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  • John Giuffo

The Snowcat Migrates East

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

Sugarloaf's Burnt Mountain Cat Skiing is Like Nothing Else Around

Sugarloaf uses two branded Bombardier snowcats to haul skiers and riders up Burnt Mountain. Photo: John Giuffo

A small knot of excitement builds inside as my Burnt Mountain cat skiing reservation time approaches. I’d wanted to ski Sugarloaf’s snowcat-accessed sidecountry glades ever since the resort announced the project at the beginning of the 2017-2018 season, and I was finally about to get my chance. Cat skiing is something you’re more likely to encounter in the Mountain West, or up in British Columbia or the Chic-Chocs, not in New England. But Sugarloaf has been thinking big lately.

I was already a fan of Brackett Basin, the wide-open, steep in parts, mellow in others, long, go-anywhere-you-want glade that occupies approximately a significant percentage of Sugarloaf’s total acreage. It’s one giant playground of trees, and you could find happiness all day just by finding new lines through Brackett. It’s one of my very favorite glades in the Northeast.

So when Sugarloaf announced that they’re opening up Burnt Mountain to skiers and riders who don’t have alpine touring equipment (Burnt has been a favorite locals hike-to spot for a few years), I couldn’t wait to see what the resort had socked away on its neighboring mountain. Announced in 2010 as part of Sugarloaf’s ten-year plan, the Burnt Mountain cat is the culmination of a multi-phase capital improvement and expansion plan, of which Brackett was the first (wildly popular) part, opened in 2011. The second phase was the clearing and opening of the Eastern Territory, which opened in 2012 and sits beneath both Burnt Mountain and Brackett Basin. Phase three was the opening of Burnt in 2014, with snowcat access starting last season.

The entrance to Brackett Basin, near the top of the King Pine lift, overlooks Burnt Mountain in the middle distance. Photo: John Giuffo

I meet up with Noelle Tuttle, Sugarloaf’s Marketing and Communications Manager, who graciously helped me secure a last-minute seat on the 10:45 cat, and who agreed to join me for a couple of runs. We make our way over to the base of the King Pine lift, at the spot where the Rough Cut Glade Trail veers off into Brackett, then over to the Upper Log Yard, where a clearing opens up, revealing a small warming cabin at the meetup spot. We click out of our skis and mill about in front of a fire pit in front of the cabin, and sip some complimentary hot chocolate as we wait for the snowcats to return from their previous trip uphill.

I’d taken snowcat laps a few times before, at Copper Mountain and Winter Park in Colorado, and each experience was a blast. There’s a frisson of badassery that comes with a snowcat adventure, as though it’s a prelude to one’s own personal ski film. It’s not always about access to terrain that’s more difficult than what’s available from a lift, but the relatively limited traffic usually means less tracked-out lines, and it’s possible to feel like you have the mountain all to yourself.

“So would you say the stuff on Burnt is more challenging than Brackett?” I ask Noelle, trying to get a sense of what to expect on our trip.

“Actually, I’d say it’s slightly more mellow,” she replies, “but the snow stays fresher longer.” It had been a few days since it had last snowed, and while the mountain had remained cold, with soft moguls and edgeable turns in the trees, there was very little untouched snow to be found. I was excited by the prospect of freshies.

A small warming hut at the bottom of the Burnt Mountain cat track welcomes skiers and riders waiting for their turn riding the cat. Photo: John Giuffo

After a wait of about ten minutes, two fancy new Burnt Mountain-branded snowcats make their way down the cat track and idle in front of the cabin. The cats hold a maximum of 10 and 12 people, and the small crowd gathered near the cabin is a mixed group of skiers of varying ages (though it should go without saying that only skiers and riders who are comfortable skiing in the trees should spend the $30 that buys you two laps to the top of Burnt, and Burnt Mountain is designated as expert-only terrain).

Both cats also act as groomers, resurfacing the cat track with every pass and laying down a fresh strip of corduroy with each trip. As such, the cat track is a favorite route for those who want to skin up to the top, where turn-earners can count on reliable snow for the hike up.

We split into two groups and pile into the cabins, where layers are soon shed for the ten-minute ride uphill. The grade starts mellow but soon intensifies, and those in seats facing backwards brace themselves against the increased pull of gravity. At the top, two patrollers give a brief introductory and safety talk, describing the three named glades that descend from the drop-off point. Androscoggin and Little Androscoggin Glade are the slightly-mellower options for the trip down, and Kennebec, which requires a slight hike to access, is somewhat more challenging. Both are named after rivers which meander through Maine and northern New Hampshire before meeting and emptying into the Atlantic at the Gulf of Maine.

We hit Androscoggin first, tracing arcs around the well-spaced trees, and open up speed a bit, encouraged by the cleared-out glade. The entire mountain is covered by young growth trees, which were left over after the slope had been sustainably logged (larger trees harvested, allowing the younger trees to grow more robust without competing for root space or sunshine), so it’s easy to make confident, fast turns.

Noelle Tuttle, Sugarloaf's communications director, shows me around the Burnt Mountain playground. Photo: John Giuffo

I do my best to keep up with Noelle, following her tracks and hoping I’m not embarrassing myself. I make no apologies for the improvements I’ve made in the less than five seasons I’ve spent on skis, but nothing illustrates just how much room I have for improvement as when I’m following a skier who makes professional-looking, effortless-seeming turns. That sense of incremental improvement, and the periodic reminders that there’s a world of skill out there awaiting me, is one of the things I love most about this sport. There’s always an opportunity to grow, to perfect my turns, and ski better. I love following skiers who are better than I am – it’s one of the things that helps me reach those next levels.

The snow, while comparably untouched by skis and snowboards, has compacted nevertheless, thickened by wind, sun, and time, requiring extra effort to make precise turns. I fight through my turns as Noelle seemingly glides through the semi-styrofoam. And before I know it, we’re back at the meeting place, ahead of the snowcats, waiting for our second lap. I’m winded, but I can’t wait to explore Kennebec.

At the top of our second run, Noelle warns me that the recent storms have left a smattering of tree fall in spots all over the Kennebec glades, and as soon as we drop in, I see what she means. The winds had come in across the mountain in a direction which they usually don’t hit, and the weaker trees, which had grown to accommodate the prevailing winds, had suffered and now lay sprawled here and there across gaps in the glade. It’s just another reminder that while we can make our plans, clear out glades, and trim dead wood all we want, and at the end of the day, the mountain’s gonna do what the mountain’s gonna do.

The second run is more technical in parts, with steeper pitches here and there, logs to dodge, and spots that open up to reveal captivating views of Sugarloaf mountain. The peak’s Snowfields look filled to the brim from our vantage point, and I remind myself to take a lap up there after lunch. We pause briefly for some photos, then it’s back down toward the meetup spot.

And all too soon, our adventure ends. I follow Noelle as she threads a path from the Lower Log Yard back to Lower Stub’s, the green trail that wraps around the condos at the bottom lower left hand of the trail map. A short hike out is necessary, either through the condo parking lot, or down and toward the base of the Sawduster chair, which makes the climb back toward the Gondola Village a bit easier. I thank Noelle for her time and tell her how much I’ve enjoyed the morning’s adventures, but I’m pretty sure she can tell from the smile plastered on my face.

Can't Dog 2, one of the many options in Brackett Basin, can also be used as a path toward the Burnt Mountain cat meetup location. Photo: John Giuffo

And before I head down to the Widowmaker at the base lodge for lunch and a celebratory beer, I turn and glance up at the lines I’ve just (finally) skied down. I didn’t think I could enjoy this giant playground nestled deep in the Carabasset Valley more than I already did, but here I am. I stand there for a minute, just taking in the view on this stunning bluebird day, and I can’t wait to return to the wide open trees of Burnt Mountain’s glades – ideally on a powder day, when those untracked lines truly beckon. But for now, I’m as happy as can be that I’ve finally checked off “cat skiing in Maine” from a list of things I’ve wanted to do in the Northeast.

It’s often sold out – especially on holiday weekends – but with a little luck and some smart planning, I might just be able to snag another seat on one of the most unique rides in the East. Ullr willing, of course.

© 2018 by ICE COAST MAGAZINE.

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