People interpret the word “getaway” in many ways. It conjures up destinations of surf and sand, forests, or summits. It means a fresh breath and perspective. And for some it means 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 shivered from the extreme drop in temperature. After a mere four hours of rest, we piled 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 re-evaluate 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.