Making The Most Of It: Saddleback in Limbo
By: Mitch Breton Photography: Maine Mountain Media
Turning right from Mingo Loop Road onto Route 4, one is treated to an iconic view of Maine's third largest ski area, Saddleback.
It stands sentinel over the valley below which contains Rangeley’s downtown, a tourist destination of approximately 1,600 full-time residents. Since it opened in 1960, the ski area has served as the economic driver of winter tourism in Rangeley. The 'Rangeley Double' chairlift runs right up the center of the mountain over three steep headwalls but is older than most of its users. The total to replace this major artery of mountain operations: a cool $4 million. It was enough to stick a metaphorical fork in it and after owners Bill and Irene Berry exhausted all funding options in 2015, they shuttered the beloved operation and put it up for sale, citing too much financial burden.
A series of closed-door conversations, whispers from potential buyers, and a roller coaster ride ensued. What felt like ages was a 2-year wait as the Australian asset management company Majella Group showed significant interest in purchasing the property. Spearheaded by Majella CEO Sebastian Monsour, there was hope in the air for Saddlebackers.
On July 17, 2017, Monsour, the Berry’s, and news outlets converged in the mountain’s base lodge. The theme: big promises to be the premiere resort in the East and a four-season recreation mecca. Fervor for this upcoming winter abounded. Instead, we’ve received notice that Monsour ‘won’t lose any sleep’ if the mountain doesn’t open. These days, it's looking like another season will come and go without spinning chairs.
While Saddleback remains in limbo, there's still life on the mountain: it's called skinning. The thigh-numbing, sweat-inducing, Type II fun involves gluing a synthetic material to your skis and using friction to travel uphill. A few hardened New Englanders face the challenge of hiking up Saddleback only to turn around and ski it, sometimes up to four times in a day.
When I turn right onto Route 4, on a snowy afternoon in March, the mountain is sporting a new white coat of 12 inches of fresh cold snow. Thoughts dart quickly to triple checking my packing list: Dog leash? Check. Ski boots? Check. Skins? Check. I'm geared up for a day of walking uphill to ski runs that used to cost $50 a day.
As I pull into the Saddleback parking lot on this especially snowy Saturday a line of cars stretches roughly 50 deep. Tundras, Subarus, and even a 4x4 Sprinter Van from as far away as Alaska occupy the once hauntingly vacant parking lot. Rumors even circulated of an overnight camper in search Saddleback’s strongholds of snow.
I slowly drive by groups of skiers huddled around tailgates, sipping cheap beer, and exchanging stories of the day's treasured moments. I'm met with friendly waves and a keen awareness that we're all after the same coveted feeling. At the base of this mountain with no chairlifts running, no bar serving beer, and no rental shop, there are still people and, more importantly, a community.
Skinning has taken off in popularity in the East over the course of a few years. In fact, a New England Backcountry Ski Facebook group has garnered more than 12,000 members. Though the first thing anyone will tell you after the epic day they had, of course, is the inherent risk of it. Without ski patrol, grooming, or the presence of other skiers, backcountry skiing is a self-supported activity. It’s a grueling hike in the woods during Maine’s coldest months over challenging technical terrain.
So why bear through all the trouble of hiking when chairlifts are operating less than an hour away? The answer lies with the skier who popped out of Nightmare Glades to land on the flat, spin around 360 degrees, and let out a euphoric yell, before falling to the ground with no regard for my presence. That feeling is stoke, and sometimes it can only be achieved by braving the weather, doing something hard, and hoping there's a reward at the end. These skiers who descend on Saddleback know that, even at 2 P.M. on a Saturday, they can still find untouched trails filled with deep powder. They just need to work for it.