A Front Seat to the Backcountry: Ski Touring with Nicholas Spooner

Photographer Nicholas Spooner is no stranger to adventure. He recently embarked on his first ski touring journey and learnt the ins and outs of the increasingly popular sport.

A Front Seat to the Backcountry: Ski Touring with Nicholas Spooner

Written by Jodi Mandelcorn, Altitude Sports writer.
Translation: Stéphanie Major

A Front Seat to the Backcountry: Ski Touring with Nicholas Spooner

A guide to ski touring through the eastern backcountry

For those who love the mountains and live for the snow, there’s no better adventure than ski touring. It allows us to explore winter the way nature intended, with no chair lifts or crowds waiting to race down the trails, just man versus the mountain. It challenges us to take the path less travelled and rewards us with the views and scenery that many assume can only be found on the glossy pages of a magazine.

Photographer Nicholas Spooner, with his travel companions Alyssa Benedetti and Lucas Holmes, embraced the challenge. He details the adventure that the trio embarked on, exploring the backcountry of four regions in Quebec, and provides insight into how others can answer nature's call and take on the unmarked mountain. 

The Laurentian Mountains
Only an hour and a half away from Montreal, the Laurentians hold a special place in the hearts of many Quebec skiers. Some of my earliest memories are learning to ski on its gentle slopes. It’s hard to talk about the Laurentians without mentioning its highest and most well-known peak, Mount Tremblant. With over 40 km of alpine touring trails suited for all skill levels, Tremblant has taken the initiative to develop and promote ski touring. Although Tremblant’s size may be intimidating for first-time ski tourers, there are plenty of points where you can turn and head back toward the charming village, where you’ll be sipping hot cocoa in no time. This makes it an ideal place to learn and test out new gear. Daily access is $19, and touring trails can be found on all sides of the mountain.

The Laurentians have countless cool cabins and treehouses to stay in. Only a 30-minute drive from Tremblant, Les Toits du Monde was our choice. Nestled deep in the woods, we skied to our cabin and spent the night enjoying hot drinks by the wood-burning stove - a perfect way to end any day of touring.

The Eastern Townships
Rolling white hills, sleepy towns, and an affinity for pristine snow, the Eastern Townships are Quebec’s answer to Vermont’s Green Mountains. Mount Sutton was a definite stop on our ski touring adventure since it’s known for some of the best glades north of the border. It’s no surprise that the skin track had us well immersed in nature as we slowly ascended the snow-covered trees. Mount Sutton offers ski touring for $20, with specific trails designated for ascending and descending when the hill closes. We recommend heading up to see the sunset - it’s a great way to finish off a day of skiing.

Sutton has several great accommodations. We stayed at the Auberge Schweitzer, a quiet farm setting with a great view of the countryside. 

Charlevoix
For those looking for a bit more adventure, Charlevoix is an excellent choice. For a truly unique experience, look no further than Les Palissades Charlevoix, which features one of Quebec’s only winter via ferrata routes. Strap your skis to your bag and test your nerves crossing a rope bridge suspended 200 m above the valley floor before rappelling into the couloir to complete your run. Mont des Américains, located across the valley, is another fantastic tour with stunning 360-degree views. Another great option in the area is Mont Edouard. Their “Haute-Route” sector offers a true backcountry experience with six peaks, four alpine huts, and over 200 acres of managed terrain. The terrain is mostly glades with well-marked trails and is known to have untracked snow even days after a storm.

We stayed in L’Anse-St-Jean, a picturesque town nestled in the Saguenay Fjord. You can also stay in the backcountry huts on Mont Edouard. 

Gaspésie
The Chic-Choc Mountains, located in Quebec’s northern Gaspésie region, are a mecca for backcountry skiers across the East Coast. The unique alpine terrain, proximity to wildlife, and unrivalled snowfall make for some of the best backcountry ski touring in Quebec. With 25 peaks over 1000 m, be prepared for a serious leg workout. For those willing to take on the challenge, it’s important to come prepared with proper avalanche gear, including a beacon, probe and shovel, as well as the knowledge of how to use them. Avalanche Quebec offers courses for honing your skills.

There is no shortage of sites to explore, including FQME sites such as Mont Porphyre, Les Vallieres and Mont Lyall, which can all be accessed with the purchase of a season pass. The Sépaq sites in Gaspésie National Park, such as Mont Ernest Laforce and Mont Albert, also offer some of the best views and are included with a Sépaq pass.

My advice is to take your time and to stay up to date with the avalanche and weather conditions. Don’t be afraid to hire a guide to take full advantage of your trip.

Located on the picturesque shores of the St. Lawrence River, Sainte-Anne-des-Monts is an ideal base for exploring the peaks of Gaspésie National Park. Make sure to stop by Caroune Ski Shop for the most up-to-date information and ski conditions. Another great option is Murdochville. Originally settled as a mining town, it has recently undergone a complete transformation with the influx of winter sports enthusiasts. The town has a unique vibe, and with an annual snowfall of nearly 5 metres, it’s not uncommon to see skiers touring through the snow-covered streets.

What you’ll need to get started
Since we would be taking on a variety of terrain throughout the season, we chose skis that were wide enough to handle deeper snow yet light enough for longer tours. One particular thing you’ll notice on many touring-specific skis is a flattened rear tail, as it allows for a better attachment of the skin tail clip.

Touring bindings come in many shapes and sizes to fit the needs of the skier. The bindings I chose for this journey were the Salomon Shift MNC. Although slightly heavier than other touring bindings, they are designed with a non-compromising downhill performance, making them uniquely capable of inbound and outbound exploration. 

The main differences you’ll notice with touring boots are their front pin system for locking into bindings, a rubber sole to ease grip when walking, and their ability to switch out of ski mode, which allows for a greater range of motion when climbing. I chose the Salomon Shift pro for this trip as they are a great all-around boot for a variety of terrains.

Touring skins are what allow you to climb on skis. They are made of a mix of nylon and mohair and cut to the contour of your ski. Pro-tip, if cutting your own skins, make sure to allow for a bit of the edge to show, this will make carving into the slope easier on a steep skin track. 

My biggest piece of advice for what to wear is effective layering. Regardless of how cold it may be, at one point, you will find yourself sweating as you climb. Proper layering should include a waterproof outer shell, a warm mid layer, and a breathable base layer. Don’t forget to open the breathable vents on your jacket and pants for added comfort. 

Having telescoping poles is a must when touring. Unlike downhill skiing, you will often find yourself adjusting your pole length depending on the terrain, making adjustable poles a must-have. 

Other essential pieces include warm mitts and socks, a helmet and goggles, and a sturdy backpack. We also made sure to have ski straps, sunglasses, sunscreen, extra layers, a first aid kit, a headlamp, and food and water. If visiting avalanche terrain, ensure you have a probe, shovel, and beacon.

Whether you’re looking for the peace of the secluded backcountry slopes or a great workout at your local mountain, ski touring has something for everyone. With so many places to see and experience, only one question remains: are you ready to leave your mark on the mountain.

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