Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver
(My country is not a country, it is winter)
from “Mon Pays” by Gilles Vigneault
MY FINGERTIPS ARE NUMB, bleached white. The first scabs of dead skin peel away. Outside the bus window, falling snow blankets the high, brown-mottled berms of last week’s plough debris. I nod off to the purring sway of the bus, and dream of a different planet. Layer upon layer of blue, grey, white, yellow and orange swirl across a precipice, its surface burnished purple in the northern sun. A day ago, we left Nipissis, and it’s already a distant place. But I hold the image in my mind, as I touched it for the first time.
I grew up thousands of miles away amid the temperate sage and grass hills of Southern Idaho. For a long time, Quebec was terra incognita to me, a great white blank in the map of my imagination. I didn’t know that some people consider it a country within a country–that more than ten years after a second and narrowly rejected referendum for independence in 1995, the Canadian federal government recognized that “Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.” Nor was I aware that, of the Indigenous groups who have lived there for more than 7,500 years, some have never signed treaties relinquishing their title to the land.
As a climber, I was only vaguely aware that the province contains immense cliffs of rock and ice.
IN JANUARY 1994, Quebecois climber Patrice Beaudet boarded the Tshiuetin Rail train in Sept-Iles with skis, a sled to haul gear and food, and an equally enthusiastic partner, Pierrot Drouin. Back then, the isolated rail line shuttled iron ore and the occasional passenger train between the port of Sept-Iles and the mining centers of the far north. Beaudet planned to take the train to Labrador City and return by ski, a journey of more than 300 miles through dense forest and bottomless snow.
The ski attempt failed. Beaudet recalls in an email, “It had been too cold. The snow never had a thaw to consolidate and create a base or crusts between layers. No layers! We were literally swimming with our skis in two to three feet of powdered snow. The lakes were the only manageable surface. It was miserable going so slow at snail pace. It was -27F with the wind-chill factor around -95F. When I took my frosted goggles off to look back at Pierre, the liquid of my eye just fixed frozen.” They turned back.
On the return train, Beaudet saw a 200-meter granite monolith streaked with otherworldly ice. “I found myself acting like a kid,” he later recounted, “jumping from one window to another just to spot and note every single icicle I could glimpse on both sides of the railroad.” It was a fifteen-minute hike from the train tracks. He named the crag M51, referring to the railroad mile marker. He called the potential climbing area Nipissis after the Innu word for the nearby river, sometimes translated as “covered with water lilies.”
Over the course of three seasons, Beaudet made sixteen first ascents there, routes chosen not only for difficulty and length, but also for their unusual blend of colors and their purity of line. The strange atmospheric effects of near-Arctic light transform the frozen cascades into something fantastical. They seem almost to float, suspended, radiant in the blue winter dusk, like giant flowers on the surface of a lake.
MARCH 2016: Sheets of sleet glaze the streets in Quebec City. I wait outside the train station while taxis and cars dart about, their drivers seemingly disdainful of conditions. The license plate legends read, Je me souviens, which translates to “I remember.” Founded in 1608 on the site of a former Iroquois settlement, the city changed hands several times before France ceded her North American possessions to Britain in 1763. Since 1974, French has become the official language in the province.
French colonists had constructed the fortified walls of Vieux-Quebec (Old Quebec) to protect themselves from the British, who later rebuilt them to defend against the newly formed United States. The joke today is that the walls once meant to keep Americans out, now bring American tourist dollars in. Soaring church steeples and mansard-roofed stone facades line the narrow cobbled streets. I’m standing on a threshold between old worlds and new.
I’ve been hacking phlegm for a day now. Upon my arrival in Montreal four days prior, I’d learned that the airline had lost my luggage, including my down parka and gloves. I got my gear back, but not before I nearly suffered frostbite running from the Metro to the hotel.
Jasmin Fauteux and Maarten van Haeren pull up in a compact sedan. I got to know Jasmin through Facebook when he replied to my request for information about Quebec climbing. His self-applied nickname is, “the Ferret.” A Quebecois doctor, he’d moved to Alberta for work and climbing. But even in the Canadian Rockies, he couldn’t shake the memory of his home region, and every year he makes a pilgrimage back. His Dutch climbing partner, Maarten, towers over the crowd as he strides my way. The shaggy red beard accentuates a big grin. It’s as if he’s seeing an old friend, though we’ve never met in person.
As twilight falls, we drive north through towns and villages, each smaller than the previous one, each composed of neat houses and orderly shops centered around a steeple. To the east, the frozen St. Lawrence River is an off-white plain merging with a gunmetal sky, flecked with tiny crystals of ice. The air dims, and the lights grow sparser. In our car beams, long stretches of woods turn to narrow corridors. What’s beyond and behind is curtained in black.
The next evening, we arrive in Sept-Iles. The port city is flat and sprawling. Traces of its past as an isolated trading post have been swallowed by the growth spurt of the 1960s. Charles Roberge and Jean-Philippe Belanger meet us at the hotel. Charles is a talented young Deaf climber from near Quebec City. He does high-angle snow removal from historic and commercial buildings. He has an impish wit, which he conveys in physical stunts, practical jokes and clever body language. J.P. is bear-like in build and manner. His words and movement reflect a measured deliberation that suits his vocation as an orthopedic surgeon.
It’s always a risk to invite an outsider on a climbing trip: differences in taste, behavior and personality can magnify proportionally to the scale of the undertaking. Yet although I’m a stranger to everyone on the team, I’m made to feel welcome. We go to a store just before closing time. Notebook in hand, the Ferret assigns tasks, ticking off items as we quickly fill two carts. I rush up with six kilos of bacon, rabbit liver pate (the only thing that won’t freeze in our sandwiches), and two kilos of cheese. As I drop two hefty sticks of butter in the cart, J.P. points out an error. “Too many?” I ask. “Two more,” says J.P. with a placid and well-knowing grin. We’ll need the extra calories and fat to cope with the cold.
At 5 a.m., we ferry loads to the train station–hundreds of pounds of equipment, including a canvas prospector tent, chainsaw, axe, wood-burning stove, and of course, climbing gear. Tshiuetin Rail is the only Aboriginal-owned railway line in Canada, purchased in 2005 by the Innu Takuaikan Uashat mak Mani-Utenam, the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach and the Innu Nation of Matimekush-Lac-John. Many Indigenous passengers take the train to buy food, clothing and other necessities in Sept-Iles, before returning to villages farther north.
To the Innu, this region is Nitassinan, “our land,” one of numerous names that vanished from colonial maps. In the 1995 anthology On the Land, Cree lawyer and judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond describes the current province of Quebec as a space of overlapping myths: the stories of seventeenth-century French fur traders and colonists that form a sense of Quebecois settler identity; the original heritage, boundaries and identities of Indigenous inhabitants that often get buried or forgotten. For many Indigenous people, the referendum debates represented another moment in their own struggle for self-determination rights, separate from–and perhaps in conflict with–the idea of Quebec sovereignty. Three Innu nations are still negotiating with Canada for more self-governance on 8000 square kilometers of their land.
A half hour into the train ride, cliffs appear to the left and right. Maarten snaps photos of two pillars–perhaps 300 to 400 feet in height, twin geysers shimmering in the clear northern light. Unclimbed. Dark woods close in. We pass through a tunnel and emerge to a vast display of curtains, smears, pillars, dangling daggers, gullies. Mile 51. In a less isolated place, it would draw crowds. Here, set above the dense boreal pines, the gleam of the kilometer-wide cliff reminds me of things both seen and unseen.
THE VALLEY IS SO QUIET you can hear the trees creak as they settle in the cold. We shuttle gear through the thick forest and set up a prospector tent on the frozen river and two bivy tents in the adjacent woods. In late afternoon, we pause to watch the sun pass across the M51 cliff, revealing vaporous tendrils of new ice. The wind whips up, and a million crystals lash us.
“I’m not gonna lie to you,” the Ferret says, “This is beautiful.”
In the morning, I wake to Maarten snoring like an amiable bear. His breath coats his beard with delicate frost feathers. I now have a deep hacking cough, and I’m quick to call it a recovery day. The Ferret and Maarten head up a new route on the far left of M51, while Charles and J.P. climb the creamy yellow, grey and scotch streaks on the far right. The air has an unusual clarity, and the midday sun is low in the sky, lending a hue and translucence to the landscape found only in the early morning or evening in lower latitudes. Minutes pass and clouds form. Without a hint of breeze, snow begins falling. The glow on the cliff fades as thick flakes bring the air itself to life, adding an unexpected dimension.
Watching, I linger longer than is healthy. The cold is more than uncomfortable or numbing. It feels frightening to me, reminiscent of 7000 meters in the Himalaya or Dante’s ninth circle of hell. At the same time, I think, the low temperatures can minimize the distance and pretense between people. The work needed to generate warmth requires a sense of shared purpose. I stack wood before retiring to my sleeping bag.
THE NEXT DAY, the Ferret, Maarten and I plan to attempt a wild, gold streak down the left side of M51. Beaudet later tells me that he tried the same line in 1999, during a polar vortex: “After thirty feet up the first pitch, my toes were getting numb and way too cooold. I bailed out!” He named it Fourchette Sternale Droite.
The frozen curtain emits a bass vibration with each strike of the Ferret’s axes and crampons–as if the waterfall has been flash frozen to a state of almost metallic intractability and then stretched under the tension of its weight. Nubbins of ice, the color of maple syrup, stick to rock on either side, forming weird diagonal
lines, as though following unearthly laws of physics. The Ferret enters a narrow channel where the ice becomes a ribbon glued to a shallow sidewall before it merges with the main cascade. Striated flows coat the smooth glacial granite. Maarten continues up slabs to where the angle breaks. An hour later, we’re on top.
Above and well out of sight is the humic lake that feeds the ice. A combination of organic acids, plant tannins and minerals gives the runoff a brownish color. Viewed from satellite images, bodies of water in this region appear black. The brown ice has a slightly higher density and lower freezing point than other forms, providing a more plastic feel. Singular strips of burgundy create a color-cued line of ascent.
The Ferret and Maarten try a direct mixed start to Le Chercheur d’Or. At 160 meters, this line heads straight through the center of M51 in a single unrelenting gold flow. Beaudet made the first ascent in 1997 with Richard Cartier, bypassing overhanging rock at the base up a freestanding pillar that rarely forms. This year the ice doesn’t touch down. The Ferret and Maarten spend a few hours scratching up a fifty-foot section of steep rock, while I watch J.P. and Charles move steadily up the champagne-colored streaks of Fourchette Sternale Droite. The tiny figure of Charles stops, belays and curls into a knurled ball as his hands freeze.
It starts to snow. The Ferret pulls through a series of diagonal cracks on Le Chercheur d’Or, aiming for a bony tongue of ice that protrudes from the overlap. From there, he reaches the base of the main flow, rests for a few moments and heads up overhanging ice. It’s one thing to reach and hook; it’s another thing to lock off and hit two, three, four times. The Ferret stems one foot on a blob and another against the edge of the curtain. The curtain crashes to the ground. He’s forced to backstep high, matching hands on his upper tool. He pulls. The forces shift imperceptibly outward and…he falls. It’s a long plummet, topped off with broken glasses and a deep eyebrow gash.
The Ferret completes his self-diagnosis. In the city, he’d get a couple stitches, but here we settle for butterfly bandages. Fortunately, he hasn’t broken anything. There’s no train due until the next day. We’re four days by snowshoe from the nearest beer–and hospital.
ON OUR FOURTH DAY, the temperatures fall so low that our thermometer can no longer measure them: the dark blue alcohol retreats into the tiny bulb at the bottom of the glass. J.P. takes off on another Beaudet classic called La Goulotte de M. Felix. His first hit shatters a platter-sized plate. The second blow shears off a bigger scab, exploding in his face. It’s so cold the colors seem to have bleached out of the land and the sky. The chartreuse sheen of J.P.’s shell jacket fades to a boggy yellow as he picks his way through a vertical garden, as fragile as blown-glass.
Later, in the warmth of the tent, I’m afraid of what I might find when I take off my boots. My toes have turned white, but they soon regain a rosy hue. J.P. and I fry bacon as an afternoon snack. “I admire that you’ve been climbing for so many years,” he says. “I sometimes would like to climb more, but my work is busy…. My wife, my children,” He waves off the notion. “So you must like this place?”
“Yes,” is the easy answer. That’s too simple.
I couldn’t have found myself here by my own means. But in that moment, gratitude is hard to articulate. I mumble something about the quality of the ice. True, it’s shellacked in delicate layers so uniform they accentuate the curves, corners and creases of the underlying granite. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced, yet there’s more than just novelty. “I love beautiful climbs,” I say. The tent zipper purrs open “Quebec is beautiful and…”
The Ferret bursts in, “And we have the best food, and….”
J.P. interrupts, “the most beautiful women.” His gaze shifts to the vacant tent corner. He’s thinking of his wife. As J.P. shares the bacon, a piece drops toward the floor. Charles snatches it before anyone else can. The rest of us glare. He sticks up his middle finger with an affectionate Deaf/French/English patois, “Eat sh*t, moofoos.”
THE NEXT DAY, the Ferret asks, “Did anyone hear noises last night?” Charles lifts his hands in a quizzical gesture followed by a farting noise through his raised lip. Laughter bursts out. A small wrestling match erupts between the Ferret and Charles. They exit the tent; the clamor fades, but the question remains.
Beaudet later writes in an email:
One morning…tracks of lynx were everywhere in the snow around the camp. During the night, I gave a tap against the tent’s door to chase a small mammal sniffing on my property. A few hours later walking along the railroad, I was dumbfounded to see cats’ footprints larger than my boots.
For a week, the Ferret has eyed a wisp of forming ice that now looks thick enough to climb. At last, I’m feeling somewhat healthier, and I start up the first pitch. It’s tucked deep in the shadows of a big dihedral. Three body lengths up, I can’t feel my feet. I beat a Spectre into the debris at the base of a hummock and after a few gyrations, stand with my crampon points embedded in the frozen turf. I try to wiggle a small cam into a crack. I pull off my gloves for better dexterity, but the metal lobes freeze and jam. I try another cam, and it’s the same for half the rack. I’ve climbed hard terrain at -40*F before, but here the humidity seems to give the air real teeth. A torn glove generates frozen spots on my skin. Later I’ll have a cold blister. I retreat. We stuff the cams in our jackets and sit in the light to warm them.
The sun hits the corner. My fingers are still dead to the touch. Maarten takes over and leads up a featureless slab of rock graced by a single perfect edge. On closer examination, the wispy streak is an agglomeration of splatters and flows that have collected in a shallow groove. It’s perfectly perpendicular and about ten feet wide. Only the rare splotch can take even a stubby ice screw. A veneer of gold ice, merely an inch thick, is delicately pasted on smooth, black granite. The Ferret taps up it, remaining steady, deliberate, even when a crampon shears.
On the top, the wind kicks up and cuts through my heavy down parka. From here we can see far into the wilds to the north, an endless plateau of ancient granite, frozen lakes, dark spruce forests and snow. The bare steel of sky and ground merge into one. We call the route Ame du Nord or, Northern Soul–in homage to the wind and the snow and to all who have felt the spirit of this place.
J.P. CATCHES AN EARLY TRAIN OUT, leaving the rest of us to dream of what’s around the next river bend. We’re coming to the end of our trip, and I finally feel past the worst of my cold.
It snowed heavily the day before and continued through the night. During all their years of climbing in Quebec, the Ferret and Charles have only witnessed, collectively, two avalanches. But I’m concerned about the glazed slabs atop M51 and what I can’t see above them. The slopes at the base are bare of trees. I try to reassure myself that the cause is just the falling ice of the spring melt–not sliding winter snow. As we head toward the cliffs, I say, “If I get the slightest hint of avy danger, I’m out.”
“Oh ya,” Maarten replies.
The Ferret and Charles are traversing above and to our right. There’s the familiar whump of snow settling and the deep grumble as the entire slope slides. I’m swept away for a few meters before I manage to swim off to the side and grab a tree. Everyone else escapes getting sucked into the avalanche. But the crown is about a meter high, and the fracture line extends for hundreds of meters. Maarten and I call it a day. The Ferret and Charles settle for an eighty-meter climb on the crag’s left margin, short by Nipissis standards.
By now, we’ve climbed six new routes and variations, but we’ve experienced only fragments of this place. Of the larger area, Beaudet reports on EscaladeQuebec.com, “This beautiful river runs north-south. Its banks are full of high cliffs over 200 meters, comprising thirty sites suitable for ice climbing.” To our knowledge, climbers have only established routes on six of these sites.
With any great climbing area, once every detail is enumerated on the Web or in a guidebook, the magic is first to flee. All too easily, we lose the ineffable qualities that make ascent more than just the sum total of moves.
But in a land with so much history, “discovery” has a hollow echo. I’m not worried about Nipissis becoming reduced to some “of the moment crag” on the winter circuit. The difficulty of access and the need for backwoods skills lack allure in an age of convenience climbing. What has kept these cliffs the same will always be here. Or will it? Global warming portends melting permafrost, erosion, flooding. Every spring the ephemeral filigree of ice of Nipissis melts. It might not be long before nature alone witnesses its final disappearance.
The next day, we hump our gear to the tracks, where we sit for a while, uncertain of when to expect the next train. We move into the lee of the signal tower as the sun disappears and the temperature drops. The sky deepens from cobalt to an inky blue. The cliff is outlined for a moment against the dusk before it’s swallowed in dark night. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” the Ferret says. “This is very, very beautiful.” We pace around for a few hours and finally build a fire in the woods. It’s around 10 p.m. when the train arrives.
A day later, I board the bus in Sept-Iles along with teenagers from Schefferville and families from Labrador City. We’re about to pull away as a young girl in trim black tights and a fur-fringed down coat finishes a cigarette in the parking lot. The diesel engine bellows, and she shoots the bus an almost indignant glance. She pulls fiercely–not the aimless puff of the casual smoker, but intense focus of one sucking on life itself. She stubs the butt, gingerly crosses the ice-glazed asphalt and gets on board.
The bus picks up speed, its exhaust fumes rising like smoke in the wan winter light. I watch the shadows flow beneath the trees. I think of the centuries of people who have passed through–Innu and fur traders, hunters and miners, nomads and explorers–and of all those who found communion with this fierce and fragile country of winter. Given a list and grade, climbers are apt to place value in comparative performance, diminishing a cliff to an apparatus. We forget who came before us. And we forget that the measure of cold is not in temperature alone.
–Pete Takeda, Boulder, Colorado