OLD TREMBLANT

First of a historical series by contributors Patricia and Robert Foulke

 



The tiny Laurentian village clustered at the bottom of the lifts dropped us into a fairy tale. We were surrounded by the pitched roofs of little pastel-colored cottages buried in pristine white drifts. Lights twinkled as we crunched across the snow on our way to dinner at the Mont Tremblant Inn. That was 56 years ago, and we had just arrived in Old Tremblant for a honeymoon.

Cottages in Old Tremblant (P&RF)
Cottages in Old Tremblant (P&RF)

In the morning we laced up our low leather ski boots, put on our reindeer sweaters, baggy ski pants, nylon ski shells and hand-knitted caps. A slow single chair crawled up the south face-we couldn't even hold hands. The seats were covered with slippery black leather, sloping downward enough to make one of us worry about sliding off into the ravines below. A more experienced skier would have put her ski poles across the arms to replace the missing safety bar.


On cloud nine we tried trail after trail and loved them all. At the end of one day we fell into an unplanned adventure. We were skiing on the north face when growing dusk reminded us to head for the summit and ski down to the village. Two rope tows pulled skiers on the final section uphill and they boomed over an icy roller-coaster-a rutty, bumpy track with a series of real hillocks to overcome-at an incredibly fast speed.

Patty at the summit, overlooking Lac Tremblant  (P&RF)
Patty at the summit, overlooking Lac Tremblant(P&RF)

No matter how many times we fell, we had to get our frozen mittens to grasp the rope again. We were alone up there and the tow operator must have throttled up to get us off the mountain. When we reached the summit and saw the lights of the village below one of us burst into tears of relief. The easy part was skiing down to the warmth of our room below.

Of course, we had not endured the really arduous task of climbing up the mountain as Joe Ryan and Lowell Thomas did in 1938. They landed a plane on Lac Tremblant, put sealskins on their skis, and bush-whacked their way to the top.


Joe and Mary Ryan (courtesy Station Mont Tremblant)
Joe and Mary Ryan (courtesy Station Mont Tremblant)

After reaching the summit Thomas saw "a dazzling fairyland of rime ice and pine trees laden with snow. The lakes and mountains spread out below and around us, in the brilliant winter sunshine, made a scene that I'll never forget."

 

Ryan responded, "But there is one thing wrong with this mountain. It's too difficult to get up here. And, I think I'll fix that!" And he did with incredible speed, opening the Mont Tremblant Lodge in 1939.

In the process he brought work to an economically depressed region. Joe Ryan hired men in the local villages to clear land and build his ski area, cutting trails and installing a 4500-foot chair lift. He worked alongside them and befriended them. At the base they built Provincial French clapboard cottages with brightly painted gables.

No Laurentian village would be complete without a church, so Mary and Joe Ryan built an authentic replica. On a research trip to the Isle d' Orleans in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City they found a perfect model, a 1670 church in the Village de St. Laurent. La Chapelle du St. Bernard still stands near the entrance to New Tremblant.

What had been a gradual evolution of Tremblant became a transformation when Intrawest bought the area in 1991. Mary and Joe Ryan's dream of expansion exploded into construction of many buildings on a grand scale.

Lowell Thomas (courtesy Station Mont Tremblant)
Lowell Thomas (courtesy Station Mont Tremblant)

When we first saw the growing footprint of new buildings, we recalled the legend of the Trembling Mountain. Manitou, an Indian god, was angry at man for barging into his country and made the mountain shake. The legend has its foot in geologic reality because Mont Tremblant rises above a fault line that does indeed produce earthquakes. How does Manitou now feel about new condominiums thrusting out over his lower slopes?

Down below the new swallowed the old, and we might have been shocked had we not seen it spreading gradually on each visit. But in a brilliant move, Intrawest collected the remaining buildings of the Old Village into one quarter of the new, now called Vieux Tremblant. Had they remained in their original places, they would have been buried out of sight in the midst of high-rise condominiums and hotels. These former cottages now serve as shops, bars and restaurants.

La Chapelle du St. Bernard (P&RF)
La Chapelle du St. Bernard (P&RF)

On the slopes Intrawest has been reasonably conservative, preserving some narrow traditional trails like the Ryan, widening others like Beauvallon and Grand Prix on the South face, Beauchemin and Geant on the North face to provide long, pleasant blue and black runs. Mountain crews have cut new winding cruisers like Toboggan and opened new glades for intermediates as well as experts. For those who want artificial obstacles, the upper part of Lowell Thomas has been converted to a Mini Parc Gavite, a change that the trail's namesake might not have appreciated.

So the mountain is still friendly to all comers, with 17% of the trails for beginners (one winds down from the summit), 33 % for intermediates, and 50 % for advanced and expert skiers, including many fine single black-diamond runs and a handful of gut-clutching double blacks like Vertige and Zig-zag.

Since our original visit in 1954 we've returned eight times-including our 25th, 40th, 45th and 50th anniversaries-so we claim a personal lien on the ambience of the mountain. We don't want it to change too much, too radically. Each time we reach the summit and see the lake below and frosty trees lining trails with skiers zipping down beautifully groomed snow, we still feel that we have returned home. The mountain endures, even if the village below no longer resembles what we saw on that very late afternoon in 1954.



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