Life at the ‘Loaf
A lifelong skier leaves big-city life and heads for the mountains without looking back
My skis are strapped diagonally to my pack, but the wind keeps knocking them around as I plant my poles care-fully on the weatherworn rock face, trying to keep my footing in the alpine landscape. My hood is cinched tight around my hat, fighting off the wind that scours clean any footprints in front of me. There is no clear-cut trail. There is only crusty, brittle snow, a moon-like landscape punctuated by boulders and wisps of icy yellow underbrush. Yesterday was the first official day of spring, but here, on the ridge of Burnt Mountain, there are gusts above 30 miles an hour and the temperature is barely in the double digits.
Our group of four treks another ten minutes until a 360-degree view opens before us. There’s Mount Abraham, the Bigelow Range, Spaulding, and Crocker, but most strikingly, there are the elegantly carved trails of Sugarloaf’s upper mountain. They followed us on the hike up, seem- ing to hover there, and setting the scene when we drop in, descending deep into trees and deep into powder, all of it a part of this gigantic, almost omnipresent mountain.
Sugarloaf’s massive network of 153 runs is no joke—something that anyone who’s ever rounded Oh My Gosh Corner will attest to. When that view fills your windshield, the first thing you notice is Sugarloaf’s hulking height. At 4,237 feet, the mountain is Maine’s second highest peak after Katahdin, and the only resort to offer above-treeline skiing in the East. The second thing you notice is Sugarloaf’s extensive terrain. The 2014 expansion of Brackett Basin and Burnt Mountain opened up 655 new acres of ungroomed sidecountry—cliff drops, tight chutes, frozen waterfalls, and, as we found out, powder-packed glades—cementing Sugarloaf as the largest ski resort east of the Rockies.
My husband, Sam, and I arrived at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday in late March. A line of half a dozen cars was snaking its way along Route 27, and we came to a stop to let snowmobil- ers cross. A text from Cyndi Smith, part of the photographer duo accompanying us on this trip, popped up. “Did you bring a bath- ing suit?” she asked. “Meet us at the Rack.”
The lights glowed blue across the restau- rant’s packed, snowy lot, and we could hear a band playing from inside. We had moved to Maine just a few weeks earlier, and I wasn’t used to arriving at a ski resort in time for dinner on a Friday night—usually we would have been still on the road, down- ing a second cup of coffee. This weekend at Sugarloaf was a homecoming for him, a first for me. Living in New York, I’d always been jealous of my northern New England neighbors and the mountains practically in their backyards, conscious of our license plate revealing our “from away” status. As we crunched past the gondola on the porch,ready to join the locals inside, I wondered what took us so long to get here.
Cyndi, her husband and fellow photographer Chris Smith, and their friend, Christian Townsend, were all at a table talking plans for the weekend. Also in the house was Rack co-owner and Olympian Seth Wescott, and I asked him what the mountain meant to him. “When I was young, Sugarloaf seemed like a place of amazing adventure to escape to,” he told me. “As I’ve gotten older and traveled all around the world, it’s become my sense of home and my grounding spot.”
When I mentioned that we had plans to hit up Burnt Mountain that weekend, Wescott told me he helped to hand-cut its trails in the 90s and that he’d been actively involved in getting the area open. “It’s awesome to be making positive change in the long-term vision of the ski area and to be shifting the way people think of Eastern skiing. We know it’s not going to be good all the time, but when Mother Nature cooperates, we want to be able to capitalize on that,” he explained. “Today is the first day I’ve been home all winter when I could do the hike up to Burnt Mountain, and the glade was phenomenal. There were only four tracks. If you’re willing to make the effort, you get rewarded.”
The crowd was getting good and rowdy, the dance floor was full, and the mountain had gotten 40 inches of fresh snow in the last two weeks.
Welcome to Sugarloaf.
In the morning, we met up with Chris, Christian, and Christian’s two boys at the Beach. They were chowing down on maple- glazed donuts from the Urban Sugar truck. It was overcast and the sun was hardly peeking through, but I’d never had first chair before. I shared a ride up on the Dou- ble Runner with Zach Davis, a ski patroller who was the hill chief that day. “There’s a lot of pride involved in being a Sugarloafer,” he told me. “People get pretty attached to this place. Plus the skiing’s usually pretty good, too.”
He wasn’t wrong about that. We cruised down Boardwalk as our warm-up run, carv- ing tracks in the corduroy. It was late in the season, but you’d never have known it from the snow cover. When the mountain fully opened, we took SuperQuad to Skyline, then hit Gondi Line. The snow was soft and buttery, and as the pitch lessened, I carved big, loopy GS turns. We headed next to White Nitro, the steepest slope in the East. There we found wind-loaded pockets on the edges, enough to link half a dozen turns that sent up a camera-ready spray of snow. Feeling good, we peered down at the aptly named Misery Whip. Formerly a T-bar line, the capillary-width run was filled with bumps. “Who’s in?” yelled Christian, and his two boys, already expert skiers at ages nine and eleven, followed him down while the rest of us tried to catch up.
After lunch, we took the Timberline quad to Tote Road, an intermediate cruiser that clocks in at 3.5 miles, which makes it the longest trail on the mountain. Then Chris- tian’s kids led us to the Broccoli Garden. The glades were a jungle gym of natural pillow-like features and fresh, fluffy snow. A small group of locals was gathered above a fallen tree, and we took turns hucking off it one at a time, cheering each other on. Some hiked back up to hit it again. We’d just bumped into this crowd in the woods, and there was that instant camaraderie that’s common among riders who share a love of the sport. But there was also, I was learning, that laid-back, friendly atmosphere that seems to be unique to Sugarloaf.
A few hours later, the lifts still, I tapped my boots together at the front door of Paul and Jennifer Leddy’s condo. Snow melted off as I stepped a thick wool sock onto a fluffy Flokati rug. Friends of Cyndi’s, the Leddys had invited us over for an après-ski get-together. Inside, the condo felt Scandinavian, with light streaming through huge windows trimmed with bright red curtains. Paul greeted us with pint-size Dark ’n Stor- mys as dogs and kids ran around and a wood stove burned. I chatted with real estate expert Kathy Townsend about our Maine home hunt and with architectural designer Linda Banks, who invited me to swing by the condo she was renovating. We were new here, but that didn’t seem to matter.
As evening approached, we stumbled in our ski boots back to the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, passing the new 30-person outdoor hot tub, where steam rose up into the cold mountain air. We headed to 45 North for dinner, where chef Rob Keen, it turned out, used to live a few blocks away from us in New York. I asked him what led him to Sugarloaf. “The skiing is old-school New England style,” he said. “It’s what you think of a ski resort being back in the 60s, and it’s still like that here. You can totally expect to see someone in a one-piece with wooden skis and leather boots and not be out of place. And sometimes you do.” We feasted on delicious lobster salad and roast chicken, then immediately headed upstairs to crash in our room. We had big plans for tomorrow.
“You are about to enter a harsh alpine environment. All response times will be severely delayed,” reads a sign at the entrance to Brackett Basin. Sugarloaf is clear on this: there is an inherent risk in skiing this backcountry-style terrain, and there are numerous safety tips you should follow. Bring layers, go in a group, and carry adequate food, water, and a cell phone. If you’ve never skied the area before, speak to ski patrol first. But for expert riders who adhere to the safety guidelines, it doesn’t get any better than this.
We start off on what’s known as the Golden Road, where the globs of snow on the pines resemble icing on candy gumdrop trees. We reach a point where the trail is unbroken and switch to snowshoes. Then we hike the final 300 yards, following the ridgeline to the summit. The wind’s howling and the ground is bare, and I can’t imagine that the skiing is going to be very good. It’s been a lot of work—a two-hour hike—for what might be a lousy payoff. The top is tight with scrub, and we’re practically bushwacking at first, pushing branches out of the way with our poles. “Stay skier’s left,” Sam calls out.
In between skinny white birches the snow lies like a blanket. It’s smooth and fresh, cut only by the cool blue shadows of trunks from the afternoon sun. There’s no crust. No ice. No tracks. Just untouched snow. We’re whooping with delight, unsinkable and unstoppable. I catch a glimpse of Sam through the trees, a swift flash of blue in a world of white. We call out to each other, advising on the best line, leap frogging and then meeting back up. I traverse above a small cliff and a no-fall zone, then pop out above a wide-open field that’s mine for the taking. I float weightless, leaving wide s-shaped tracks in my wake. Yes, it’s good skiing for Maine. But it’d be good for out West, too. In fact, it’s pretty damn good for anywhere.
We take a small break, wanting to prolong the run. It’s protected here and I remove my puffy and sip hot tea from a thermos. Then we cut a hard left and follow a cat track down, popping out near the base. We head back to the hotel before beginning the Sunday evening return trip to Portland. Next week is sure to be warmer. Outdoorsy types are thinking more about taking their road bikes out than their skis. Closing day is looming, but I’m not wistful. Christian’s already offered us room on his couch. We’re coming back next weekend.