Maine's skiers head to the trees as glade skiing grows in popularity

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — With a tree here and a branch there, ski resorts in Maine are literally cutting new niches for their industry.

Skiing and riding in Brackett Basin at Sugarloaf
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Sugarloaf Assistant Ski Patrol Director Roddy Ehrlenbach flies through the Brackett Basin Glade last week.

Glades outlook
Russ Dilingham/Sun Journal

Skiers and snowboarders look out at Burnt Mountain where Sugarloaf has an ongoing project to develop skiing and riding through the woods.

Glade skiing at Sugarloaf
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

A snowboarder carves through Brackett Basin at Sugarloaf.

Glade skiing at Sugarloaf
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

A snowboarder slides down a frozen headwall in the Brackett Basin at Sugarloaf recently.

Skiing Casablanca
submitted photo

Skier Kevin Donoghue negotiates a portion of the Casablanca glades during a 2011 snow day at Saddleback in Dallas Plantation. Donoghue was one of those who helped thin the forest to create the 55-acre glade for skiers and snowboard riders.

Tree shot
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Regional Editor Scott Thistle moves through the trees at Saddleback in a recent snowstorm.

Over the last two winters, resorts have added more than 400 acres of terrain to their slopes largely the old-fashioned way: Workers with survey ribbon and chain saws hiking the mountains; cutting space between trees.

It's a cost-effective way to reduce the number of skiers on the main slopes and corduroy groomers while offering more natural and challenging terrain to those who want it, resort officials said.

Common knowledge may suggest fast-moving people and trees don't mix, but the number of accidents and serious injuries coming from these newer and wilder slopes are remarkably low.

Roddy Ehrlenbach, the assistant Ski Patrol director at Sugarloaf and the summertime supervisor of the crew that just thinned some 270 acres of forest on the resort's eastern border near Burnt Mountain, said his advice for tree skiers is simple.

"Don't ski any faster than you are willing to hit a tree at."

He's heard the analogy that some are drawn to the trees because they figure their odds are at least as good as on an open but crowded slope.

An overcrowded ski slope can be a lot like rush-hour traffic, and it can be hard to guess when and where somebody will turn below you, he said.

"But at least you always know what the trees are going to do next," Ehrlenbach said. "They are going to be right where they were the last time and the next time."

All kidding aside, Ehrlenbach said the glades typically attract the most highly skilled skiers and riders and that alone reduces the number of accidents and injuries in the woods.

Since it opened earlier this winter, the Brackett Basin glade has produced only one injury of note, which was not a serious one, Ehrlenbach said.

Sugarloaf is in the midst of a three-phase thinning project that will ultimately add nearly 1,000 acres of wooded terrain to the slopes of Maine's tallest ski mountain.

That effort, an on-steroids version of a tree-skiing expansion at the Saddleback Ski Area in nearby Dallas Plantation, allows Sugarloaf to market itself as the largest ski area east of the Rocky Mountains.

In 2009 Saddleback led the latest push for more wooded terrain when it unveiled its Casablanca glade, a 55-acre effort high on the side of the 4,120-foot mountain.

Two years into manicuring the glades of Casablanca, Saddleback's Patrol Director Jared Emerson said the response from resort guests has been overwhelming.

"They're ecstatic," Emerson said. "They are just amazed at the size of it and the scope of it."

The first day the glade opened in 2010 Emerson said he watched nearly every skier and rider on each chair of the resort's high lift head for the trees. The traffic hasn't stopped and neither have the stories, he said.

"From riding the chair that day to the bar that night to every day since, we hear about it every single day," Emerson said. "Even our season pass holders who've been here a very long time, they talk about Casablanca every day. Somebody is always talking about it — people just don't stop talking about it."

While not as big as the massive undertaking Sugarloaf has launched, Casablanca offers a more in-bounds experience. Sugarloaf's expansion is pushing the resort's boundaries eastward, while Casablanca is an island forest bordered by Saddleback's boundary trail Muleskinner on one side and the black diamond Black Beauty trail on the other.

Skiers really need not fear becoming lost in Casablanca, provided they head downhill and either left or right. But still discoveries continue daily, Emerson said. "My whole goal out of all this stuff is to keep it interesting so that there's always something new to explore and something new to find."

Emerson also guides the cutting efforts in the summer, and he said each season Casablanca becomes more refined and more of an aesthetically pleasing forest.

 Because skiers in the woods are more meandering and adventuring, it's a new way for resorts to add fun and open space without additional costs of giant new infrastructure projects. The process capitalizes on what a lot of Maine resorts have in abundance — forest land.

"As you look at glading, you are not cutting and picking stumps out and putting snow-making in and using excavators to do that," Dana Bullen, president and general manager of Sunday River in Newry, said. "So it is a relatively inexpensive way to open up a lot more terrain to folks."

In the 1990s Sunday River made push for more glade skiing in its Oz development and Bullen said a recent addition of an in-bounds gladed type of terrain park known as, "the Sticks" is a new local favorite. On the resort's 5,000 acres Bullen says there's potential for future glade expansions.

But even the recent advent and growth of "glade skiing" is far from a revolutionary phenomenon for many mountain locals who have always ventured from the groomed and sometimes beaten trail to find their own stashes of untracked snow or solitude in the trees, Dave Pecunies, a longtime Sunday River skier, said.

For years a number of hard-core Sunday River skiers took to the mountain in the summer. Using hand lopers and bucksaws, they carved their own "secret routes" through the woods, Pecunies said.

Some, but not all of those secret routes became less and less secret and eventually have been incorporated into many of the forest routes used by skiers and riders today, he said.

"When we didn't have boundary-to-boundary skiing, I think the mountain (management) knew we were out there and doing it, but it wasn't really condoned," Pecunies said. "You know it was kind of a 'don't ask, don't tell' kind of thing."

The allure of the glades for skiers has always been the challenge, Pecunies said, and while the creation of new glades serves the resorts, the demand for more glades is definitely market driven, Pecunies said.

"People want the glades," he said. Advancement in ski technology, with shorter and easier to turn skis, is also likely driving some of that demand, Pecunies said. Either way there's a new allure to it. "There's a bit of a natural aspect to skiing in the trees as compared to skiing on a manicured run."

Greg Sweetser, the executive director of the ski industry association, Ski Maine, said glade skiing has always been a staple of New England skiing and the new growth of it in Maine is actually a giant nod back to the state's earliest ski area development.

"Glade skiing has been around the industry since the first skiers slid down a hillside," Sweetser wrote in an e-mail message. "The first trails cut on Maine mountains, Sugarloaf and Bigelow, allowed skiers to get to the base from the more open, gladed summits. As skiing increased in popularity, more trails were cut to allow more options for skiers in Maine’s thick, forest-covered mountains."

Over time, wider and more open trails became vogue, but as skiers from the East traveled and experienced forest skiing in the western U.S., the demand for tree skiing back home mounted, according to Sweetser.

Of the state's 18 ski resorts, almost all offer some version of glade skiing, Sweetser said.

"The amount of skiable terrain has expanded because of the popularity of skiing and riding through the trees," Sweetser wrote. "I see nothing but continued growth of glade skiing in Maine and all of New England."

sthistle@sunjournal.com

There's more online

To see video of glade skiing and riding in Sugarloaf's Brackett Basin online go to www.sunjournal.com

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Comments

Bob Woodbury's picture

Really remarkable

"Common knowledge may suggest fast-moving people and trees don't mix, but the number of accidents and serious injuries coming from these newer and wilder slopes are remarkably low."

Yea. As I recall, only two kids have been killed so far. Remarkable.

SCOTT THISTLE's picture
staff

Skier fatality did not involve glade skiing...

Bob,
The fatal accident at Sugarloaf this season was not in Brackett Basin. That accident, involving a teen-aged skier was on Hayburner, a black-diamond trail that is not a glade but an open run off the SuperQuad lift on the other side of the resort. That tragic accident involved the skier going off the trail striking some snow-making equipment that is installed along the treeline there. See: http://www.sunjournal.com/franklin/story/972503

What is the other fatality you are mentioning? I don't recall two ski or snowboard-related deaths this year Maine. There were two deaths in one week at Sunday River in 2010 both were on open runs, both involved adult men.

I think there's a misconception that you go fast when you are glade skiing, you can go fast, like anywhere on the hill but by in large the skiing is slower in the forest as you must turn more and really don't pick up as much speed as you can on an opened run. I'm not sure you have all your information correct regarding skiing deaths this year in Maine but am willing to look at any information you have.
Thanks for the comment.
Scott

Bob Woodbury's picture

So he was killed on an open run.

Now we put trees in the way and it's safer. OK.

SCOTT THISTLE's picture
staff

For perspective skiing is far safer than people believe it to be

Bob, FYI:

"STATISTICS ON SKIING/SNOWBOARDING via: http://www.nsaa.org/nsaa/press/facts-ski-snbd-safety.asp

Fatalities - According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA): During the past 10 years, about 40.6 people have died skiing/snowboarding per year on average. During the 2009/10 season, 38 fatalities occurred out of the 59.8 million skier/snowboarder days reported for the season. Twenty-five of the fatalities were skiers (18 male, 7 female) and 13 of the fatalities were snowboarders, (12 male, 1 female). Among the fatalities, 19 of those involved were reported as wearing a helmet at the time of the incident. The rate of fatality converts to .64 per million skier/snowboarder visits.

Serious Injuries - Serious injuries (paralysis, serious head, and other serious injuries) occur at the rate of about 43 per year, according to the NSAA. In the 2009/10 season, there were 39 serious injuries. Sixteen of these serious injuries were skiers (11 male, 5 female) and 23 were snowboarders, (16 male, 7 female). Among the serious injuries, 18 of those involved were reported as wearing a helmet at the time of the incident. The rate of serious injury in 2009/10 was .65 per million skier/snowboarder visits.

AN ADDITIONAL PERSPECTIVE

To place skiing and snowboarding safety into context (and keeping in mind that this is not statistically significant) it helps to offer a perspective: The National Safety Council (Injury Facts, 2010 edition) points out that in 2008:

* 39,000 Americans died in motor-vehicle accidents;
* 6,162 pedestrians were killed;
* 6,700 died from unintentional public falls;
* 3,800 died from unintentional public poisoning;
* 3,600 people drowned while swimming in public areas;
* 900 died while bicycle riding;
* 129 died from tornadoes;
* and 25 died from lightning.

Bob Woodbury's picture

So I guess what you're saying...

...as you try and overwhelm me with statistics, is that death was OK and putting more trees in the way for people to hit is extremely safe. OK.

SCOTT THISTLE's picture
staff

You're wrong sir -- don't guess just ask..

No I did not say that death or any tragic one is OK. That's putting words in my mouth or in my writing. I'm asking you to look at the facts Woody, skiing and snowboard riding are statistically very safe sports comparatively, with or without trees. Safer than swimming, safer than riding your bike even. That's all I am saying. Our hearts ache for anybody who loses somebody in a tragic sporting accident, on the ski slopes or elsewhere. So you are very wrong to say that we are condoning or writing off that person's live, very wrong to say that.

Your criticism is 1. not accurate and 2. very mean-spirited.

Scott

Bob Woodbury's picture

OK. OK.

You've convinced me. Putting trees in front of fast-moving skiers is extremely safe. I assume that's now accurate. I'm sorry being concerned about people's safety is so mean spirited. I won't be concerned about their safety any more. They're all safe gliding at speed through the glades (isn't that a wonderfully soothing term - glades) and no one will get hurt because trees are in the way. My apologies.

SCOTT THISTLE's picture
staff

"Putting trees in front of fast-moving skiers ...

Come on Bob. Stop misconstruing the statements and the facts. Seriously, nobody every said it was "extremely safe" nobody said driving to work each day is "extremely safe" but skiing and snowboard riding is, in fact, as safe or safer than riding a bike or swimming at a public beach. Those are the statistical FACTS. IT was also quite serene up there in the trees, we stopped a lot and chatted and soaked in the view and saw other people doing that too. It's a meander through the forest, different skiers and riders moving at different speeds and paces. Just so you know - skiing and riding in a snow-covered forest on a mountain in Maine is not the death wish you have it cracked up to be -- not even close.

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