Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By Josh Christie
Back in the day, there were two types of skiing -- on-piste and backcountry. You were either skiing on lift-serviced trails at a resort, or you were hiking for your own turns on unpatrolled, often unmaintained slopes. In recent years a third option -- sidecountry, or "slackcountry" -- has been growing in popularity.
Generally speaking, sidecountry and slackcountry are defined as backcountry-type terrain (ungroomed natural snow, often in gladed areas) that you can reach via a ski area's lift system. Even though the skiing isn't necessarily any easier or safer than true backcountry descents, it's a heck of a lot easier to get to.
Sidecountry is a term that's been a boon to marketers, who have been pushing off-piste skis and gear for the last few years using the term. It's a term that's also saddled with baggage, and one that inspires debate within the ski community. While proponents argue the term accurately represents the hybrid nature of access and terrain, opponents worry that the term suggests an unmerited level of safety on slopes that aren't (and can't be) as closely patrolled as regular trails.
Debate hasn't stopped ski areas from latching on to the popular term. From coast to coast, areas like Jackson Hole, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Jay Peak are promoting themselves to skiers looking for an on-piste/off-piste hybrid ski trip. One of the most ambitious expansions of sidecountry terrain in the east is Sugarloaf's planned three-phase expansion onto neighboring Burnt Mountain.
With snowfields, a boundary-to-boundary ski policy and an extensive glade network, Sugarloaf has always been a haven for skiers looking for rowdy terrain. However, the expansion of its eastern territory -- part of the vast "Sugarloaf 2020" 10-year improvement plan -- is greater in scope than any of its past sidecountry efforts.
Terrain off the eastern boundary, termed "Brackett Basin" by the resort, began to open in the 2010-11 season. The 270 acres of Phase I thinned the glades surrounding Cant Dog, formerly the resort's easternmost trail, and created wooded routes all the way to the resort's bottommost lift.
(The clearing also claimed the Salsa Shack, an out-of-bounds, off-the-record cabin built by locals. Mountain Ops burned the cabin down during the expansion.)
Over this and last season, Sugarloaf has opened a substantial chunk of Phase II. While the first phase of the expansion mostly evolved existing glade, the new glades are fresher, wilder territory. The new terrain is accessed off of the Golden Road, a trail that runs the ridge between Sugarloaf and Burnt Mountain. Eventually the later phases of the 2020 plan will expand up to the summit of Burnt, opening a staggering 650 acres to skiing.
Skiing Sugarloaf last weekend, my friends and I traveled as far into the new territory as our legs would take us. While the terrain in Phase I of Brackett Basin was all accessible without removing any gear, the new sidecountry terrain requires some hiking. The Golden Road is clearly marked, well maintained and generally uphill or flat.
On the way east, skiers can tackle trails that dump back into the Cant Dog area -- Birler 1 and 2, Edger 1 and 2, and Sweeper 1 and 2 -- which are well-marked. They were also pretty much untracked a few days after a storm. Clearly we weren't the only ones passing by the trails for the newer terrain.
The terrain in Phase II falls on either side of Brackett Brook, the stream that splits Sugarloaf and Burnt. While many trees have been mechanically cleared over the last few years, be forewarned that there are still thick woods you can find yourself in if you aren't careful. We made the executive decision to break trail just west of the brook, dropping down from about the middle of the saddle between the mountains, and found ourselves in tight territory.
The new area has a nice mix of steep pitches and lower-angle terrain that left us able to switch between hunting thrills and a mellow cruise. Mixed in among the glades are clear skidder roads, not terribly steep, but wide open and deep with powder.
In a blog post boosting the new area, Sugarloaf noted that "located over a mile away from Sugarloaf-proper, and the Eastern Territory may never get skied out." It's easy to believe. When we popped onto Snowbrook at the end of our Eastern Odyssey, we found it had been over an hour since we started into Brackett. When the expansion is complete, Sugarloaf will have doubled in size.
While Brackett Basin and the Eastern Territory are in-bounds -- and, thus, patrolled by the resort's ski patrol department -- they offer some risks beyond the typical ski trip. As fun as it is (and it is fun), the terrain is difficult to patrol, massive, and chock full of chutes, stumps, cliffs and other hazards. Sugarloaf has been proactive with education about these risks; a sign at the entrance to Brackett, warnings on the trail map, and a special section of the Sugarloaf website all offer basic safety rules known as "Brackett Basics."
The skiing in Maine right now is as good as I've seen it in 20 years and with deep natural snow blanketing New England, the time is ripe for adventurous skiers to check out the wild world of the sidecountry.
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: