One Big Mountain

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The first time Scott Donaldson drove through Carrabassett Valley, Maine, to Sugarloaf/USA, he paid no attention to the sign with the town motto that warns, "From here on your life will never be the same." Unaware, he went up the lifts, down the trails, drank a beer at The Bag, and said, "Nice place, but what's all the fuss?" The second time he skied Sugarloaf, Donaldson, who works at another major ski area in Maine, said, "The employees are actually happy there. Are they on something?" The fourth time he skied Sugarloaf, something mysterious happened; Donaldson discovered that the true magic of Sugarloaf isn't physical-it's a feeling in the air.

Not that the physical side of Sugarloaf is anything to complain about. You approach the resort on Route 27, along the ice-and-rock-filled Carrabassett River, which Benedict Arnold and 1,100 soldiers navigated in a failed attempt to capture Quebec City in 1775. You round the bend they call "Oh My Gosh" corner and there it is: one big pyramid of granite, the archetype of a mountain, offering 2,820 feet of vertical rise with 126 trails, defining Sugarloaf as the second-tallest ski resort and the only lift-accessed above-treeline skiing in the East.

But it's not just big. Since all the lifts radiate up from a central base, it's easy to find people and hard to get lost. Most of the area's condominiums, houses and hotel rooms are located in a village below the base lodge area, so you're not forced to look at real estate as you ride the chairlifts. Whereas some ski areas own the restaurants and bars at the base, Sugarloaf has encouraged independent businesses, resulting in funky and diverse on-mountain eating and drinking. And all of this is surrounded by the wilds of Maine: vast stretches of quiet, untrammeled mountain, forest and lake.

The rap back in the Fifties when the first trails were cut at Sugarloaf was that even though it was a big wonder of a bald-topped mountain, it would never amount to anything because it was too far from any major cities. Today that's still an issue. Anywhere in Maine is too far to drive for many people in the Northeast, and even though Sugarloaf is only about 45 minutes farther from Boston and Portland than Sunday River, people act as though it's across the Arctic Circle. That's why such a mighty place attracts only 350,000 skiers each year, which in turn has put a crimp in its cash flow.

But its acquisition by American Skiing Company in 1996 provided an infusion of money for lifts and snowmaking-and a resulting rise in skier visits. Still, Sugarloaf's remote location acts as a kind of filter: Only a particularly determined type of skier comes here, mostly hardy northern New Englanders, some of whom drive many hours every weekend, proudly passing other ski resorts along the way.

You see this Yankee loyalty in the Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club. Founded in 1950, a year before the ski area, by a mixture of Maine bluebloods, locals and skiing fanatics, the ski club not only gave birth to the resort but to Sugarloaf's reputation as a racing powerhouse. An amazing 1,200 members strong, the ski club until recently ran every race at the mountain, from serious World Cup downhills to junior races to the Heavy Weight Races for people over 200 pounds. And it still provides virtually all of the racing program's volunteer labor. That little old lady you see checking gates on Narrow Gauge might have cut Sugarloaf's first trail. The Club also helped create Carrabassett Valley Academy, a young ski academy that sent four graduates to the Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Some ski areas came into existence in order to make money for corporations. Amos Winter, generally considered to be the father of Sugarloaf, set an entirely different tone. Born in 1901, he was the son of a successful merchant from nearby Kingfield, Maine, and raised in an environment that respected eccentricity. His father, for instance, married a German opera singer, who caused a local stir by flying theerman flag every day during World War I.

Folks who knew him say Winter wasn't a particularly graceful skier, but he could get down anything, and he was passionate about the sport. Shining a big spotlight onto the little hill behind his house, he taught many Kingfield kids to ski. Then he'd take them to skin up and ski down Bigelow Mountain, a ridge facing Sugarloaf where, during the Depression, the CCC cut a trail and built a cabin. People referred to Winter and his followers as The Bigelow Boys.

In 1949, when a power company flooded the valley near Bigelow, drowning access to the trail, The Bigelow Boys turned their attention toward Sugarloaf Mountain. The crowd that would become the Ski Club, together with local volunteers, went to work cutting trails and clearing the access road. Harvey Packard, a Kingfield native and semi-retired Sugarloaf ski instructor, remembers as a teenager helping Buster Morrison, who owned the local drug store, on summer afternoons. They'd pack dynamite onto boulders with mud, "then run like hell." But Amos was the guy who, as Packard says, "kept the ball rolling." The first trail they cut they named Winter's Way.

Amos Winter became Sugarloaf's first executive manager. Some say he repelled as many customers as he attracted. When the engine to the first rope-tow ran out of gas, the rope would slip backwards, people would fall off, and, recalls Joni Blanchard, "Amos would laugh and laugh." He once chased off a volunteer ski patroller, saying "we've got enough free-loaders around here." Notoriously cheap, he resisted indoor plumbing. When asked in the late Fifties what improvements had been made to the resort Amos said, "We just installed the finest two-holer in the State of Maine."

Stub Taylor, Sugarloaf's first patrol director, says Amos "drove like hell. He wouldn't stop for a deer or a rabbit or anything." He'd drive a pack of kids to Tuckerman Ravine, then on the way back, while they slept in the truck outside, he'd dance for hours at a roadhouse near Rumford called the Top Hat. "Dancing," he said, "is the way you live."

Winter's spirit is alive and kicking at Sugarloaf/USA. The overriding feeling here is an old-time concept that has been outlawed by khaki-wearing executives at too many corporate ski resorts: fun. A man named Groovy Garbage started the Carrabassett Dump Parties back in 1969. Chip Carey started the spring Reggae Fest phenomenon in 1988. In 1998, when then General Manager Warren Cook got it in his mind that he wanted to see Jerry Jeff Walker and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the same stage he just went out and hired them, and then he invited everyone in the valley to come and celebrate.

Events like the Ski Club's annual Founder's Night attract hundreds of people, from 75-year-old men with crewcuts to 20-year-old boarder girls with crewcuts to former hippies. As they dance or swap stories about the old days, they're united by their enthusiasm-and they're all equally likely to be wearing something wacky. There's Audrey Leonard, club Treasurer, armored with all of her season passes since 1962, and a young telemark dude in raincoat, John Lennon sunglasses and Jackie Kennedy wig. Don a cheap green tuxedo at some ski areas, and they'll have you arrested for clashing with the color scheme. At Sugarloaf, on the other hand, beautiful young women will come up to you and say, "Hey, nice threads."

But to call Sugarloaf a party place is to do it injustice; any frat can tap a keg and turn up the music. The community at Sugarloaf is warm and inclusive, like a gathering of clans. Joni Blanchard first skied Sugarloaf in 1954, when she was 21 and the only way to ski the only summit trail, Winter's Way, was to hike it on skins. "They used to put bottles of beer along the trail for me," she says, "otherwise I wouldn't go up."

She and her husband, Thatcher (Doc) Blanchard, Jr., built an A-frame ski-house near Sugarloaf and named it SIAWOL-Sugarloaf Is A Way Of Life. They commuted 460 miles every weekend in their unheated VW Beetle and endured their lack of electricity, indoor plumbing and electric lights because, she says, "it was a neat little community. We were the snow nomads!"

When her husband Doc died suddenly in 1988 she was amazed at the outpouring of community support-young kids she didn't know offered to shovel her walk or split her firewood. She discovered she needed to find work or she'd lose her house, but she hadn't held a job for 30 years. She went to see Warren Cook. "You've got a good head on your shoulders," he told her, "let's see what you can do." Now she runs the Women's Turn programs and says "I hope I go out of here feet first. This is home. This is where I want to be."

Joni Blanchard is not alone. John Diller, a freestyler of the Wayne Wong era, came to Sugarloaf in 1971 to teach and coach. He's still there, now the managing director of Sugarloaf Mountain. Ask him what makes the place special and he says without hesitation, "the staff."

It's not easy to work at a ski resort. Your typical manager works a law partner's hours for a mail carrier's salary. Your typical liftie makes minimum wage to swing chairs in the freezing cold. So why is it that the employees at Sugarloaf smile at you and come back each year for more?

Partly because they love the ski scene at Sugarloaf, and also because they know how far Sugarloaf has come. In 1986, when Warren Cook arrived, this Dartmouth grad, Vietnam-vet Marine and former Olympic hockey goalie found Sugarloaf in Chapter 11, with too much debt, a neglected skiing infrastructure, a demoralized staff and dwindling skier visits. Cook turned things around through a combination of hard work, attention to detail and an almost revolutionary approach to management.

His willingness to change beds, park cars or load lifts earned him huge employee loyalty, and his training and incentive programs turned Sugarloaf into a model of customer satisfaction. He decided that if Sugarloaf was going to retain visitors it needed to excel at customer service, and realized that that would happen only if his employees were satisfied.

Which explains events like the Snowmaker's Ball. Snowmaking is a hellish job, working for low wages on a dark, wind-swept mountain, handling hoses full of water and high-pressure air, where the wrong move from the guy on the valves can send you rocketing across the trail.

At too many other resorts, snowmakers don't get enough respect. At Sugarloaf/USA, in late spring, management rents them tuxedos, throws them a formal ball and reserves them rooms for $18 so they don't have to drive home afterwards. It's the social event of the season, the employees' prom, the kind of party, says Sales Director Cynthia Richmond, where for a month ahead of time women talk about what they're going to wear.

Scott Donaldson, 37, happened to attend the 18th-annual Snowmaker's Ball last year. He listened to the funk band, watched beefy guys in tuxedos dance with women in clingy gowns and rubbed elbows with various high-ranking Sugarloaf officials who were cutting loose themselves. He laughed along with the traditional spoof video, this year featuring a Star Wars invasion of Sugarloaf by a rival mountain to the south. "Wow," Donaldson said afterward. "What an amazing collection of people. I've gotten more warm fuzzies in two hours at Sugarloaf than in four years at my present job."

That's because contrary to what the car salesmen and romance novelists would have us believe, love at first sight is mostly a myth. Just like with the person you marry, the car you drive or the town you live in, the best pairings happen not from some instant feeling of lust, but because something connects on a level that's deeper than physical. Well, Donaldson was finally smitten. Right there and then he made plans to quit his job, pack his bags and move to Sugarloaf.

Nothing the locals hadn't seen before: just those mysterious vibes changing

When her husband Doc died suddenly in 1988 she was amazed at the outpouring of community support-young kids she didn't know offered to shovel her walk or split her firewood. She discovered she needed to find work or she'd lose her house, but she hadn't held a job for 30 years. She went to see Warren Cook. "You've got a good head on your shoulders," he told her, "let's see what you can do." Now she runs the Women's Turn programs and says "I hope I go out of here feet first. This is home. This is where I want to be."Joni Blanchard is not alone. John Diller, a freestyler of the Wayne Wong era, came to Sugarloaf in 1971 to teach and coach. He's still there, now the managing director of Sugarloaf Mountain. Ask him what makes the place special and he says without hesitation, "the staff."It's not easy to work at a ski resort. Your typical manager works a law partner's hours for a mail carrier's salary. Your typical liftie makes minimum wage to swing chairs in the freezing cold. So why is it that the employees at Sugarloaf smile at you and come back each year for more?Partly because they love the ski scene at Sugarloaf, and also because they know how far Sugarloaf has come. In 1986, when Warren Cook arrived, this Dartmouth grad, Vietnam-vet Marine and former Olympic hockey goalie found Sugarloaf in Chapter 11, with too much debt, a neglected skiing infrastructure, a demoralized staff and dwindling skier visits. Cook turned things around through a combination of hard work, attention to detail and an almost revolutionary approach to management.His willingness to change beds, park cars or load lifts earned him huge employee loyalty, and his training and incentive programs turned Sugarloaf into a model of customer satisfaction. He decided that if Sugarloaf was going to retain visitors it needed to excel at customer service, and realized that that would happen only if his employees were satisfied.Which explains events like the Snowmaker's Ball. Snowmaking is a hellish job, working for low wages on a dark, wind-swept mountain, handling hoses full of water and high-pressure air, where the wrong move from the guy on the valves can send you rocketing across the trail.At too many other resorts, snowmakers don't get enough respect. At Sugarloaf/USA, in late spring, management rents them tuxedos, throws them a formal ball and reserves them rooms for $18 so they don't have to drive home afterwards. It's the social event of the season, the employees' prom, the kind of party, says Sales Director Cynthia Richmond, where for a month ahead of time women talk about what they're going to wear.Scott Donaldson, 37, happened to attend the 18th-annual Snowmaker's Ball last year. He listened to the funk band, watched beefy guys in tuxedos dance with women in clingy gowns and rubbed elbows with various high-ranking Sugarloaf officials who were cutting loose themselves. He laughed along with the traditional spoof video, this year featuring a Star Wars invasion of Sugarloaf by a rival mountain to the south. "Wow," Donaldson said afterward. "What an amazing collection of people. I've gotten more warm fuzzies in two hours at Sugarloaf than in four years at my present job."That's because contrary to what the car salesmen and romance novelists would have us believe, love at first sight is mostly a myth. Just like with the person you marry, the car you drive or the town you live in, the best pairings happen not from some instant feeling of lust, but because something connects on a level that's deeper than physical. Well, Donaldson was finally smitten. Right there and then he made plans to quit his job, pack his bags and move to Sugarloaf.Nothing the locals hadn't seen before: just those mysterious vibes changing

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One Big Mountain: Mountain Tour /ski/feature/99/694.html>One Big Mountain: Almanac

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