Mont Sutton: A Skiing Surprise Just Across the Border
Main Chalet, Mont Sutton
By Bill Scheller
Photos Courtesy Mont Sutton
I was in the woods.
No, I wasn’t tramping around the forest in my hiking boots. I had boots on, all right, but they were ski boots, and when a skier says he’s been in the woods, he’s talking about glade skiing. Glades are the places where there’s more trees than trail, and where what trail there is snakes and swoops in tight arcs through the maples and birches. You ski single-file in the woods, and you are always making a turn. The trees see to that.
I had never skied the woods before, but I was in one of the best places in the Northeast to get the hang of it. Mont Sutton stands just across the Quebec border from my home state of Vermont, and I had always wondered whether it offered a skiing experience comparable to what I’ve been used to in the northern Green Mountains. The mountains of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the bucolic, lake-splashed region closest to my corner of New England, rise individually and with less drama than the rugged cordillera of the Greens, and I’d crossed the border to see if they were tame little hills, or if they could really toss me around. In Sutton’s glades, and on its heroically complex tangle of trails, I was happily tossed into challenges aplenty.
Mireille Simard heads into the woods (Bill Scheller photo)
I was skiing with Mireille Simard, Sutton’s communications director, whose Québecoise charm was matched by an expert’s handling of the slopes. I hadn’t given Mireille any idea, before we boarded one of the resort’s nine chairlifts, of just what my level of expertise was; it’s more fun that way, as long as you are a decent enough skier to begin with, since you follow along and learn that you can do things you hadn’t known you could do. And so, after a couple of warm-up runs, off we went into the woods.
The warm-ups alone were an eye-opener. There are 60 trails at Sutton, but since those trails braid into no fewer than 204 junctions, the combinations are beyond counting and the variety truly remarkable. Throw in the fact that 75 percent of the terrain is rated blue (difficult), black diamond (very difficult) or double and triple black diamond (extreme), and you have a mountain that’s never going to bore you. (For less accomplished skiers, there are 15 trails rated green (easy), and a fine learning area called “Petits Wapitis,” or “Little Elks.” There are also Mountain Guides, who will show you around, at your own skill level, free of charge.) “Mont Sutton is a very technical mountain,” Mireille told me as we rode the lift that first morning. “It’s said that if you can ski Sutton, you’re prepared to ski anywhere in the world.”
I certainly felt ready for Zermatt, Whistler, and places in between after that first morning’s runs. After ascending to the 680-meter (2231- ft.) level on the western shoulder of the mountain via Chairlift II – and pausing to look north into a vast swath of rural Quebec that reached from frozen Lac Brome west almost to the suburbs of Montreal – we took a cruiser named Alouette back to the lift base, then doubled back for a shot down Capucine, another cruiser whose only moderately difficult pitch and contours were made more interesting by this strange winter’s tendency to turn nearly all skiable surfaces into hard white leather, with powder at a premium. Fast skiing was the order of the day, and Sutton’s imaginatively laid-out trails were perfect for making the most of it. (Note: Since my trip, Sutton has received ample doses of fresh powder.)
Looking north across the Eastern Townships, from the summit of Mont Sutton
Given all those junctions, it’s easy at Sutton to hop from one trail over to another in order to wind up at a lift that can take you to a different part of the mountain. We rode Lift II back up, then skied over to IV via the Youppe-Youpppe (where do ski areas get those trail names?) and the nest of black diamonds that descend from the mountain’s topmost, 840-meter (2756-ft.) point. (Actually, Mont Sutton does rise a bit higher, but the very summit is given over to wilderness, part of a respect for the natural environment that extends even to the preservation of as many trees as possible within the skiing terrain.) Here’s where I first met up with the woods, on a glade trail called Iroqouis.
I wouldn’t have expected it, but I was glad to get in amongst the trees after an initial descent down the steep, wind-scoured Miracle trail, the first few feet of which reminded me that I should have had my edges sharpened. In the glades, the snow was protected and more forgiving, and I soon figured out that skiing the woods is simply a matter of pulling in and out of the only turns you can make, if you don’t want to get personal with a tree. I watched Mireille, who was skiing ahead of me, and simply did what she did, although with a little less grace. The trees stayed where they belonged.
We finished the morning on a couple of steeps way over on the highest, easternmost portion of the mountain. where the sun was just beginning to warm and soften the surface. One of these trails, Intrépide, was the first double black diamond I’d skied – in glades and double blacks, I guess I’m now baptized as a Québecois – and it did make me wonder what I’d been nervous about all these years. (Okay, I’m still nervous about triples.) Those runs also set us up for lunch, which we enjoyed at the chalet just above the Chairlift IV summit, one of four restaurants at the resort. The specials of the day were broccoli cheddar soup and meat loaf, made right up there on the mountaintop. A hearty dinner any other time, after the morning’s exertions it was just a little light lunch, enjoyed near a crackling wood fire and in full view of the surrounding panorama of the Eastern Townships.
Eastern Townships Views from atop Mont Sutton
During lunch, Mireille told me the history of the area. Locals had long skied the backcountry on and around the mountain, but it wasn’t until 1960 that a local creamery owner named Harold Boulanger, looking for a way to keep his employees busy in the slow winter months, built the first lifts and established Mont Sutton as a resort. “Mr. Boulanger was very methodical,” Mireille said. “He visited ski areas throughout New England, seeing for himself what was most appealing, and put what he learned into practice here at Sutton.” The result was this challenging yet family-friendly resort that remains to this day in the Boulanger family. Following a gala 50th anniversary celebration during the 2010-2011 season, Mont Sutton heads into its second half-century with a few new trail additions each year, all of them done in the eco-friendly manner that has always characterized development on the mountain.
We spent the rest of the day on the far western trails that regulars call “the other Sutton,” reaching this secluded terrain via the longest run, Alleghanys, which slabs along the broad mountain’s gently sloping shoulder and leads to a lovely tangle of trails, two of them – Ricochet and Paisible – looping through glades where we saw not a soul on this sunny weekday afternoon. “It’s like having our own private mountain,” Mireille remarked as we paused on Paisible, and indeed it was as close as I’ve ever come to that greedy but entirely forgivable sensation. It was the perfect place for skiing late on a sparkling winter day, as the shadows lengthened among the trees.
There’s no kind of tired like the blissfully, comfortably tired you feel a the end of a day of skiing, especially if you’ve pushed yourself a little harder than usual. After getting out of our boots, we found seats by the fire at Tucker Bar, in Sutton’s base lodge, where I let Mireille select a couple of Eastern Townships wines to wind down with. The Townships seem to sprout new vineyards every time I visit, and the local reds – made from grape varieties specially bred for cold climates – are now among some of the best in northeastern North America. Had it been a Friday evening, we could have enjoyed our wine while listening to a local jazz band – Friday is Jazz Night at the Tucker throughout the ski season.
Big Powder in the Glades
Mont Sutton is less than a ten-minute drive from the town of Sutton, a Townships gem whose main street bustles with shops, restaurants, a cozy bistro called Le Cafetier serving immense bowls of café au lait, and a fromage-et-charcuterie emporium, Le Rumeur Affamé, where I found a spectacular runny cheese, Epoisse Berthaut, beneath whose orange rind lies something that brie might become if it were to grow up and take on a worldlier attitude. There’s even a choclatier whose premises include a “museum of chocolate.” I stayed at Le Pleasant, a downtown B&B housed in a big Victorian mansion. The decor here tends towards a sleek, un-Victorian minimalism, but there was nothing minimalist about a superb breakfast of eggs Benedict, freshly-made fruit salad, and a feathery croissant. In the evening, I dined at Auberge des Appalaches, where chef-owner John Kostiuk’s table-d’hote included a lightly grilled slab of house-cured gravlax, squash-filled ravioli in a balsamic reduction, and a maple creme brulée.
And the next day? Well, the next day, we did it over again, private mountain and all.
New for 2012-2013:
On Monday, December 17, Mont Sutton celebrates its anniversary with the throwback rate of $5 CDN for an all day ticket.
Beginning this season, holders of a 5- or 7-day pass at Mont Sutton can enjoy discounts at a wide selection of area restaurants, boutiques, shops selling local specialty foods and wines, spas, and even the Sherbrooke Nature and Science Museum.
From January 23 to 27, skiers over 55 can ski all day at the special rate of $25 (ID with birth date required). “Seniors Week” activities will also include breakfast featuring crossword puzzle competitions (with, of course, a Mont Sutton theme) and, on the 26th and 27th, après-ski jazz and traditional songs at Bar Tucker.
Also for seniors: The Sutton Snow School is offering a 50% discount on private lessons for skiers 55 and older. Check the website below for information and reservations.
IF YOU GO:
Mont Sutton: Find information on ticket prices, trail conditions, special events and activities, and local lodgings at http://www.montsutton.com. The “Plan Your Stay” page is especially helpful – it allows you to custom-tailor a visit to Sutton according to skiing skill level, and family requirements.
Town of Sutton: For dining, lodging, shopping, activities, and general information, visit http://www.infosutton.com
Eastern Townships Learn all about this beautiful corner of Québec at http://www.easterntownships.org
Currency note: As of this writing, the US and Canadian dollars are virtually at par.