CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — The thump of a helicopter’s rotor blades chomped through the mountain air early Wednesday morning, marking the next step in the installation of a new chairlift at Sugarloaf ski resort.
The helicopter, flying towers and cross arms for the new Skyline Quad, made multiple trips up and down the slope as ground crews on the Sluice and Spillway trails scrambled to tighten bolts on the new towers as each was lowered into place.
The $3 million, four-passenger chairlift replaces the 35-year-old Spillway Chairlift, a two-passenger chair.
Spillway was the scene of a mishap in December 2010 when high winds and an in-progress lift adjustment led to a derailment that caused several chairs to drop to the snow below, injuring six passengers. The new lift was scheduled to be installed prior to the accident.
On Wednesday, as crews from lift-maker Doppelmayr/USA worked with Sugarloaf to install the towers, locals, including U.S. Olympic gold medalist Seth Wescott, looked on with excitement.
“This is definitely the most exciting day of the installation, aside from when we actually open the lift,” Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said.
The new lift will be faster, will carry more people and will run closer to the ground in hopes of foiling Sugarloaf’s notorious winds, Austin said.
Spillway was frequently closed due to high wind speeds, but the new lift will have a lower profile and is protected by a newly installed “wind fence” designed to block mountain gales from the most prevailing directions, Austin told reporters.
The helicopter, from Construction Helicopters of Howell, Mich., worked for about three hours hauling the 19 chairlift towers up the mountain.
Once the construction is completed, the lift must be put through a series of safety tests, including one that simulates how it will operate fully loaded, Austin said. Tests will be done by the lift manufacturer, the resort’s insurance company and an independent engineering company before any people are allowed to ride it, Austin said.
The lift should be operational by late October but is unlikely to open to skiers and snowboarders until mid-December, he said.
Dopplemayr Project Manager Steve Mayhew, who has been installing chairlifts around the world for the past 19 years, said on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, the Skyline installation ranked about a 7.
The resort’s remote location and accessibility have been the biggest challenges, Mayhew said.
Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine, an industry organization, said a new lift for the state of Maine was important news for winter tourism.
“The new chairlift installation is great for Maine skiing,” Sweetser said from an industry trade show at Sunday River in Newry. “It does a couple of things: It increases the awareness that Maine has state-of-the-art lift capacity and increased lift capacity and that message is getting out to the Boston market and that’s very important to us.”
Beyond that, anytime a new lift goes in, it excites skiers and snowboard riders and gets them thinking about winter, he said.
The Skyline Quad will be the second lift of its type in Maine; the first was installed at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton in 2010.
The Skyline lift is the biggest part of $4.3 million in upgrades at the resort over the past two years.
The lift is a “big piece” of the resort’s 2020 Plan, which includes adding new terrain and facilities over 10 years. The resort has been operating in Maine for 60 years.
“This is an exciting day for Sugarloaf and for Sugarloafers everywhere,” General Manager John Diller said. “Our staff, together with the incredible crew from Doppelmayr, have worked hard all summer to make sure this project stays on schedule, and it’s a great reward for them to see the lift come together like this”