Backcountry skiing in Quebec can be a thrill but severe injury and the threat of avalanches lurk

Guillaume Roy, left, and his friend Mathieu Rouleau, right, are some of the people featured in a new Quebec documentary on backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Roy helped save Rouleau's life when he was swept away by an avalanche in 2005.   (Guillaume Roy - image credit)
Guillaume Roy, left, and his friend Mathieu Rouleau, right, are some of the people featured in a new Quebec documentary on backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Roy helped save Rouleau's life when he was swept away by an avalanche in 2005. (Guillaume Roy - image credit)

In 2005, what was supposed to be a fun day of backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the Chic-Choc Mountains in Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula turned into a nightmare for Guillaume Roy and Mathieu Rouleau.

Spending a few months on the region, 750 kilometres northeast of Montreal, Roy had scaled and snowboarded the mountain with his friend dozens of times.

But on April 15, everything changed in an instant when Rouleau was swept away by an avalanche.

Hours before, the day started like any other for the pair.

Although the region was well into spring, that day in April almost 30 centimetres of snow had fallen, said Roy.

He went down the mountain first, setting up his camera to film Rouleau.

"He took a different path," recalled Roy, adding that he saw the snow start to detach from the side of the mountain.

The next thing he knew, he was witnessing an avalanche and his friend had disappeared in the snow.

"Every second seems like an hour. When it stopped, I was trying to look for him — like a glove, a helmet, a ski, something," said Roy.

"I didn't have the proper equipment at that time … We wanted to buy it, but you're young and you think you're invincible … In the end I made the most difficult decision of my life, leaving him behind."

Roy went to get help and returned about an hour later with seven people who helped search and scan the area, finally locating Rouleau in the tree line.

"He was in bad shape because he had seven ribs broken, 1.5 litres of blood in his lungs and his body temperature was down to 29 degrees," said Roy.

His friend made a full recovery and almost 18 years later their story is featured in a new Quebec documentary, La Dernière Descente (The Last Run).

Released Jan. 12, the film, by Dylan Page and the Quebec Mountain and Climbing Federation (FQME), follows two miraculous stories in an attempt to warn people of the dangers that come with the thrills — and the precautions needed to avoid serious injury and death.

Submitted by Dylan Page
Submitted by Dylan Page

Film aims to highlight importance of safety

A backcountry snowboarder himself, Page first heard about Roy's story when Roy reached out to him for an article he was putting together on the risks of skiing and snowboarding in Quebec's backcountry.

Roy wanted to know about a close call Page and his friends had experienced in 2019.

The pair soon discovered their experiences were similar, prompting Page to consider a documentary that would highlight the importance of first aid, having cell reception and knowing the risks.

"I'm like, okay, so these two people in my close circle have gone through these experiences," said Page.

He thought he needed to push the idea further and "put something out in the world" that would open people's eyes.

And Page wanted to share his friend's story.

'Everything I did at that moment was crucial for him surviving'

Four years prior, he was with his friend Yannick Limary when Limary tumbled and broke his neck while backcountry snowboarding on Mont Édouard, near Saguenay, Que.

The documentary recounts how they transported and saved Limary in a remote area of the forest.

Submitted by Dylan Page
Submitted by Dylan Page

Part of the accident was caught on camera by Page.

That day, he was collecting footage of their adventures when Limary went off a small jump, caught an edge and fell on his back and into a tree — breaking his neck.

"I was the person holding him while he had his broken neck … I was the one who had to call for help. And I realized at that moment that his life was on the line," said Page, adding that he thankfully had cell reception to call ski patrols.

"Everything I did at that moment was crucial for him surviving."

Limary's injuries were so severe that, at first, he could not move his arms or legs. He eventually recovered, relearned how to walk and is snowboarding again.

Submitted by Dylan Page
Submitted by Dylan Page

People 'need to know what they're going up against'

When Page was approached in September 2021 by the FQME, he felt he needed to make a documentary because he was seeing an increase in the popularity of backcountry skiing in the province.

He said the federation initially suggested he make videos about tips for backcountry skiing.

"I said 'I don't think this is what people need,'" said Page. "I think they need to know what they're going up against and what they're jumping into."

The filming for the project began in the winter of 2022, completing interviews with Limary, Roy, Rouleau and other safety experts.

While there have been English films on similar subjects which inspired Page, he says he realized in Quebec there was no French media on the topic.

"I threw the idea at them, let's make something way more emotional, way more hard-hitting and way more useful for the new skiers," said Page. "Lots can happen … You have to be ready for it."

Submitted by Dylan Page
Submitted by Dylan Page

Roy agrees. Although he continues to enjoy the sport, he says the accident changed his perspective.

"It changed my relationship to safety and risk management. When you're young, you think everything is going to be fine but then, when this thing happened [I realized] I'm not going to lose a friend doing the thing I love most in life," said Roy.

He says nowadays, he's usually ready for the worst and has developed an ability to assess weather and mountain conditions.

"It doesn't always have to always be like 'deeper, harder and more dangerous.' Fun is not danger," said Roy.

Those interested in viewing the film can visit FQME YouTube channel.