Upside down skiing

Le Massif is a mountain like no other - you drive to the top and ski back down again. Stephen Wood visits its topsy-turvy pistes

There are certain things you don't expect to find upside-down. The Great Pyramids are one. Another is a ski area. There is a natural order to skiing, after all. You start at the base, and work your way up the slope; you get to the top, then it's downhill all the way. It can't be done the other way round. Except at Le Massif, a ski area 73km north-east of Quebec City in the Canadian region of Charlevoix.

There are certain things you don't expect to find upside-down. The Great Pyramids are one. Another is a ski area. There is a natural order to skiing, after all. You start at the base, and work your way up the slope; you get to the top, then it's downhill all the way. It can't be done the other way round. Except at Le Massif, a ski area 73km north-east of Quebec City in the Canadian region of Charlevoix.

As you drive towards Le Massif, the characteristic view of a ski "hill" in east-coast North America is notably absent: there are no white trails cut through the trees, nor any slope for them to run down. Having parked your car and looked around, you begin to wonder how long the walk to the lifts might be. Because there is no hill in sight...until you look down. In the topsy-turvy world of Le Massif, the "base" - it's called Summit Lodge - is at the top of the area. You ski down first; you take the lift up afterwards.

The ski slopes run down the side of the St Lawrence valley. On the final descent of the steeper runs, the apparently imminent danger of hurtling straight into the icy river is enough to make all but the most gung-ho skier put in an extra turn, just to lose a little speed.

At 770m Le Massif has the biggest vertical drop of any ski area in eastern Canada. That's because the pistes go so low (down to only 36m above sea level), rather than because of the height at their peak. Le Massif does actually have a peak, a hillock rising 20m above Summit Lodge, created to make the La Charlevoix racing piste long enough to meet international standards. Only in Le Massif would a run be lengthened by extending the mountain upwards.

It is just 25 years since Le Massif first opened for skiing, and in the early days it was fairly rudimentary. There were no ski lifts until 1992: previously the "lift" was a bus that picked up skiers from the bottom of the slopes, near the riverside village of Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, and then carried them back up to the top. And a further decade passed before Le Massif was turned around for the 2002/3 season, with the advent of Summit Lodge and its huge parking area, plus the new link road that makes access from Quebec easier.

The skiing is not very difficult, except on the steep runs through the trees at the northern extreme and on La Charlevoix to the south. Nevertheless, among the three areas easily accessible from Quebec, Le Massif is, so I was told, seen as more of a skier's mountain than nearby Stoneham and Mont-Saint-Anne. That may be partly because the runs are longer; it may be due to the fact that Le Massif is only for skiing and boarding, there being no slope-side accommodation and precious little nearby.

The alterations for 2002/3 (which also included the installation of the area's third chair-lift, and the creation of the National Alpine Skiing Training Centre) overstretched Le Massif, then owned by a consortium of local authorities hoteliers and tourism organisations. "Having two day-lodges rather than one, plus another access and parking lot, doubled operating costs, and there was a shortfall of C$500,000 (£212,000) in the revenue needed to open for the 2002/3 season," says Daniel Gauthier. Already, Gauthier had guaranteed the finance for some of the new facilities at Le Massif; now, after a short period of negotiation, he bought the area, taking on C$10m (£4.2m) of debts and committing C$15m (£6.35m) to future developments.

You may not have heard of Daniel Gauthier, but you may be aware of the Cirque du Soleil, of which he was co-founder. Emerging out of a stilt-walker troupe called the Club des Talons Hauts (The High-Heel Club), the Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 in Baie-Saint-Paul, the nearest town to Le Massif. Its shows - loosely, a theatrical series of circus skills with high production values and original music - have become phenomenally successful. At the company's latest estimate 50 million spectators have seen its performances in almost 100 cities. Currently there are six Cirque du Soleil shows on tour and five permanent residencies, all but one of them in a hotel in Las Vegas. The company currently employs 3,000 people.

Even back in February 2001, when Gauthier left the Cirque, its turnover was already C$400m (£170m) per year. The sale of his 50 per cent share to Laliberté earned him, he says, "more money than I could ever spend, than my children could ever spend, than their children could ever spend. But I was too young to retire; and I like to build things". What was it that prompted him, 18 months later, to invest his time and money in Le Massif? "There have been four great loves in my life: my wife, my children, Cirque du Soleil and Le Massif. I started skiing there right at the beginning, when the area opened; and in the last 15 years it's where I've done 90 per cent of my skiing."

Having familiarised himself with the business by working for six months as Le Massif's general manager, Gauthier - who is now 46 years old - began to work on his plans for the area. His objective was to expand it northwards, on to another ski face. But a conundrum arose. To justify the expense, revenue had to grow; so Le Massif's skier-days (ie the number of one-day passes sold, or their equivalent) had to increase. (Currently they number 143,000 per year - Gauthier aims to double that.) Because of the limited population in the day-trip catchment area, however, that meant attracting overnight visitors, meaning lodgings would have to be built. But the cost of that could only be justified if the lodgings were used year-round rather than just in the ski season.

The solution to the conundrum required a degree of topsy-turviness exceptional even for Le Massif. With a former showman in a charge of the ski area, Canada's National Post newspaper queried whether his plans included "French clowns prancing" or "Mongolian acrobats dancing". But that was not the sort of baggage Gauthier brought with him, even if he admits that "you can take the guy out of showbiz, but you can't take showbiz out of the guy".

"What I had in my suitcase when I arrived was simply a philosophy," he says. "The Cirque du Soleil had to be inventive. There was no circus tradition in Quebec, nothing to build on. Every show started with a blank sheet of paper. Our motto was: 'Be creative'. And that applied not just to the shows but to every aspect of the company, including its human resources policy, its marketing, its licensing deals and so on.

"At the Cirque I would ask people who came up with ideas: 'What will we have on the stage? Where's the show?' It was the same here. We needed a four-season operation, not just a winter business. So what was to be our content? Where was the show? We knew what we didn't want, and that was a resort. Because a resort is exclusive: it has a fence around it. We wanted to be inclusive."

Inclusivity now underlies the Le Massif Master Plan. Rather than developing a new summer/autumn attraction, Gauthier's idea is simply to harness the Charlevoix area's existing visitor facilities (of which he has identified 125) to fill the lodgings between ski seasons. Quite how he will integrate, say, the two national parks into the project is not clear; and it will remain unclear until June, when a launch is planned with all the many partners involved. But some aspects have been revealed. Baie-Saint-Paul, where the Cirque du Soleil was born, will be an accommodation centre, and Gauthier has already bought a farm there to convert into a hotel.

How will guests get from Baie-Saint-Paul to Le Massif? By train. Gauthier wants to run a passenger service from Quebec to Le Massif and Baie-Saint-Paul (and on to La Malbaie, 137km away) on the goods track that runs next to the St Lawrence. The cost of refurbishing the line will be C$15m (£6.35m).

The whole thing is wonderfully absurd: much of the 6,000 sq km of Charlevoix is being co-opted in what was, originally, a plan to expand a 116-hectare ski area. In circus terms, that's Big Topsy-turvy. But who's to say it won't succeed? There's an experienced ringmaster in charge of the show.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING AND STAYING THERE

Packages to the Quebec region, with a three-day lift-pass for the ski areas of Le Massif, Mont-Saint-Anne and Stoneham, cost from £635 per week, including scheduled flights, car hire, and room-only accommodation in Quebec, with Canada specialist Frontier Ski (020-8776 8709; www.frontier-ski.co.uk). Packages are available from Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk), Ski All America (0870 167 6676; www.skiallamerica.com), Ski Safari (01273 224060; www.skisafari.com) and Ski The American Dream (0870 350 7547; www.skidream.com)

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