Fayston, VT – Tucked into a sharp bend of State Route 17 in north-central
Vermont lies a trip back in time, to a ski resort relatively untouched by
the hand of "progress." A place where natural snow is the rule,
a place where primary lift access is provided by the country’s last diesel-powered
single chairlift, a place where Bombardiers, snowboards and detachable quads
are unwelcome implements.
I had somehow remained a Mad River Glen virgin for all of these
years. Despite tales of a throwback culture, ungroomed terrain and killer
tree stashes, I had yet to attack General Stark Mountain. Or rather, let General
Stark’s attack me. The infamous "Ski It If You Can" bumper stickers
had taunted me long enough, and it was time to check out the country’s only
cooperatively owned major ski area.
I was the fortunate guest of the Hartford (Connecticut) Ski
Club, whose members maintain a house mere feet from the belching diesel motor
that drives the Mad River Single Chair. We arrived well after dark, and I
strolled under the stars filling a moonlit sky to make my first acquaintance
with the revered lift. It sat in silence, resting from the day’s earlier machinations.
A monument to skiing’s past, I stared in awe for what seemed like moments,
but in reality was a good 15 minutes. The muted tones of a private birthday
party escaped through the walls of the nearby Basebox. Despite never having
previously skied Mad River, I had the comfortable feeling that I was home.
A MOUNTAIN STUCK IN TIME
Mad River Glen’s Single
The bullwheel of Mad River Glen’s Single Chair first began turning
on December 11, 1948. Roland Palmedo had helped to introduce skiing at Stowe,
a few miles north, but longed for a ski area where sport replaced profit as
the mountain’s raison d’être. Roland held tightly a premise that
"a ski area is not just a place of business, a mountain amusement park,
as it were. Instead it is a winter community whose members, both skiers and
area personnel, are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport." Today,
Palmedo would be proud of the stewardship maintained by the Mad River Glen
In 1972, Mad River was purchased by a group led by Truxton Pratt,
and upon Trux’s death in 1975 his wife Betsy took over operation of the legend.
A unique character with powerful convictions, Betsy stubbornly resisted change
at "her mountain" while puffing on her trademark pipe. She continued
to protect the mountain from the ski industry’s "improvements" until
1995, when she sold Mad River Glen to the only people whom she felt that she
could trust: Mad River’s skiers.
The Cooperative was formed on December 5, 1995, and 1,666 shares
needed to be sold in order to complete the sale by Pratt. Today, it runs the
mountain with a hired staff under the direction and leadership provided by
a Board of Trustees elected by the shareholders. Palmedo’s ideals are preserved
by the Cooperative’s mission statement: "To preserve and protect the
forests and mountain ecosystem of General Stark Mountain in order to provide
skiing and other recreational access and to maintain the unique character
of the area for present and future generations."
They take their commitment to the mountain’s ecosystem seriously.
Mad River Glen employs an on-staff naturalist, and the Ski Patrol has barricaded
areas in the middle of some trails to allow trees and other vegetation to
return. They are functioning under a formal sustainable recreational development
plan which has received praise from both the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
and the Green Mountain Club, a group which frequently finds itself at odds
with ski area operators in the state. Educational programs are offered to
visitors, and a nature center is being established by the Cooperative high
on the mountain in the region serviced by the Sunnyside Double and the Birdland
Co-op survives by selling ownership shares to ensure Mad River Glen’s long-term
viability. The shares cost $1,750 each and can be purchased on a 30-month
installment plan. "This is no country club," cautions David Hatoff,
Director of Share Sales. Mad River is dedicated to preserving its unique culture
for generations to come. A total of 1870 shares were sold through the end
of Mad River Glen’s 1998-99 fiscal year. In addition to their initial investment,
shareholders have an Advance Purchase Requirement, pegged for this season
at $200 and increased only by changes in the consumer price index. Shareholders
may apply the cost of a season pass (at the favorable "Additional Adult/Junior/Senior"
rate) or the pre-purchase of up to 12 day tickets at a special shareholder
cost of $27/day (up to 16 Junior/Senior tickets at $19 each) toward this requirement,
or may purchase $220 of "Mad Money" for $200.
Spitting in the face of numerous detractors, the Cooperative
has completed its first four years of operation in the black despite several
significant capital expenditures. The Sunnyside Double chair was replaced
with a CTEC/Garaventa after it became clear that the old double would no longer
pass Vermont state inspectors’ muster. Numerous challenges face the Single
Chair, including renovation of the diesel and transmission at a time when
parts are no longer available and must be fashioned on a custom basis. Refurbishing
of the Single Chair will commence during the Summer of 2000. "The fact
that we are able to reinvest in the mountain proves that the Co-op format
can work for Mad River," beams Bob Ackland, the mountain’s General Manager.
"Not only are we surviving, we are moving forward."
FOR SKIERS ONLY …
Mad River Glen is one of only six ski resorts nationwide, and
the only one in the East, to continue to ban snowboards. The cooperative is
dedicated to the elimination of snowboards to preserve the mountain’s snow
quality. "Betsy Pratt was friendly to snowboards," explains Eric
Friedman, the resort’s Marketing Director, "but she ran into safety issues
on the Single Chair. They were restricted from the Single and then, after
a now legendary confrontation between Betsy and some local riders, she decided
to ban them completely. When the Co-op took over the mountain, the shareholders
voted on the issue and more than 70% voted to maintain the snowboarding ban,"
and thereby completely ignore a lucrative segment of the snow-sliding population.
The only way that policy can change is if a two-thirds majority of the shareholders
votes to change it, so don’t expect snowboarding at Mad River Glen any time
soon. The mountain, however, is peppered with tales of riders who have driven
to the top of Appalachian Gap on Route 17, hiked the remaining way to Mad
River’s terrain and thumbed their noses at the resident two-plankers as they’ve
carved their way to the base.
"We don’t want to look like every other ski area,"
explains Mad River shareholder Mary Woodward.
… BUT FOR ALL SKIERS
Mad River Glen’s "Ski It If You Can" reputation shouldn’t
scare off the novice or intermediate. Green circle skiers can enjoy gentle
groomed learning terrain under the Birdland chair, set high on the hill with
a top bullwheel at 2600 feet, and complete with the Birdcage Snack Bar. Access
is via a round-about route from the top of the Sunnyside Double. The aptly-named
"Easy Way" trail returns beginning skiers to the Basebox. Yes, a
fleet of modern groomers sits near the Basebox to provide gentle slopes for
learning, yet all of the character is not flattened out of the hill and the
base is distinctly lacking that scratchy man-made feel. Minimal snowmaking
is performed only in the base area to ensure adequate cover for returning
to the lifts.
Intermediates can enjoy terrain from all four lifts, but truly
come into their own riding the Sunnyside and Practice Slope Chairs. Delights
such as Porcupine and Chipmunk will keep blue square skiers happy on the Double,
while those determined to ride the historic Single Chair have Upper Antelope
to amuse them.
A fully-staffed ski school helps learning skiers develop, and
includes private instruction, beginner learn-to-ski packages, weekend clinics,
season-long junior programs, women-only clinics, and holiday ski camps. The
Cricket Club is conveniently located near the Basebox to provide state-accredited
child care. In a gesture to the mountain’s significant free-heeled population,
all of the ski school’s offerings are available for Telemark and every on-mountain
ski competition has a separate Telemark division. "It’s a market segment
we are going after aggressively, especially in light of our ban on snowboards,"
EXPERT TERRAIN UNIQUE IN THE EAST
It was early on a Sunday morning when I caught one of the first
chairs on the Single to ascend General Stark. Mad River Glen uses 100% of
its 2,037 vertical feet, as their chair rises immediately via a consistent
grade over mogulled rock ledges to the top. Any notion that Mad River’s reputation
is overblown is quickly dispelled by the lift rider’s view of Lift Line and
Five basic options greet the Mad River skier from the Single
Chair’s summit, and four of them carry a black diamond: Catamount Bowl, Chute,
Fall Line and Paradise. Only Antelope renders a groomed intermediate option.
Everywhere, however, there are lines and "tree bands" carved out
by locals. My compatriots seemed compelled to sock it to me right off the
bat, and hung a quick left into the Cantaloupe Chutes. Barely a ski length
wide, these narrow hallways plunge between trees and rock walls before dumping
a skier onto the relative sanctuary of Catamount Bowl’s tremendous moguls.
After a bone-jarring hack through the bumps, my colleagues recognized my angst
and led me on a relaxing, high-speed cruise down Catamount itself (the intermediate
cousin to Catamount Bowl), Broadway and Snail to Porcupine.
Don’t let these trail names fool you. Steep bumps may be found
on runs with such innocuous names as "Quacky," "Cricket,"
"Beaver," "Creamery," "Ferret" and "Practice
Slope." The old rule of determining a trail’s bite from its bark doesn’t
This trend of trying to impress me continued throughout the
day. Paradise includes several frozen waterfalls that constitute "mandatory
air." Some other classics that will remain unnamed here took us well
outside the ski area’s perimeter boundary, into bear and moose habit well-removed
from the rest of the world. That feeling of seclusion continues on many of
the in-bounds options as well, especially Lower Antelope where a healthy little
traverse returns you to the Basebox after exhausting the mountain’s vertical.
In other places, the maze of interconnecting trail-lets yields nearly endless
The Sunnyside Double isn’t devoid of challenge, either. Ending
just below the cliff bands which separate this ridge from the top of General
Stark’s, steep and tight bump lines plunge underneath the lift on Gazelle.
Hidden in the woods near the Double lies another off-piste shot which will
remain unnamed, a narrow couloir between granite cliffs glistening with icefalls.
After a half-dozen steep turns, this line relented into a gentle cruise through
open hardwoods before returning to an open trail.
AFTER A HARD DAY’S WORK
After Mad River Glen beat me into submission, we retired to
General Stark’s Pub in the Basebox for pints of Single Chair Ale crafted by
Magic Hat Brewery in Burlington, and to relive the day’s adventures. Airy
and surrounded by windows on the slopes covering 270 degrees, dusk gradually
descended upon the mountain as we sat glued to the television on the wall
tuned to the Weather Channel. There was promise in store for the morning.
Dinner that evening was at the Hyde Away, several miles down
Route 17 and just beyond German Flats Road which leads to Sugarbush. Sting’s
The Soul Cages provided the perfect accompaniment to a relaxing meal,
creatively prepared and washed down with a delightful bottle of chardonnay.
The separate, cozy lounge in the back of the building is the happening place
at Mad River Glen on a Friday and Saturday night, and reportedly they squeeze
them in with a crowbar.
Tonight was Sunday, however, and we ventured back up the road
to the Mad River Barn, still operated by Betsy Pratt. I had secretly hoped
for a pipe-smoking evening of storytelling with Betsy, but she had unfortunately
already retired to her home, yet she continued answering the Barn’s telephone
each time it rang. High ceilings are dominated by a fireplace adjacent to
the bar, and "quiet" was the word as the Barn was only inhabited
by a half-dozen guests enjoying a lively conversation with Craig, the bartender.
After enjoying their banter for a bit the other guests called it a night,
and Craig kept the bar open late just for the three of us to play shuffleboard
and stare glass-eyed at The Weather Channel. By 11:00 p.m. the flakes had
begun falling, and when we returned to the Hartford Ski Club before midnight
the accumulation had started.
THERE ARE FRIENDS ON A POWDER DAY
Monday dawned with a veritable blizzard. Eight inches had already
fallen, and it continued to snow profusely throughout the day. I was eager
for freshies, but exhausted by four straight days of hard-pounding skiing
(we had migrated to Mad River Glen from Smuggler’s Notch).
It took everything I had just to walk the 100 yards from the Hartford Ski
Club to the Basebox.
Determined to start the day with an easy cruiser, my "friends"
dropped me into Catamount Bowl. Gee, thanks! With friends like these … Yesterday’s
firm bumps, however, were filled with medium-density fresh powder, and helped
to soften Catamount Bowl’s blow. We cruised down to Bunny, where we had untracked
lines in increasingly heavy boot-top fluff.
Mad River Glen’s legendary powder hounds weren’t showing up
in their expected droves, and fresh lines continued throughout the morning.
My energy level, however, didn’t. After a half-dozen runs on terrain which
was by design gentler on each trip, my body was no longer doing what my mind
was telling it to. It’s a testament to Mad River Glen’s challenge that on
the fourth day in a row of skiing, I called it quits early on a powder day
for the first time in my history.
Mad River Glen – Ski It If You Can!! Skiers of all abilities
should make their own pilgrimage to the Mecca of Eastern skiing.