Spring Skiing at Sugarloaf

 

Like so many other ski bums out there, I have a something of a love/hate relationship with the spring season. I love the forgiving snow, the big, soft bumps, and leaving all those extra layers at home. I hate seeing bare spots in the snow, or the thought of parking my skis in a closet for the next six months. Lately the warmer temperatures have started taking their sad toll on my local ski mountains around southern Vermont. I’ve heard that the change in season moves north at roughly 13 miles per day. So I figured that places like Sugarloaf way up in Maine should still have a few more good weeks left.

My wife, Krista, and I left Brattleboro on a rainy Friday afternoon in April, and headed north on I91. About 50 miles shy of the Canadian border, we hung a right and headed across the Great Northern Woods region of New Hampshire. We took the scenic route up Route 16 along the Androscoggin River into Maine. Three things happened as we pressed north: the rain changed to snow, the road became very bumpy, and the only hints of civilization were big yellow signs reading “High rate of moose collisions next 6 miles” spaced about six miles apart.

Late that afternoon we found our way to the Herbert Grand Hotel in tiny Kingfield (population 1,103). Stepping into the lobby is like stepping back in time. The Herbert maintains much of the decorum expected at a traditional grand hotel. My wife found the formal Victorian decoration to be nicely softened by personal and homey touches. The rooms are very comfortable, with no telephones except for an antique, and the bathrooms have many of the old fixtures. There are a few common sitting areas scattered around the hotel, and an old style barber’s chair downstairs.

On Saturday morning we started with a continental breakfast down in the guest kitchen. We later had a chance to chat with innkeepers Lynn and Marcie and found them to be both knowledgeable and accommodating. They have been operating the Herbert for the past two years, but can tell any number of stories about the hotel’s history. We have no reservations about recommending a stay at the Herbert Grand Hotel.

After breakfast we made the quick 15 minute drive up to Sugarloaf mountain, where a shuttle ferried us from the parking lot to the base lodge. A quick change and we were riding the Sugarloaf Superquad up the mountain. The lift ride took us up into the clouds, so we didn’t actually see much of the mountain on Saturday. We did catch a few breaks at the 4,237 foot summit however, and saw a superb cloud-top view of the world from Maine’s second highest peak.

I skied many of Sugarloaf’s 100+ open trails on Saturday and ended up with a pair of burning thighs to show for it. The snow was in fine spring condition and there were very few bare spots on the open trails. This was no surprise given that the two snowiest months at Sugarloaf are March and April. To put this into context, Sugarloaf had (first week in April) over 500 acres of open trail. Many eastern ski mountains have less terrain than that at 100% capacity. I can only imagine the state of my poor burning leg muscles when the mountain has all 131 trials and 651 developed acres open.

Krista had to stop early on Saturday after aggravating an existing knee injury in the weighty spring snow. She was more than a little upset by this, but said that the mountain Ambassadors and other staff were so friendly and helpful that she soon felt a little better. To this I can only add that even the lift operators were friendly and full of smiles, which is often a rarity. Later that afternoon she toured the Sugarloaf village and found still more happy and friendly staff members in places like Java Joe’s and the snowboard shop. Its no surprise why people like Paul Schipper, whose streak of consecutive ski days at Sugarloaf will reach 3,855 (23 seasons) by the close of this season, keep coming back.

Saturday night brought dinner at the Bag and Kettle where the food was good, the service was great and the home brewed beer went down smooth. The Bag and Kettle is one of several restaurants in the village, ranging in fare from the inexpensive brew pub to the more pricey steakhouse.

Next came the Budweiser Rail Jam competition, complete with barbeque, live music and lots of spectacular crashes. The sparks flew as both skiers and snowboarders contacted metal edges to rail, cheered on by a substantial crowd. This was a fast action competition as the skiers and riders raced to take as many runs as possible during the alotted time. Some competetors tried to score bonus points by teaming up for a series of rapid-fire and simultaneous runs — very impressive visually. Others attempted to land some big air maneuvers on the rails — results were mixed and occasionally painful, but the crowd certainly appreciated the attempt! In the end, winners Ryan McDermott (skier) and Brett Christie (rider) took home $500 prizes. The evening concluded with a fireworks show viewed from the deck of the Widowmaker Lounge.

Sunday brought better weather and we certainly took advantage. My choice run for the day was White Nitro, which is a very steep drop off the summit, into Wedge. I also liked Misery Whip, which is a narrow plunge shaped like a natural half-pipe. Krista’s favorite trail was Skidder, which she describes as “fast and fun, a great challenge for an intermediate skier”. She also enjoyed Kings Landing “a nice cruiser, plenty of speed without fear of losing control.” Other noteworthy trails included Gondola Line, Haulback (nice bumps), Spillway, Hayburner and Sluice. Sugarloaf also has several trails au natural (no grooming or snowmaking), such as Ripsaw, Double Bitter, and Winter’s Way.

Overall we found that Sugarloaf provided plenty of options for skiers and riders of all ability levels. There are easier and intermediate level trails starting from the top of the Timberline chair (summit) that run all the way past the base lodge and down into the condo developments, where yet another lift will bring you back to the base area. There are even introductory level glades available, with gentle slopes and sparse trees.

Much of the upper mountain is covered by steeper, advanced-level runs, plenty to keep even the most hard-core ski bum happy. Sugarloaf’s 2,820 vertical feet mean that even the steep trails are long, and their boundary-to-boundary policy allows explorer types have a full 1,410 acres in which to stretch their legs. The east’s only lift-serviced, above tree-line summit is of particular interest. Unfortunately the April coverage was not quite enough to allow for extensive exploration of the 17 glades and other off-piste areas, but I did make an effort to have a look. I saw some very challenging terrain, and a mid-winter return trip is in order.

The organization of the lift system is a bit of an issue with respect to advanced-level skiing and riding. The only access to the summit (Timberline Quad) is on the skier’s far-left of the mountain, but below the snowfields the most challanging runs are located in the center (Spillway Double) or skier’s right (King Pine Quad) of the mountain. I found myself wanting to take more runs from the summit into these areas, except that doing so requires multiple lift rides and some long traverses. I don’t mind riding multiple chairs, but moving through the easier terrain to access the various lift chairs is a bit of a downer for me, and probably a bit scary for the less experienced folks that I blew past. (I try to slow down… really!)

We finished the weekend with a stop into the Sugarloaf Brewery down on the access road and were rewarded with more good food and home brewed beer. All in all Krista and I both agreed that Sugarloaf was definitely worth the long drive. The exceptional snow coverage and regular late-season snowfall (it was snowing when we left) makes for great April conditions. Sugarloaf plans to close on April 25th this year, although I’m told that the closing date has more to do with diminishing crowds than lack of snow. So forget the golf clubs, pull those skiis out again and make the drive north, you won’t be sorry.

Sugarloaf Statistics

Summit Elevation 4237 feet
Base Elevation 1417 feet
Vertical Drop 2820 feet
Alpine Terrain 651 acres (developed)
131 trails and glades
1410 acres boundary-to-boundary
Alpine Trails 34 Green
40 Blue
36 Black
21 Double-Black
17 Glades (included above) with more on tap for next year
Terrain Parks 400 foot Superpipe and large scale course on Stomping Grounds
Parks on Haywire, Chaser and Upper Cruiser
Quarantine Zone for skiers and riders new to terrain parks
Cross Country Trails 62 miles
Annual Snowfall 206 inches
Snowmaking 92% of trails
Winter Season Mid-November thru April
Lifts 15 total, 21,805 skiers per hr. uphill capacity
2 High-speed detachable quads
2 Fixed grip quads
8 Double chairs
1 Triple chair
2 Surface lifts

Downhill Dave Stracuzzi is the local TV Snow Conditions commentator for RSN TV 12 (WVBK) in Brattleboro, VT.