I hadn't skied mad river since I was a college student 25 years ago, and as I drove west on Route 17 out of Waitsfield I expected condo developments, terraced parking lots, and a towering marquee to let me know I'd arrived at a Vermont ski area. Winding through the woods, I slowed for a sharp bend in the road flanked by an icy field. I was about to speed on when I spotted a weathered wooden sign and stopped to have a look. It read, in letters about four inches high, Mad River Glen. Was this, maybe, the business office? No—there was a ski area looming beyond the sign. So the icy field must be...the parking lot!
I parked and, boots in hand, picked my way over the ice into a little beige clapboard structure, known simply as the Base Box, that contains the ticket operation, boot check, rental shop, cafeteria, bar, and ski school. My ticket cost $29 and my rental skis less. I walked up a little hill, and there I was—at the bottom of the longest single chairlift in captivity. I admit that I quailed ever so slightly at the prospect of actually going to the top. From the time I was a kid, Mad River has inspired in me the mingled sense of awe and delight that Maverick's break might provoke in a surfer. I had seen the official taunt plastered on station-wagon bumpers all over New England: "Mad River Glen: Ski It If You Can." The trails were narrow, precipitous, and bumpy, and the trees were a wonderland. But even though I started skiing in Vermont when I was six, my family soon shifted to the West. Over the last decade most of my occasional time on the slopes has been at Deer Valley, Utah, a kind of snowbound spa—and the cultural antithesis of Mad River. I loved Mad River when I was 19, but I have been seriously compromised since then.
The single chair was actually a lovely experience, once I got used to the idea that there's no one to talk to. The morning was foggy but surprisingly warm, and I seemed to drift up through a dreamy landscape. A few skiers were already out on Chute, which runs under the lift, straight and narrow as a tie. I could hear the ice chatter beneath their skis and the intermittent grating of metal edges on rock. The skiers threaded the moguls unfazed. I, on the other hand, was fazed.
According to my trail map there existed a broader black-diamond run, with the reassuring name of Catamount Bowl, and there I went. Because the light was flat I couldn't see the ice or the rocks or the moss until it was too late. The moguls were sharply cut and usually oriented straight down the fall line. I skidded, slipped, cursed, crashed, and generally regressed one full level in ability. I figured I'd coast on in from the midpoint, but that wasn't to be; Mad River is one of the few mountains I've skied where you have to take the bumps or the trees essentially all the way down.
After a few runs, I discovered Antelope, a blue-square trail off the single, one of those long, looping intermediate routes that are meant to be ambling and scenic. You can stand near the top and take in a grand panorama of northern Vermont, though it must be said that even from this great height the stillness is shattered by the distant wheezing of the chair's diesel engine. And as you whiz downhill you suddenly encounter a narrow, off-camber minefield of moguls, as if the mountain couldn't possibly abide a harmless ramble. "The great thing about Antelope," Eric Friedman pointed out over a beer in the Base Box, "is that you never know what's coming around the corner."
Elsewhere in Vermont the snow cover was significantly better, but here the policy of no snowmaking—except on the lower parts of the mountain—is a matter of principle that defines the cult of Mad River. There are a few weak-hearted souls who would like to raise the issue, but they recognize that the illuminati are not likely to entertain such a discussion any time soon. Among the true believers are Chris and Sarah Haviland, die-hards who've been skiing here since they were children, and who left Manhattan in the prime of their careers to settle near Mad River. "Man-made snow is just boring," Sarah explains. "Every run feels the same. But I can take Chute all day, and even if I take the same line, each runs feels different because of the snow quality."
"I can't imagine going anywhere else when it's good here," says Chris.
"Even when it's bad here," Sarah says.
A Mad River die-hard is a connoisseur of bad snow. There's a long-standing debate, for instance, over whether frozen moss or frozen straw makes for a better skiing surface. "Oh, moss is much better," Friedman asserts when I ask where he stands. "With the straw, you have to slide; moss holds a turn."
Indeed, by my second day on the slopes I was getting the hang of setting an edge on moss. Then, midmorning, it began to rain. Then a fog settled in. It was so dense that at times I wasn't sure which way was down, let alone where the trail boundaries lay. It occurred to me that if I took a wrong turn I could cruise right off the mountain, so I traversed the hill to catch the lone intermediate route to the bottom, humiliatingly called Bunny. Grateful to have survived intact, I headed into the Base Box. It wasn't yet noon. As I sat nursing a hot chocolate and a sense of grievance at the conditions, a ski patroller asked a guy coming off the mountain, "How's the skiing?"
"It's not bad," he said, with no hint of irony. "You just can't see."