JOHN HOLYOKE

Old Sugarloaf lift led to memorable run

Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 3:51 p.m.

On Saturday, officials at the Sugarloaf resort celebrated the opening of their new Skyline Quad, a four-person chairlift that replaced the Spillway East and West chairs.

As you may remember, an accident on Spillway injured several skiers last year. That lift was removed during the off-season. And this bigger, better, faster chair is now in place.

My first memory of the Spillway East and West chairlifts at Sugarloaf was not among my favorite all-time skiing experiences.

It was the mid-1980s, and I had returned to skiing after years away. And when I say “years away,” I also mean this: The “mountains” I had cut my skiing teeth on as a child had names like “Ski Horse.” Strictly speaking, although I had tons of fun on those slopes, they were rather hill-ish, rather than mountainous. They did not scare me. I knew them from top to bottom.

And (or so I thought) I knew how to ski.

That morning at Sugarloaf — seems to me it was called Sugarloaf/USA back then … I still prefer that moniker — there were three of us. One could ski very well. One was her boyfriend, who was unskilled but quite daring. And the third was me: A friend of both who hadn’t been on skis since sixth grade.

Not that I couldn’t ski, mind you. I could. It’s just that during my hiatus from the sport, a funny thing took place. Somehow, someplace, I had been injected with a good-sized dose of common sense. Or, if you prefer, I had become a chicken.

Either way, the good skier and the daredevil convinced me, the third wheel, that we were going to the top of Maine’s second-tallest mountain. On the Spillway chair.

It wouldn’t be so bad, they told me, because we would simply take Tote Road — an intermediate trail — to the bottom.

That sounded good. Great, in fact. Until we got up in the air, and the wind started blowing, and I started doing a little math.

It seemed to me that we were high enough in the air (while still on the lift, mind you) that you could have tucked the entire mass of “Ski Horse” underneath us, with room to spare.

Did I mention that I’m not a huge fan of heights?

Finally, we were at the top, and we skate-skied our way to the junction where we would make our way down Tote Road. The easy trail. If it had been open.

And it wasn’t.

That left two options: Cry, take off my skis and start the walk of shame down the side of the trail … or ski down on an expert trail that I had absolutely no business being on.

I may have said earlier that I had been injected with a good-sized dose of common sense. Apparently, my dose wasn’t good-sized enough.

I skied.

Then I fell. Twice.

The first time, I flipped off a mogul, spun and somehow landed backward, on my upper shoulders. I should have landed on my head, but a flailing ski pole apparently slowed my rate of rotation. The pole bent at a 45-degree angle. It was toast.

Then I got up and tried again. On a particularly steep and icy patch, I lost an edge and pinwheeled my way to the bottom of a headwall. Upon my arrival there, I fetched up on a powdery pile of snow, reassembled myself and uttered a few choice words. The daredevil was snow-covered as well — he had fared no better than I had. His girlfriend was unscathed and laughing.

We skied on, that day and the next. I’ve returned to Sugarloaf dozens of times in the ensuing years, and have actually had some good runs that began on the Spillway chair.

But when I received word that Skyline had replaced it, I had to grin.

Skyline is faster than the old lift, you see. While using it, you’ll spend less time dangling in the air and more time skiing. According to Sugarloaf personnel, it also was designed to be as wind-resistant as possible. The chairs are heavier. Wind fences have been installed. And (get this!) the towers are shorter.

I’m still pretty sure you could slip a “Ski Horse” under the new lift, but over the years, I’ve come to grips with my height issue (It’s not a phobia. It’s not a phobia) in a pair of ways that have worked out fairly well … so far.

First, I gave my dose of common sense back.

And second, I stopped looking down.

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