Cold Comfort

It’s only ten degrees out, but I can feel rivulets of sweat running down my head, back, and legs. In my head-to-toe polypropylene underwear, quilted pants, wool turtleneck, fleece pullover, and nylon shell, I’m overdressed for even these arctic temperatures. But more important, I’m a ball of nerves, alone in the woods and frankly a little scared. There were no signs or ropes warning that I’d headed off the manicured slopes into the wilderness. And anyway, the snow in these trees looked irresistible from the trail. The only sound I can hear is my own labored breathing as I narrowly avoid kneecapping myself on a succession of low branches and stumps. Even the sight of a set of tracks does nothing to ease my anxiety, since they belong not to another skier but to some kind of animal. I stop to examine them: way too big for a chipmunk; too neat to be a running dog’s … They have mountain lions around here, don’t they?

Then, just as quickly as this grade-Z Into Thin Air fantasy crept up on me, I’m chuckling at it. It’s not as if I’ve been stranded in the Bugaboos without a helicopter. If anything, I should be elated that I’m not fighting my way through an hourlong lift line at Hunter or dodging shrieking teenagers on the slopes at Vernon Valley.

That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of Mont Tremblant. Seventy-five miles from Montreal in the otherwise stumpy Laurentian mountains, a comparative stone’s throw from the vanilla slopes of Vermont, Tremblant is a misplaced West Coast peak that rises 3,000 vertical feet above Lac Tremblant and the tiny faux-alpine Tremblant village. The mountain’s four distinct faces are home to 92 trails – and, as I’ve just discovered, some genuinely wild terrain. Furthermore, the snow at Tremblant is vastly superior to New England’s. At, say, Stratton, “packed powder” is typically a euphemism for a frigid sheet that Brian Boitano could practice triple lutzes on. Here, particularly on the Versant Sud (South Side) and the Versant Soleil (Sunny Side: a smaller face, opened last year, with a southeastern exposure), “packed powder” is just that: firm snow. Best of all, as soon as I decide I’ve had enough of the virgin woods, I bushwhack my way back across a frozen stream bed, around a few more unpruned evergreens, and within a few minutes I’m among a half-dozen skiers negotiating the reassuringly skied-out moguls of Sous-Bois Emotion – Emotion Glade, as the small print on a trail sign helpfully translates.

Most of the trails and lifts at Tremblant have French names: Dernier Cri instead of Last Call; Brasse-Camarade, instead of Shaken Friend. The exceptions are names that would be off-putting to Anglophone skiers: The narrow double-diamond winding around the edge of the Versant Nord, for instance, is called Blade – presumably because no self-respecting expert would be eager to go careering down La Lame.

Getting to Tremblant can be a challenge. Our flight from Kennedy was delayed an hour, getting us to Dorval airport at the height of the February Friday-night rush. Every SUV in the greater Montreal area seems to be on its way to a ski house in the Laurentians, and Autoroute 15 is more congested than the L.I.E. on a Friday in August. The 75-mile trip to the mountain takes hours, and by the time we arrive my fiancée and I are starving.

We arrive to find a picturesque micro-Aspen. Around the base of the mountain, the streets are closed to traffic and unplowed; apparently it never gets warm enough here for the snow to melt into anything as un-scenic as slush. A few flakes are falling, and though the weather is truly cold, there are plenty of red-cheeked tourists wandering among the town’s handful of bars and restaurants, giving the place a festive vibe. Curiously, at least half the crowd lined up outside the local disco, Le P’tit Caribou, is coatless. We locate the Kandahar, the efficiently tidy condo-hotel where we’re staying in a one-bedroom duplex apartment, but it doesn’t have a restaurant. Directly across the main drag is Casey’s, a raucous, vaguely New Orleans-themed family joint. Hey, we figure, Cajuns are descendants of French Canadians – how bad can this be? We get our answer when our nacho appetizer arrives smothered in what we’re pretty sure is marinara sauce.

After dinner, we plan to make our way up the sloping street of shops toward Place St. Bernard, the prefab town square at the base of the mountain. Within ten steps, though, we can feel our nose hair freezing, our legs stiffening with the cold, and our exploratory zeal fading. Forced back to our room, we can only find an old episode of Dallas on TV, but it’s dubbed into French, along with just about everything else on the tube, so we decide to turn in early and get a jump on things in the morning.

We wake up Saturday to brilliantly sunny weather, and from the summit we can see for miles. There aren’t many other mountains nearby, which permits some fairly sweeping views, the kind of huge sky you usually find out West, but it also helps create the biting winds that have earned Mont Tremblant its well-deserved reputation as one of the coldest ski areas in the world.

After a few warm-up runs on some pleasantly pitched, groomed terrain, I head to Ryan Bas (Lower Ryan), a winding double-diamond that turns out not to be particularly steep. It is, however, only about three ski lengths wide, mogully, and full of hidden rocks and ice patches. “It’s not very ski-friendly,” a downed skier calls to me from the ground ahead, after his edge has ground sickeningly across a chunk of light-gray granite camouflaged in the snow. Four turns later, I hit a huge patch of pale-blue ice.

The terrain here is more varied and challenging than your average New England peak (though it still falls short of the Rockies’ best). And the runs are long enough that I don’t find myself descending the entire mountain in a single sprint, as I often end up doing at places like Stratton. Though I inadvertently time my visit between snowfalls, it’s clear that with fresh powder, the runs at Tremblant are transformed from merely good to world-class.

At lunchtime, we stop at the swankiest of the lift-side restaurants, La Forge, which has kind of a bizarre medieval theme. From the dining room’s oversize oak beams, old ironworking tools (or are those torture implements?) dangle decoratively. Before you make your way to the grilled-to-order steaks, the maître d’ checks your ski boots and gives you sheepskin slippers at the door, à la Utah’s Deer Valley. This definitely beats Hunter. The only problem is, after all that rich food, it feels a little like work to pull our boots back on and climb back onto the chairlift.

Saturday night for dinner we go to Aux Truffes, the local fancy restaurant. As advertised, nearly every dish served in the twenty-table joint includes truffles. The sommelier recommends a swell Chardonnay to go with the pheasant-ravioli appetizer, and an even sweller Robert Mondavi Cabernet to go with the caribou. (The next day, I tell a local about my novel entrée. “Oh yes,” she replies, without a hint of irony, “the caribou there is excellent.”)

At Le Shack, where we eat lunch on Sunday, things are a little more relaxed. Much like Aux Truffes’ obsession with the eponymous fungus, Le Shack goes for maple products in a major way. Getting right into the spirit, I follow a tasty maple-marinated-chicken sandwich with an equally delicious maple-syrup tart.

On Sunday, after dinner at a surprisingly authentic Northern Italian spot called Coco Pazzo (no connection to the Manhattan chain), we consider going to a movie (all films shown in the original english, without subtitles, reads a sign hanging in the tiny theater’s window) but opt instead for Le Cirque Blanc, the video-game parlor next door, where we find much more fitting entertainment in Action Racer, an unexpectedly authentic – what else? – downhill-skiing game.

On our last day at Tremblant, it’s snowing pretty forcefully, but it hardly seems like a blizzard. It’s windy, though, and when I get to the lift-ticket window, the cashier tells me the weather is trop venteux; the Versants Sud and Soleil are closed. You have to take a navette (bus) to the Versant Nord, and tickets are discounted to $34 from $51.

When I get down to the parking lot, I’ve just missed a bus – a creaking old number with ski racks dangling precariously from its flanks. The wind picks up and flips a metal barricade that’s sort of defining the waiting area, and all 50 skiers in the line flinch at once. No new bus is in sight, and I start calculating the amount of time I can spend skiing before our scheduled 11 a.m. departure.

I’ll be sorry if I don’t get in a farewell run or two. Discovering this caliber of skiing practically in our own backyard has been a revelation. An even more pleasant discovery has been the weird dynamics of the local culture. Unlike their snobbier Francophone brethren across the Atlantic, the Québecois don’t begrudge Americans their mangled efforts to speak French. Indeed, with the secessionist movement a dominant issue in Quebec politics, even attempting to speak the language amounts to respecting a linguistic picket line. The trade-off is that you’re liable to pick up the twanging French-Canadian accent – which might just get you more contemptuous glares in Paris than good old American ignorance does.

Still, I decide I’d better pack it in – new snow or no. And indeed, what had looked from the mountain like a pleasant enough flurry becomes a raging blizzard as soon as we’re on the road, and it takes us almost five hours to get to the airport. We end up missing our flight by minutes. Maybe I should have taken that final run, after all.

Mt. Tremblant
WHERE TO STAY Kandahar (819-461-8711); condos start at $64 per person, including two full-day lift tickets. For a view of the mountain, there’s Club Tremblant (800-567-8341); rooms start at $81 per person, including breakfast and dinner. Gray Rocks (800-567-6767) is one of the area’s oldest resorts and caters to families; doubles start at $86, including breakfast, dinner, and full-day lift-tickets.

WHERE TO EAT Aux Truffes (819-681-4544), entrées $18-$25; Le Shack (819-681-4700), entrées $4.50-$12; Coco Pazzo (819-681-4774), entrées $9-$16.

APRES-SKI Café de L’Époque (819-681-4554) attracts twenty-somethings with local rock bands. Beer drinkers settle in at La Diable (819-681-4546), a local microbrewery. For late-night disco, there’s Le P’tit Caribou (819-681-4500), where dancing on the bar is par for the course.

GETTING THERE The drive from New York City takes about seven and a half hours, in good weather. Air Canada (888-247-2262) and most other major airlines fly direct to Montreal in under two hours.

Cold Comfort