Getaway is a word that can be interpreted in many ways. It could conjure up destinations of surf and sand, forests or summits. It could mean a fresh breath and perspective. And for some, it could mean struggle and willing to submit to pain.
When seven of my friends and I headed into Canada’s boreal forest this winter, none of us had yet done a backcountry trip in sub-zero temperatures. But we wanted our getaway to be character-building and challenging.
That’s how we found ourselves skiing hut-to-hut through Quebec’s Monts-Valin National Park.
Leaving our homes in Washington, D.C., we crossed into Canada at midnight on December 27. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Québec City at three in the morning, we were shivering from the extreme drop in temperature, yet closed our eyes for sleep. After a mere four hours of rest, it was back in the car to drive the final few hours north.
We arrived in Monts-Valin in the early afternoon and began our 5.5-kilometre ski to the first hut. As the sun set, our eyes adjusted to the fading reflection of light on the snow. It led us as we climbed 420 metres uphill until we hit a steep ridge.
Stopping to rummage through our packs for our headlamps, we questioned our location. Megan and Becky, two of my companions, called out from behind me, convinced we had missed a turn. The crew was getting antsy. We forged on and celebrated when we approached a sign telling us we were headed in the right direction with only one kilometre to go.
Reaching Refuge L’Ulysse, I sighed with relief, took off my boots, and collapsed onto a bench next to the fire that Jon and Tyler, the first of us to arrive at the hut, built while waiting for the rest of us. Jetboils crowded the table as we poured hot water into our dehydrated meal packs—our first meal since 10 a.m.
That’s when Tyler started to feel ill. He’s not normally one to fall weak, but showing symptoms of fever and dehydration, we figured the last 36 hours of strenuous travel and sudden exertion sent his body past a tipping point. The crew rummaged through the contents of their med kits and offered the rest of their water to a lethargic Tyler.
Jon and Brad stayed up for hours, tediously filtering creek water to help ensure everyone was hydrated. The hut was tense that night as we monitored Tyler and doubted our backcountry excursion and the heat from the wood stove turned the hut into a small sauna. Sleep did not come easy.
The next morning, Tyler wasn’t feeling much better but he hadn’t gotten any worse. Being in the backcountry gave us two options: We could turn back and reevaluate our trek, or we could continue on and trust that our friend would start to regain his strength.
We turned the decision over to Tyler. He made the call to keep moving, confident that his condition would improve.
Running off two days of minimal rest, we repacked our things and headed out for the eight kilometres separating us from the next hut. We ran into other hikers and asked them to report back to the trailhead office about Tyler’s condition, with Becky, using what little French she knew, acting as our interpreter.
Because of the steep terrain and repeated falls stemming from adjusting to travel on short Hok skis, I moved slower the second day. Heavy snow and wind numbed my face as I toppled down a hill. I looked down to find one half of my ski pole in my hand and the other behind me, halfway up the hill. Frustrated, I climbed back up to retrieve my unbroken pole, using it as a third leg to get up hills until that also broke in two, breaking my spirits along with it. I clipped my skis to my pack and continued on foot.
We crossed a frozen lake, hearing the whine of a snowmobile in the distance. It was an odd sound after feeling so removed from civilization. I continued hiking the last kilometre to the hut alone, wanting only to reach it and recompose. Turning a sharp corner, the trail ahead cleared and there, among a towering white forest, was Refuge Le Fantôme, our second hut.
Nearly tearing up from happiness at reaching respite, I yelled ahead to Jon and Joe who arrived long ago. As I made an enlivened approach, I saw a park ranger standing next to the snowmobile we heard earlier. He received the message about Tyler who had, by now, made a full recovery. Before leaving us, he promised to return in the morning to make sure everyone was in good health and to replace my broken set of poles. I felt a wave of optimism charge through me.
Revived and confident, we began our descent on day three. I led the pack through freshly fallen powder for eight kilometres to our third hut, L’Hibernal. We took our time and indulged in the winter wonderland by stopping to take photos and write notes in the snow, and catching snowflakes on our tongues.
By the time we arrived at our refuge, we knew our routine: build a fire, put on clean clothes, fill ourselves with food, unwind. This was the rhythm our journey had developed; it began to feel as natural to us as anything else in life.
L’Hibernal sat next to a snow-packed river. That night, standing in the darkness, I listened to the water charge beneath mounds of snow. That sound was interrupted every so often by laughter coming from a glowing, fire-warmed hut—a pleasant reminder that we were united in a vast wilderness playground.
The sun rose on our final day while we strapped on our skis for the final five kilometres. Filled with sentiment and a desire for our journey to continue, I hung back to ski a portion of our few kilometres alone.
My thoughts were clear—they will be after days without technology. I reflected on the trying moments of the last week and how important adaptability and flexibility are when travelling. This trip had not been all fun and games—far from it—but that’s what we set out for. It solidified our friendships and our conviction that seeking a challenging adventure will strengthen the human spirit.
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About the Author
Lin Kuczera is a passionate outdoor explorer and photographer. Over the last ten years, she has documented the world near and far, from aquatic adventures in the Great Barrier Reef and climbing karsts in Vietnam to backpacking the Rockies and embarking on century cycling trips.
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