It was exactly 70 years ago when Roger Page taught his first ski lessons as an instructor on a little rope-tow ski slope in Leominster, Mass.
Three short years later he was one of just six professionals in the soon-to-be-world-acclaimed Sepp Ruschp Ski School on Mount Mansfield at Stowe, Vt.
His first visit to the western mountains of Maine was in 1957 when he brought his Mount Mansfield Ski Club junior girls’ racing team to Sugarloaf and sensed that something great might be happening in the mighty Blue Mountains of Franklin County. And that there might be an opportunity to get in on the ground floor.
The next year, with wife Patsy and two young daughters in tow, he ventured back, met legendary Kingfield entrepreneur/ski shop operator/real estate developer Harvey Boynton, and found himself owning a house and joining Director Werner Rothbacher’s Sugarloaf Ski School, where he launched the mountain’s first junior program.
The next year he ventured to Rangeley, where a group of local citizens was meeting to talk about launching a ski area on nearby Saddleback Mountain.
His dream was to have his own ski school, and this looked like an opportunity to get in on the birth of a new ski area. Each person at the meeting threw in a hundred bucks, and when Page was asked to “go out and sell some stock to get this thing going,” he headed off to find investors.
The result was that by 1960, enough money had been raised to put in a couple of T-bars, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He ran the ski school for decades, opened retail stores both at the mountain and in Rangeley, and now, in his retirement, he can look back proudly on his role as Saddleback’s Founding Father.
And nothing should make him prouder than the progress of the Saddleback Ski School under the able guidance of director Mark Robie. In a season that has proven to be difficult, at the least, for New England ski areas given the paucity of natural snow, the Saddleback Ski School is an exemplary success story.
Robie joined the Saddleback team in 2007, lured by the vision of owners Bill and Irene Berry, and captured by what many of us know as the great feel of a true family ski and boarding mountain.
Not only has Robie capably directed what is now known as the Ski and Ride School, he oversees day care, the very successful and appreciated volunteer host program, and day care activities.
If that doesn’t keep him busy enough, he also coordinates Saddleback’s race program, as well as the summer Bluegrass Festival.
In the five seasons since he arrived after 20 years at Sugarloaf, Robie has grown the school from 17 instructors in the 2007-08 season to over 90 instructors, with more than a 500 per cent increase in lesson volume over the past four years.
Much of the success can be attributed to the team Robie has assembled, of not only skilled teachers, but administrative help from the likes of Kris Ohlson, Roger and Connie Barras, Anne Guimaraes and Diana Thomas.
It takes a team to coordinate the plethora of programs the school offers, ranging from the season-long meisters program for kids age 3-6 (which grew from 12 to 40 participants in the past year alone), to freestyle groups for both skiers and riders, to an Alpine racing program and a winter-long program for adults.
Boasting the lowest student/instructor ratio in North America, there are never more than five skiers or boarders in a class, which results in a superior learning experience for novices and more advanced participants alike. In the 3-6 year age category, all children receive one-on-one instruction until they’re ready to go off on their own.
This student-centered philosophy was born over 60 years ago when Page taught his first novices in Rangeley on a rope-tow-served slope behind Paul Ellis’ farmhouse, the year before the lifts were installed at Saddleback, and has continued under the guidance of successive instructors over the years.
That’s the reason that the next time you visit Saddleback you might be tempted to ask yourself the question, as I have, “Why does it seem like everyone here is taking a lesson?”
From the competency, and especially the attitude of the instructors, to the teaching-friendly terrain, notably the gently sloping half-mile trails and glades served by the quad below the Base Lodge (especially nice on the occasionally brutal January day), Saddleback is distinguishing itself as a very special place to learn to ride or ski.
And remember, the best days of the season are ahead of us. Wouldn’t this be a great year to start or get back out on the hill?
John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write ski columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at: