Friday, April 18, 2014
CARRABASSETT VALLEY — For devoted Sugarloafers, who spend every winter weekend here, the cable derailment of a chair lift last week has not affected their attachment to Maine’s second-highest mountain.
“It won’t change a thing,” said Lynn Harder, of Falmouth, who was at the mountain on New Year’s Day with her husband and two young children. “We’re still all going to pile into the car and come up here.” Her sentiment was shared by other longtime Sugarloafers clustered at the bar of the Bag & Kettle Brew Pub at the base of the mountain.
News of the mishap may have spread around the globe, but those at the bar didn’t see it as big story. Most were supportive of the resort’s management and defended the mountain’s safety record.
“Given the mountain’s long history, it’s a blip,” said Linda Lupton, of Wiscasset, a Sugarloafer since 1969. “None of us are going to stop skiing here. This mountain is safe.”
In a display of solidarity with the resort, several of the mountain’s regulars have sent e-mails to resort management asking that they be seated on the first chair of the Spillway East chairlift when it re-opens. Sugarloaf said there is not yet a scheduled re-open date for the lift.
Last Tuesday, part of the 35-year-old chairlift derailed, sending skiers plummeting 25 to 30 feet.
At least eight people, including three children, were taken to hospitals after the double-chair lift derailed. Dozens of skiers remained on the crippled lift for more than an hour until patrols could get them down. As of Friday, all known injured skiers had been released from various hospitals.
Since the accident, the resort has been criticized for its maintenance record. One ski safety expert questioned the wisdom of re-starting the lift with skiers aboard once the cable began tracking outside the guidance system. He also noted that safety inspections have highlighted an unusually large number of problems with the resort’s older lifts.
The resort — among the largest and most remote in the East — is known for its extremely loyal customer base. It has more than 23,000 fans on Facebook, far more than any other Eastern resort.
The mountain’s steep slopes attract expert skiers. Moreover, the long driving distance from metropolitan areas and $77 full day lift ticket keep many casual skiers away — leaving the experienced skiers more of the mountain for themselves.
Many Sugarloafers see themselves as the sport’s elite. They are purists, drawn to the mountain’s challenging terrain rather than off-mountain activities.
The resort has tried to cultivate that organic loyalty and sense of community, said Ethan Austin, the resort’s spokesman.
Since the accident, the resort has tried to be as open as possible about the situation on its Web site, postings on social media sites and its weekly newsletter, which is sent to more than 30,000 people.
“There is a unique vibe up here,” he said. “It’s a close-knit community. People are very dedicated to the mountain and very loyal.”
That community was evident on Saturday at the brew pub, where Carrabassett Valley selectman Steve Pierce was working his way through the bar crowd, collecting pledges for a fundraiser to fight cancer. Just about everyone in the bar greeted him as a friend because they’ve been coming to the mountain every weekend for years. The pledges came easily.
Anita Sebastian, 50, of Sherborne, Mass., greeted Pierce with a hug simply because she hadn’t seen him for week. Sebastian and her husband drive 4 1⁄2 hours every weekend to come here.
“We all know each other and all our families,” she said.
While most Sugarloafers remain supportive, there are some who say the incident shows a need to invest more money to upgrade outdated equipment before another accident happens.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Alan Battistelli, 54, who has been coming to the mountain from Rockport, Mass., every weekend for 20 years. “If this embarrassment means we end up with a new lift, that’s a good thing.”
Still, the incident has not affected his commitment to the mountain, he said, adding that he would climb aboard the Spillway East chairlift today if it were opened.