Text — Marie Charles Pelletier
Photos — Yan Kaczynski
In partnership with
It’s a frosty Friday evening in early March. After a long workweek, 15 women hit the road for the Montagne d’Argent in the Laurentians.
As soon as the cars are parked, they start climbing a steep slope through the forest until they reach the hut. One by one they step through the door, duffel bag over shoulder, their faces half-hidden in the collars of their coats.
In this shelter at the foot of an ice cliff, these women of various ages and backgrounds unite around a shared love of fresh air. There’s the eldest of the group, who’s come with her daughter; the student in search of something outside of the pages of her medical textbooks; the entrepreneur who’s come straight from the office in black nylons and a mohair cardigan. Sitting around a well-stoked wood stove, they tell each other about their expeditions, share their fears—in particular the fear of bedbugs—and remember the moment when they had to learn to shoot a rifle, just in case. An initial timidity quickly gives way to laughter.
Les Chèvres de montagne are the folks behind this adventure which has just begun. For the past five years, they have been offering both novice and advanced-level excursions for sports that are considered “extreme,” and in which women are too often under-represented. Pascale Vézina Rioux and Émilie Richard are at the helm; together, they dream of growing their community and seeing more women explore more mountains, lakes, and cliffs across Québec.
Before dedicating herself entirely to Les Chèvres, Pascale taught math in a penitentiary. Her career change happened naturally over time, but was prompted by a summer spent kiting in the Magdalen Islands. “I was really struck by the community spirit there. Everyone talked to each other. Everyone helped each other. I feel like my time in the Magdalen Islands made me long to be part of something,” she explains.
From as far back as she can remember, Pascale has always played sports with boys. She was one of the few girls who would follow them, until the day she made it her mission to track down other women who were doing the same thing. There had to be a way to get them together in the outdoors.
“With Les Chèvres, a sense of validation doesn’t come from performance, but from being surrounded by people who share a passion for sports and the outdoors. Women who inspire you instead of making you feel insecure.”
Today, when Pascale sees a participant climbing an ice cliff or going down a steep ski slope, she feels a deep sense of satisfaction: “It makes me proud. Proud to be a woman, and proud to be part of this community.”
Aujourd’hui, quand Pascale regarde une participante grimper une paroi de glace ou descendre une piste abrupte en ski, elle vit des moments de plénitude : « Ça me rend fière. Fière d’être une femme et fière de faire partie de cette communauté. »
Later, on that Friday night in March, women who were total strangers just a few hours earlier fall asleep side by side. The next morning, after several cups of hot coffee, they head out together toward Les Paradis artificiels, a wall that can hold up to 15 ropes. Under the guidance of mountain climber Nathalie Fortin, they climb the towering wall of ice over and over again.
Nathalie is an engineer by trade who works for Environment Canada. She’s also a sommelier and an Everest summiteer. She introduced herself to the group by naming her two primary objectives: for all women in the world to learn to ice climb, and for all women to appreciate good whisky.
Throughout the day, Nathalie makes a point of sharing anecdotes and advice from her experience with the participants. One of the Chèvres, impressed to be the student of such an experienced climber, whispers to another, “It’s kind of like having Céline Dion teach us how to sing ‘Frère Jacques’!”
But Nathalie barely mentions the summits she has climbed. “I don’t want people to remember my accomplishments; it’s the things I’ve learned that are more important. And sometimes I worry I haven’t managed to get them across,” she confides.
She reminisces about her first pair of ice axes, which she took to bed with her. She talks about her expeditions and the confidence that accumulates through challenges, like the time she got frostbite in her finger before beginning her K2 climb. “You build resilience each time you manage to get out of a difficult situation. You find out you’re stronger than you thought.”
“I don’t want people to remember my accomplishments; it’s the things I’ve learned that are more important.”
For Nathalie, nature has a great deal to teach us all. It helps human beings understand themselves better, anchor their values down, and define what really counts. Crampons and ice axes sink into the ice as the sun slowly warms the day. The women standing at the base of the cliff cheer on the ones who are on the ice climbing, shouting out words of encouragement—and heckling them sarcastically. The joy of being in a group is palpable.
As with many other sports, women often begin ice climbing with a boyfriend. Nathalie Fortin would like to knock down this first wall by being the one to initiate many women through Les Chèvres de montagne.
Les Chèvres de montagne wear Futurelight, the latest technology from The North Face. With fabric composed of 90% recycled material, this is the company’s most sustainably manufactured line of performance outerwear to date. The nanofiber membrane allows air to circulate freely yet is completely waterproof, even during a demanding day of ice climbing. Developed in close collaboration with the TNF community of athletes, Futurelight has been put to the test in different conditions all over the world.
There’s something relaxing and invigorating about trying out a new activity together with other women. “When we see that another woman can do it, we think to ourselves, I could probably do it too. It’s because of this identification with others that we’re able to push ourselves,” says Émilie.
Émilie Richard is a sports nutritionist, so for her, food and exercise are fundamental: a kind of caulking compound that bonds us all as humans. Born in the Eastern Townships, Émilie has also been a competitive swimmer for most of her life. Her weeks as a youth were measured by intense training sessions in the pool. As she got a little older, she realized it was important to take up other activities, and Les Chèvres de montagne showed up in her life like an outstretched hand.
“I find I come out with a renewed sense of confidence and pride when I’m part of these microadventures with women who are different, but all made of the same stuff,” says Émilie.
After spending the day on the cliff, the group returns to the hut. The women gather around the fire with their climbing gear still on, sitting closer together than they did yesterday. The conversation is punctuated by the sound of caps popping off beer bottles. “You see friendships forming, women who come back together on the next adventure,” adds Émilie. One positive thing about social media is that it allows them to continue cultivating a community spirit in between outings.
No one climbed Everest that weekend. But somewhere in the foothills of the Montagne d’Argent, these women, aged 25 to 65, shared stories, figure-eight knots, meals, and of course, glasses of Japanese whisky. Émilie believes that the outdoors gives us access to both real physical challenges and real, quality time. “In the end, we’ll remember the laughter more than the number of climbs we did,” she says.
Even if this break in the routine only lasted three days, each of the women will get back on Highway 117 knowing that this community exists, and that from now on, they are forever a part of it. ■
Since its founding in 1968 by dedicated environmentalist Douglas Tompkins, The North Face has promoted the outdoor community by sponsoring expeditions to the highest summits and some of the most inhospitable areas of the planet. In Canada, The North Face has partnered with organizations supporting women within the climbing community—including Les Chèvres de montagne and The B.I.G. Initiative—to enable and encourage them to topple antiquated clichés associated with this sport.