Last week, when looking at the weather forecast, it was impossible not to go skiing. Clear blue skies, the warm March sunshine, and a daytime high of 0°C: what more could you ask for? I decided to visit Mont Garceau, situated in the Lanaudière region in the town of Saint-Donat. I usually visit this ski hill once every year or two, and I like to come in March for a few reasons. This mountain, being the highest in the surrounding area, is very exposed to high winds, and, as a result, can be very windy (and therefore even colder!) in the cold winter months. I also like to benefit from the glades and natural snow trails, which naturally offer the best coverage after a winter of snowfall. Lastly, the hill’s southwest orientation makes it easy to enjoy the spring sun’s rays all day long. Furthermore, this year’s visit had another goal: to discover the three new natural snow trails that were carved this past summer.
As is my habit when visiting a hill once a year, I arrived well before opening time, which was at 9:00, and had plenty of time to get ready and buy my ticket. I also had time to admire the aesthetically pleasing chalet and the relatively new Doppelmayr quad, equipped with a loading carpet and barriers.
The main quad situated right next to the chalet
At the ticket booth, I was surprised and happy to learn that despite being Quebec school break, the hill was selling tickets at the weekday rate to encourage families to come out and enjoy skiing. This being a local hill, it was very quiet at opening, and only really began to get busier around 10:30 or 11:00. This may have been due, however, to the colder than expected temperature in the morning. When I started, it was a chilly -15°C. The sun quickly warmed up the air though, by lunchtime it was a comfortable -1°C, and it remained this temperature for the rest of the afternoon. The sun and blue skies also lasted throughout most of the afternoon, but when I finished skiing around 3:30, it had begun to cloud over, signalling the arrival of flurries that were to fall overnight. Despite the fantastic weather and being a Friday during Quebec school break, the mountain was not overly busy. The trails nor the cafeteria at lunchtime felt particularly crowded, and I barely waited at the lift. Access to the older Poma quad at the south end of the mountain was instantaneous for most of the day, and the wait at the quad chair next to the chalet averaged 2 or 3 minutes.
In terms of terrain, Mont Garceau offers a very nice learning area, complete with a magic carpet. Once a new skier masters this area, however, the hill’s offerings are quite limited. There is only two main beginner trails on the mountain, and only one starts from the summit of the mountain. Furthermore, this beginner trail traverses the entire mountain many times, which makes it dangerous since advanced skiers coming down other trails zoom through the beginner trail. What Mont Garceau does offer in abundance is terrain for advanced skiers. Many groomed trails in varying shapes and sizes over almost 1000 vertical feet offer pitches that are both steep and long, providing skiers with terrain for any type of turns they wish to make.
Boulevard, a beginner trail
The learning area
Riding up the magic carpet
Route, the only beginner trail that leaves from the top of the mountain. Not ideal for beginners since there are many intersections with advanced trails.
The “Togo”, for example, is a wide black diamond trails that consistently offers a steep pitch over its entire length, as well as some rolls. “L’Abrupte”, on the other hand, is much narrower and curvy, and offers a few extremely steep pitches. I also enjoyed “Les Cimes”, which is a long trail situated far away from the other trails and offers a nice view on the lake and the town of Saint-Donat.
Togo, seen from top, bottom, a quarter way down
Abrupte, seen from top and partway down
Cimes: notice the nice view on the town and lake
In addition, they offer many trails in the trees for those who like glades. The new additions this year complement the official (and unofficial) “sous-bois” that were present before, and further development is in the works for next year. I was very excited to try their new glades, called the “Cap-Romain” and the “Porc-Epic”. The Cap-Romain is an intermediate glade, which is narrow with moderately spaced trees, and it leads into the already established sous-bois, appropriately titled the “Sous-Bois”. The Porc-Epic, on the other hand, is much more advanced. The first part is extremely steep with very closely spaced trees, but the bottom part is much more flat with widely spaced trees. Fortunately, it is possible to enter at the beginning of the flatter part, so people who are uncomfortable with the level of the top part can still enjoy the lower part. They also offer a few mogul runs, but, as with the rest of their terrain, it is geared towards advanced skiers, and there is only one small run that can be done by those not looking to challenge themselves as much.
The top part of the Porc-Epic glade: quite challenging
In terms of conditions, the groomed runs were sublime in the morning, but as is inevitable with the steeper pitches of this mountain, the softly packed powder gave way to clumps of snow and some icy spots later in the day. I was pleasantly surprised, however, as I thought the conditions would be worse later in the day, when in fact they were passable as long as one was cautious. Since there has been no significant snowfall in the region in the past week, the glades and bump runs offered no loose powder, but conditions were still respectable and were mostly firmly packed snow with a few hard patches in between. In the glades, especially the new ones, I had to be careful for tree stumps, of which there were many sticking out. Hopefully this will be fixed this summer!
I will now list some of the positives, negatives, and some of my small nitpicks/personal annoyances that I found regarding Mont Garceau.
- The learning area is great: A nice long magic carpet and separate areas for skiers and snowboarders.
- Amazing terrain for advanced skiers and boarders, steep pitches.
- Nice glades with varying levels.
- Picturesque views from the top and trails.
- The loading carpet at the Doppelmayr quad greatly reduces stops, slowdowns, and allows the lift to run at a faster speed.
- Long ride times on the very comfortable chairlifts give skiers plenty of time to rest their legs.
- Cafeteria offers homemade food, healthy alternatives, and affordable prices.
- Tissues at the bottom of the lift: this is incredibly convenient and it should be offered more elsewhere!
- Sun exposure all day long.
- Snowmaking system seems a bit outdated based on the equipment I saw.
- Grooming is not up to par with some other hills: some ruts, little rises, one section of frozen granular.
- Poor terrain for beginners on the main mountain: the only run from the summit dangerously traverses other runs.
- Layout and design of the cafeteria and the seating area is dated.
- Long ride times on the chairlifts, especially on the older Poma quad (around 9-10 minutes): although the capacity is not needed, a detachable chair would be nice.
- Some flat parts may be difficult for snowboarders, monoskiers, etc…
- Trail count is low considering the vertical drop of the mountain.
- I was irked by the fact that Mont Garceau separates the exact same trail into 3 parts just to raise the trail count: completely useless!
- The parking lot is across a public road from the hill: people are always crossing the road to go between their cars and the hill: seems somewhat unsafe.
- The base area at the hill is very small: There is little space for people to sit, and the lift line for the quad chair is directly in front of the door to the chalet and the ski racks.
- The exact same trail (“Rapide”) is always closed for race training, so other skiers rarely, if ever, get to use it.
In conclusion, I enjoyed my day at Mont Garceau for its advanced groomed trails, interesting glades, relative tranquility, and the amazing weather. This is arguably the best time of year to ski: winter levels of snow, winter conditions, but with spring temperatures and sunlight. Don’t wait too long, go out and enjoy the slopes now. No matter where you go, you probably will not regret it!
Trottoir, a narrow bump run situated in the former lift line of an old platter lift. Togo on the right, Sous-Bois on the left.
Chiquita III, an easier mogul run
Foret Enchantée: An easy trail through the trees for the young and young-at-heart.
Nice views from the top: notice La Réserve in the distance
Grand-Duc, situated under the Poma quad (C): Grand-Duc I on top, Grand-Duc II seen from Grand-Duc III, Grand-Duc II on the bottom.
Casse-Gueule II and III (upper photo), Casse-Gueule I (bottom), seen from the Doppelmayr Quad (A)
Nice views from the top
My Ski Tracks: A very good application for the iPhone
After my positive experience at Ski Saint-Bruno a few days ago, I was eager to ski today at one of my favourite mountains, Mont Garceau. I had planned to ski here for a few weeks, so the day was on regardless of the weather or last week's rain. Normally, I ski at Mont Garceau later in the season for a few reasons, and I was bit worried being there in mid-January would affect my day today. Fortunately, despite these shortcomings, I still enjoyed the day.
My visit today also had another purpose: ski demos. I'm looking to replace my slalom skis which are about 5 years old, and Mont Garceau has an amazing boutique with tons of demos that you can try free of charge, as many pairs as you want. We have bought ALL of our equipment here for the past 6-8 years, always receiving unparalleled and personal customer service, knowledgeable staff, top-quality gear, and a good price. I would like to mention the great work of Joey, who selected and adjusted 6 different pairs of skis today for me to try. I would highly recommend this store for any equipment you need, and if you're interested in the skis I tested or more about the boutique, let me know.
More about the day: it was -23 this morning on the way to the hill, and with the light wind that was blowing? I don't even want to know. Needless to say, it was cold. The chairlift ride at Mont Garceau is very exposed to the wind in some sections, and also happens to be quite long at around 10 minutes. The padding seems to freeze when it gets very cold, so all you feel are the metal bars underneath. Thankfully once I started skiing it didn't seem that cold, and warmed up to -11 by the afternoon. Since Mont Garceau faces south, I enjoy skiing the mountain with its sun exposure in the spring, and today this was lacking since it was very overcast most of the day, with a bit of fog and a lot of flat light.
Another reason I prefer Mont Garceau in the spring is the snow. They have a lot of great trails in the trees, which require a lot of natural snow to be open. This year, natural snow has been lacking, so they are mostly still closed, and will only be at their best later this season. Also, every year they seem to be slow in their snowmaking operations, so there were still many main trails that were not open, such as lower parts of Chiquita and Marcel-Gauthier, and more.
Casse-Gueule during a rare moment of sunshine.
That being said, the trails that were open provided great conditions overall. It seemed like most of the open terrain underwent snowmaking this week, so combined with the bit of natural snow that fell, the base wasn't too hard and icy. Most trails also had a fair amount of artificial powder on them, which slowed things down a bit but was very fun and soft to ski through. The only exception today was Casse-Gueule I, which was extremely hard and icy even at the beginning of the day. Also, the Togo had a lot of frozen granular, but surprisingly this didn't bother me too much since the snow was soft overall, and I enjoy the pitch and caliber of the trail so much.
An upper part of the Boulevard. Officially it's a beginner trail but I wouldn't take a beginner there. For an intermediate or advanced skier though, it's an amazing trail with many different types of terrain.
Togo: A long, continuous pitch certified for FIS racing.
Rapide: Another trail with many variable steep pitches.
Overall, the trails are one of my favourite parts of Mont Garceau: apart from Mont Tremblant, this is definitely the biggest mountain north of Montreal. The trails are long, and the pitches are steep and frequent, and the scenery is beautiful. By the time you reach the bottom, you can definitely feel your legs burning. This mountain also feels a lot more quiet and laid-back than many other ski hills of its size.
At the top of the mountain on the Route.
Apart from a handful of locals and a bunch of school groups, Mont Garceau was very quiet today. It seems like a lot of their weekday business come English-speaking school groups from Ontario. Every time I ski there, I see these types of groups, so there must be attractive offers at the ski hill and the region in general for many faraway schools to send their students here.
Mont Garceau recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, and in honour they are in the process of making various upgrades. I really enjoyed the refreshed look of the cafeteria, with its stone walls, new TV, and reclaimed wood. Out on the mountain, I saw some new snowmaking equipment, which was definitely needed in my opinion, and a nice new sign at the bottom by the road. There's no forgetting the new trails added over the past few years, mostly glades and a new snow park. There was a lot, and there still is, a lot of undeveloped potential on the mountain, so I'm thrilled to see these new trails come to life, and I can't wait to ski all of them at some point. Hopefully the weather will cooperate!
The bottom of the Boulevard.