RANGELEY — Tracey Russell stepped away from the photo she was taking with her parents and children in front of the Saddleback lodge, their smiles obvious though hidden by face masks. And, as she stopped to reflect on this long-awaited family gathering, she choked up.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Today was the first day we’ve been able to hug my parents in a year.”

That memorable pandemic moment, Russell said, was made all the sweeter because it happened at the family’s favorite ski mountain.

The ski area – now called Saddleback Rangeley Maine – was shuttered for five years before springing back to life this winter with $18 million in upgrades.

“We’re super happy to be here,” said Russell, who lives in Falmouth. “It’s a positive place to be. And we feel taken care of with the changes they’ve made.

“And as far as the skiing, you can’t tell they were closed for five years.”

Saddleback was purchased by a Boston investment firm nearly a year ago after the previous owners, Bill and Irene Berry, closed the resort in 2015 and put it up for sale. After potential buyer after buyer fell through, some wondered if the ski area would ever open again.

But in January 2020, Arctaris Impact Fund purchased Saddleback for $6.5 million and proceeded to renovate the ski area with the first phase of a $38 million investment. Among the immediate upgrades: a high-speed lift was put in to replace the old and slow Rangeley Chair, the snowmaking was enhanced, and the lodge was expanded and renovated. COVID-19 safety measures included touchless technology throughout the resort and a state-of-the-art HVAC system in the lodge.

Skier traffic this season surpassed expectations, which General Manager Andy Shepard said were built around the uncertainties related to the pandemic. And the ski area will stay open until April 11, weather permitting.

“What we heard from people who have skied at the mountain for years was we had days that were busier than the mountain had ever experienced. And what I was so gratified by is that the mountain handled those crowds very easily,” Shepard said.

However, he noted the need for additional parking was clearly a problem – and solving that need is now a chief goal this summer.

Skiers and snowboarders congregate in front of the Saddleback ski area lodge on March 20. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

There were other glitches as well. The new online ordering system failed to work smoothly at times, and still is not where Shepard wants it to be. And while he hoped to hire 200 employees to run the ski area, there were only 120 when it opened on Dec. 15 and the staffing only got as large as 148.

To help there, management hopes this year to begin phase one of staff housing with a 50-person unit, pending approval by the Maine Land Use Planning Commission.

As for getting through the first winter after reopening, Shepard said they doubled down on customer service, and got creative with massive outdoor tents and a permanent food truck.

“We cross-trained the people here. And we’ve hired people who bring a positive attitude,” Shepard said.

From first-time visitors to long-time Saddleback fans, every person out of some two dozen interviewed on a sunny Saturday in March said the quality of the groomed trails, the new amenities such as the high-speed lift, and the general vibe at Saddleback was welcome.

“They’re prioritizing all the right stuff,” said Bill Sandreuter of North Yarmouth, a retired Saddleback ski instructor. “I’ve skied all over the world. And for its size and acreage, I would challenge any ski area to compete. It has more variety and fun for its size.”

Skiers ride up Saddleback ski area’s new quad chairlift, part of the first phase of $18 million in upgrades at the revived ski area. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On the first day of spring, many skiers talked about the welcoming atmosphere and the attention to detail.

“I am super excited they’re open. It has great views. It gives you great energy. This is where I learned to ski at another level,” said Ryan Goodwin, a Lewiston native from Newburyport, Massachusetts, who came with his wife and son.

Others said they were certain the iconic mountain would bounce right back, but voiced surprise Saddleback did so seamlessly.

“I thought there would be more glitches. And COVID was another challenge for them. But it’s awesome,” said Lisa Kennedy of Scarborough, who owns a ski home nearby.

Even those new to Saddleback who heard about it from friends or social media said the positive buzz met, or even surpassed their expectations.

Mike Donovan of Boston was one first-time visitor who brought a wealth of perspective. This winter, Donovan skied at 19 ski areas, including 13 in the East. He said Saddleback ranks in the top five among East Coast resorts.

“I think it’s awesome. Today is epic. And everyone is really nice,” Donovan said.

Arctaris intends to forge ahead this year with real-estate development on the mountain – with nearly two dozen A-frame condos equipped with energy-efficient features, again, pending LUPC approval. The new condos would be the first of hundreds to be built, pending permitting.

The next phase of planned upgrades at the ski area includes a mid-mountain restaurant, a solar farm, and a T-bar lift that will be the latest in T-bar technology. And if that sounds like a joke, consider that it will cost $1.2 million.

“It’s not your grandmother’s T-bar,” Shepard said of the replacement to the Cupsuptic T-bar. “It’s highly engineered and on wind-hold days it will let people access the upper mountain. It’s not just for the nostalgia piece.”

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