Warming Up to Quebec's Tremblant
Sunday, December 4, 2005
As I pushed off the ski run at the summit of Quebec's Tremblant, I suddenly could not see. I chalked it up to a common skiers' predicament -- goggle fog. But easy-to-swipe mist was not the problem: The air was so cold that my breath had frozen on contact, transforming into ice crystals that adhered to my goggles as stubbornly as any ice I've hacked off a car windshield. As I struggled down the mountain, I started to regret my brave stab at skiing in conditions that had kept nearly everyone else sleeping in or sipping a cafe latte back at the village bakery.
The ski report that morning had not lied. "Good day," the chipper voice had said, before going on to give a 20 kilometer-per-hour wind speed and minus-29-degree temperature. But that's Celsius, I thought, hopeful that the conversion to Fahrenheit would make it much warmer.
Nope. Minus-29 is the equivalent of our minus-20; 20 kph is about 12 mph. Combined, that's a minus-43 Fahrenheit wind chill.
I'd heard a few horror stories about frigid temps here in January, when the average high is 23 and the low 6, and I'd deliberately put off my ski vacation until mid-March. So much for that strategy.
But I was not going to wimp out. Layers were the answer: long underwear, heat warmers in gloves and boots, ski mask, ear muffs, three-layer coat. When I finally pushed open the hotel door, I inhaled air so cold that it felt as if someone had punched me in the chest, hard.
After a two-minute ride on the open-air gondola called Le Cabriolet that transports skiers from parking lots and hotels to the base of the mountain, I tranferred to the eight-person Express Gondola (which I had to myself). Nine minutes later, I was at the 2,871-foot summit.
The upside of skiing when the temperature is minus-20? No lift lines.
Situated in the Laurentian Mountains about 90 minutes north of Montreal, Tremblant boasts the highest summit in Quebec. It's also the largest ski resort in Quebec, with 94 trails and 13 lifts. While there are some who come just for the skiing, the resort and surrounding villages draw those who want to experience a more European style of winter recreation. The French influence is felt not just in the accents of the locals, but also in the fine French restaurants and tempting bakeries. The skiing is good, but the ambiance is a big part of the appeal.
After my first ill-fated run, I took the high-speed quad chair back to the summit -- but this time I snapped off my skis and entered the Grand Manitou shopping and restaurant complex. I lingered over a cup of java, hoping that the rising sun would warm the slopes. Then, screwing up my courage, I headed for an easy green trail called Le Crete before veering onto the Beauvallon Haut intermediate cruiser. But I was still icing up.
On the chairlift back to the summit, two grizzled French Canadians advised me to move to the mountain's North Side, which actually faces more east and gets the morning sun. I was willing to try anything.
I started with the green P'Tit Bonheur run, then got a little more aggressive on the blue Beauchemin Haut blue. So far, so good. The runs were empty, the lift lines nonexistent, the snow conditions fine, and my goggles had not iced up. Grooming was not as extensive as I'd expected, but perhaps this was to insure that the few-inches-deep layer of snow was not scraped off to expose the underlying ice.
For a couple of hours, I stuck to the North Side, content to explore the easy greens that meander through the trees and the forgiving wide blue cruisers that made me feel as if I can ski fairly well. Looking down from the lifts, I was entertained by the handful of hot-dogging snowboarders in the terrain park and the few experts carving up the mogul-filled double-black-diamond Dynamite trail. Both the north and south sides of the mountain are laid out intuitively, with green easy trails on one side, blue intermediates in the middle and black advanced on the other side, which made it easy to decide which way to head.