January 6, 2013

Snowed under at Saddleback

Ex-owner John Christie had mixed success during the 1970s but hopes the new investors share his vision.

By JOHN CHRISTIE Special to the Telegram

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The base lodge is among the amenities that John Christie enhanced as owner of Saddleback after having learned the complexities of the ski industry in Vermont. The lodge was renovated again by the Berry family during their 10-year ownership of Saddleback.

The Associated Press

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A young John Christie grooms Saddleback’s slopes while employee Dick Frost looks on during the mid-1970s.

Courtesy Photo

The 1972-73 ski season was slow in starting for all the areas in the Northeast, and only the few with snowmaking capabilities were able to provide decent Christmas skiing. Fortunately, we had a rudimentary system on the Wheeler Slope and so we could not only run that lift, but I got Gardner DeFoe to bring his Sugarloafer Ski Camp over for the vacation week, as Sugarloaf had yet to install snowmaking. We charged him a pittance, but sold a lot of hot chocolate. I still treasure the cards of thanks that every one of the campers sent me.

We ended up with a successful enough season that we pressed forward with our aggressive development plans, the principal features of which were our Saddleback Village pedestrian base area with condominiums and motel rooms, and a major aerial lift to the summit.

We began work on cutting a line to accommodate a chair lift. The lift line was slightly more than 2,000 vertical feet, and the upper terminal of the lift was to be located somewhat below the summit and the Appalachian Trail. I felt this careful placement would maintain the integrity of the trail (the entire distance of which in Maine I had hiked by that time) and allow us to access Saddleback's distinctive snow fields by lift.

That lift line, to be subsequently named Bronco Buster and kept cleared for the top 1,000 vertical feet, is now called Tight Line. We named the lift line, appropriately I thought, in keeping with the tradition started before me of naming the trails for fishing terms. On either side of it we cut parallel trails and named them Hook, Line, and Sinker.

NO CROWDED SLOPES

I had no other plans for expanding the uphill capacity on the existing trail network, as my experience at Mount Snow had taught me the folly of putting too many skiers on the trails and ruining everyone's experience.

The new trails would move us a little farther to the east, nearer to the bowls leading down to once-dammed Redington Pond and the old narrow gauge railroad line. Our long-range vision, shared by the Mazurs who actually had a log camp on the shore of the pond of which Dick Mazur and his brothers were very fond, was that ultimately the entire base village, or at least a second one, would be located at the foot of the very attractive, less wind-affected terrain away from the exposed northwestern shoulder of the mountain on which the current ski area sits.

Not only were the Mazurs and I enthusiastic about moving east, so was our land planner, Bill Dickson. And as I was still under the spell of Walt Schoenknecht, his remark when we flew over the Redington Pond area, excerpted in the Yankee magazine article, "That valley there ... you could put 300,000 people and a network of lifts" resonated with me.

With the help of Dickson, an especially environmentally sensitive land planner in Scarborough, we developed a plan for an initial integrated base village inspired not only by what we had done at Mount Snow, but by visits to Zermatt in Switzerland, Vail, Aspen and Sun Valley.

The first stage called for the construction of 20 condominium units just below the base lodge, to be called The Birches. We decided on 20 because I could find 20 buyers if we could price the units right and could guarantee some rental income for the owners. To accomplish the latter, we designed units to include two first-floor bedrooms with baths with separate entrances from the outside. This would give us, in effect, 40 rentable motel units built not by us but by the condominium owners, thus providing for the first time guest housing right on the mountain.

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