Chris Powers, a coach for the Canadian men’s alpine ski team works on a safety fence on the course at Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabassett Valley on Saturday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — The weather climbed into the high 40s, and the snow from all winter had been replaced with rain and fog – hardly ideal for any place looking forward to holding a skiing championship.

At Sugarloaf, however, where many of the best skiers in the country were due to arrive for the U.S. Alpine Speed Championships, such breaks get little more than a shrug. They’ve been through this before.

The crew is pretty good at just kind of rolling with the punches, and it’s kind of our business,” said Ethan Austin, the mountain’s director of marketing and communications. “You try to plan as much as you can and make backup plans for your backup plans, but there’s always a lot of on the fly making it work. We’re pretty good at that.”

There’s reason to be confident. Sugarloaf is hosting the Alpine championships for the seventh time and the third in five years, and the process for getting the resort ready to host over 140 expected skiers has become an exercise in efficiency. That’s not to say it’s easy — there’s lodging to take care of, food to account for, and that’s all before getting the mountain’s signature Narrow Gauge ready to host an elite U.S. Ski & Snowboard (USSA) event.

“When we do these events, it takes a whole resort,” Sugarloaf competition director Jim McCormack said. “It’s involved, but I’ve been doing this for 30 years. … I know what needs to be done, but you still need to get it done.”

Sugarloaf always does, which is why the USSA continually sends its top skiers to the Carrabassett Valley for the country’s fastest competition.

“It’s kind of the eastern area. It’s one of the places where the east really locates its big races,” said Reed Wilson, one of the competitors from the East group. “It’s one of our most unique hills around the east coast. It’s a destination venue.”

The process starts nearly a year in advance, as Sugarloaf gets the details on which dates the races will be held. By the early fall, the team begins to go more in-depth with the planning — designing logos, making room arrangements and starting to build a base of hard, packed snow on the Narrow Gauge.

Some concerns are bigger than others. Lodging is one. The Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel fills up fast with skiers, coaches and race officials coming in, numbers aren’t known for sure until late, and communication is crucial to make sure the space is managed as efficiently as possible.

A crew works on a course at Sugarloaf Mountain on Saturday in advance of the U.S. Alpine championships. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Our lodging this weekend is 100 percent booked, there are no rooms available, and we’re about 80 or 90 percent booked through the midweek,” Austin said. ” (We) make sure our group sales department isn’t booking in a 400-person ski group that’s going to take up 80 percent of the lodging for that week.”

Food is also tricky, specifically working out which skiers, coaches and officials get which meal plans. And how many such plans they’ll need to provide.

It is somewhat hard to plan who’s going to be here that far out in advance, just because the athletes have to qualify throughout the season,” marketing and communications manager Noelle Tuttle said. “That’s one of the things that usually waits until the end, is figuring out who exactly is going to be here.”

And then there’s the course. The Narrow Gauge is renowned as one of the few downhill venues left in the eastern United States, and expert Alpiners making the trip to Sugarloaf face the challenges of its steep headwall and tricky flat portion.

“It has all the different aspects. It has the snow bowl, and it has the pitch that brings so much speed if you hit the line right,” said Blake Piper, who’ll be competing out of the East group. “There are aspects of arcing the ski right and bringing speed where you need to bring speed. … There are a lot of aspects to the trail that make a course and make a race here difficult, but also really cool to race.”

Getting the trail to meet USSA standards takes some work. Unlike the trails that amateur skiers would prefer, downhill trails are closer to tilted skating rinks, and work on getting the snow just right picks up about two weeks out.

“Speed is different than the other disciplines. We’ve got to have a nice, firm surface,” McCormack said. “We’ve been plowing that trail off for the past month.”

CARRABASSETT VALLEY, ME – MARCH 16, 2019 A crew works on the U.S. Alpine Speed Championships course at Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabassett Valley, Me., on Saturday, March 16, 2019. (Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans/Staff Photographer) Michael G. Seamans

The track has to be safe as well. According to McCormack, there are 450 rolls of B netting (the outermost net surrounding the trail), 900 feet of A netting (the innermost) and airbags and foam bags lining the sides of the trail in case any skiers lose their footing while shooting nearly 80 miles an hour down the slope.

All of this has to be set up before the first training sessions begin, anchored by poles that go deep into that hard, packed snow.

“It’s a lot,” McCormack said. “You protect everything.”

There’s a lot to keep in mind and account for, but when hosting skiing championships becomes second nature, so does preparing for them.

A lot of the people that are involved have either seen or been involved in the past, so no one’s really green and doesn’t know what to do here,” Tuttle said. “We’re pretty seasoned to it.”

So seasoned, in fact, that when weather threw its curveball, the Sugarloaf crew was ready. Warm temperatures melted down the snow that was holding in the poles for the fencing, cancelling Saturday’s training sessions, but maintenance workers were working on the Narrow Gauge throughout the day, making sure the fencing was back in place and the trail was cleared so that the melt will freeze in the colder weather coming up.

If all else fails, there’s also the option of salting the trail, firming up the snow and making that desired hard surface.

“Things always change, and the safety has gotten so much better and bigger, which is great,” McCormack said. “But it takes a lot more labor to do it. It’s a lot.”

And it’s worth it.

“It’s huge (to host),” McCormack said. “It’s huge for Sugarloaf, it’s huge for the industry. Speed has gotten a little smaller over the years. We’re trying to build it back.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM


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