These Mountain Women
Elle Ski 2020 event
There is always something spellbinding about winding roads, especially when they lead you to a unique playground. Those of the Matane Reserve make no exception. Through freshly cut spruce trees and lands untouched by foresters, there is something exciting and mysterious about the three hours of snowy paths that lead to the Vertigo Aventure camp.
With both hands cramped on the handlebars of my snowmobile, I try my best to follow the procession in front of me. Our small convoy of four vehicles slices through the night to get to our destination, housed in the snowy valley between Mont-Blanc and Mont-Craggy, in the heart of the Gaspé Peninsula.
It's a very special week in Vertigo's busy schedule, and this is not due to the large amount of snow the region received in late January. As always, the conditions will be perfect, but what makes this week extra special is the group that will take possession of the place. This week, it is the Elle Ski week.
Since 2015, this unique gathering has taken over the Vertigo camp for a few days a year. About twenty women, of all ages and from all corners of Quebec, come together around the same passion: mountains and powder. The goal: develop the mountain autonomy of this community of mountain women.
“The idea just came to me. I noticed that several girls wanted to have a chance to enjoy this particular terrain, but never had the courage to actually take the leap. Groups of guys always filled the Vertigo calendar quickly. ElleSki was born out of a desire to meet women, to create bonds of mutual support between one another and, of course, to enjoy the mountains; it is a community where we can enjoy the incredible terrain of Mont-Blanc while also improving as a skier”
was telling me Geneviève Durocher on the phone, a few days before our departure.
She and Élodie Brousseau are the instigators of the project. This year, Geneviève couldn’t make it, and entrusted Maryse Paquette, a telemark skier and Orage ambassador, with the coordination of the week. With the help from Anne-Sophie Bélanger, Marianne Desrosier, Korine Leblanc and Marie-Pier Martin, they form the group of guides who will lead the participants during this edition.
That evening, the skidoo trail seems endless through the night. An hour now separates us from our cars. The mercury indicates -22°C, but that doesn’t seem to impress any of the guides, who lead us effortlessly through this path they have come to know very well.
The three other snowmobiles drag heavy sleds filled with equipment and when we arrive at destination, under a sky full of stars, the sleds are emptied at once and the yurt, the organizers’ home for the week, quickly fills up with duffle bags and emergency equipment. Tonight, we go to bed without any more activities, because a lot of work still has to be done; before the participants arrive on the following evening, the two other yurts and the prospector's tent still need to be set up.
“Skiing with only girls is different than skiing with boys. You let yourself go in a different way”
Explains Maryse Paquette. The Orage ambassador has been involved with ElleSki for two years now. She is fully involved in the organization and her experience in communication and event planning is very much welcomed. She is not at her first outdoor gathering dedicated to women, and her experience is greatly appreciated by all. In 2006, she moved to Quebec City and realized that there was a lack in the community of active women. An idea slowly took shape in her mind and eventually, Les Chèvres de Montagnes were born. The goal: to democratize the autonomy of women in nature. For Maryse, allowing women to enjoy the outdoors became a vocation.
“ElleSki exists to develop the autonomy of the participants in a setting where they have fun and can express themselves without judgment. And the mountains here are just amazing!” The one who started skiing in the Vallée du Parc, north of Trois-Rivières, at the age of three inherited her parents’ passion for snow sports. Now well established in Gaspé, she has discovered an incomparable playground on the peninsula. “I’ve always played outside. With my family, vacations were always planned around outdoor sports. Nature is a part of me and sharing this passion was simply logical.”
The next day, the sun had already risen over the yurts when she shares her journey with me. As she's busy chopping logs that will keep everyone warm, she tells me all about her. There is no electricity at the camp, the habitats are heated with wood, and the axe blows as our discussion continues.
The to-do list is long and the day goes by quickly. Collecting water from the adjacent stream, cleaning the yurts, making sure the safety equipment is in order, the five female guides don't stop one second. The passion for the great outdoors, the mountains and adventure sparks in their eyes as soon as you inquire about the place. The rough and basic aspect of the camp suddenly becomes welcoming under their attentive work.
In the evening, snowmobiles come and go over the 12 km that separate the parking lot from the camp and the 24 participants leave their luggage under the canvas shelters.
Coming from Montreal and Rimouski as well as from Gaspé, the greetings are cheerful and the excitement is at its peak: the participants know that they will be shredding powder the next day. We have a drink to mark the beginning of the event, but the lights quickly go out. Everyone knows that tomorrow will be a day that requires rest. They didn't come here to party: they came to ski.
Vertigo's terrain is easily described as being generous in possibilities. Alpine terrain yes, on the slopes of Mont-Blanc, but also a lot of mature forests on a steady and continuous slope. Too steep for loggers often means perfect places to ski. In addition, the mountains of the region are very fortunate and often receive heavy snowfalls. All these factors mean that the possible expeditions are multiple. “Every year, we discover new ski lines!” says Maryse.
In the morning, the participants are divided in three groups to explore the neighbouring mountains. “During the first editions, they separated the groups according to experience, their level as riders. We quickly realized that this was a mistake,” explains Maryse as the girls gather together. “Now we separate them by objective. It better defines the expectations of each participant.” Faced with my incomprehension, she explains: “You may have been backcountry skiing or splitboarding for 10 years, but just gave birth two months ago and want a shorter, less physical goal. Or you may not want to make a 22 km traverse around Mont-Blanc if your baby woke you up at 3 a.m. the day before your arrival at the camp.” The information makes its way into my head.
This goal-oriented approach is now part of the event’s DNA. Without realizing it, participants easily develop skills that increase their confidence in their abilities. Being a part of ElleSki is not just following the guides' instructions; it is also the opportunity to grow as a mountain woman. ElleSki is primarily intended for women who want to push their limits; all of them have a mountain background that allows them to make the most out of the place, if given the chance.
That day, a group will hike to the top of Mont-Blanc to ski a 500m drop through the trees, and two groups will explore the east face of Mont-Pointu, in two different sectors. But for everyone, the day begins, under a promising blue sky, with a reminder on how to use the avalanche equipment.
I decide to follow Maryse and her group in the ascent of Mont-Blanc. We quickly understand why this sector is a must for powder in Quebec. The ascent pace is sustained as we make our way through the trees covered in snow. Despite the 115mm at the waist, my skis dig deep into the skintrack. At the top, Maryse reminds us the safety instructions as we prepare for the descent. As she removes her skins, Maryse turns towards me, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “We’re going to go down the Orgasmotron. Keep going straight if you don’t want to get lost.” The name makes me laugh, but after three turns between the gnarled trees, I quickly understand where its name comes from. The slope is long and gentle, allowing us to execute nice turns in deep snow between the trees. High-pitched cries of joy are heard through the snow-covered trees. Whether you are a man or a woman, the pleasure of skiing in powder is expressed in the same way and I happily join my voice to the choir.
«It’s great to see everyone’s having fun! A day like this helps break down their apprehensions, fears and perceptions of themselves. It is so inspiring and encouraging to see them actively participate!»
The ski day ends as we watch the sunset in the distance. After 1000m of descent, our legs are weakened, but a smile is on everyone’s face. Back at the camp, we share anecdotes of the day over a glass of gin. The participants tell each other their setbacks while sharing photos and generous laughs. But the evening does not go on forever.
The next day, everyone’s eager for new adventures.
I leave Maryse to join Marianne’s group in more engaging objectives on Mont-Craggy. The north face of the mountain is very steep and the ski lines all begin in a maze of trees twisted by the harshness of winter. The descent starts in a tight, spruce-lined corridor; the feeling of engagement it provides makes us quickly forget that we are in Quebec.
The group is hungry for challenges and keeps asking for more. These are experienced women, who are not at their first kick turn transition. The ascent pace is strong and the descents are controlled. We repeat the exercise, up and down, along the face of the mountain. The day ends in one of Vertigo's classic runs, the Colonel's Run: a 450m descent on a 40° slope through mature trees. A real delight that is sure to satisfy everyone. After that run, enough is enough and we’re ready to head back to the camp.
The whole group decides to gather under the same yurt to share our last evening at the camp. We talk about everything and nothing, about mountains and travel. After a while, Maryse enters the yurt and sets up an Elle Ski tradition since its beginnings: an arm-wrestling competition! All the participants take turns in testing their strength with their partner in a carnival atmosphere, no judgments or taboos. We all enjoy this evening of sharing as a tight community united around our shared passion for skiing.
Our last morning is filled with bliss as big snowflakes fall impressively quickly from the sky. Motivation comes instantly. We quickly gather our personal effects and clip our skis for a few final runs. Some will end up skiing more runs than others, but there is no competition, everyone respects one another’s pace and limits. “Spending time with women brings such a sense of belonging! We develop a bond of trust towards other women, but especially towards ourselves. Skiing among girls is a unique feeling. We don't ask ourselves if we’re good enough or if our opinion matters. We simply enjoy the moment,” concludes Maryse as our stay comes to an end. And we couldn’t have asked for a better adventure.
As we set off again on the winding roads of the Matane Reserve, cramped on the handles of the passenger seat of Anne-Sophie's snowmobile, I reflect on my own experience. Hugo, responsible for the Mont-Blanc camp, and I were the only men of this year’s ElleSki edition. As we follow the hypnotizing rhythm imposed by the procession of skidoos, I tell myself that in the heart of the Gaspé Mountains, the mountain woman community is very much alive… and I feel privileged to have been part of this adventure along these women.