Skinning up and skiing down as the sun rises – and the mountain crew prepares for the day.
I pull into the parking lot at Lincoln Peak just before 6 a.m. on a late March morning. The sun has not yet risen, but the glow from the east onto the mountain signals its imminent arrival. The Clay Brook hotel presides, like a sleeping giant, at the base of the mountain—no discernible movement other than a steady cloud of steam rising from the exhaust pipes of the roof, and a solitary white truck slowly pulling away after its morning delivery.
I scan the lot, a little unnerved by the amount of open space in a lot that’s usually jammed. Rows and rows of parking, empty, but for a handful of cars. The reserved spaces, too, are vacant—those for the handicapped, for 80+ skiers, for ten-minute parking, and for permitted employees.
The resort unveiled a new hiking and skinning policy going into the 2014–2015 season, and I was here before sunrise to take advantage of that. The prior policy prohibited skinning and hiking except on a specified trail during the mountain’s operating hours; the new policy—updated in response to customer requests—allows hikers access to more of the mountain, as long as they adhere to certain parameters. For instance, they are directed to use designated trails within certain hours before the mountain opens and after it closes for the day, and they are asked to park in places that don’t interfere with the morning plows. (Sugarbush’s new skinning policy can be found at sugarbush.com/discover/winter-trail-use-policy.)
Seeing as it has not snowed in several days, and it is a late-season, midweek day, I park right in front of Clay Brook. I open the trunk and maneuver my telemark boots on, lacing and buckling. I grab my skis, whose bottoms are already covered with orange felt skins that transform downhill skis into uphill climbing tools. I hoist my backpack and walk up Gate House Lane toward the mountain.
There is something magical about seeing a place that can hold as many as 10,000 skiers on a busy day absolutely empty. Not one person interrupts my vista of the base area—ski racks standing empty, dim lights glowing from inside the base lodge, the courtyard cleared of snow, everything expectantly awaiting guests. (Had it snowed last night, plow drivers would have been here by 5 a.m. to clear the courtyard and the main parking lots.) It’s like a stage before the curtain opens.
I step into my bindings next to the stone statue of Allyn, a Sugarbush skier who died young, immortalized by the lodge that bears her name at the top of Gadd Peak. I wear a headlamp, though it’s not really necessary; the sky is brightening by the minute. As I slide past Valley House Lodge, I meet up with my friend John, an experienced back-country skier and longtime coach. He can’t resist giving me a few pointers. “Raise your chin and look up the mountain where you want to go. Keep your poles behind you on the steeps and push your hips forward,” he encourages.
We ascend, and I anxiously glance over my shoulder to see when the sun will rise, not wanting to miss it.
We pass by just before the lift maintenance crew heads out to the mountain’s various lift terminals, where they begin their systematic checks. They first conduct a visual inspection, checking every safety switch and chair position around the terminal. Each lift terminal has between twenty and thirty switches in a safety circuit, allowing the crew to test items like stop gates, stop buttons, and stopping distances. If all is clear, the lift is powered up and a new round of tests begins—stop the lift, slow the lift, take it from full speed to normal speed, take it from full speed to a full stop, and measure the time and distance of each variation. It is a formulaic method that requires documentation at each step. Every lift must operate within its own specific set of parameters. During the winter, for example, Super Bravo comes to a complete stop in eight seconds and twenty-one feet, and it should operate within those same guidelines every day the chair is in operation (give or take a small percentage). This data is logged and stored in the lift shack, ready for a state inspector—who may show up unannounced—to review at a moment’s notice.
When I think of a lift maintenance mechanic, I imagine someone who is excited and challenged by machines and the manifold parts that fit together to make them run. Earlier in the week I had talked with Scott Tuttle, who ran the lift maintenance crew last year. He mentioned “stops and switches” and “tripping and clearing,” all of which relate to the detailed checklist each crew member follows to start a lift each morning. He patiently answered my questions, explaining things like how often the crew runs a lift on its auxiliary motor (once a month) and how long they allow a lift to be stopped before calling for an emergency evacuation by ski patrol (fifteen minutes).
I don’t think of a lift mechanic as someone who’s inspired by nature. But that is my mistake. One of the lasting details Scott shared was this: “We see the best sunrises.”
s the lift maintenance team deploys across the mountain, John and I crest the top of Snowball, just past the entrance to Eden Woods, and see the light change in front of us. I turn around to see a giant red-orange ball rising and brightening the eastern sky.
We continue our ascent and see the lines of corduroy in the snow ahead of us now illuminated, accentuating the work of last night’s grooming team. (The groomers work the Spring Fling side of Lincoln Peak at night, the Gate House side in the morning; at Mt. Ellen, they groom Inverness, North Star, and Cruiser first, and the upper mountain in the morning. These schedules dictate which trails are designated for uphill travel, so as to avoid human-machine confrontation.) The lines are perfect other than a series of figure eights that extend down the trail—a fireside dinner at Allyn’s Lodge the night before had ended with a guided moonlit ski down Snowball and Spring Fling.
John and I end our skin at the Valley House terminal at the top of the Mall. We remove our skis, and then our skins, and roll and pack them into our bags. I zip up my jacket, change my gloves, and drink some water. Snapping back into my bindings, I linger on the view of the Valley House Double and recognize that soon the old lift, built in 1960, will be a fading memory.
As much as I love the communal spirit of skiing with friends and family, our early-morning ski down Snowball and Spring Fling is of another caliber entirely. Making slow, rounded tele turns on freshly groomed snow in the morning light, practically alone, is a meditative and spiritual experience. I am reminded of Scott’s comment about the sunrise. And it is not just seeing the sunrise, but seeing it from atop a mountain almost alone, that makes me feel as if this experience were uniquely mine.
s lift maintenance clears each lift, the dispatcher is notified and the lift operations team steps in to take the reins. Lift operators arrive at around 6:45 a.m. for an 8 a.m. mountain opening, 7:45 for a 9 a.m. opening. The team that works the fixed-grip lifts—Valley House, Heaven’s Gate, Castlerock, and Village Double at Lincoln Peak, and Summit, Inverness, and Sunny Double at Mt. Ellen—tends to rotate between lifts throughout the week. Teams working on the detachable express quads—Super Bravo and Gate House at Lincoln Peak, Slide Brook, Green Mountain Express, and North Ridge at Mt. Ellen—stay with one lift throughout the season.
I meet Roger, a lift operator with noticeably blue eyes, outside the Gate House lift shack. He invites me inside, taking me through the complex control panel of lights and buttons that allows lift operators to observe, slow down, speed up, or stop a lift at any time throughout the day. We go back outside, cross over the lift ramp, and head to the motor room, crawling up a straight metal ladder until we reach the top of the lift terminal. I feel like a bird, perched inside the control room, observing the brain of a complex machine that can carry as many as 2,400 people 3,868 feet to the midpoint of North Lynx Peak in an hour. I feel naive. In my more than forty years of skiing, I have never given much thought to the massive machines housed inside the terminals that take us safely up the mountain. The lift maintenance team, on the other hand, spends their entire day paying meticulous attention to them—twice a day they crawl up the ladders and observe, using infrared guns to check the temperatures of gear boxes, motors, and oil—looking for baseline information that would alert them to any changes in the machines.
Back on the ground, ski patrol readies to head out for morning trail checks—skiing or riding every open trail and marking with bamboo any areas they deem hazardous. Arriving at their locker room about an hour before the first lifts open to guests, patrol members boot up while sitting on wooden benches, and assemble their packs, which include a mélange of the following: radios, lunch, water, extra layers, trauma shears for cutting items like jackets and gauze, Leathermen for binding adjustments, Band-Aids, abdominal pads, CPR masks, and goggle shammies. This morning, the guys are yakking about the end-of-the-year dinner at the Common Man on Saturday night—and about babies (the assistant patrol director has just had his first). Colin Cascadden, a red-haired veteran patrol member who has served as patrol director since 2008, saunters to the front of the room and stops in front of a large whiteboard calendar. He talks the group through their assignments for the day, spanning a wide range of trail work and supply delivery, which they will work on after trail checks and in between calls to assist skiers and riders.
“Patrick, Jared, and Kehoe, you’re on the ’Rock today. You’re going to need to grab some water to bring to the shack, and do some tree trimming on Rumble. I also want you to check the snow surface on the catwalk [the area leading to the lift] and if necessary, do some shoveling.” It is late in the season, and patrol is working hard to keep Castlerock open as long as possible, which today means moving snow from a more plentiful area to a bare spot.
ifts are spinning, patrol is dispersed on the mountain, and the groomers are resting quietly outside the lift maintenance garage. Since 6:45, the morning facilities crew has been shoveling, salting, and sanding all entries and exits, and opening up base-area buildings. (Their evening counterparts worked until 2 a.m. cleaning the building interiors and removing trash.) The food and beverage teams are in motion, making coffee and preparing breakfast and lunch items. The smells of brewing Mountain Grove coffee and frying bacon waft through the air in Gate House Lodge, reminding me that I am overdue for breakfast. I follow the scents up the stairs, take a tray, and make my way to the small stack of foil-wrapped breakfast sandwiches. I take one with sausage, pour a black coffee, and head to an empty table lit by the sun streaming in through the windows. I look around and see some familiar faces—skiers who log over 100 days a year; groomers, snowmakers, and mountain operations guys who have already put in several hours of work this morning.
Though I’m a little weary, I feel invigorated by the memory of my morning. I hear a ping from my phone and see that John has sent me some photos. I slowly review them, as well as the few I took—the faint orange glow in the eastern sky streaming through trees, the rising sun just cresting a mountain, and the bright pinkish tint on the ski trail. I peel open the foil on my breakfast sandwich and take a bite. The tastes of sausage, egg, cheese, and English muffin mingle together. I want to hold on to that taste, just like I want to hold on to the morning, which somehow feels like it was all my own.