Eric Friedman genuinely believes that the ice at Mad River Glen—the raddled dowager of a ski area in Waitsfield, Vermont, where he works as marketing director—is greatly to be preferred to the ice (and possibly even the snow) at Sugarbush, the gleaming colossus of a resort just down the road. "I don't so much mind the blue ice or the yellow ice you get here," says Friedman of Mad River's practically all-natural snowpack. "At least you can see it. It's that white ice you get with man-made snow that's so dangerous." On the other hand, rocks are good. But they don't have rocks in the trails at Sugarbush; they just blast them out. Don't even get Friedman started on the subject of groomed trails. It scarcely counts as skiing.
When you get right down to it, very, very few resorts meet the primitive standards of Friedman, a boyish enthusiast of 35 who began skiing in the Northeast at about the same time he began walking and who is fond of recalling this maxim from his father: "Never ski at a mountain that has a parking garage." Eric, and a few thousand other semijocular, semirational folks exactly like him, have found something worth crusading for at Mad River Glen, where inconvenience and difficulty carry moral weight. And where there is no parking garage. Should they ever install one, you'll know that the end of Western civilization is nigh.
Mad River Glen is a self-worshiping relic, like one of those neighborhood bars that rebuffs a developer and ends up encased in a skyscraper. It's one of only a handful of well-known ski areas in the Northeast that are not owned by one of the resort conglomerates that have sprung up in the last five years. The American Skiing Company, which is spoken of at Mad River like Microsoft is at Netscape, owns not only Sugarbush but also Killington, Mount Snow, Sunday River, Sugarloaf, and, in the West, Steamboat Springs and Heavenly Valley.
Consolidation brings capital investments that make ski areas comfortable, efficient, and profitable. But the Luddites at Mad River cling to the antiquated—the single chair, the cheap eats, the dearth of snowmaking, the total lack of grooming. They also cling to smallness: Mad River has a grand total of four lifts and 44 runs. The two principal chairs can ferry all of 1,480 skiers per hour up the mountain, whereas a lone detachable quad could do 5,000. (Friedman says that any more than 1,500 people would wreak havoc on the lift lines anyway.) This is not to suggest that Mad River is the Colonial Williamsburg of skiing. Rather, think of it as an ongoing effort to make the old ways sustainable, and thus suspend the iron laws of development. It's a little world of friends united by a love of serious skiing. It is, in fact, the only real resort in America owned by its skiers. And despite economies that would be considered ludicrous almost anywhere else, this co-op of owner-patrons has kept the place going without compromise or notable improvement.
In January of last year Mad River Glen turned 50, a venerable span in resort-years. The birthday party —which I was permitted to attend as a nonworshiper—was, as much as anything else, a celebration of improbable survival.