The sign at the entrance to Brackett Basin, phase one of a new terrain expansion at Sugarloaf, is the first signal you’re about to do a whole different kind of skiing.
“Skiing and snowboarding in Sugarloaf Mountain’s gladed terrain requires good judgment and personal awareness,” begins the sign. Along with warnings about challenging terrain and being sure to enter the glades with other skiers, the sign warns that most of the terrain is left in its natural state, and unmarked hazards include “cliffs, rocks, fallen trees and avalanche hazards.”
It’s not exactly “abandon hope all ye who enter here,” but it is a good sign that Sugarloaf’s new experts-only terrain is serious business.
Opened for the first time on January 19th, Brackett Basin is the first phase of a three-part plan to expand Sugarloaf’s terrain over the next decade. When completed, phase one will offer 270 acres of tree skiing along Sugarloaf’s eastern boundary, dropping skiers from the bottom of the snowfields all the way to the base of the mountain.
In the next 10 years, Sugarloaf will expand its skiable terrain to neighboring Burnt Mountain. By 2020, the Carrabassett Valley resort promises a second above-treeline summit for skiers and some 655 acres of glades. The new terrain will be “sidecountry” skiing, with access from Sugarloaf’s lifts differentiating it from true back country.
Though the expansion is one large interconnected glade, the trail map splits the area into four distinct trails. Along with Cant Dog (formerly the easternmost route down the mountain), the runs Birler, Sweeper and Edger are named by the mountain. The three new additions to the trail map take their names from logging terms, just like the rest of Sugarloaf’s 134 trails.
As someone who has skied skirting the resort’s eastern boundary since Cant Dog’s unveiling nearly a decade ago, I was surprised by how much the expansion has opened up the area. While Sugarloaf’s glades have always been fairly tight (an attribute shared by most Eastern tree skiing), the clearing done this summer created many more paths for skiers and snowboarders to take through the trees. Generally speaking, the trees are still pretty close together — this is New England, after all — but there are far more options to get from point A to point B.
The new clearing also provides easy access to some 10- to 20-foot cliffs in Brackett Basin. These features were technically accessible in prior years, but you had to be “in the know” to bushwhack your way to them. Now, these incredible drops are simply part of the glade. Be sure to keep your eyes open for the big orange “CLIFF” signs.
Sugarloaf isn’t the only mountain in New England that’s been expanding glades recently. The Camden Snow Bowl has added a number of new glades as part of its 6.5 million dollar rebuilding program. Loon Mountain in Lincoln, N.H., added 15 more acres of glades this season, along with a “natural” terrain park built with materials pulled from the surrounding woods.
Saddleback was particularly ambitious with its gladed terrain, opening Casablanca last winter. A massive 44-acre playground for skiers and snowboarders, Casablanca offers a mix of tight chutes and fairly wide open steeps. It’s a large part of the Kennebago Steeps, which the resorts boasts is “the largest steep skiing and riding facility in the East,” with a dozen top-to-bottom black diamond and double-black diamond runs with no mixing with lower level trails.
But this new terrain popping up all over New England won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to ski or ride in the glades. It’s a whole different skill set than riding traditional terrain, and I asked an expert how to approach the east’s brand of tree skiing.
John “Spoon” Witherspoon, training director at Vermont’s Jay Peak, knows from glades. Spoon grew up skiing at Jay and skied on the bumps on the USSA Tour and the Pro Tour before transitioning into the International Freeskiing World Tour — a big mountain ski competition that focuses on skiing steep and extreme terrain, including tree skiing.
Since retiring from competition a few years ago, Witherspoon has been at Jay, helping direct skiers through the resort’s famous glades. Jay Peak remains the gold standard for Eastern tree skiing, and the glade clinics Spoon directs prep skiers for glades from beginner to expert.
Much of the director’s advice is practical for any skier. “First off, get yourself a helmet. There’s a lot of hazards in the trees, and you want to keep your head protected. Second, ski with somebody.”
These tips reflect Sugarloaf’s Brackett Basics, a list of safety rules for those skiing in their expansion.
In terms of technique, Spoon says that you can bring some fundamentals from other parts of the mountain into the glades. “It’s great to have some good mogul concepts when you head into the woods. The ability to use moguls to initiate turns — and having good timing — are crucial.”
Witherspoon and I chatted a lot about how tree skiing has a different cadence than other skiing. You don’t have to go at top speed, and it’s good to be OK with skidding or sliding rather than sharp turns. As he put it, “schmear your turns.”
Getting into glades also involves, like a lot of skiing, mental hurdles. Good skiing requires confidence, and you need to be sure of yourself to ski within inches of trees. Even experts can balk and get back on their heels once they’re surrounded by tree trunks.
“We have to be psychologists almost as much as ski coaches,” Witherspoon said.
But on my way out of Cant Dog last Sunday, I heard a snowboarder offering a friend a much more direct piece of advice: “Just go around the trees!”
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime ski enthusiast. He writes this column every other week, sharing the space with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at: