Lift-Served Skiing Returns to Saddleback After Five-Year Hiatus

Ski area eases into new era with a high-speed lift and an understated opening

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The mountain reopened on a Tuesday. There were no day ticket sales. None of the carnival trappings that may have attended such a stalled and triumphant re-entry into the public realm: No speeches. No music. No ostentatious vendor booths.

Instead a pounding of motion and hustle that felt almost military. Like a construction site for the world’s greatest snow fortress, barrel guns hammering and Snowcats rumbling across the flats. Everywhere green and yellow staff jackets. Whether these determined rank or duty was unclear, but for most of the day they seemed to outnumber or equal the number of skiers.

A few dozen skiers began clustering at the base of the Rangeley quad an hour before opening. They came for Saddleback’s first day of lift-served skiing in five years despite the weather, an iron gray and wind-driven single-digit broadside pinched from the storybooks of New England lore. Splintered clouds boomed across the sky like locomotives.

Third in the liftline were Garreth Debiegun and his 9-year-old son Holtyn, who bought season passes and a condo at the base of the quad after Boston-based Arctaris Impact Fund resuscitated the mountain earlier this year.

“I’d given up,” the elder Debiegun said of his hopes that he would ever see Saddleback running again. They’d spent the past five years ski-hopping around Maine, including one winter where they tried hitting every ski area in the state, missing only a couple, they said, in the far northern reaches, Quoggy Jo and Lonesome Pine.

“I didn’t fully believe it would be open again until they started to helicopter in the towers,” Garreth said. “They seem to be doing everything right so far.”

When the quad whirred to life half an hour later there was no social-media ready banner of the sort that’s become standard for first-chair-of-the-season pageantry. Instead a lone skier, Ben Klosowski, claimed first ride, leaning back in chair number two with both elbows hoisted on the backrest. He wore a hunter orange hat and rode with the safety bar flung open. His family had bought a place in Rangeley the year Saddleback closed, he said, and he’d spent the past five years skiing Sugarloaf. His mission for the year was to hit the Casablanca Glades.

He’d have to wait a bit longer. The only trails open were steep blue Grey Ghost and Royal Tiger, a straightline past the bottom of Rangeley to the pokey South Branch quad. Skiing the former from the wind-scoured summit felt like plunging upstream in a Class V rapid, a snow-blind exercise in endurance and courage.

The ride up was considerably more pleasant. Gone is the ancient Rangeley double, demolished in a spectacular feat of engineering by one tug of a snowcat this past spring. In its place is the newest lift in New England, a Doppelmayr high-speed quad that zings up the mountain. Its motion feels both animal and mechanical, effortless and precise as a dive-bombing bird of prey but smooth and efficient as a high-tech assembly line.

On that ride the mountain stretches enormously below. Saddleback, unlike so many ski areas, looks like its trailmap, with no tricks of bent perspective to make the mountain align to human expectations on a piece of unfolded paper. It is a north-facing ridge with trails stacked one after the next in metronome, like a burlier version of New York’s Belleayre.

Looker’s left the Kennebago Steeps loom, towering out of the snow-throttled trees like a separate ski area altogether. From the chair they appear far off and mythical, like the glimpsed next level in a videogame that you might get to five or six bosses from now. Lightly coated in spare snow from the recent storms, these have clearly been left by mountain ops for later.

The pod that Rangeley actually serves is mostly invisible from the lift as it rides low and fast through its pine tree canyon. But glimpses of the vast trail network suggest a world at its turbulent genesis, long lines of snowguns kicking supernovas of arcing snow above the treeline. It’s like watching a world formed in some volcanic prehistory.

Saddleback has a history of course. Great snow. Great terrain. Terrible luck. Its first owners lost the ski area to their chairlift lender after a pair of bad winters. More catastrophes followed: the untimely death of a general manager, the loss of key development partners, foreclosure. The ski area burned through six owners in 18 years before Donald Breen’s two-decade tenure became a case study in government intransigence as he dumped millions of dollars into a battle with the National Park Service over the Appalachian Trail, which runs across the mountain’s summit. Saddleback’s next owners, the Berry family, invested tens of millions into lift and trail expansion but abandoned ship when they couldn’t raise financing to replace Rangeley.

That was five years ago. In the meantime, the CEO of Australia-based Majella Group, a world-class knucklehead named Sebastian Monsour, promised to turn Saddleback “into the premier ski resort in North America” – an absurd notion that ignores both geology and meteorology – before his arrest on charges of investor fraud. Saddleback looked doomed.

Then Arctaris bought the place. They have so far resisted hyperbole. There are no promises of a “Vail East” rising off of Rangeley Lake, as Breen had envisioned. What they have promised to do is to take care of the mountain, take care of the land, take care of their skiers, take care of their employees.

Arctaris is not a ski company. They are investors who specialize in finding and fixing up undervalued assets in inner cities and rural hinterlands. This is unlikely to be Ariel Quiros/Jay Peak 2.0, as Sebastian Monsour maybe would have been. This is also not Vail or Alterra, neither of which is interested in skiing’s version of This Old House. But as Win Smith proved at Sugarbush, you don’t need to be experienced as a ski area operator to successfully operate a ski area. You just have to give a shit. And you have to invest. And you have to put the people who know how to run a ski area in charge of running the ski area.

So far, so good. In this Covid-frazzled season, low-key and deliberate are enviable attributes. A few hundred skiers on a blustery Tuesday is a better start than a weekend of liftlines backed out to the parking lot. “Let’s get used to this thing first,” Saddleback’s managers seem to be saying. It’s the right approach. Skiing has enough fireworks, enough stoke, enough Experiences of a Lifetime.

It only has one Saddleback, and the mountain won’t get unlimited chances to work. This time has to be the time. The sport is already fighting climate change and adapting to the nation’s changing demographics and the squalor of Covid. Bringing ski areas back from the ashes is something investors are unlikely to have patience for much longer.

Whether 2020 turns out to be the best or the worst possible time to return lift-served skiing to Saddleback remains to be seen. People are desperate to be outside, to be part of something, to have an alternative to the conglomerates and their megapass crowds. But also, Covid. And all the extra expense and reduced revenue that scourge brings.

That will pass, but the other problems – most specifically, the problem of attention – won’t. Right now we just opened Saddleback on Christmas morning and the package is still laying sideways amidst the crumpled wrapping paper and we can’t wait to run it around the room. But we have to keep loving it like we love Sugarloaf, our family dog, and not forget about it like last year’s Hatchimals.

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