Wind can be both an ally and enemy to skiers and snowboarders. At its best, wind helps to subtly shift snow around the mountain. Breezes move light snow around after storms, filling in skied terrain and once again creating untracked powder.
Unfortunately, wind can also bring in bitter, stinging cold and create a hard crust on top of already fallen snow. Strong gusts or sustained wind make it unsafe to operate non-surface lifts. If there are two words in skiing I dread nearly as much as “broken bone,” they’re “wind hold.”
After one too many long drives to mountains shuttered by strong winds, I’ve taken to checking forecasts for wind speed along with temperature and weather. One of the best ways to avoid being caught without a ride to the summit is to be aware of how the wind affects certain mountains.
Sugarloaf and Saddleback, Maine’s two highest ski area peaks, are most likely to be adversely affected by wind. Wind direction is important because it hits each mountain differently — Sugarloaf’s northeastern lift orientation means northwestern winds, hitting across the lifts, are more likely to cause a wind hold. Switch the two directions and you’ll have a wind hold scenario with the northeastern lift orientation at Saddleback.
Both mountains have taken measures with new lifts to combat the wind. Sugarloaf’s Skyline Quad can be run in higher winds than the Spillway chairlift it replaced. Saddleback’s Kennebago Quad is relatively low, which keeps it below the treetops and out of the wind. Both mountains also have surface lifts — the Bateau T-Bar at Sugarloaf and the Cupsuptic T-Bar at Saddleback — which access mid- to upper-mountain terrain and can be run in nearly any conditions.
A combination of lower peaks and a massive lift network works in Sunday River’s favor when facing the wind. Gusts typically aren’t as fierce as at the higher elevations, for starters. The myriad lift orientations mean that wind from any direction isn’t likely to affect all the lifts at once. Maine’s other ski resorts, from the Camden Snow Bowl to Shawnee Peak, have low enough summits that they’re rarely stuck with lifts closed due to wind.
So what should you do if you find yourself facing wind holds?
For starters, take wind as an opportunity to explore the lower trails. There’s great gladed terrain and blue-square cruisers at lower elevations; trails you may often skip on the way to higher ground.
Another option is to simply go elsewhere. When I was stranded on the lower trails at Sugarloaf just a few weeks ago, I packed up my gear and made the two-hour drive to Sunday River. Season pass holders from Sugarloaf can use their passes at Sunday River (and vice versa), and day ticket holders can also use the lifts at both mountains on one ticket.
With slight detours from Carabassett Valley to Newry, I could have just as easily made my way to Mt. Abram, Lost Valley, Saddleback, Titcomb or Black Mountain. It’s not as if you need an excuse to visit the resorts off the beaten path, but if you want an excuse, wind isn’t a bad one.
One more option is to swap the downhill equipment for snowshoes or Nordic skis.
The Sugarloaf Outdoor Center offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on 90 kilometers of groomed trails, along with a huge ice skating rink. The Rangeley Lakes Trail Center at Saddleback is no slouch, with 55 kilometers of trails to choose from.
Yes, wind can wreak havoc to your ski plans, but don’t let it drive you back indoors.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at: