See if you can guess where I am: After heading into the resort’s pro shop to pick up the Völkl skis I had reserved, I’m told by a sheepish employee that Dr. McDreamy of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame already had grabbed my planks. Great, I thought. Skunked by actor Patrick Dempsey. So, am I at Vail? Aspen? Squaw Valley?
Actually, none of the above. Dempsey, a Maine native, got the better of me at Sugarloaf in Vacationland’s western mountains, during the resort’s annual Sugarloaf Charity Summit (a heart-warming event that has raised millions in the fight against cancer and draws luminaries from throughout the region). Still, truth be told, Sugarloaf is never going to be mistaken as the second coming of Mascara Mountain (the sobriquet that Sugarbush, Vermont, earned in the 1960s when it became the darling of the New York City glitterati). And that’s just fine with Sugarloafers.
The mountain is a New England classic — a solitary mound of granite with some of the best terrain east of the Mississippi. Jamie Marshall, who has set up shop as a coach at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, grew up here, attending Carrabassett Valley Academy and racing at “The Loaf.”
“Having Sugarloaf as a home and a place to grow up was unreal,” said Marshall. “It’s amazing how, even though I go back much less frequently as I used to, the people are still the same and greet me with a ‘PBR on me!’ when I see them at The Rack.
“There’s much less ego than at other mountains, and wherever you go you’re bound to share a lift ride with a friend or a friend-to-be,” he said.
There’s a basic truth in Marshall’s words that runs far below the surface. Sugarloaf has a good-natured vibe that most resorts can only hope to capture (and usually can’t, no matter how well-intentioned those efforts are). It’s almost as if the inhospitable nature of western Maine’s weather has created a remarkably hospitable, and good-natured, group of locals who welcome visitors to their corner of New England.
“Sugarloaf is special because there is a breed of human who calls themselves Sugarloafers,” said Jamie’s mother, Nancy Marshall, who was once the resort’s communications director and now owns one of the state’s largest marketing firms, Marshall Communications. “People who call themselves Sugarloafers embrace the place so deeply that they make it part of their DNA.”
It was Nancy Marshall who first welcomed me to this special mountain, way back in the 1980s. As a youngster growing up in New Jersey, I had those preteen infatuations with a number of hills, like Hunter Mountain in New York, Glen Ellen (now Sugarbush North) in Vermont, and Gunstock in New Hampshire. But those were fleeting romances of a young heart. I fell for Sugarloaf hard the first time I saw her.
My initial impressions were unforgettable. Driving around the corner while heading north on Route 27, after five hours on the road, I was taken by the sheer size of the place. The 4,237-foot peak — the second largest in Maine after Mount Katahdin — literally looms over Carrabassett Valley. That elevation provides ample room for the resort’s 2,820 feet of vertical to the base lodge, the most continuous vertical in the East and second in total vertical only to Killington’s 3,050 feet. (Way back in the day, before Sugarloaf came under the American Skiing Company umbrella, there was a hysterical sign on one of the resort’s chairlift stanchions that proclaimed — and I’m paraphrasing — “If you were at Sunday River, you’d be at the summit now.” Now that is a fun rivalry!)
“(Former Sugarloaf Inn owner) Peter Webber has said, over and over and over, ‘If God were to build a ski mountain, it would be steep up top, gradually getting flatter and flatter toward the bottom, and everything would funnel right to the base lodge,’ ” said Jamie Marshall. “That’s exactly what Sugarloaf does”
During my initial sojourns in the mid- to late-1980s — my wild youth — Sugarloaf already was a major player in the New England ski scene. The resort’s distinctive blue-and-white triangle logos were ubiquitous on bumpers throughout the Northeast and beyond. In fact, the triangle nicely represents one of the things I love about Sugarloaf — a single big mountain, with an outstanding network of artfully etched trails (and the only “above-treeline” snowfields in the East).
Skiing came to Sugarloaf Mountain in 1950, when the Sugarloaf Mountain Ski Club, led by Amos Winter (the resort’s lovable moose mascot still goes by the name Amos), Stub Taylor and “the Bigelow Boys” cut the first trail on the hill, with 1,800 feet of vertical. It was the start of something grand. Over the next two decades, the resort grew gradually, with the addition of trails, lifts and lodging (highlighted by the Sugarloaf Inn). World-class racing and snowmaking arrived in the early 1970s, adding an undeniable cachet.
I caught the tail end of the “boom” years of the 1970s, when the condo craze swept through Carrabassett Valley. While the resort, and surrounding towns, had some cool lodging options, ranging from fabulous to downright funky, my friends and I were scraping by on early career budgets, and would often stuff about a dozen or more powderhounds into a condo. Not much for intimacy, but that wasn’t a priority back then. My crew, whether siblings or friends and colleagues, just wanted to get on the hill. Early.
If the prior night brought snow, we’d make a beeline to the snowfields at Sugarloaf’s summit. Or we’d make the trek along Spillway to get to favorite black runs on the eastern side of the hill, off the King Pine chairlift. Trails like Ripsaw, Choker, Flume and the ominous Widowmaker (no, it’s not as bad as the name implies). Or we might opt to drop in on Bubblecuffer, Boomauger, Winter’s Way or Gondola Line. All could range from challenging to hair-raising, depending on the amount of traffic they had seen the day before. Our legs were young and strong and could handle all the pleasure and pain that these runs could dish out.
“Only a handful of New England alpine ski areas transcend being resorts to achieve cult status, and Sugarloaf is one of the them,” said longtime Sugarloaf resident and travel writer Hilary Nangle. “It’s not shiny or new. It lacks glitz and glamor, and the weather can be brutal.
“When I was young and foolish, skiing in a 60-below wind child was a badge of honor,” said Nangle. “But there’s truth to the adage: ‘If you can ski here, you can ski anywhere.’ Back when I had decent knees, I loved the challenges of Misery Whip and Skidder and playing in the Snowfields. Now, on a bluebird day, I don’t think there’s a better adrenalin rush than a freshly groomed Gondi Line. Nothing makes me smile more when conditions are primo than ebbing and flowing summit to base down Binder and Scoot.”
For racers, like Jamie Marshall and the Carrabassett Valley Academy crew, Narrow Gauge is an unparalleled run.
“It has everything and it really never gets old,” said Marshall. “If only I could have ever figured out how to exit headwall with as much speed as I wanted.”
But the challenge of the race course was no match for the vagaries of Maine weather.
“Antarctica is the second coldest land mass on earth, right behind any scheduled day of racing downhill at Sugarloaf,” said Marshall with a laugh.
Like any longtime relationship, my feelings toward the resort have changed, and evolved over the past four-plus decades that we’ve been “together.” Now known simply as Sugarloaf, the resort has never failed to disappoint me, whether we shared epic snow days or long weekends of freezing rain (it’s amazing how many ills can be cured by a massage at the Sugarloaf Sports & Fitness Center, a good soak in the public whirlpools, or a beer sampler at The Rack at the base of the resort Access Road).
Things first changed when I met Lauri, now my wife. Lauri is an athlete, but as a Kansas native she was more accustomed to the more predictable Colorado mountain experience instead of the gritty New England version. The situation required an adjustment on my part, which I was more than happy to make, given my infatuation with Lauri and my newfound sport of snowboarding. We hung out more on smooth, steep groomers, like Haul Back, Hay Burner and Competition Hill, or blue terrain like Sluice, Ramdown, Springboard and King’s Landing.
For après ski, we’d head to the Widowmaker. True story — Lauri first met Nancy Marshall at the Widowmaker. “Want to do a shot of tequila?” asked Marshall, and the two of them hit it off like long-lost cousins.
Later, after Lauri and I got married, and our daughters Maddi and Brynne came along, I got re-acclimated to beginner terrain, putting the snowboard into storage. Again, Sugarloaf rose to the occasion(s). My girls thoroughly enjoyed the resort’s day-care options and top-notch ski school, but our “family” runs along Tote Road, Timberline, Boardwalk, Wiffletree, Poleline and Winter’s Way helped nurture these two young ladies. Today, I’m almost certain, they are now skiers for life.
When Brynne announced she wanted to try snowboarding, I dusted off my trusty Burton and the two of us headed to the resort’s three terrain parks, and later the boardercross course on Sidewinder designed by Olympian Seth Wescott (who, by the way, also owns The Rack). During my visit last winter, a local suggested Double Bitter and Hayburner, and I spent half the day on these fun little roller coasters.
These options, however, simply represent a portion of the available terrain. All totaled, Sugarloaf claims 57 miles of trails, with a total of 162 trails and glades (the region’s 200-inch average snowfall is supplemented by 618 acres of snowmaking coverage, which accounts for roughly 95 percent of the trail network). To get people on the slopes, Sugarloaf has 13 lifts (including two high-speed super quads and three high-capacity quads) that enable the resort to transport more than 19,400 skiers per hour.
Just as important as the terrain, again, is the resort’s all-embracing vibe. No disrespect to the many fine resorts of New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as Sunday River to the south, but you simply cannot find better people than those who work, and ski and ride, at The Loaf. That holds true for the lift attendants, the day-care providers, the ticket sales staff, the bartenders and waitstaff, the ski shop gang at the Downhill Supply Company, and the valet crew at the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel.
Folks here trust their sense of whether or not you’re the real deal. By and large, they’re spot on. Sugarloaf doesn’t suffer fools, or knuckleheads, kindly, either on the mountain or off. I like that. Again, I think that’s tied directly to the somewhat complicated relationship with Mother Nature and Old Man Winter, both of whom are known to be notoriously fickle in these parts.
“It’s always a special trip, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — ‘You never know what you’re going to get’ — in terms of conditions,” said my wife. “However, there are so many aspects to Sugarloaf that are always a sure bet for fun and good times, that it’s always worth the time spent getting to this mountain.”
Which, again, comes back to a great hill, and great customer service. That positive atmosphere hasn’t been beaten down by overbearing visitors.
“Given the drive and sometimes difficult conditions on the hill, they need to make an effort to make sure this is a mountain you will want to return to,” said Lauri. “It’s not just the skiing itself, but the culture they’ve carefully cultivated over the years, that make it such a special place.”
According to the resort’s long-range plan, called Sugarloaf 2020, owners “saw the greatest skier’s mountain in the East, in need of a little TLC. Sugarloaf 2020 is TLC on steroids. As we move forward with the plans it will be with a goal to amplify the physical pieces that make the mountain a great place to ski while nurturing the spirit that makes it Sugarloaf.”
Millions have been invested, accomplishing some really impressive things. Focusing solely on the winter side of the resort, Sugarloaf has brought hundreds of new snow guns online, and added to the grooming fleet to ensure that the trails benefit from any snow — natural or manmade — that falls.
The resort also has added the massive glade areas at Burnt Mountain and Brackett Basin, and the run-out through the “Eastern Territory” (so, yes, technically, Sugarloaf is no longer just a solitary peak). These forested amusement parks are tremendous, and a credit to Boyne’s long-term vision, giving “sidecountry” skiers even more variety and a touch of the backcountry experience (without going too far out of bounds).
Today, Sugarloaf is a resort in full. It can claim it has “something for everyone,” and back up that boast.
Of course, some things never change. The après-ski scene at Sugarloaf continues to rival the mountain itself. The Reggae Festival every spring is simply a can’t-miss event on the family calendar. Dining options are numerous, including several longtime favorites. Two of the best are actually off the hill, with Hug’s Italian Cuisine (owners also run Black Diamond Burritos in Sugarloaf Village during the winter months) on Route 27, near the new Maine Hostel, and Tufulio’s Restaurant and Bar further south toward Kingfield (close to the access trails to the Poplar Hut of the Maine Huts & Trails, a popular nordic destination).
At the base of the hill, in Village West, Hunker Down is a new option in the space formerly occupied by Gepetto’s. The establishment features sustainably raised meats done to perfection and crave-worthy comfort food. The Bag & Kettle boasts big, juicy burgers, soul-warming soups — yes, indulge yourself and order the Cheeseburger Soup; there is nothing better on a windy, bone-chilling day — and rollicking entertainment. During our last visit, U.S. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who owns a place at the resort, stopped in for lunch. And 45 North, at the high-end Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, offers upscale dining.
“My favorite après-ski spot is The Rack,” said Nancy Marshall. “I just love the people there and the entertainment. It’s on the shuttle route, too, so you can wait by the outdoor campfire for the shuttle and get a ride back to your condo or hotel room without getting behind the wheel.”
Speaking of entertainment, the aforementioned Widowmaker Lounge at the top of the base lodge is a hub of the resort’s après-ski scene, offering a full bar with more than a dozen beers on tap, and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. This was a gathering spot for me and my compadres during those rollicking early visits. Now I’m looking forward to revisiting with my daughters, both of whom will be able to order a drink legally by late January.
All of which brings me right back where I started. I’m fortunate, sharing so many enriching experiences with my first true skiing love. But I’m not alone. Ask any Sugarloafer.