Skiing at 2 a.m. for the first time in my life, I was struck most by the quiet. It wasn’t silence, per se. The diesel generators running the lights on Narrow Gauge hummed along. Icy slopes and skis scratched as skiers zipped past. Sitting on the Double Runner chair, there was the familiar clack-clack-clack as I rode under every lift tower. But the hustle and bustle of being surrounded by other skiers was gone. Even the animals on the mountain seemed to go quiet, hunkering down for warmth in the subzero temperatures. When I couldn’t see other skiers around me, it felt like it was just me and the mountain.
Me, the mountain and my tired muscles. At 2 in the morning, I was about 17 hours into a 24-hour ski marathon.
Last weekend was the fifth annual Downhill 24, an annual fundraiser for WinterKids, a Maine nonprofit.
The first three years of the ski-a-thon were at Greenwood’s comfortable, homey Mt Abram. In 2016 and again this winter, it moved to the larger slopes of Sugarloaf. The setup is relatively straightforward – teams ranging from single participants up to a dozen team members commit to skiing for 24 hours, and take fund-raising pledges from friends, family and colleagues. Each team gets a timing chip to share, which tracks both lap speed and number of laps on a trail over 24 hours.
This year the competition was on Middle and Lower Narrow Gauge, accessed by the Double Runner chairlift. Competition is based on a few different metrics, including which team makes the most runs over the Downhill 24, who makes the fastest lap, and, perhaps most importantly which team raises the most money for Winterkids.
This year’s participants – seven individuals and 46 teams – raised $277,000 for WinterKids’ programs, which the nonprofit pledges will help keep over 23,000 kids healthy and active across Maine and New Hampshire during the winter.
The teams competing in the Downhill 24 participated for a number of reasons, and with varying levels of devotion to snagging the top leaderboard spots. I was on the Rising Tide Brewing Company team, which was on the more serious end of the spectrum. While we were up there to have fun and raise money for charity, we also wanted to win.
Team captain Nathan Sanborn slotted each team member into several one-hour spots with the timing chip, regularly rotating skiers with fresh legs in for an hour of ski-as-fast-as-possible laps before handing off to the next participant. I pulled the 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. spots, which put me on for the warmest and coldest parts of the day.
Some fellow teams, like the The Powdah 11’s – a mix of New Englanders who ended up taking first place – took things just as seriously. On a mid-afternoon chairlift ride with one of the 11’s, he spoke with evangelical zeal about how they’d worked to maximize efficiencies, build their team and take the top spot. They ended up with 105 laps over the 24 hours, one more than their closest competitor and four ahead of Rising Tide. (It’s also worth noting that the 11’s applied similar devotion to their fundraising, bringing in over $15,000 as the fourth-biggest fundraisers.)
Which is not to say the fundraiser was solely the domain of speed demons and expert skiers. I ran into the Maine Magazine managing editor, Paul Koenig, in the lodge late in the evening, who was participating on just his third day on skis. Guts to stay on skis for such a long time definitely trumped experience.
Still other teams were more lackadaisical, logging runs during normal operating hours, and leaving speed runs and overnight skiing to the more fanatic among them.
One skier I rode the lift with around lunchtime was grabbing a last run before heading back to Portland, and most of the skiers seemed to clock out around prime time to head for home or lodging.
This could probably be blamed a bit on the temperatures, which ranged from frigid to downright Arctic. My last temperature check was at 2:30 a.m., when it had dropped to 5 below, not factoring in wind chill.
Pasta and cake in the King Pine Room in the base lodge helped keep those staying inside comfy, as did live music and drinks in the Widowmaker Lounge.
Live results boards were also a welcome attraction, and even at the early predawn hours team members watched results from All Sports Events timing with bated breath. After midnight, the King Pine Room took on a communal feel, with participants sleeping along walls and under tables between runs.
I’ve written about the Downhill 24 a couple of times over my years as a ski columnist, but this was my first chance to actually participate. Now that I’m on the other side of the event, I’m even more bullish on it.
It’s not the only event of its kind (24 Hours of Stratton is another regional example), but there’s nothing else like it in Maine. The combination of camaraderie, sport and charity led to an event that I can’t wait to do again – a sentiment shared by dozens of other participants.
WinterKids will soon announce details about next year’s Downhill 24. Until then, you can follow photos, videos, and other coverage of this year’s event at both the Sugarloaf and WinterKids websites.
Joshua Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He can be contacted at: