RANGELEY — The 7 miles from Route 4 up to Saddleback Mountain ski area last week in the last days of winter was like a road up a ghost mountain. Ski cabins and camps dotted either side of Dallas Hill Road, but there were no signs of life. As the elevation increased, the rays of sun were lost to fog, and by the turnoff to Saddleback’s entrance, most drivers would question going farther. What could possibly be up there?

The answer – a ski mountain without a pulse.

As winter ends this year, lifts sit motionless. Ski racks are lined up in the parking lot, not cars. Even the flagless poles outside the ski shop are a reminder that this was a year without Saddleback.

Seven miles below the fog, Rangeley residents cope with mixed emotions about their mountain.

“I’ve been down that mountain probably ten thousand times,” said Joey Morton, a Rangeley native, last week. “I drove up there the other day just to look, and it was just so sad. I never thought I would ever see it not open. There’s just a snow gun in the middle of the trails. No cars. It’s eerie.”

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Saddleback’s owners, Bill and Irene Berry, announced in July that Maine’s third largest ski area would not open for the season unless they could secure $3 million in financing to replace the Rangeley Double Chairlift with a four-person lift. In September, they said they had exhausted all financing options and were trying to secure a buyer for the mountain.

Over the following months, Saddleback owners communicated about the sale solely through their Facebook page. In October, they announced that they were in serious negotiations with a buyer who hoped to open for the winter season. A post in December said the Berry family and the prospective buyer felt confident that the sale would be complete, opening the mountain by late January.

Subsequent posts in January said the sale was moving forward and the groomer-mechanic had returned to work, offering hope for an early 2016 opening.

But in a Feb. 8 post, the owners announced the mountain would not open for February school vacation and that “any possible opening date will be posted as we receive the information.”

In the five weeks since, there has been no update.

Saddleback manager Chris Farmer last week said he couldn’t comment. The Berrys couldn’t be reached for comment.

With the added blow of below-average snowfall, which blunted the normal rush of snowmoblilers to the region between January and April, Rangeley, known for its natural attractions as a four-season town, was left to wade through a winter without its two big cold-weather draws.

Morton, who owns Town and Lakes Motel in downtown Rangeley with his wife, Sheryl, said, “Right now it hurts because there would be a lot of skiers here for spring skiing, but that’s not happening.”

“And without the snow for snowmobiling and Saddleback closed, it’s just been, ugh, talk about everything lining up the wrong way. It couldn’t have lined up worse,” he said.

Down at the Saddleback Rangeley Inn, General Manager Paula LaPointe concurred.

“Between the combination of no Saddleback and the temperatures and not having the snow, it’s definitely making a huge impact,” she said. “We were only full twice this winter. Usually we’re booked every weekend.”

LaPointe said that typically in mid-March there would be three people staffing the operations of the inn, but with business being so slow, she’s been the only person working. Snowmobilers who made the best of the trail conditions kept the inn going through the winter, LaPointe said.

Without skiers, winter vacation rentals also took a hit, according to James Eastlack of Morton and Furbish Real Estate Agency and its affiliate, Morton and Furbish Vacation Rentals.

About 70 percent of the firm’s winter rentals are booked by skiers, but this winter rental business was about a quarter of what it was last year when Saddleback was open, according to Eastlack.

LOSS OF SEASONAL JOBS

The impact of the slow winter season was also felt in neighboring Oquossoc, where many skiers have winter camps.

Katherine Farris, baker at the Oqoussoc Grocery Store, said the impact has been “tremendous.”

“We’ve noticed that the people who have always come into town and stayed in this area because they were going skiing generally didn’t come,” she said. “We still saw a few, but nowhere near as many. And they didn’t hang around like they would.”

Despite the lack of snow, Farris believes Saddleback being open this season could have helped get the area through an unseasonable winter because the resort would have made snow.

“We all knew it would impact our area, but I don’t think everybody realized how much, because we didn’t have a great snowmobile season,” she said. “Normally people wouldn’t have noticed that as much because we would’ve had all of those skiers here. Even without the snow on the (snowmobile) trails, the mountain always had it because they were able to make it.”

Saddleback is the third-largest employer in Franklin County, supplying about 350 winter jobs.

Farris said Bill Berry was open about his concern for the area.

“Bill has said right along that he knew what kind of an impact (not opening) would have on the area, the economy, and knowing that it was (one of) the largest employers in Franklin County,” Farris said. “He said, ‘I’ve got a lot of people counting on me.’ And I think a lot of people, as frustrated as they are – the regular season pass-holders – I don’t think they realize how far the Berrys have gone to try to keep (the mountain) going.”

A FAMILY OPERATION

With communication only coming from the resort’s Facebook page, an online discussion of hope and frustration has been ongoing among Saddleback followers.

While season pass-holders were offered refunds in December, the lack of communication this winter was a frustration for people who made Saddleback a staple of their winter. Now they are questioning the future.

“The public deserves to know what’s going on, as many have invested in property on the mountain and have a vested interest in the long-term survival of this place for numerous reasons,” David Rhode wrote in a March 3 comment on the Facebook page. “I’m not privy to the rumor mill, but I wonder if there is a ‘buyer’ at all. Owners have misled the public in January and February. All that is asked for is an update, not false promises.”

In a Sept. 2 post, the owners warned that “the degree of confidentiality can be frustrating,” but that commercial transactions “take time” and “the process requires a high level of confidentiality.”

While locals are also frustrated about the lack of information, they are sympathetic with the Berrys because of how much the family has done to improve the mountain since they bought Saddleback in 2003.

“It’s their privacy as opposed to all of us being curious,” Farris said. “There’s a certain amount of privacy required, and it should be commended that (the Berrys) are upholding that.

“They’ve done so much to try tp keep (the mountain) open. I think that’s one of the things that people don’t realize is how much they went above and beyond just trying to keep it open.”

Since the Berrys bought Saddleback, they have invested about $40 million worth of improvements to the ski area, but since 2008, the mountain has operated at a loss.