Sugarloaf/USA has been much in the news this year. First came word that the beleaguered ski and golf resort had been sold - along with its sister resort at Sunday River - for $77 million to Boyne USA Resorts, a privately owned company. Then the new owners announced that they were going to invest $4 million in long-overdue improvements to the resort. After years of wondering what would become of their beloved mountain, Sugarloafers finally had reason to celebrate.
A renewed focus on skiing and snowboarding in the Carrabassett Valley is fitting, as John Christie's new book
The Story of Sugarloaf (Down East Books; www.downeast.com; hardcover; $50) points out, because Sugarloaf was a passion before it ever became a business. In the 1940s and '50s a Kingfield store owner named Amos Winter, along with a band of fellow snow enthusiasts, decided to create a ski trail on Sugarloaf for their own amusement. Over time their dedication - and that of the Sugarloafers who came after them - would turn Maine's second- tallest mountain into its largest ski resort.
The strength of Christie's book is in the comprehensive history it presents, starting when daredevils, like a young writer named Andrew Titcomb, climbed thousands of feet, with skis across their shoulders, just to go racing down untracked snowfields. The book includes Titcomb's account, which follows, of those heady early days. Reading Titcomb's words is almost like being present at the birth of skiing in Maine.
Snowfields above timberline in Maine? On Katahdin, you may say, but that's almost inaccessible in wintertime. No, this is much nearer at hand, open, smooth snowfields, long and steep, that you can ski with safety almost anytime, unlike the higher mountains, with snow lasting into May - and there you have the Blue Mountains of western Maine, of which 4,237-foot Sugarloaf Mountain is the queen, Maine's second-highest mountain.
A four-thousand-foot peak does not sound high enough to fulfill these conditions, and that is perhaps why this superb ski area has remained without a track on it all these years. But its location is the secret. Within sight of the Rangeley Lakes and surrounded by no less than five other distinct four-thousand-foot giants, with their valley floors all above one thousand feet above the sea, it may well prove the most reliable snow district in the East. And so it proved this year, not merely in early March, but April 26 and 27, 1951, when I found five to fifteen feet of snow on top and three feet on the new ski trail over halfway down, and this was a poor snow year.
A two-year-old hope to ski Sugarloaf was fulfilled on April 25. I called Amos Winter of Kingfield, Maine, perennial skier, general store owner, and the father of this mountain. In Farmington, thirty miles to the south, it was warm, the spring flowers were coming out, and people were oiling up the old lawn mower. "I suppose I'm too late again to ski Sugarloaf this year?" I asked Amos over the party line.
"Too late, my eye!" he replied. "I can see the snowfields out my store window, and they're deeper and whiter than ever."
That very afternoon, with ski and pack, tent and sleeping bag, I was headed north to fulfill a dream started by my brother years before, when we climbed the mountain in summer up the Appalachian Trail, and revived two years ago, when at the top of the left gully in Tuckerman Ravine, Amos had told me of the newly formed Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club and of their plans to cut a ski trail down from the snowfields on the north face.
By the time I checked in at Winter's store, a cold northwest wind had hit Kingfield with a sprinkle of rain, but the snow reports were confirmed, though the summits of Mount Abraham and Sugarloaf were now under a scud of fast-moving somber clouds. On the way to Stratton the road borders the rushing Carrabassett River, which looked to be a good canoeing height. The country rapidly gets wilder and more rugged up this valley, as the road twists between the mountains and the houses become fewer. In half an hour I saw the Sugarloaf Ski Club sign on the left, just below deserted Bigelow Village.
After the car was parked, there came the start of a long trip in. It was four o'clock now, and the first glimpse of a winding white streak of a ski trail could be seen dipping down out of the clouds between the dark spruces. After a rough and very wet walk of some two miles on the level, including crossing several swollen brooks, with not the least sign of snow, there appeared, quite suddenly, rising up across the bank of a rushing stream, the ski trail; and there the snow began, at about 1,700 feet.
From here on I climbed on skis with sealskins - a rest for weary shoulders - up the trail, which wound up through the hardwoods, over snow still drenched from the rain of the previous night. By six o'clock, some two hours up, I decided to call it a day, and make camp before darkness caught me.
The ski trail gleamed faintly white as it sloped off to the north. The clouds had been swept away by the sweep of the northwest winds and the cold stars glittered down above the forest. From this vantage point, two thousand feet up on Sugarloaf, the clear outline of the mountains to the north could be seen, but there was the light of no single habitation in the wilderness valley below.
The next morning, breakfast was eaten in the warmth of the sun rising over Burnt Hill, and then I made an eight o'clock start for the summit, with a light lunch packed this time.
At three thousand feet I was nearly through the spruces. Repeated thrusts of a ski pole, handle down, into the snow right up to the ring, failed to reach the bottom - long poles at that. The heat of the sun had thawed the frozen granules of spring snow by now so that walking was easy, and as I rounded a final bend, I saw a wide chute opening directly to the dazzling snowfield above, a breathtaking first glimpse of the open cone of the summit. As the trees ended, the open slopes climbed toward the blue sky at an angle of forty degrees, and it was a matter of dig and kick your toes in to climb that last thousand feet. Here and there the tops of subalpine birch and hackmatack showed their tops through the snow, covered with clear frost feathers of ice built up on the northwest side of each branch. The depth of the snow cover here must have been a solid blanket of five to fifteen feet deep, drifted in on the north side of this mountain.
Up and up I went, leaving a trail of footsteps behind in the perfect spring snow. The slope gradually tilted back to a steady thirty degrees nearer the summit. Finally came the last scramble over some dark weathered rocks and lichen to the topmost cairn. My watch read 10:15 as I rested my skis against the rocks and looked around in the crystal-clear morning air.
Now for the first run down! A check of bindings - tighten those laces, zip those pockets, sealskins in the pack. Boy, this is steep! - and we're off.
You don't have to pick your way, it's all open, smooth spring snow, ever steepening as it drops away to timberline a thousand feet below. The skiing you wait all year for, great sweeping turns, the incredible acceleration at the instant your tips point straight down, and yet snow so smooth and even you feel you could shut your eyes and ski, as in a dream.
But a thousand feet does not take long at this rate, and soon you are at the edge of the trees, breathless after the flight down. This is good - so up to the summit again, exploring different routes and eating frost feathers as you go. It was time for lunch now in the lee of the cairn, and a look at the logbook rolled up in the bronze A.T.C. cylinder. Only sixteen names were recorded this first winter of skiing on the mountain, but note the marker had been buried in frost feathers much of the time.
I took a last look around at the great wilderness stretching for miles upon miles all around, and then started the run down again, to the left this time on the western part of the snowfields. There was the same smooth breathless drop, then through some scrub, 'til there below lay the funnel through the trees, with the trail beyond. The snow is warmer and heavier now, as you catch your breath, wipe your eyes, and eat a last bar of chocolate, while you take a final gaze up that never-to-be-forgotten snowfield, and then a plunge down into the trail, with a view at every turn. In a matter of minutes the hardwoods appear, and shortly thereafter, a tired christy brings you to a stop at camp.
You take a rest on the bough bed before breaking camp, and then start the final descent through slushy snow, now turned pink by the afternoon sun, to the brook crossing at the foot of the ski trail proper.Sugarloaf Timeline1948
The Maine Ski Council is formed to study which Maine mountains could best be turned into ski areas. After the Bigelows are rendered inaccessible by the creation of Flagstaff Lake, Kingfield storeowner Amos Winter makes the case for Sugarloaf.1950
The newly formed Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club begins laying out and cutting the first ski trail, to be called Winter's Way, on the mountain.1952
The initial lodge - a hut, actually - opens at the base of Sugarloaf.1955
The Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation is formed in Hallowell and purchases control of all existing ski facilities.1966
Sugarloaf's signature gondola opens, carrying skiers to the top of the mountain.1969
Sugarloaf's first chairlift is constructed.1972
The town of Carrabassett Valley is formally incorporated.1981
Skier Paul Schipper begins his streak of consecutive days skiing on Sugarloaf during the winter season - a streak he would continue for 3,903 days until 2005 without ever missing a day.1982
Carrabassett Valley Academy enrolls its first students. Its alumni would eventually include Olympic skiers and snowboarders Bode Miller, Kirsten Clark, and Seth Wescott.1986
The Sugarloaf Mountain Corporation declares bankruptcy.1996
Les Otten's American Skiing Company purchases Sugarloaf.2007
American Skiing Company sells its Sunday River and Sugarloaf/USA resorts to Boyne USA Resorts for $77 million in cash.