Prelude: Arriving at Saddleback Maine
Sunday, March 22, 2015. We got an early start, then had to backtrack almost an hour for a forgotten item. That, alone, pretty much shot any thought of adding an extra day ticket to our planned two night/two day ski-and stay package ($60 per person per night!) at Saddleback Maine. But there was more to come.
It was two-hands-on-the-wheel driving all the way as wind gusts tried to push the car off the highway. Blowing and drifting snow covering parts of the road between Farmington and Rangeley further slowed progress–you never knew when you would round a corner and find a foot-deep snowdrift across the road. By the time we turned onto the access road, the car thermometer was saying is was 4 above zero, and the howling wind was making it feel like 40 below. This is March? Yeah, well, this is New England . . .
While waiting to check into our condo, we enjoyed a glass of good wine in the Swig ‘n Smelt Pub. The main topic of conversation among the few die hards there was the wind that had kept the entire mountain closed all day. They hadn’t even been able to run the T-bar. I learned later that one group had skinned partway up the mountain. They said that the winds made it almost as hard to ski down as skin up.
The first thing we did upon entering our one-bedroom condo in the South Branch complex was turn on the gas fireplace. Heaven!
Day 1: Whistling in the Wind at Saddleback Maine
Next morning, we could still hear the wind outside. A quick check showed the temperature had fallen below zero; the wind evidently hadn’t fallen much . . .but it did drop some. At 9 when the lifts were supposed to open, the report was mixed: only three lifts were running–two lower-mountain chairlifts which service only green circle terrain and the Cupsuptic T-bar which serves some very nice intermediate and advanced terrain.
Both upper-mountain chairlifts were closed. As we rode up the South Branch chairlift from the condo to the base lodge, we could see why: the chairs near the top of the mountain on the Rangeley Double and the Kennebago Quad were flashing in the sun as they danced to the wind’s tune.
So Marilyn and I rode the T-bar, which is a blast from the past for someone like me who grew up riding rope-tows, platters and T-bars. As you ride up the Cupsuptic T-bar at Saddleback on a cold, bluebird day, the sun is in your face and the howling northwest wind is at your back and you are shielded by thick spruces to your right. It’s rather pleasant, actually. Of course riding a T-bar is an almost-forgotten art — not everyone knows not to try to sit down on the bar — so be prepared for some starts and stops along the way . . .
It was only after you got off the T-bar and started down that you realized just how hard the wind was blowing and how cold it really was. But that meant fewer people on the slopes. Even at mid-morning, we found untracked corduroy on Silver Doctor and Grey Ghost. the T-bar is 2400 feet long (which is a good long ride up) and 680 vertical down. A couple of runs were enough for Marilyn, especially in that kind of cold and wind, so she headed for the warm base lodge (hands down one of the best in New England).
Part of me wanted to throw the skins on my skis and go exploring higher — maybe even on Muleskinner or the Casablanca Chutes in the Kennebago Steeps. But, frankly, with wind chills that low, going into terrain that steep and demanding would have been risky in a group and going alone could easily have been life-limiting. No thanks, save that for another day.
I kept riding the T-bar, making runs on Blue Devil, Red Devil, and another on Grey Ghost. The bumps on Parmachenee Belle looked tempting, but not THAT tempting, especially on Tele gear. Even with the extra exercise of riding the T-bar and making bended-knee Tele turns coming down, the cold began to seep into toes and fingertips, my face mask was soaked, and it was time to call it a day. The winds were actually getting stronger as the day progressed.
There’s something wonderful about braving the elements on a really cold and windy day when most people won’t ski. You feel like you did something special–even if it was only for a run or two. Riding up the T-bar made that feeling even better.
Day Two: Saddleback Maine About As Good As It Gets
Sometimes, you just get lucky. Our first day, Monday,we felt like heroes for simply getting out and skiing at all in adverse conditions. On Tuesday, we felt like all the Karma points we’d earned on Monday were repaid — and then some.
Wind? What wind? It disappeared sometime in the night. Not a breath of air movement. Both upper-mountain chairlifts opened right on schedule.
You’d think that on a clear, still night, the temperature would have plummeted, but it didn’t. It was 6 degrees as the sun came up, and already nearing 20 as we headed out the door. Very comfortable temperatures for skiing. The strong March sunshine was doing its work. Was it spring skiing? No, but the snow was soft in most places, edgeable everywhere, and where they’d groomed it was pure corduroy heaven. There was even some fresh powder drifted in at the edges of some trails and in places in the woods. The powder just wasn’t consistent anywhere that we found. You’d want to sing with pure powder joy for two or three turns; then you’d hit something chattery, or breakable and you’d have to stop singing and pay attention. On the other hand the corduroy was consistently perfect, and that’s perhaps why most of the skiers on the mountain that day spent most of their time on the groomed. You’d see a few hardcores on fat skis disappearing into the trees now and then, but most folks seemed content to cruise.
Most days, Marilyn and I are morning skiers; we try to catch first chair and are often done by lunchtime. Not this day. Under the absolutely clear blue sky and bright sun, we just kept going and going. To your left as you ride the Kennebago quad chair to the summit are the steepest trails and glades on the mountain. Tight Lines (which is a line, but not tight — it’s a wide-open, straight-down-the-fall-line plunge) and Supervisor (which twists and turns) had been freshly groomed.The drop-in at the top of these two black diamonds is steep enough to give you a little tummy-flutter. We did them . . . and then did them again . . . and again. We rarely had to share the trails with anyone.
A couple of times, we skied down TriColor then doubled back on Green Weaver to the Kennebago Choir, a pleasant intermediate cruise. Other times we’d take Royal Coachman, Grey Ghost, Silver Doctor or Red or Blue Devil all the way to the base and enjoy the long ride up the Rangeley Double to give our legs a break.
Marilyn, who loves smooth corduroy above all other snow conditions, called the day a perfect 10. Given the weather and the snow and the lack of crowds at Saddleback, I couldn’t really argue.
Postscript: Notes on Saddleback Maine
Each time I visit Saddleback, I can’t wait to get back. The people I talk to on the chairlift seem to feel the same.
If you are a hard-charger, Saddleback Maine has more really challenging lift-serviced terrain than any other single mountain I know of. not just in the Kennebago Steeps but also in the numerous glades and bumps trails on the rest of the mountain. They don’t groom every inch of terrain here. But that’s only part of the story at Saddleback: their lower South Branch chairlift not only serves as the taxi lift for the condos, but also opens up what may be the best learning area in all of New England: gentle, wide open trails, low-angle glades, even a mini terrain park, all to make learners feel like heroes with no other skiers whizzing by at warp speed.
In between these extremes are the groomed blue-square and black diamond trails — long, often-twisting cruisers with just enough pitch to make them really interesting. This is where the majority of skiers will happily play most of the time
There are plans in the works to expand Saddleback, add lifts, open new terrain. More Saddleback sounds nice, but I have mixed feeling about that. I like it just the way it is.