The man on the mountain

Massey single-handedly clears branches from power lines on Ragged Mountain
By Louis Bettcher | Jan 02, 2018
Photo by: Louis Bettcher Tethered to a 60 foot fir tree, Tom Massey works to remove limbs that hang dangerously close to power lines at the Camden Snow Bowl.

Camden — The Camden Snow Bowl opened its trails to skiers and snowboarding enthusiasts on Dec. 22, with snow-making machines and chairlifts whirring to life. High above the ski slopes, Tom Massey was tethered to the top of the mountain's tallest trees, working diligently to clear branches that were hanging precariously close to the resort's power lines.

Visitors to the Snow Bowl braved single-digit temperatures to indulge their passion for winter recreation, but what they may not have been aware of is the unsung hero who trekked up the mountain in the days prior, armed with a chainsaw and a handsaw, quietly ensuring the safety and viability of the facility's electricity.

Massey approached the Snow Bowl and was chosen to undertake the task of clearing all of the trees and branches within a 10 foot radius of the various power lines running up to the cell tower on top of Ragged Mountain:

"There are three sets of wires running at the top of the telephone poles, said Massey. "High voltage power lines on top for the cell tower, a power line for the Snow Bowl's operations and trail lighting a couple feet beneath, and then a "priceless" fiber optic line underneath that which I had to be oh so careful not to damage in any way, shape, or form, never mind trying not to get electrocuted."

Massey explained that the tower is a critical component of emergency, fire, police, and medical services in the region from Union to Thomaston, Belfast, and out to the islands. He said their communications depend on this repeater station; that the safety of local communities relies on the tower being powered and not in danger of trees knocking it out.

The project lasted 17 days, during which Massey would climb up the mountain with his ropes, saws and a 20 ft. aluminum extension ladder. Many of his supplies, the accoutrements of an arboreal gladiator, were hauled in a  sled - which, after five or six hours in the freezing cold, belaying from a tree, he could use to enjoy a moment of ease, riding down the hill to the base of the mountain.

Finding oneself atop a mountain alone, surrounded by snow and communing with trees may sound like the makings of a meditative, "one with nature" experience. But there were also incidents of danger, including Massey cutting into his arm with the chainsaw and falling 30 feet from a tree. He performs a delicate dance in the sky, balancing power tools in one hand while gripping a swaying tree with another.

"The most challenging part is having the confidence and ability to climb out and surgically cut down branches that are barely above, yet extend well beyond an energized high voltage power line in thoroughly freezing, wintry conditions," said Massey. "A combination of tight rope walking, crawling, bear-hugging, praying, death-gripping to get myself out and over the power line to hand saw, teetering in the wind, is something no mother should ever hear about her son doing," he added with a laugh.

I arrived at the Snow Bowl on Dec. 28, to photograph and visit Massey as he worked. The temperature was 5 degrees, even without the wind chill factor, as gusts swept down the slopes. Tom was nearly finished with his project, and was suspended from a 60 foot fir tree close enough to the resort's base that I could walk through the snow to find him. After minutes, my face was numb and my fingers fumbled as I tried to use the camera. I asked him how he stayed warm during the project.

"I didn't stop moving, otherwise the sweat starts to freeze,” said Massey. “While you're up on the mountain there is nowhere to "go get warmed up" once you've hiked up. I did not take breaks and barely ate. Three winters ago I lived in the Saddleback lodge by day running office operations and lived in my truck by night. It was usually -20˚F sleeping at night and so I've built up some cold tolerance.”

But arboreal work is only one of the skills and passions Massey has pursued. A graduate of Camden Hills Regional High School, he went on to found Maine Vineyard Makers and Maine Helicopter Tours, through which he oversees the management of vineyards throughout Maine and the rest of the country, and has worked to establish helicopter landing sites and curate aerial tours throughout the state. A snowboarding enthusiast who grew up visiting the Snow Bowl, for Massey the thrill of return to the mountain in a professional capacity outweighed the harrowing conditions and peril.

"The saving grace of this operation is that I love the Snow Bowl, like nothing else, as many people do.” said Massey. “From earning the first authorized jump-building privileges with a snowboard team I help found, to pioneering cutting glades; to helping with the grant writing committee for the re-development; teaching both skiing, snowboarding, and freestyle snowboarding camps; and now teaching my young sons to ski there I wanted this to be done thoughtfully, with the mountain's skiers and riders in mind. Did I love doing it? Yes! Do I ever want to put myself in such harm's way, No! ”

Massey said the job had a silver lining. It’s helping to fund a six-week stay in Southern California to partner with a young veteran pilot and his helicopter, to create what he called “…some of the most extraordinary helicopter experiences I can conceive of and orchestrate.”

As he prepares for warmer climes, the work that Massey completed is a testament to one man's perseverance and drive, taking risks to fulfill a project in inclement conditions and preserve a recreation spot that is enjoyed by residents and visitors to Midcoast Maine. Although the skiers and snowboarders to visit the Snow Bowl this season may not be aware of his work, as they ride the chairlift to the top of the mountain and their gaze wanders to the top of a tree, the proof stands quiet, humble and evident.


The view from a treetop on Ragged Mountain as Tom Massey performs tree work in December. (Courtesy of: Tom Massey)
On a sled laden with chainsaws and tools, Tom Massey makes his descent from the top of Ragged Mountain. (Courtesy of: Tom Massey)
Tom Massey removes limbs from trees at the Camden Snow Bowl on Dec. 28. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
Equipped with a chainsaw and a snowboard, Tom Massey prepares for work at the Camden Snow Bowl in December. (Courtesy of: Tom Massey)
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