Mad River Glen

Come ski Mad River Glen, where it is resolved that progress is not a good thing—and that man-made snow is for sissies

The Resort That Time Forgot

   

 

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.


   
   

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."


   
   

Mad river traces its origins to the era of proto-skiing. Founder Roland Palmedo was part of a crowd of nature-crazed bankers who, back in the 1930s, would leave New York by train and auto for Mount Mansfield on weekends—that's almost 300 miles—and trudge up to ski down. Eventually the bankers built themselves a chairlift, opened the mountain to the public, and called it Stowe, after the nearby town. A purist among purists, Palmedo came to feel that Stowe was growing crowded and garish, so he set out to find a rugged new Eden. In 1948 he and a group of friends from his rarefied social circle started Mad River Glen about 25 miles away, vowing to preserve their creation from all taint of vulgarity.

It opened with the single chair, purchased for $75,000 from the now-defunct American Steel and Wire Company, and three top-to-bottom trails. A double chair was added in 1961, more trails were cut down from the two peaks, a double to serve novices and intermediates went up in 1968, and four years later the T-bar was replaced by the final chair, a double. The resort was cutting edge. The Wildcat Bar, where patrons needing to leave before last call were hoisted up and ferried out hand-over-hand, was replaced by General Stark's Pub and moved into the Base Box in 1971. And that's about it, as far as expansion goes.

In 1972 Palmedo and his group sold out to Truxton Pratt, an heir to the Pratt-Whitney fortune, and Pratt's wife, Betsy, took over upon his death three years later. A combination of the Palmedian distaste for change and a profound aversion to spending money kept Betsy Pratt from doing much of anything over the next two decades. Mad River became The Resort That Time Forgot. Children learned to ski the woods at age eight, emerged ten years later to go off to college, and returned to buy a place on the mountain, so that one generation of ski nuts succeeded another. They even took to cutting side trails to their homes and clearing the forest floor themselves, which is a big reason Mad River has such a reputation for terrific glade skiing.

Betsy is now an old bird with a weathered face and a lick of unkempt hair that falls over her brow, but you can see from a certain elegance of posture—ankles crossed and one hand in a pocket—that she once knew her way around a Park Avenue living room. She's a legendary figure around Mad River, though chiefly for her Yankee cheapness and irascibility. She runs a bare-bones place called the Inn at the Mad River Barn; my room came with a can of Lysol and a vast stain spreading across the acoustic tiles in the ceiling. Of an evening, Betsy is wont to turn on the lights in the upstairs bar, stand before the great fireplace, and regale her guests with tales of past triumphs. One night in the midst of her monologue I asked if it was true that she had booted the local racing team off the mountain. The question would have been an impertinence to anyone but Betsy. "They deserved it," she said, in a Louis Auchincloss voice cracked by age and cigarettes. "I wouldn't run the chairlift on the racing slope during the week, and they wouldn't walk up. Well, coming from where I come from, you walked. So I said, 'No more racing team.'" She also disbanded the peewee team. "I don't believe in Little League," Betsy declared.

People associated with the mountain say Betsy alienated practically everyone over the years, but even her harshest critics are grateful that she used family money to keep the resort going. Betsy claims that Les Otten, who owns the American Skiing Company, tried to buy Mad River in 1994 but that she refused to even hear the offer—a tale that nobody from Otten's office in Newry, Maine, will confirm. She did, however, want to sell, and she said she wanted the owners to be the skiers themselves. (Who else would buy at the price she had in mind?) They formed a cooperative, and in December 1995 Betsy transferred ownership to the group for $2.5 million. The co-op needed to sell 1,667 shares at $1,500 each by June 1998 to bring off the deal, and it did. Well over half of the shareholders are from out of state; many of them had skied Mad River a few times, fallen in love with the place, and decided it was a cause eminently worth supporting.

The Mad River Glen co-op is one of the world's few functioning socialist utopias. No one can own more than four shares or cast more than one vote. No significant change to the mountain can be made without a two-thirds majority, and it is widely recognized that two-thirds of the shareholders never would agree to so much as flatten a mogul. The co-op meets once a month, and it votes on everything—including whether to serve veggie burgers at the Base Box (it passed). The goal of the co-op is to keep Mad River as is, consistent with not going out of business. It is thus one of six resorts in the country that don't permit snowboarding, a policy that's intended to protect the scant snow cover but that also happens to reduce revenue by about 20 percent. At one recent co-op meeting a brave soul stood up and announced, "I know I'm going to get strung up for this, but we should think about snowboarders." A voice from the back yelled, "Get the rope!"

The most surprising thing about Mad River, however, is simply that it works. The mountain is able to make money because it has all of nine permanent employees and because it can call its lifties and rental-shop dudes and tell them to stay home when there's no snow. Despite Vermont's roaring economy, they don't tell management to go exploit someone else. Deri Meier, a University of Vermont business professor who serves as president of the co-op board, says that Mad River needs to turn an average annual profit of $180,000 to fund maintenance and modest capital improvements; the average for the co-op's first four years is $175,000. In that time, it has had to largely replace the main double chair, which was 37 years old, and has laid plans to spend $500,000 or so renovating the single chair, purchased in 1948. The groaning, diesel-powered lift itself will not be replaced—perhaps ever. There is even talk of seeking landmark status from the National Register of Historic Places.


 
   
 

For Saturday's big birthday blowout in the Base Box, Friedman rented a tent, booked a swing band, and hired a caterer—imperial extravagances by Mad River standards. He also charged $25 for tickets to the party. Earlier in the day I heard Paul Marble, a bearish old guy in a cap who sells maple syrup from a pickup parked at the base of the mountain and who happens to be a shareholder, grumble to one of the ticket ladies: "Ol' Eric's sure spending his money—our money." But none of the other 400 or so guests seemed to mind. In fact, men and women who under normal circumstances wouldn't be caught dead in anything fancier than a ski parka arrived in black tie and evening gowns. Women mushed over the ice in boots and donned their heels inside; men pointed at one another and snickered like farmers embarrassed at being seen in their Sunday best.

Many of the regulars at Mad River first visited with a local ski club, and social life on the mountain is still demarcated somewhat by these origins. I fell in with a crowd who had discovered Mad River in the midsixties through the Ramapo Ski Club in New Jersey, among them Carol Pierce. An ebullient, dark-haired woman, she had come all the way from the state of Washington to attend the party. She mentioned that her husband, who had been a patroller at Mad River for 35 years,was skiing in Idaho, and that started Carol railing about the evils of Sun Valley, where the man-made snow was "unforgiving" and unskiable. Then she got on to Sugarbush. "We call Sugarbush 'Mascara Mountain,'" she said. Mad River's nickname is Hardware Mountain, after the unofficial dress code: $600 ski boots and duct-taped wind pants.

Chris and Sarah Haviland were sitting at a table with friends. The two practically qualify as the royal couple of Mad River Glen: Each is among the best skiers on the mountain, and they met through ski clubs. Sarah, who is 28, traces her lineage to a group from Hartford, Connecticut, and Chris, who is 39, stocky, and balding, to White Plains, New York. (Even Chris's parents met through a ski club, at Gore Mountain in New York; they took their first trip as a couple to Mad River.) They built a house halfway between his office, in Burlington, and the mountain. Sarah, a good-natured athlete who could pass for a beach volleyball player, says they ski about 35 days a year. "When they close the mountain, we keep walking up and skiing down Chute until there's no more snow," Sarah says. But Chris says his brother, Mark—who skins up every morning before work and updates his Web site with snow conditions—is the real maniac of the family.

This was the evening of the day of rain and impenetrable fog. Without trying to dampen their enthusiasm for the occasion, I asked what they had thought of the conditions.

"Excellent," said Chris.

"Well, maybe just good," Sarah added, in a stab at plausibility. I asked how long they had stayed on the mountain. Sarah looked at Chris with unfeigned pride and said, "Chris took his last run on the single at 3:59." The single closes at 4:00.

"I have kind of a motto," said Chris. "If it runs, I ride it."   

James Traub writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine.



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