AlpineZone Challenge 2011 – Ethan Austin of Sugarloaf

The AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge was designed to provide a method for our forum members to get official answers to skiing-related questions directly from a ski area representative. Ethan AustinCommunications Manager at Sugarloaf in Carrabassett, Maine, took the AlpineZone Ski Area Challenge and provided the following responses on 11/4/2011:

Nick: We received several questions about the Skyline Lift. First, Nick asks why Sugarloaf went with a fixed-grip conveyor belt lift vs. a detachable lift. Does this option put more traffic up the mountain? What are the expectations of the new lift and its anticipated uptime during windy days when compared to the old Spillway Doubles? Wa-Loaf asks why the name was changed to Skyline from Spillway?

Ethan Austin: First off, thanks to Nick and all of the AlpineZoners for the questions and for the opportunity to participate in this year’s challenge. It’s an exciting time for Sugarloaf, and it’s great to see so much interest from the AZ community. On to the questions…

Nick: A fixed grip chair best met our needs in that location for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that, given the length of the lift (just over 4,000 feet) a detach simply isn’t necessary. With the conveyor loading system, we expect to be able to run Skyline at roughly 500 or so feet per minute, meaning the ride time will only be about 8 minutes, down from the 11-12 minutes it took on Spillway. A detachable lift would have run an extra $3 million or so, and with the ride down to 8 minutes already, we didn’t think the added expense was warranted. There were other factors as well, including the potential of overwhelming the Spillway Crosscut area with too many skiers, and considerably lower lifetime maintenance costs for a fixed grip chair vs a detach.

It’s hard to put a firm number on how many days we expect to get back vs. the old Spillway lift, but our hope is that the new lift will get us 75% percent of wind hold days back, if not more.

Wa-Loaf: We renamed the lift because, given recent history, we felt that there were too many negative associations with a lift named Spillway. We wanted a fresh start with this lift, and the best way to do that was with a new name. Skyline was chosen out of a number of potential names because it fits with our theme of logging-industry names, and we think it’s a pretty fitting name for a chairlift. The Spillway name will live on, though. The trail will still be called Spillway, and Spillway Crosscut will keep its name as well. I’m sure there will be locals who will continue to call the lift Spillway for many years to come (I bet I probably will for a while out of sheer habit) and I think that’s great – it speaks to the attachment that people felt to that lift and to Sugarloaf’s history.

Skimaine: Skyline will be a great addition that will really improve access and reliability. Will that put an end to the snow cat rides and other enhancements or will we continue to see these type of services in 2011/2012?

Ethan Austin: I assume you’re referring to the cat rides we offered on wind hold days last year. While we expect that Skyline will run much more frequently and reliably than the old Spillway lifts, there will still probably be a couple of days when wind shuts us down. On those days, if it’s safe to do so, we’ll certainly try to offer passenger cat rides just as we have in the past. People travel a long way to get up here, and as long as it doesn’t compromise the safety of our staff or our guests, we’ll do everything in our power to get them up the hill to make turns.

deadheadskier: It seems to me that the West side of the mountain has great potential for expanding Sugarloaf’s Intermediate and Novice terrain offerings. I’m specifically referring to the largely undeveloped acreage between the Bucksaw and West Mountain lifts. I know the focus is currently on Burnt Mountain expansion, but are there plans for expanded terrain on the West side? I think adding terrain in that area would greatly reduce traffic on the lifts and trails in the middle of the mountain.

Ethan Austin: I absolutely agree that there is opportunity for development in the West Mountain area, and it is something we are continually researching – from the Access Road you can actually see a survey line we cut over there to explore new lift options a few years ago (it’s pretty good skiing on a pow day too). Ultimately though, any significant terrain development on West Mountain will require lift upgrades, and we’d probably want that to be supported by real estate development. It’s a big undertaking and though we’re continuing to explore opportunities there, it’s not something we’re actively pursuing right now. That said, there is some opportunity for some terrain enhancements in that area, including some new glades and other small projects that you’ll probably see in the very near future. But a large redevelopment of the area is probably many years away.

Steamboat1: Your discussion about a “signature lift” and other lift improvements created much interest. Steamboat1 asks if any thought has been given to installing a tram as a new top to bottom “”signature lift” which he thinks might be more wind resistant?

Speden also asks, “does a signature lift from the base to the summit make sense for Sugarloaf? It is mentioned in the ten year plan, which I hope is just marketing fluff and not the real plan. Experts mostly want to ski the upper mountain, beginners just want to ski the lower mountain, and intermediates already have the SuperQuad and Timberline. So why waste a very limited capital expenditure budget on a signature lift when there aren’t many top to bottom trails for each skill level?” He also asks, “are other lift replacements and new lifts for Brackett a higher priority for Sugarloaf than a signature lift?”

Last, eastern powder baby recalls a discussion about plans for King Pine and Double Runner. What are the plans for those lifts? She notes, “I would really like to see any Double Runner replacement offer midway loading at the top of Double Runner East and terminate at the top of Double Runner West. This would allow guests to access the Skyline quad quickly, and also allow guests to make use of the T bar on windy days.”

Ethan Austin: There are several questions here, so I’ll try to address each one individually. But before we delve into the signature lift subject though, I should note that it is just one of many proposals in the Sugarloaf 2020 plan that we’ll be examining in the coming years. The proposed lift would follow other, more pressing needs on the mountain, with the hope that once those other needs are met, we’ll be in a position to pay for a signature, base-to-summit lift.

Steamboat1: A tram is not something we’d consider for a possible signature lift, for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being the price tag. Installing a tram would be prohibitively expensive, and would prevent us from pursuing other capital improvements that will be more beneficial to the skier experience. Trams also don’t provide the uphill capacity that we’d be looking for in a base-to-summit lift.

Speden: Thanks for the question. I definitely agree that there are many other areas of the resort that are in need of a capital infusion long before we really start pursuing the signature lift idea. Other lift replacements (such as King Pine and Double Runner) are much higher priorities than a base-to-summit lift. As I said above, the idea is to get our infrastructure and our operation to a point where we can realistically invest in something like that. That said, the talk of a signature lift is not fluff, and I’d have to disagree with your assessment, as would a majority of our customers (we actually conducted surveys about this two years ago when the issue first came up, and a large majority were in favor of a new base-to-summit lift). As many who remember the old days of the base-to-summit Sugarloaf Gondola will attest, the benefits from such a lift are considerably greater than the sustained vertical it provides (although that is a huge benefit as well). The installation of the Gondola in the 60s was a watershed event, which helped to instill the great pride in the mountain that Sugarloafers still feel today. The goal of a signature, base-to-summit lift would be to recreate that kind of a feeling and experience, and provide Sugarloaf skiers with about 2,500 feet of vert, all in a single lift ride.

Eastern Powder Baby: As John (our GM) discussed during our Annual Homecoming Meeting in October (which you can view at the plan, as it stands now, would be to replace the King Pine Quad with a detachable quad, and then replace the Double Runner chairs with the King Pine Quad. The proposal calls for King Pine (in its new location at the existing Double Runner) to terminate at the current Double Runner East unload. Right now the thought is that the new Skyline Quad will be able to operate often enough to make the Bateau T-Bar redundant, thereby eliminating the need for the higher unload on Double Runner. This is based on our lift crew’s best guess right now, so the plan could change once we’re able to see how well Skyline does over the next season or two.

Speden: The Skyline lift is a good first step towards wind proofing the mountain. The next biggest problem area would seem to be reliable access to the summit. Will this be addressed in summer 2012 with a Timberline replacement or summit T-bar (preferably both)? Or would you consider some other lift a higher priority?

Ethan Austin: Glad you asked. The goal right now is to install a new t-bar to the summit as early as next summer, which would follow the same path as the old summit t-bar (currently Cinder Hoe). A Timberline replacement isn’t in the near-term plans. (John also addresses this in the Annual Meeting recording I linked to above.) This isn’t set in stone yet, but it’s the path we’re actively pursuing this year as we organize capital expenditures for next summer.

darent: Has any thought been put into lodging for the single skier, like a dorm? Sugarloaf is my favorite mountain to ski and I would ski there more if I could take advantage of the deals that are offered. All the deals are for 4 in a condo or two in a hotel room. It is too long drive to Sugarloaf. Give me a reason to make it by not penalizing me for being a single skier.

Ethan Austin: Thanks for the question. As a former solo skier-nomad, I can definitely understand the challenges facing the single skier when it comes to lodging. It’s tough for us to offer the same deals for single travelers as we do for couples or groups, because a room occupied by only one person leaves unused inventory which we are then unable to sell. This not only hurts our bottom line, it also reduces the number of beds available for other skiers. Right now we don’t have any plans to build dorm or hostel style lodging, but we’re always looking for better options to offer solo skiers.

Skimaine: The focus on trail and glade improvements of late has been thinning trees. Has any thought been given to doing some re-forestation to improve snow holding on trails and provide wind breaks for the lifts? A couple areas that could benefit from more trees include:

  • The “”island”” on Narrow Gauge between JC pitch and crib works;
  • The trees between Widow Maker and Haulback seem to thinning;
  • Upper Haulback is super wide. Why not plant trees on the skiers right to create a natural trail between Haulback and Ripsaw (similar to upper double bitter)?

thetrailboss also notes that Mad River Glen and other areas have done work with revegetation. And dms63 and Skimaine discussed the desire to see the former Lower Binder be reopened for skiing (it is currently closed as a snowcat road for Bullwinkle’s).

Ethan Austin: DMS63 and Skimaine: The Lower Binder request is one we hear quite a bit, but unfortunately it’s not in the cards. Skier safety is our first priority, and having a designated work road for cats and snowmobiles drastically reduces the risk of a collision with skiers. If we were to open Lower Binder to skier traffic, we would either have to reroute cats and snowmobiles onto open trails, which presents unacceptable risks, or close down entire trail sections at various points during the day, which isn’t feasible and would be an enormous inconvenience for guests. It’s also worth mentioning that the work road isn’t strictly for Bullwinkle’s – it offers a way for lift mechanics and other mtn ops personnel to get out of the base area and up the mountain quickly and safely.

Skimaine: I understand the thought process behind the question and I think I share the same sentiment as several of you that back in the 80s and 90s Sugarloaf probably got a bit caught up in the expansion craze and wiped out a few more trees in certain areas than we needed to. We now have a comprehensive forestry management program for our property, which is overseen by a licensed forester. The areas you mentioned above have lost tress primarily due to impacts from snowmaking, and unless we eliminate snowmaking from those areas reforestation efforts would not be effective. We don’t currently have any big reforestation plans in the works, but our goal is to keep existing forests as healthy as possible through our forestry management program.

loafasaur: Can you detail base area plans for the future? Of specific concern is the goal to make the base area/village more “”pedestrian friendly.””

The two major problems I see are:
(1) shuttle busses routed through the village (maybe a cul-de-sac behind the base lodge (NE corner) or even between Village West and the SuperQuad?); and
(2) Is there any way to reduce/eliminate the climb from the base lodge to the SuperQuad, your most popular lift?

The Beach and the SuperQuad are the same elevation. Can you devise a flat route to connect them?

Ethan Austin: Hi loafasaur, thanks for the question. While our primary focus right now is on projects that will improve the on-hill experience, we are working to upgrade the base village as well. So far we’ve upgraded the exterior of the base lodge with new paint and siding, updated some of the interior (new carpet and layout in the Narrow Gauge and King Pine, new Cant Dawg Express grab and go store) and completed the extensive renovation to the Beach area. Ultimately we’d like to make the entire Main Street area and village more pedestrian friendly, like you said, and we’re exploring options for ways to do that. One option would be to build a turnaround/cul de sac on the western edge of the Village, which would require quite a bit of earthwork and possibly the addition of some underground parking, in order to accommodate Village residents and Security. Another option would be to build a similar type of turnaround behind the Base Lodge, like you suggested. Both options are pretty involved projects, and will probably be at least few years down the road.

There’s no real way to make a more direct route from the Lodge to the SuperQuad. Aside from the six or eight steps up to the maze area, it’s a fairly flat route already from the bottom floor of lodge over to the Quad along Main Street. It would be difficult to construct a direct path from the Beach, due to the brook and the Village buildings.

SLyardsale: When you eliminated turbo tubing 2 years ago you took away the only thing for kids/teens to do after skiing. Are there any plans to make Sugarloaf a more kid friendly resort so families will commit to come up more? And with regards to family vacations, traditional school vacation weeks (Maine & Mass) have seemed less crowded during the past few years (not that I am complaining as a regular during these periods). What do you feel you could do better at attracting more families to Sugarloaf?

Ethan Austin: Thanks for the question Yardsale. It’s good that the vacation weeks have seemed less crowded to you during the past few years, because the overall numbers haven’t actually changed much. I don’t think it’s really accurate to say that tubing was the only thing for kids and teens to do – we have very active Kids Night Out programs for young children, many teens take advantage of the skate park, climbing wall, and trampolines at the AGC, the Outdoor Center features nighttime ice skating, lots of families enjoy using the pools, hot tubs, and racquetball courts at the Fitness Center and at Snowbrook, ziplines tours are now available through the evening, and tubing does still exist, albeit in a considerably smaller venue. That said, we definitely recognize that there is a desire for more kid and teen friendly activities at the resort. The addition of the nighttime ziplines last winter was a good start, and we’ve worked to add events like rail jams, fireworks, and our Family Entertainment Series during our busy vacation weeks to provide families with more options.

speden: We received some very good feedback regarding the east side and Brackett Basin. Skimaine asks if there is any consideration for a warming hut/bathroom near the base of King Pine? This might work for skiers coming out of Brackett Basin. And on that note, speden had some very specific feedback regarding Brackett Basin. His questions include:

  1. Are different styles of glades being cut in Brackett? The photos I’ve seen mostly look like a uniform tree thinning. Will there be some areas with islands of trees instead of only thinned trees? Have the glades been designed to create different areas with contrasting characters, or is the logging crew just making it up as they go along?
  2. Any thoughts of somehow making a trail through the condo area between Lower Stub’s and Lower Buckboard so people could more easily get back to the base area from the lower part of Brackett?
  3. What is the procedure going to be for finding and getting injured skiers out of Brackett quickly? Are there any evacuation trails being cut, or will the patrollers just try to sled people out through the trees and bumps as best they can? Is there a ski patrol hut in Brackett or will patrollers traverse in from the top when needed?
  4. What kind of signage will there be for Brackett? The trip reports I read from last season have a lot of people confused about how to get in, confused where they were once they got in, and having trouble getting back out. As the area gets bigger, this confusion will likely get worse.
  5. Will the trail map give some indication of glade difficulty for Brackett? Marking the whole area as double black doesn’t show which areas are harder and which are easier.
  6. Is there a master plan for full development of Brackett with lifts and snowmaking trails or is Sugarloaf taking a wait and see approach? It seems like it would be better to create a master plan and build it out over time than just cut some expert glades, then later throw in a T-bar, etc. in an ad hoc fashion without thinking about where future lifts and trails will go. I get that it’s a low cost, expert only, sidecountry area for now, but it won’t likely be that five or ten years from now.

Ethan Austin: The request for bathrooms or a warming hut on the east side of the mountain is one we’ve been hearing more of over the last couple of seasons, and we’re actively exploring options for what we can do over there. The big hold up is plumbing – there’s no easy way to tie in bathrooms over there to our current sewage system. We’re looking into other possible solutions like composting or chemical toilets, and I think you’ll probably see some sort of plan emerge in the near future.

  1. There are definitely some areas with islands of trees that still have that gnarly, east coast glade-of-death feel to them. These are mostly in the areas out by Birler, Edger, and Sweeper where we’ve left areas of trees untouched for Bicknell’s Thrush habitat. A majority of the area so far has been thinned into a massive glade. I think you’ll find more lines on powder days than you know what to do with this year. Even last year we were finding fresh snow out there 2 or even 3 days after a storm.The cutting going on now isn’t being done by a logging operation, it’s a crew of 7 or 8 guys who are ski patrollers, snowmakers, groomers and above all, skiers, who know what they’re doing. They’re building terrain that they’re going to be skiing for years, so they want to make it right. We still have hundreds of acres left to go in the development too, so you’ll definitely see glades of differing types develop over the next several years.
  2. We haven’t seen a need for anything like that yet but if it’s something people ask for in the future we’d try to work with the necessary owners’ associations to explore possible solutions.
  3. The cutting hasn’t made it out far enough onto Burnt yet for our patrol to have to change much in the way of procedures. Last season they started stashing toboggans out by Birler, Edger, and Sweeper, and with the additional terrain this year they’ll have other locations to stash them as well. You’re right though, eventually as we make it out further and further onto Burnt there will probably be a need for a hut or something along those lines. Ski Patrol is definitely aware of this and they’re working on procedures to be ready for it.
  4. The idea behind Brackett Basin is that it is a backcountry-type experience, so we don’t want to overdo it with the signage, but I think there was a feeling last year that we probably needed to do a bit more. We added some additional signage in there midway through last season, including signs directing people when to turn if they want to get back to King Pine and Whiffletree, and we’ll be doing some more signage for this season. Currently all of the glades in Brackett Basin are marked with traditional trail ratings – the steeper, more technical areas are double black diamonds, and more mellow terrain is marked as black diamond or blue square. Eventually we may try to come up with some sort of sub-rating system for our glades, but I don’t think we’re at that point yet.
  5. We want it to be an adventure when people go in there, and personally I think it’s great that I can check out areas and have no idea what to expect. Brackett Basin isn’t for everyone, and we try to make that abundantly clear through our signage and on our web site. If you’re not looking for a bit of an adventure, you probably shouldn’t be skiing in there.
  6. This is no master plan for trail, lift, and snowmaking development in Brackett Basin, because our master plan for Brackett Basin is to make a low cost, expert only, sidecountry area, just like you said. I’m quite sure you’ll never see snowmaking or a traditional trail system over there. We’ve talked at length about the possibility of someday running a t-bar or double chair up Burnt, but even that would be quite a ways down the road. We’ve worked extensively with Maine DEP and Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to ensure that we’re developing this area in a relatively low-impact and environmentally conscious way. We don’t see it as a first step to a second resort on Burnt Mountain.

Many thanks again to Nick and all of the mods for organizing this again this year, and thanks to all of the AlpineZoners for the questions. Hope you see you guys up here again this season…

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