The Resort That Time Forgot

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

Mar 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

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.

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