It’s a thirty-five degree tropical sunny day in January at Mad River Glen in Waitsfield, Vermont, just after a three week arctic cold spill swept through New England. The sounds of the Grateful Dead’s, “Dark Star” fills the air from the outdoor lodge stereo speakers, followed by the Allman Brother’s classic instrumental, “Jessica”. On the spacious sun deck are skiers young and old, just chilling and relaxing amongst themselves as if there was no place in the world they would rather be. A local jokes with a ski patroller who’s wearing an old school orange and brown ski patrol jacket; one that I haven’t seen since the early 1980s. Inside the lobby, you don’t hear the familiar whines of kids complaining about being cold, tired and their boots hurting. The people inside are wearing what’s comfortable for them, whether it be a wool hat, jeans, or a jacket which doesn’t boast a name brand outdoor clothing manufacturer. Mad River Glen is not a fashion show, with the latest Gore-Tex jackets being donned throughout the lodge. The aura inside is mellow and unhurried, as there is a mutual respect for one another; after all, we are all skiers and everybody can relate to the fact that a bad day on the slopes is better than a great day at work. The lobby is painted a funky, but inviting light yellow hue that contradicts the bold red and white bumper sticker that screams, “Mad River Glen Ski It If You Can.”
As most people probably already know, Mad River Glen is a ski resort that writes its own rules. Based upon set of standards that were written back when the ski industry was a sport, and not the business it has become today. Like the used record store that won’t sell compact discs, Mad River Glen is somehow stubbornly innovative, but never cutting edge. With big industry resorts popping up high speed detachable quads for every 1500 feet of vertical, Mad River Glen has a Single Chair that brings skiers up to the summit of 3,637 foot General Stark Mountain in about twelve minutes. There is nothing fancy about this lift, except for its new seat pads, but it’s a ride that epitomizes the religious aspect of skiing: man vs. mountain in the great outdoors. Instead of having somebody talking your ear off the whole ride up to the summit, the skier has the precious opportunity for reflection on how to make the next run better than the last, while carefully eyeing the terrain below them for the softest snow and freshest lines. “This is one of a few mountains that has bottom to top lift service. It only puts up so many people an hour,” explains Mad River Glen Marketing Director Eric Friedman, while talking about the cherished Single Lift. “It’s the fastest way to the top, in only twelve minutes. Everything today is rush rush; you got to work for the good shit.”
Even on Mad River’s busiest days, the Single Lift will provide the mountain the same amount of volume as their sparsest days. Which is important when skiing through the tight terrain, which brings me full circle to the bumper sticker – Ski It If You Can. Does the sticker mean, ski it if you are an expert or to make it if you got the guts to try?
Friedman very matter of factly explains the terrain at Mad River as “the green trails here are blues at most ski resorts, while the blues are blacks most everywhere else, and the blacks can’t be skied at other resorts.” After which he called a local rental technician named James to show me the real ropes of the mountain. While riding up on one of the three “modern” double lifts, James was quick to point out all the acres of glade skiing available, which provides new challenges and adventure aside from the already tough terrain marked as trails. After unloading from the lift, he proudly showed me the regeneration zones, organized to help in cleaning up Mad River’s legendary tree skiing, while maintaining the needs of a regenerating forest, which he took part in himself one summer. By roping off the regeneration zones and planting trees, Mad River Glen continues to meet its commitment as the industry’s environmental leader: along with its limited snow making.
James first took me down a quick, edgy thriller named Porcupine, and this was my warm up run. This is Mad River’s ideal cruiser that provided enough turns and steeps to make even a cruiser an “eyewaterer.” Afterwards, I was led to the backwoods of a trail called Paradise, perhaps the most difficult marked ski trail in Vermont. A narrow, steep that gives you no more than a few feet to make turns down some of its steepest pitches, within impending rows of trees. There is a six foot drop near the top that leaves little margin for error, as losing control will have you somersaulting to the bottom, unless you are lucky enough to bump into a tree. For those skiers less technically proficient, there is a “ladies tee” which allows one to ski closer to the ground. Although the results were ugly, I skied myself to the bottom and every other trail I hit afterwards felt remarkably simpler.
Skiing to the bottom of cruiser Antelope provided a nice mix of knee bumping and thigh burning. A racetrack curvy top section leads to the bottom half of moguls on a medium pitch terrain. There’s really no avoiding moguls when you ski at Mad River, but with their tight and even fresh lines, it’s perhaps the best place to become comfortable with this difficult hurdle of skiing. The majority of the skiers here know how to handle themselves in mogulville, which results in the bumps actually becoming your friends; a way to control and cushion your skies against the otherwise rough and icy New England ski conditions. There are also no sign of snowboarders, who tend to reshape the moguls and scrape the natural snow around.
Although it has been a controversial subject to many snowboarders who feel they are no more a hindrance to the mountain than a beginner skier, Mad River Glen is for skiers only. Many riders have started their own campaign called, “Free Mad River” as an attempt to open up this inviting terrain to their brand of mountain transportation. Finding a niche within the competitive ski industry is becoming even more important today within a weather dependent industry, that the ownership of Mad River clearly realizes they have something truly unique on their hands, especially in the Northeast. Mountain resorts such as Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Taos in New Mexico are the three other mountain areas that do not allow snowboards. One can actually have a say in banning riders from the mountain, as Mad-River is owned as a co-op amongst its skiers, who recently voted on the issue, with more than 75% voting to maintain the ban. Although the potential revenue to be generated by allowing riders on the mountain is obvious, Friedman explains, “Mad River doesn’t make all of its decisions based on money. It’s refreshing to know that there’s a mountain out there like that.”
While a majority of the terrain is difficult, there are a good number of trails in the Birdland and Sunnyside area of the mountain that provide intermediate thrills and chills. As Friedman was quick to point out, “the Birdland area is the only novice area around where you can catch any air.” After skiing this area later in the day, I found out for myself that they are perfect trails for graduating a beginner skier to the intermediate level. It is terrain like this, that will provide a novice skier more confidence in their overall ability, without stagnating their potential along the wide, landing strip, flat corduroy offered today at most mega resorts. After all, the green rated trails at Mad River are the blue squares at Vermont competitors Killington and Mount Snow and with 48 trails there is more than enough real estate to challenge and befriend a skier of almost any ability.
Mad River also plays home to another unique market of the ski industry, the telemarkers. The North American Telemark Organization is based here, and each March, the North American Telemark Festival brings as many as 1,200 of this die-hard breed of skiers. The telemarker’s satisfaction, and love of making the “perfect turn” within a free heel posture is seldom seen beyond the backcountry. While many resorts push the newest technology and the flashiest products, Mad River isn’t afraid to admit that their terrain offers perhaps the finest lift serviced Telemark skiing available anywhere.
While finishing my last run of the day and back hitting the base, the sounds of Bob Marley’s “Jamming” was playing from the loudspeakers as the sun began to set behind General Stark Mountain. Employees squeezed in one last run, and met each other at the friendly and unpretentious pub at the base lodge. There was no four o’clock mass parking lot exodus with throngs of cars causing a headache to an otherwise perfect day. After a day of skiing this diverse, yet challenging terrain, I left the parking lot with a feeling that I had easily become a better skier in just over four hours, which is hard to achieve even during a paid private lesson. As Mad River Glen continues to adhere to its unique charm within a homogenized ski industry, the mountain begs for you discover what “Ski It If You Can” really means.
Visit Mad River Glen on the web at www.madriverglen.com