A Sugarloafer's account of one of the snowiest months in East Coast history.
A SERIES OF STORMS
February 16, 2017:
It’s been a long time since I can recall a winter quite like this.
In the mountains of Western Maine where the Appalachia abate to foothills and the hardwoods turn to pine, the snow has really started to pile up at Sugarloaf Mountain. Dubbed by locals the “home of the rock and ice fields,” it’s a phrase that normally would do well to define the open snowfields just above the treeline. It’s a phrase we’re proud of, because aside from the appreciation for great snow when it does come, there’s something that comes from skiing a lot of ice, rock, bark, and crud that most people don’t realize: it makes you a hell of a good skier. While you can always be sure to find a little ice at the ‘Loaf, what you’re not always guaranteed to find is great powder. Don’t get me wrong, we have our good days and our fair share of blower pow that, coupled with a smooth corduroy, can yield some incredible results. But there has never been anything quite like this.
Statistically speaking, there’s nothing crazy about the snowfall Sugarloaf has received this winter. In fact, as of mid-February we’re on par for a typical snowy season. What is unusual is how mother nature has decided to deal us our snow. Aside from a 30-inch storm at the end of December that was, excuse my manners, almost too deep and heavy to ski immediately (notice how I said “almost”), we played our typical East Coast game. We waited patiently, letting the base build up an inch or two at a time, keeping our edges sharp and scraping snow and ice down to the roots and earth below until ski patrol had no choice but to put the ropes back up on our favorite glades and trails.
Eventually, and inevitably, we got our storm. In just one week, Sugarloaf received nearly five feet of some of the nicest powder in East Coast history. Schools and businesses closed, and our little world here in Franklin County, Maine, stood still as we watched the snowbanks rise high above our heads with every passing plow truck and the sides of buildings began to disappear, buried behind drifts of wind-blown snow. Nature dealt a series of storms that only let up enough to allow us to catch our breath from the shovels, plows, and snowblowers before setting in again. One storm system brought over 24 inches in just as many hours, and the snow it delivered was nothing short of heavenly. By the end of it all, we had recorded 61 inches in just 8 days.
Being a local always has its perks. Understanding the psychology of the masses on a mountain can be a beautiful thing, and staying ahead of the crowd is a skill set that few take the effort to achieve. It means waking up extra early, knowing the weather, and sometimes hiking or skinning to a higher lift. Bribing a friendly groomer never hurt either. In true pow-day fashion, my good friend and go-to shredder Brandon and I skipped the long line at the Superquad lift and took our chances of getting first chair on Skyline, a higher lift, from a slow double chair that took us up the gentle pitched beginners’ slope of Boardwalk. It takes about the same amount of time to ride from our slow double chair to Skyline as it does riding the Superquad in its entirety. The Super will get you to higher terrain and ultimately an extra run, but that extra run is almost always taken in the effort to reach Skyline where the more advanced terrain to the East lay. Therefore it is, in my humble opinion, that he (or she) that reaches Skyline first is indeed going to be the recipient of the run of their choice. Brandon and I achieved our first chair, and the runs that followed did not disappoint. Day after day, and storm after storm, we applied this method of reaching the top first, and without fail we could always count on being the first to Skyline.
Every morning we watched from the lift as skiers and riders descended from the top of Superquad. Like a pack of hungry wolves in pursuit of their prey, they spread across the trails, devouring any and all powder in their wake. The distant choir of powder day “hoots” and “woos” echoed across the terrain, muffled by the ever-present fall of more snow. Brandon and I sat watching the smooth paths in the snow below us multiply as more powder-hungry ‘Loafers sought out the quickest route to Skyline, and I couldn’t help but reflect upon what an incredible week we just had.
When the snow first started to fly during the weekend before, we took to the adjacent peak to the East of Sugarloaf – Burnt Mountain – in an effort to stay clear of the weekend crowds. A backcountry-style access will bring you to the summit of Burnt, where an expansive Androscoggin glade will bring you down over 1000 vertical feet back to the base lodge of Sugarloaf. The hike can be strenuous at times, and combined with the 40mph winds that we experienced, we spent very little time at top and were quick to drop into the quiet wilderness of Burnt. Words will always fail to elucidate the untracked openness that the Androscoggin glade held for us that cold and windy day. I can only recommend you try it for yourself sometime when the snow is deep and plentiful.
The following day, Monday, February 13, the bulk of snow fell and Mother Nature proceeded to give birth to a Nor’Easter for the ages. Twenty-five inches of the most alluring blower powder I can recall in my 30 years of life fell over the mountain. Only the local crowd and those lucky enough to find themselves stranded received what can only be described as the best and deepest snow ever to bless our great state. Snowmaking pipe shacks were jumped, ski patrol ropes became a mere suggestion, and if you’ve ever heard the expression “there’s no friends on a powder day” you would have realized that even an age-old truth like that has its exception as snowboarders and skiers banded together in an effort to break trail to more untouched terrain. It was an unforgettable experience, rivaled only by what was to follow.
The next morning the onslaught of powder had finally tapered off, and for the first time in nearly a week the sun made its debut. Blue Bird pow days are a rare sight to behold in these parts, so when it happens it’s a pretty big deal and the euphoria that follows can have lasting effect. Snowdrifts slithered up and down the sides of trails like brilliant mythical snakes, and the woods looked nearly as untouched as the day before, renewed by the fresh snow and wind from the prior evening. After taking what we could from the trails, we disappeared into the Eastern woods of Brackett Basin, following the Golden Road out to more remote glades and untouched sources. Here there is no shortage of hidden stashes, and the deeper you go the better it gets. We stayed in Brackett Basin until the sun slid behind the mountain and the cool afternoon chill sent us shivering back to the warmth of the base lodge with tired legs and frosted smiles on our faces.
The days that followed brought yet even more beautiful, light snow to the tune of 17 inches. It wasn’t until the last day of fresh snow that I finally left the camera at home, when Brandon insisted on a day of “soul riding.” A phrase which in essence refers to skiing a line or run in its entirety; letting the run find you, instead of the other way around. By now the only people left skiing mid-week were the regular locals and a few handfuls of tourists. Getting nearly a foot and a half of fresh snow over the night would normally pull people out of the woodwork, but the sick days had been used up, the kids needed to go back to school, and even the regulars were starting to show signs of wear and tear as we threw our bodies mercilessly against the seemingly bottomless drifts and still untouched stashes.
As Brandon and I approached the top of Skyline to unload, my mind quickly snapped back to reality in anticipation of the run to follow. We made our way across the Spillway crosscut and teetered the tips of our skis and boards over the headwall of an untouched trail, scanning the expanse of smooth unblemished powder that lay ahead of us. It was then I realized neither of us had said a word since loading the lift. No words were needed today. My legs were sore and hard, my skis screamed for a fresh coating of cold weather wax, but the edges were still sharp as before the storms had hit. I glanced back over my shoulder to the Snowfields above – a smooth frozen ice sheet speckled with frosted rock. Despite all the new snow over the past week, the wind had shaped the top of Sugarloaf and the surrounding peaks into a bullet-proof domes of ice that stood in thick contrast to the rest of the mountain, waiting for the right storm or sunny spring day to soften their icy touch.
I looked back down into the trail ahead. Flawless powder laid out in front of us casting a long narrow shadow against the snow drifted sides that made their way downward into an ocean of white. My senses heightened.
It’s been a long time since I can recall a winter quite like this.
Local skier Jordan Kennedy takes full advantage of the plentiful snow. Photo by Ritter Bopp
Photos by Ritter Bopp