Thursday, December 12, 2013
By JOHN CHRISTIE
In my early days in the ski business, those of us who invested time and resources developing and operating ski areas lamented that our success or failure depended completely on two things over which we had absolutely no control: the weather and the economy.
Snow groomers like these modern ones at Sugarloaf have come a long way from the 1960s, when Maine pioneers experimented with new ways to groom the slopes at ski areas.
Courtesy of Sugarloaf
SPOTLIGHT ON SKI AREAS
TITCOMB MOUNTAIN, WEST FARMINGTON
HOW BIG: 750 feet
WHY IT'S COOL: For anyone taking a winter vacation in western Maine, it's a fun community mountain in an area rich with big mountains.
SOMETHING DIFFERENT: The local ski mountain is one of the oldest continuously operating ski hills in Maine, serving skiers for 71 years.
TICKETS: From $7 to $25, with great group rates.
HOURS FOR LIFTS (non-holidays): 3 to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
HOW FAR: 38 miles from Augusta; 87 from Bangor; 90 from Portland
CONTACT: 778-9031; www.titcombmountain.com
-- From staff reports
Today, thanks to snow making and the perfection of snow-grooming devices, the weather is no longer much of an excuse. The fact is, as long as there are adequately low temperatures, snow can be manufactured in sufficient quantities to cover the trails, and grooming can prepare the surfaces so skiers and boarders can be virtually guaranteed acceptable, and generally superior, conditions.
In the dark, pre-snow-making ages, the birth of grooming can be traced to the 1940s in Switzerland and France, where slatted rollers manned by skiers were used to roll down new snow to provide a smooth, packed surface.
During the same period, Phil Robertson, manager at Cranmore in New Hampshire, was experimenting with hauling agricultural rollers with a small Caterpillar tractor to pack early-season snow to make a solid base for later snowfalls.
But the perennial problem, especially in the East, was that a thaw or a rainstorm, and a subsequent freeze, left a hard-packed surface in which it was virtually impossible to set an edge.
Robertson, again, was the innovator who began dragging around his own invention, the Magic Carpet, a network of chains and caulks, 10 feet by 14 feet and weighing 1,200 pounds, in an attempt to scarify the surface. Other operators experimented with smaller versions, really nothing more than sections of chain-link fence pulled down the slope by a single skier.
the 1950s, the Tucker Sno Cat was introduced to the ski world as the answer to pulling snow rollers and neolithic grooming devices. These $6,000, pontooned precursors to our modern, $275,000 grooming wonders served the industry well during its adolescence.
The 1960s, however, represent the watershed years for both grooming and snow making, and at the forefront were some Maine pioneers whose names now reverberate through the annals of American ski history.
In January 1962, Otto Wallingford, an agricultural engineering graduate of the University of Maine, apple orchard owner and developer of Lost Valley in Auburn, fired up Maine's first snow-making system, built from his own design.
1963, Wallingford had figured out a way to remove water droplets from the air lines to improve the quality of the snow, and he was the first to mount guns 20 feet in the air on poles and trees.
Next came his Otto-matic, three guns mounted on a giant, moveable fan that could be hauled wherever it was needed.
But his greatest contributions came when he turned his attention to grooming, with his invention of the patented Powdermaker, leading to the launch of Valley Engineering, which would market his ever-growing inventory of innovative grooming equipment the world over. The U-blade for removing moguls, and the hydraulics used today on modern equipment were both products of Wallingford's creative genius.
While Wallingford was inventing and improving snow-making and grooming equipment on his little but very popular hill in Auburn, brothers Don, Norton and Stuart Cross in Greenwood, diversified their logging business by turning parts of Mount Abram, where they had harvested trees, into ski trails.
The Crosses installed a T-bar lift, and experimented with farm equipment to pack snow, smooth moguls and chop up icy surfaces.
With their Tucker Sno Cat, they hauled their handmade Magic Carpet, made from channel iron and small teeth in circles, to turn their ski area into a family-friendly deliverer of dependable conditions.
And this very weekend, Mount Abram celebrates its 50th anniversary serving Maine skiers with unparallelled ski conditions.
When the last chapter is written in the history of American skiing, these Maine originals will take their rightful places in the pantheon of the industry's forefathers.
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: