
Lawrence often made snowmaking during the early season a challenging proposition,
and it would also cause the snowpack there to melt out earlier in the spring.
A unique dual drive system on the new quad chair, at which chairs are changed
from one drive cable to another at a quarter-station, is designed to allow
Le Massif to concentrate its early-season snowmaking effort on the upper 75%
of the mountain, where skiers will load the chair at the quarter-station and
avoid skiing the thin cover below. Nine new trails were added for the public,
in addition to La Charlevoix.

A UNIQUE LAYOUT, A UNIQUE HISTORY

Le Massif was born quite recently in a manner
rather unlike that of most ski resorts. Studies of the mountain’s potential
as a winter sports resort were first conducted in 1970, and the first trails
were cut in 1975 … without lifts. In fact, the resort’s decision last season
to begin welcoming skiers and snowboarders at the mountain’s top did not represent
a new idea. The existing road climbing from the sleepy fishing village of
Petite-Rivière-St.-François to Route 138 atop the plateau allowed easy access
to the ski trails by either automobile or snowmobile, and people would take
turns assuming uphill transport duty to lap runs down the mountain’s face.
The peak’s average annual blessing of 256 inches of snowfall (nearly twice
that of nearby Mont-Ste.-Anne) ensured that little else was necessary.

A consortium of local business people in 1981
established the Société de Développement du Massif de Petite-Rivière-Saint-François
Inc.
and, in the 1983-84 season following the conclusion of a 5-year moratorium
on development, leased from the Québec government the right to operate the
mountain as a ski area. School buses provided the uphill transport for only
a few hundred guests who enjoyed four to five powder runs per day while accompanied
by a guide. The original lodge dating back to the school bus days has since
been relocated to the top of the Grande-Pointe double chair. In the
1980s, Le Massif was a snowcat-style powder preserve known only to a precious
few.

This modest phase of the mountain’s life as a
ski resort came to an end in 1986, when the Québec government announced their
intention to invest in the ski area’s development. Some six years and CDN
$12 million later, the buses found themselves replaced by a detachable quad
chairlift ascending from the river’s edge to the future site of last season’s
new summit lodge, and the double chairlift climbing Grande-Pointe.
A spacious, modern lodge at the bottom of the quad, and separate administration,
retail, medical, and maintenance garage facilities replaced the first utilitarian
warming shacks. Snowmaking facilities were added.

Le Massif's terrain park (foreground), the new summit lodge (middleground), the "mound" atop Cap Maillard (background right) and the St. Lawrence River are all visible in this photo. (photo: Marc Guido)

Le Massif’s terrain park (foreground), the new summit
lodge (middleground), the “mound” atop Cap Maillard (background
right) and the St. Lawrence River are all visible in this photo. (photo:
Marc Guido)

A more meager expansion to Le Massif occurred
in the mid-1990s with the addition of a few more trails and the reintroduction
of La “42” to the resort’s trail map. Despite the resort’s status
as the mountain with the greatest vertical drop in eastern Canada and the
snowiest ski location in Québec, an extremely limited marketing budget and
a lack of local beds ensured that word of Le Massif’s treasures spread slowly.
As recently as two or three years ago, it was surprising to spot a license
plate from anywhere but Québec in the parking lot.

The expansion implemented for 2001-2002, though,
was monumental by comparison to the resort’s earlier developments. These
are big changes for a mountain that only a decade ago acquired its first ski
lifts, a mountain that previously was little known beyond its own province,
and a mountain that touts its location within the boundaries of a UNESCO World
Biosphere. What effect would it have on a resort that maintained a policy
of limiting trail widths to no more than 100 feet to ensure their harmony
with nature? Was the dropping of their marketing slogan “La Vraie Nature
du Ski”
(“The True Nature of Skiing”) a mere coincidence?

We headed out onto the hill to find out.

A MIXED BLESSING

La “42” was always separated somewhat from
the rest of Le Massif, both topographically and philosophically. The relentlessly
steep mogul trail resembled a narrow shard of glass as it stabbed its way
down the mountainside for 2,000 vertical feet across frozen ledges and double
fall lines. Set apart on Cap Maillard from every other run by a broad
drainage, it was a world away both in truth and in spirit from the gently
undulating cruisers that populated much of the resort.

While nothing else at Le Massif was going to scare
anyone silly, the resort’s other terrain was nonetheless wholly entertaining.
Runs were well separated from each other to foster a sense of wilderness isolation.
With the exception of La Petite-Rivière, a monotonously straight top-to-bottom
run originally cut as a proposed liftline, the mountain’s intermediate gems
twisted and turned to reveal a unique vista of the river below your skis around
each bend. It was a relaxing place, a place to escape a busier world … a
place to spend time harmonizing with nature while aboard your skis.

Imagine,
then, my surprise in finding new trail map additions like L’Écore and
La Fénomène that head straight down the fall line like the broad swath
of an Interstate highway. Slickened with a manmade base (admittedly also attributable
to an unfortunate and uncharacteristic mid-winter thaw-and-refreeze cycle that
had befallen the resort less than 48 hours earlier), my disappointment in the
new terrain was obvious, but paled in comparison to my next discovery.

Arriving just above the quarter-station loading
area of the new quad, we paused along the side of La Fénomène for a
momentary rest. The adjacent La Charlevoix training center run was
closed to the public, as it is for much of the season to provide the athletes
with unfettered access. Looking first down the hill toward the river, and
then at the tips of my own skis, I finally turned sufficiently to look back
up the hill toward the summit of Cap Maillard. It was but a moment
later that, for the first time, reality hit me like a shot to the face with
a cold, wet, slushy snowball. I was standing on La “42”.

Honestly, the changes were so significant that
I hadn’t even recognized it. The lower two-thirds of what previously had
been an enclave of natural challenge had been rendered smooth and broad as
a billiard table through snowmaking, grooming, and widening. I boarded the
new lift wholly disappointed. Le Massif had been my friend, and friendships
are funny things. When a friend goes astray, we don’t immediately abandon
them as we might do with a mere acquaintance. Instead, we watch in the hope
that they find their way back to the straight and true path. Le Massif had
to redeem itself in my mind, and it had to do so in a hurry.

As if my friend somehow understood, it did.

We skated off the top of the decidedly plush new
chair in the direction of L’Archipel, another new run. As if by design,
the entertaining glade magically appeared just in time to appease my emotions.
Broad with an intermediate pitch, yet tightly treed, the trail gradually drops
from the summit plateau into the drainage between Cap Maillard and
Grande-Pointe before spilling back onto the original trail network
underneath the first quad chair.

Le Sous-Bois remains as delightful as ever. (Skier: Isabelle Vallée; Photo: Marc Guido)

Le Sous-Bois remains
as delightful as ever.
(skier: Isabelle Vallée; photo: Marc Guido)

"Off-piste skiing is verboten to not adversely affect the forest, although ample evidence exists to suggest that this policy is only lightly enforced. (Skier: Rob Urwin; Photo: Marc Guido)

"Off-piste skiing is verboten so as not to adversely
affect the forest, although ample evidence exists to suggest that this
policy is only lightly enforced."
(skier: Rob Urwin; photo: Marc Guido)

ONLINE VIDEO

View 45th
Parallel
, a First Tracks!! Online
exclusive.
In
much of the northeastern U.S., the 45th Parallel constitutes the country’s
border with Canada. Join us as we play along both sides of the cartographer’s
line in Quebec at Le Massif, Mont-Édouard, Le Valinouët,
and Massif du Sud, and in Vermont at Bolton Valley, Burke, Stowe, and
Sugarbush.
(Running time 5:20)

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IF YOU GO …

The Roof:
Due to the lack of on-mountain
lodging development, a visitor to Le Massif has no option but to arrive
at the ski area each day via automobile or bus from Mont Ste.-Anne or
Québec City. Accordingly, there are five basic options to destination
visitors headed for Le Massif: stay in Petite-Rivière-St.-François,
stay in Baie-St.-Paul, stay in Beaupré, stay in Québec City, or stay
in Pointe-au-Pic. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Petite-Rivière-St.-Francois
has the advantage of proximity, and is speckled by various gîtes
(bed-and-breakfasts). The beautiful four-star
Gîte
Tourlognon
where we
stayed, with its commanding view of the river, common area with fireplace,
and gourmet breakfasts is just such an establishment. The inn is immaculate
and all rooms are non-smoking. If you’re a night owl, however, you’ll
be out of your element in Petite-Rivière-St.-Francois, and if you choose
an establishment that doesn’t include dinner (only three of the auberges
[inns] here do), the nearest restaurants are in Baie-St.-Paul, some
six or eight miles to the northeast.

Baie-St.-Paul
is a haven of art galleries and regional cuisine set along a tiny cove
of the river. More bed-and-breakfasts, some small inns, and a couple
of small motels are located here. Consider the four-star
Auberge
La Maison Otis
, or
any one of four gîtes in town that command a comparable rating.
This is still a small town, though, so good luck finding dinner at 9
p.m. on a Sunday night.

Head southwest
and descend the plateau into Beaupré, though, and you’re back to the
traffic-light civilization surrounding Mont-Ste.-Anne where a plethora
of lodging, dining, and shopping options awaits. A free daily shuttle
connects the two ski resorts. For a truly cosmopolitan Old World experience,
though, consider hoofing it even further down Rte. 138 to Québec City,
where everything from the highbrow
Château
Frontenac
to bargain-basement
budget motels are at your fingertips. A free daily shuttle connects
Québec City hotels to the free shuttle from Mont-Ste.-Anne.

The final
option, Pointe-au-Pic, is unique in its own right. Here you’ll find
href="http://www.manoirrichelieu.com/" target="_blank">Le
Manoir Richelieu
,
a sprawling century-old resort and casino styled after a French castle
that sits atop a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence.

The Eats:
Québec’s Charlevoix region is world renowned for its cuisine. The resort
cafeteria is your only on-mountain dining option at Le Massif, but you’d
be hard pressed to find better. True to the region’s reputation, you’ll
find quality, tasty food made with healthy, locally grown ingredients
served up at a very reasonable price.

Baie-St.-Paul’s
Victorian restaurants and sidewalk cafés are busiest during the summer
tourism months, but all remain available for your dining pleasure during
the ski season. The warm comfort of the
Restaurant
Au Pierre-Narcisse

and the
Microbrasserie
Charlevoix
, a brewpub,
both come highly recommended.

The Diversions:
Even if you choose to stay elsewhere,
don’t miss the chance to spend at least one evening exploring Vieux
Québec
, that portion of the capital city that represents the only
walled city remaining in North America. You’ll delight in the narrow,
cobblestone streets and European-influenced granite buildings. The
streets and restaurants are bustling well into the evening, and you’ll
find that many shopkeepers leave the doors unlocked well after dark.

The Secret:
The relative value of the dollar means that American money goes a long
way in Canada. U.S. residents may enjoy CDN$1.57 for every one of their
dollars at the time of this writing, meaning that everything from lift
tickets to meals and hotel rooms comes at a bargain-basement price.

The Alternatives:
The
Carte
Blanche
offers an
interchangeable multi-day lift ticket valid at Le Massif, Stoneham and Mont-Ste.-Anne. Other nearby ski and snowboard mountains include
Le Relais, Mont Grand-Fonds
and Mont-Édouard
if you’re staying in Baie St.-Paul or Pointe-au-Pic. If you’re staying
in Québec City, the alternatives list also includes Massif
du Sud.

And so it continued for much of the day. Le
Sous-Bois
and La Pioché were as delightful as ever, and La Martine
remained a favorite of mine for an undulating high-speed cruise. The addition
of the new lift has completely altered the pattern of skiing Le Massif for
the better, as has the new access point atop the mountain with its attendant
lodge. The mountain’s terrain, with the exception of La “42”, remains
intact. Perhaps the disconcerting element is that new runs like L’Écore
and La Fénomène may represent the beginning of a new phase at Le Massif.
It’s not too late, though, for my dear friend to realize the error of its
ways and return to the philosophy that first made the resort such a rare find.

A NATURE PRESERVE

At the end of the day, we found ourselves sitting
with Isabelle Vallée, the resort’s affable director of marketing, and jovial
mountain host Claude St.-Charles in the spacious Pub Le Côteilleux
in the new summit lodge. Over perhaps too many pints of the provincial microbrew
Belle Guelle, we contemplated Le Massif’s future that has long suffered
from the catch-22 of development. From the first decision to install lifts,
to the mountain’s inclusion in Québec’s bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympic
Games, Le Massif’s vision has been clouded.

It was decided during the 1980s against developing
any manner of ski resort lodging or any of the associated trappings on the
mountain, and the present management has stuck with that plan to preserve
the area’s unique character and to support such businesses already established
in the struggling local economy. Similar aesthetic attention was devoted
to the construction of lifts, the motors of which are located at the top terminals
to minimize noise, and to snowmaking, which is limited to quantities that
will not modify the natural vegetative cycle. Off-piste skiing is likewise
verboten so as not to adversely affect the forest, although ample evidence
exists to suggest that this policy is only lightly enforced.

Other forces, though, have fought to pull Le Massif
into the limelight throughout its history. Development, many have reasoned,
would help to elevate the status of the region’s impoverished economy. Should
Québec have won its Olympic bid, Le Massif would have been the scene of the
alpine speed events, assuredly transforming the mountain forever.

Last year’s development “certainly affected [our]
philosophy,” acknowledged Vallée. “We have to consider where we are right
now. We have to understand people’s needs, and make it easier for everybody.
People kept asking for trails under the lifts. They kept asking for a wider
variety of trails. We’re adding trails to make sure that people have fun,
that they can stay here for two days instead of just one. We had a philosophy
of using glades and trails that are not groomed, but we have to understand
that the majority of our visitors want groomed trails,” she concluded.

Le Massif remained relatively undiscovered in
part due to a lack of any marketing or advertising beyond Québec, but more
and more visitors are arriving at Le Massif as word of the mountain has spread,
in part due to the success of Carte Blanche. The Carte Blanche
is a multi-day lift ticket interchangeable with the nearby Mont-Ste.-Anne
and Stoneham, and the promotional agreement has allowed Le Massif to expand
its publicity opportunities beyond the borders of the province. “We have
more and more people coming from the United States,” Vallée explained. “These
are people we cannot reach with our marketing budget without Carte Blanche.”

Following such an immense investment, there will
be few changes at Le Massif for the 2002-2003 winter season. The new snowmaking
system will be tweaked, and the novice trail La Combe will be regraded
at the very bottom to ease the final pitch for those new to the sport.

Some among that surrounding population have already
expressed concern about the direction in which last year’s expansion is taking
Le Massif. Only time will tell whether the resort maintains its unique character
or becomes just another winter resort amongst many others in the region.
I only hope that my friend finds its way to the straight and true path.

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