The Sugarloaf Way

A new competition center celebrates community on the Sugarloaf slopes.

A crowd has gathered on the Narrow Gauge trail below the finish line of the 2017 U.S. Alpine Championships Super G. Red and blue gates snake down the course, which begins near the Spillway Crosscut and features a vertical drop of 582 meters. As the fans shuffle their feet and rub their hands together to stay warm, a small figure, dressed in a form-fitting racing suit and helmet, hurtles over the headwall. The edges of her skis bite into the turns with a sharp, rapid shuuush. She tucks into a strong finish and greets her Carrabassett Valley Academy (CVA) teammates with poles raised as she comes to a halt at the bottom of the run.

Beginning with its first World Cup event in 1971, the slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain have tested the skills of countless elite skiers and snowboarders—many of whom came up through CVA programs. In 2016, athletes of all ability levels found a new home at the $2.1 million Bill and Joan Alfond Competition Center, just down the hill from the Narrow Gauge racecourse. The competition center, first conceived of more than two decades ago, represents a collaborative effort between Sugarloaf Mountain Resort, the town of Carrabassett Valley, the Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club, and CVA.

“I’ve done a few projects in my life, but this one was exceptional,” says Bill Alfond. He and Joan are members of a fourth-generation Sugarloaf family. “CVA gathered a phenomenal team of staff and volunteers who worked together seamlessly to create an outstanding competition center.” The Bill and Joan Alfond Foundation gave a $1 million grant for the center. Members of the Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club, CVA supporters, Sugarloaf, the town of Carrabassett Valley, and the community at large donated the rest.

“We have a great relationship with CVA and with the town of Carrabassett,” says Karl Strand, general manager of Sugarloaf Mountain Resort. “All three of us work hard to try to promote each other. We all succeed together and help each other when we can. We all coexist as one big community. I don’t see it as three separate parts.”

Located on the former site of the Sugarloaf gondola- loading terminal, the competition center is the first significant new building on the mountain in 20 years, Strand says. “Any company needs to grow,” he says. “You need to adapt to whatever is happening in the marketplace. We have generations of skiers at Sugarloaf, but every generation has new needs and wants.” Strand, who has been skiing at Sugarloaf since 1987, has been in the hospitality industry for his entire professional career—mostly in golf and skiing. He became the general manager of Sugarloaf in 2015. “It’s almost like running a little town,” says Strand, who carries himself with the surety of an athlete, and seems unfazed by the constantly ringing phones and requests coming from his office staff and others. “We have daycare, we run a ski resort, we have food and beverage, we teach skiing, there’s a small police force. You have to know a lot about different things.”

The competition center is a shared facility, reflecting both the mountain’s past and its future. Sugarloafers Rick Goduti and Maggie Stanley from the Portland-based Goduti-Thomas Architects designed it; Linwood Doble of Kingfield was the construction manager. The exterior of the building is at once rustic and modern, with skyward-reaching windows flanked by warm wood. The lobby, a hive of constant activity, is dedicated to the family of the late H. King Cummings, one of the visionaries behind CVA. Recreational skiers and racers lounge next to the fireplace in the large, airy Gondola Room, which features storage cubbies and a warming kitchen.

Across the lobby, U.S. Alpine Championship race officials are meeting in the Ski Club Heritage conference room, named in honor of Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club leaders Bruce and Kathy Miles. The ski club has been in existence as long as the ski resort: Amos Winter, Stub Taylor, and other club members known as the “Bigelow Boys” cut the mountain’s first trail, Winter’s Way, in 1950. The ski club was an early supporter and fundraiser for the competition center and continues to champion initiatives such as the Sugarloaf ski/skate program, which provides winter sports instruction for kids in local schools.

The second floor of the competition center has offices for staff from the ski club, Sugarloaf, and CVA, as well as dedicated team rooms for the Colby College and University of Maine ski teams, and lockers for staff and coaches from various programs. The new facility is also a basecamp for students from CVA. Thanks to the efforts of H. King Cummings and his contemporaries, CVA opened its doors as a five-month, winter-term tutorial program in 1982. CVA is now a private middle and high school with a full college preparatory program and training for multiple snow sports, including snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and backcountry pursuits. Many CVA students come from the Carrabassett Valley region and began skiing in their earliest years. “We start the children off skiing when they are very small,” says Strand. “When they get into their teens, they go into the weekend program. We are always trying to build the sport, whether you become a recreational skier, enjoy freeriding, or want to be competitive.” CVA has more than 200 athletes in its weekend racing programs.

U.S. Ski Team member Sam Morse grew up at Sugarloaf. He went through the CVA weekend programs and eventually attended school there. After graduating as valedictorian of his CVA class in 2013, he became a member of the U.S. Ski Team and attends Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, part time. Today he is waiting for his turn at the top of the U.S. Alpine Championships Super G course.

A row of photographers looks up the mountain, their cameras’ large black lenses ready for the perfect shot. Children on skis sprawl beneath the evergreens, and “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black-Eyed Peas streams over the intercom.

This is the sixth time that the U.S. Alpine Championships have been held at Sugarloaf. They also took place here in 1996, 1997, 2006, 2008, and 2015. Beginning with the Tall Timber Classic World Cup Championship in 1971, the mountain has become known as one of the premier venues on the East Coast. The Narrow Gauge trail, named after the narrow gauge railroad that previously serviced the logging industry on the mountain, was one of the few trails at the time that had not been cut by founder Amos Winter. Much has changed since then. When Sugarloaf hosted the U.S. Alpine Championships in 2015, U.S. Olympians Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin took center stage.

Morse is a blur of red as he skillfully maneuvers down the course. Seconds tick on the clock, and the crowd collectively holds its breath. The March air is damp, carrying with it the faint scent of grilled hamburgers from the base lodge. Morse barrels across the finish line to the cheers of his onlookers, and the reporters grab their notebooks and voice recorders as they jostle for position. Morse’s face is flushed with exertion, taking on the hue of his racing suit, but he has a broad smile. He skis toward the exit and reaches across the barrier to take the helmet of a ten-year- old boy who has presented it for Morse’s signature. He signs the helmet and gives the young skier a high five.

“Sam Morse is a wonderful young man,” says Kate Webber Punderson, head of school at CVA. “Someone who’s always been very introspective and full of gratitude. He’s so appreciative of the opportunities he had at CVA and at Sugarloaf, and the community that has supported him, that he too wants to give back.” Like Morse, Punderson grew up on the mountain. She moved to town after her parents, Peter and Martha B. Webber, bought the Sugarloaf Inn when she was five. Her father was a ski racer and her mother a recreational skier. After graduating from CVA as the valedictorian in 1989, Punderson went on to ski competitively at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.

Punderson, who has been in her current position at CVA since 2011, is a thoughtful listener. She speaks of her students with both affection and gravity. “We’re very intentional about the programming we put in place to develop leadership skills, kindness, civility, and respect,” she says. “Those values really are the foundation of what we do at CVA.”

Punderson enjoys seeing her students excel individually—three young women in CVA’s junior class are taking part in the U.S. Alpine Championships this weekend— but acknowledges that this does not take place in a vacuum. “Everyone will perform better and be more successful if they are supportive of one another,” says Punderson. “We work on that with our athletes. It’s really important.”

Like Strand, Punderson sees the greater Sugarloaf community as an ecosystem that can benefit from all who live and work within it. “CVA is providing professional jobs and economic growth in Carrabassett Valley and in Franklin County,” says Punderson. “We’re able to keep families and draw families and young professionals to Sugarloaf and to Carrabassett.”

In the evening, after the racers have completed their runs and the lifts have closed, Sugarloaf hosts an awards ceremony in the courtyard of the base lodge. Those who have participated in the 2017 U.S. Alpine Championships are given credit for the day’s accomplishments to the applause of their friends and family. In the background, the Bill and Joan Alfond Competition Center stands as a living monument to the idea that those who have the fastest times are not the only ones who win. What is good for one is often good for all. “I want to help the state of Maine and continue to help keep skiing and snowboarding alive for many kids, beyond the walls of the school and out into the wider community,” says Punderson. It is likely that Amos Winter and the Bigelow Boys felt the same.