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Above it All

It gives meaning to the old cliché, "You can't get there from here." Sure, Sugarloaf/USA is a bit more remote than most New England resorts. But that—along with its unrivaled terrain, huge vertical and down-to-earth Maine attitude—is what makes it worth the effort. This behemoth is as unpretentious as an L.L. Bean boot. City sophisticates might find it rough around the edges, but many say Sugarloaf delivers the best alpine skiing and riding anywhere in New England. Just ask the six Salt Lake City Olympians, including Bode Miller and Kirsten Clark, who trained here as students at Carrabassett Valley Academy.

OK, so I'm biased. I've been a Sugarloafer since the early 1970s, when a friend in-vited me to her dad's camp, right on Oh-My-Gosh Corner, during school break. These days, I'm still awestruck whenever I round that bend in the road and Sugarloaf suddenly dominates the view—a perfect white-capped pyramid laced with trails. It commands the surrounding landscape in a way that perhaps no other ski area in North America does, beckoning skiers from near and far.

The invitation is hard to resist, and on a late-season Saturday morning, before the crowds have swelled the liftlines, I've ticked off runs on Tote Road, King's Landing and Hayburner—the mountain's triumvirate of corduroy cruisers. I'm boarding the Superquad, where Dennis Parsons, Sugarloaf liftie extraordinaire, welcomes me. Parsons has been putting butts in chairs for nearly 40 years. "Please," he says, urging me forward with a wave of the tissue box he holds. "Give me a big smile now. Thank you. Have a good day now." Taking his advice, I skip Skidder, a quad-busting bump run favored by CVA freestylers, and instead fly down Narrow Gauge, the only trail in the East approved for World Cup racing in all four disciplines, including downhill.

Ask any regular to define the difference between Sugarloaf and its American Skiing Company sibling, Sunday River, and the answer is simple: Though they're located in the same state, Sunday River feels like Massachusetts; Sugarloaf is unmistakably Maine. Sugarloaf is more deeply rooted in Yankee tradition and Maine sensibilities. The numbers confirm it: Mainers comprise 56 percent of Sugarloaf skiers. "It's like a club here," says Rich "Crusher" Wilkinson, vice president of operations. "Everyone knows everyone else."

That's apparent at the midmountain Spillway chairs, where I rendezvous with my friend Deb, a longtime Loafer and Carrabassett Valley resident. Spillway East is the mountain's main artery. From it, you can reach any lift on the mountain and any trail below the summit runs—as long as you know how to move across the mountain horizontally on marked cross-cuts and unmarked traverses. Much of Sugarloaf's prime terrain drops off Spillway Cross-Cut, including such classics as Bubblecuffer and Winter's Way. These designated "Wild Thing" trails are intentionally left to nature. There's no snowmaking and they're seldom groomed, which means they're usually bumped up and often mined with natural obstacles. When conditions are right, they're a blast. The same goes for the numerous gladed runs, such as Rookie Fever and Broccoli Garden, which are scattered across the mountain.

Deb and I swoop down Gondola Line, arcing big GS turns. Though I barely notice the old gondola midstation, newcomers to Sugarloaf often "tsk-tsk" at the abandoned lift buildings that litter the mountain. A gondola once ran from base to summit at Sugarloaf but has since been replaced by more efficient high-speed quads. The gondola base building found new life as a competition center, and these on-mountain buildings might find a future use, too. For now, they're said to provide shelter to hardcore squatters who use them as ski-in/ski-out lodging on nights when it's dumping.

Next run, we play with dynamite on White Nitro. Lose an edge on this deceptively steep, unforgiving run and you'll end up as the catch of the day in the safety nets below.. Sugarloafers, masters of the understatement, often describe this trail as having "a nice shine to it"—a euphemism for icy, wind-scoured conditions.

This north-facing mountain can certainly be cold, and the wind can be unmerciful. "Cold enough for ya?" is Sugarloafese for "hello" on those bitter, below-zero days. "Bit brisk" translates as winds so strong the upper lifts aren't running. But, as any stalwart will tell you: "Hey, it's winter in New England. Dress for it." Those who do are rewarded. My own theory about the popularity of helmets among all ages here is that they're just plain warm. Safety is justa bonus. And the upside to all this mind-numbing cold is snow. It comes early and it stays late. By the time the sun begins gaining strength in early spring, Sugarloaf usually has enough snow to last till May.

From White Nitro, we cut down Boomauger, angle over to the King Pine quad and ricochet runs on Haul Back, Widowmaker and Flume before the cold penetrates. Sugarloaf needs a lodge on this part of the mountain, as well as a summit lodge with restrooms, though neither appears likely to happen anytime soon. Truth is, while it would be nice not to have to work your way over to Bullwinkle's—the on-mountain restaurant on the western edge—or descend to the base for a pit stop, frankly, you're here to ski. And really, shouldn't you have thought of that before you downed that second cup of coffee?

After refueling with bagels and cocoa at Java Joe's in the base area, we head for the summit. Sugarloaf is Maine's second-highest peak, at 4,237 feet, and it provides the only lift-serviced, above-treeline skiing in the East: the legendary Snowfields. Accessing them from the base not only requires two lift rides, but a short hike as well. The latter is just enough to keep wannabes opting for Timberline, a gentle trail easing down the mountain's western edge, where confident novices can experience the summit, or Tote Road, a 3.5-mile summit-to-base cruiser, where the aptly named Chicken Pitch gets even some intermediates squawking. We decide on a field-of-dreams run down the Backside, reveling in the wilderness feel of it all.

That's another thing that sets Sugarloaf apart from most modern-day ski areas: lack of commercial development in and around the base area. Sugarloaf is an oasis in the wild—not just another exit off the interstate. Sure, there are the requisite condos and, more recently, a growing number of stone-and-glass trophy homes, but the compact base village and less than a handful of restaurants and storesclustered near the access road are about all there is for shopping and dining. Nevertheless, the place has a reputation for good food, in large part because independent owners operate the restaurants in the base village. Just don't expect haute cuisine and fussy presentations.

With stomachs growling, Deb and I head for the express line at D'Ellies to pick up the fat sandwiches we ordered in the morning. After eyeing the case of fresh-baked goodies, Deb snags a whoopie pie—an authentic Maine confection akin to the Devil Dog. Even if we split it, the sugar alone will power us both until cocktail hour.

Later in the afternoon, after we've wasted our legs on Ripsaw, Deb suggests we mellow out on the Bucksaw chair.

"OK," I say. "But can we get there from here?"

"Yup," Deb replies. "It takes a little doing, but it'll be worth it."

Just like Sugarloaf.

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