Ski Lines: Mad River Glen celebrates 70 years

Phil Johnson's weekly ski column
Mad River Glen is celebrating 70 years of operation.
Mad River Glen is celebrating 70 years of operation.

Earlier this season, a friend of mine who lives in the Pacific Northwest told me he had a trip planned to the Northeast this winter and would have a couple of days free to ski.

“Great!” I said, “Where would you like to go: Whiteface, the Olympic Mountain? Stowe, the quintessential New England setting? Killington, The Beast of the East?”
“No, no and no!” he said. “I want ‘To Ski It If I can.’ ”

My friend chose Mad River Glen, the quirky area in Central Vermont that, for years, has made a virtue out of conditions that remind people what it was like to ski 50 years ago — narrow winding trails with moguls, and top-to-bottom natural snow only on many of those runs. Mad River is not the largest area in our region by far, but it sure is different. And deliberately so. 

This is the 70th year of skiing at Mad River since Amateur Ski Club of New York scion Roland Palmedo decided he didn’t like what was happening at Stowe and founded a new area some 30 miles south, near Waitsfield.  It featured a single-seat chair lift, a modern conveyance at that time of mainly surface lifts.

More important to Palmedo, according to Mad River historian Mary Kerr, was that “a ski area is not just a place of business, a mountain amusement park, as it were. It is a winter community whose members are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport.” 

Fast forward, and the signature lift at Mad River is still a single chair, restored  according to National Historic Register standards in 2005, and natural snow is still the only cover you will find on 40 of the area’s 55 trails. 

And what trails those are. Mad River is just 120 skiable acres with four chairlifts. If you want to be considered a genuine black diamond skier, you will want to conquer the whole layout, especially Paradise and Fall Line off the single chair. If you commit, you are committed. Once off the top, there is no bail out until you reach the bottom. Grooming the black diamonds? Locals once made their view of that known by waving signs reading, “Save Our Moguls!” 

“A lot of people believe we have no snowmaking or grooming,” said longtime area marketing chief Eric Friedman. “That’s not true. We have seven snow guns, and we groom 10 percent of our terrain, which includes 22 trails marked green or blue.”

Snowmaking, in fact, was introduced at Mad River back in the 1970s. But as it has grown in importance at most areas in the region ever since, it has never been a big part of the layout here. 

“Snowmaking? We think it’s a fad,” Friedman, the area’s resident wag, told the New York Times a few years ago.

Actually, the issue is lack of water at the area. The small stream behind the base lodge is the only source, and when that runs dry each winter, snowmaking ends. As a result, Mad River often has the shortest ski season of any area in the region.

Mad River is one of just three areas (Alta and Deer Valley in Utah are the others) that still does not allow snowboards. Ironically, it was one of the first areas to embrace snowboards when they were introduced in the early 1980s. But some local boarders didn’t agree with regulations at the ski area and, when a group confronted then Mad River owner Betsy Pratt in a local supermarket one evening, the outcome wasn’t the change they wanted. She banned boards altogether. Yes, there are a few people who poach rides from an adjacent roadway access point. But, if tempted, forget about a lift ride back to the top.

Pratt, who inherited the area when her husband died in the 1980s, decided to step away from Mad River in the 1990s and was prepared to close it rather than sell out to someone who would change the character of the place. Mad River was spared when a group of longtime enthusiasts formed a shareholders co-op that has owned the area ever since. 

There are 1,800 shareholders of Mad River now, and they collectively make decisions about the direction of their area. Want to buy in? Shares are available for $2,000, or for $150 up front and a $50/month installment payment. There is no cash dividend, but shareholders do get discounted ski passes. Ownership of the 2,200 outstanding shares is split with 35 percent Vermonters and 65 percent out of state. There are even some 25 shareholders who live overseas.

So far, Protect and Preserve has been the prevailing theme. Want to bring back snowboarding? Only 10 percent of shareholders are required to bring up an issue at the annual meeting. 

“It has never come up since the co-op took over in 1995,” said Friedman. 

One item common to most areas is nearly invisible in the annual budget here: advertising. Mad River spends about $800 a year to print up its ubiquitous “Ski It If You Can” stickers. That’s it.

“And we even make money on that,” said Friedman, who notes they sell for a dollar apiece at the area.

The idea came from a chairlift conversation in the early 1980s. Long Island advertising executive Gerry Muro thought the area needed to promote its niche of “not being everything to everybody.” Mad River, Ski It If You Can” debuted in 1984 and today is arguably the most recognizable ski area slogan in the country. It has legs.

“I am smart enough not to screw this up,” said Friedman, who has been the area marketing chief since 1996.

That niche has not only endured, it has prospered.

“On any given day, as many as 25 percent of those skiing Mad River will be here for the first time,” Friedman said.

The message has certainly reached the Pacific Northwest. My friend will be testing it for himself later this month.

Happy 70th birthday, Mad River Glen.

The great thing about snowshoeing is that for never-evers, the learning curve is generally less than a minute. Keep an eye on the weather forecast for next Saturday, and if a calm, cloudless evening is predicted, reserve a spot at Lapland Lake for a moonlight snowshoe tour from 5:45-9 p.m. Cost for the tour, which includes food and trailside refreshments, is $39. Rentals are available. Reservations are a must. Call 518-863-4974. 

The Alpine World Cup Championships begin Tuesday in Are, Sweden. Mikaela Shiffrin may be the only story for the U.S. She is the defending champion and a strong strong favorite in the women’s slalom event, set for Feb 16. By then, she could have collected medals in both the Super G and Giant Slalom events. The U.S. has no other likely podium contenders.  

The lift and trails on the northwest side at West Mountain are now open. and the refurbished lodge there is also open as a warming hut with bathrooms. The hope is for full operations including the new cafeteria in the main base lodge ready for the Presidents’ Week holidays later this month.

Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

Categories: Sports

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