The top station of Sugarloaf's ancient gondola has all the character of a meat locker.
On one hoarfrosted, snow-splotched wall, a sign reads: If you go through this gate, you need to know: This terrain is unlike anything you have skied in the East.
The landscape outside is filled with stubby, snowcaked trees, stumps, branches, sharp rocks, and patches of blue ice. It is a different world, a world left virtually treeless by glaciers that scraped the mountaintop down to bare rock ages ago. Only the hardiest vegetation grows here. Only the hardiest skiers ski here, on Sugarloaf's Snowfields¿the mountain's crowning glory and quintessential ski experience.
The view from the top is a 360-degree panorama of Mount Katahdin, the state's highest peak; New Hampshire's Mount Washington; the 4,000-foot peaks of the Longfellow Range; and a patchwork of logging clear-cuts in endless acres of Maine woods.
But we don't linger; we're on a mission. Local ski bum Greg Caruso and I cut across the wind-scoured front face, our edges making the sound of a knife cutting Styrofoam. Little balls of snow skitter across frozen ripples like shattered glass across ice. We traverse to the edge, where we peek over the back side. It looks more unskiable than what we've just crossed. The only option is down the nearly bald face, which is so steep it drops out of sight below our ski tips.
It's my fourth day at the Loaf, and I've started to figure out why it has such a loyal following. Why so many skiers and riders spend winter after winter here. And why they don't go West. The Snowfields are one reason, but it cuts deeper than that.
Greg, a 26-year-old from Millinocket, Maine, works the two-to-10 shift behind the bar, serving beer and slinging pizzas, at the on-slope Sugartree health club. After three years on lifts¿he worked his way up to foreman, at $6.75 an hour¿he's landed one of the more coveted ski-bum jobs.
As often happens, he just fell into this good fortune. For six summers, he's been a raft guide on the Penobscot River. Fellow raft guides skied the Loaf and worked at the health club in the winter. Now he does, too. He shares a $400-a-month log cabin in the woods with another raft guide, and by ski-bum standards, it's considered plush.
Steve Pierce is a Sugarloaf institution. He's a bartender who actually lists "ski bum" under occupation on his tax return. A bearlike mountain man with a big, bushy beard and curly brown hair, Steve has skied all over New England. But he tells me nothing can compare to Sugarloaf. "When I come around that mountain ... the view captures me every day."
What he's talking about is called "Ohmygosh Corner." About four miles south of Sugarloaf, there's a big bend in Route 27, and when you come around it, the mountain comes suddenly and unexpectedly into view. And it is huge. A single, hulking, bald-topped massif. "One Big Mother of a Mountain," the brochure copy reads. From the 4,237-foot summit, the ski area stretches 2,820 feet to the base, starting out wicked steep up top and gradually lessening in pitch until it spreads out in a gentle apron at the bottom. When that fills your windshield, it's impressive.
Steve started as a night auditor at the Sugarloaf Inn in the early '70s, with the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. He lived in an old wooden A-frame with no running water. It cost $50 a month, which he split with another guy. They'd sneak showers at the Inn and fill up plastic containers with water from the spigot at the general store.
Now, at 47, Steve's got more responsibility. He helped form the town of Carrabassett Valley in 1972 and has been active in town politics ever since. Sugarloaf doesn't have a mayor, but if it did, it would be Steve. Still, being a bartender at Gepetto's in the base village gives him the flexibility to schedule his day around skiing.
We take the SuperQuad to King's Landing, a winding blue run with an even pitch, and I follow Steve, who's makinng short, zippy turns down the fall line. Then he breaks rhythm and speeds off in great swooping arcs through the soft corduroy. Steve's already around the next bend; I'm just following contrails. We take a run down Narrow Gauge, part of the FIS downhill course. It starts with a series of big cruising turns, then dumps into a steep headwall. We are humming. Mach schnell.
On the next run, we hook up with Kip Files, another Gepetto's bartender. He's sporting a natty gray jacket, a long wool scarf, old Atomic race skis, and a shiny new Boeri helmet. Typical Sugarloaf. Also typical is the speed at which he skis. Maybe it's the steep, wide-open, immaculately groomed runs. Maybe it's the confidence that comes from years of skiing on boilerplate. "I used to think I was fast," Kip says, "but when I came to Sugarloaf, I met people who could time me with a calendar." Not surprisingly, helmets have come into vogue on the mountain. When I ask Kip about his, he starts talking about open-casket funerals and squirrel fodder (chunks of brain left on the hill by helmetless skiers).
Not every run here is groomed, though. Upper Double Bitter is a double black and one of several trails that's designated as a "Wild Thing" area: no grooming, no snowmaking. It's skiing like Mother Nature, not Father Otten, meant it to be. The afternoon sun breaks through the trees, casting zebra stripes on the slope. With a thick blanket of new snow on top, it's like skiing on velvet. But under that plush layer is raw mountain: bumps and banks, sharp curves and steep drop-offs. It's a roller-coaster ride that has us grinning uncontrollably. The trail spits us out onto the Alpine Park, where grooming machines have sculpted manmade snow to resemble, well, Upper Double Bitter.
Living in the Loaf presents certain convenience challenges. The place is remote. For some, a doctor visit can mean a two-hour drive. The movies and a Big Mac are nearly an hour away in The Big City (Farmington, population 7,500), with not a single stoplight in between. "You plan for all your chores," Steve says. And you do a lot of catalog shopping. For out-of-towners, it's a four-hour drive from Boston, eight from New York City. I chose to fly in, which took about two and a half hours, two planes, and $360. Then it was an hour and 45 minutes from Augusta on a twisty road. Probably would've been less if I hadn't been stuck behind one of the big logging trucks that rumble down Route 27.
But the ride along the Carrabassett River was worth it. And somehow the effort of the journey made the arrival more worthwhile¿the way hiking to ski somehow makes the turns sweeter. "It's remote and rugged and beautiful," Steve says. "It's the kind of place you leave your door unlocked." It's also the kind of place, I found, that obsesses about the weather. The local TV news spends more time on meteorology than Denver stations spend on the JonBenet Ramsey case. "Strengthening clouds, embedded thunderstorms, cold fronts, silent winds, warm air, 16 degrees in Bangor, nine on the top of Mount Washington..."
Okay, so some people groove on the remote factor, and there's the Snowfields, but I still couldn't help wondering, Why not go West to ski bum? The more people I met, the clearer the answer became. There's something in the water. Kip grew up on a lake outside Bangor and in the summers he captains the Victory Chimes, a century-old three-masted schooner, sailing the Maine coast. Nearly every ski bum I met in Sugarloaf has some connection to water.