Getting to the bottom of Mad River Glen
story by roger toll photography by Brooke Slezak & Brian Mohr
It is an idiosyncratic species,
the Mad River Glen skier, and among its distinguishing features, pride leavened with self-effacing humor is its most endearing. That, and the bumper stickers.
The pride is deserved. This little bauble of a ski area is arguably the most challenging in North America. But like a New England blue blood’s thrifty chic, she’s a little frayed at the edges, her base area buildings showing the trials of time, and her main lift up the mountain is a nose-thumbing single chair. We do things our way, that chair says, and that’s the way we like them. The fact that Mad River Glen is even alive is a tribute to a New England resolve as obdurate as the granite bedrock of Vermont’s Green Mountains. Its iconic bumper sticker, worn like a badge of honor, challenges in bold red letters: SKI IT IF YOU CAN — a far cry from most modern resorts’ back-bending efforts to alleviate any trace of discomfort or anxiety for their guests. Bucking every ski-industry trend, its handful of owners over six decades have kept this singular ski area true to a simple set of beliefs: Skiing is a sport, not a business; a mountain should remain as close to its natural state as possible; presnowcat trail cutters knew what they were doing; and all focus should be on the mountain, not the amenities. The mountain has engendered a passion and loyalty that, against all expectations, gave birth to the first ski cooperativeY in America 16 years ago and, more recently, raised nearly $2 million from its members to replace the original single chairlift to the top of Mount Stark. Astonishingly, they replaced it with another single chair — modeled exactly on the first — that cost more than a more rational double-chair solution would have. Try getting that through the accounting department of any corporate ski area. “I call it a cult,” Betsy Jondro said, laughing, over lunch in the Basebox, Mad River Glen’s 60-year-old lodge. Jondro has been at the resort, off and on, since her father moved the family to the 10-year-old
ski area in 1958. “For a humble place, there is a lot of pride and a lot of passion.” The lodge itself represents that balance of practicality and pride: Bags shoved onto shelves line one wall, while old wooden skis, black-and-white photographs, aged trail signs from the early days, and MADRIVR vanity plates from around the country provide decor. Roland Palmedo, Mad River Glen’s founder, had little of the cultist about him. A Wall Street banker, well-traveled cosmopolite, engaging storyteller, World War I fighter pilot, active sportsman, and world traveler with a special love for the Austrian Alps, he was by any measure a colorful, worldly character. An early investor at Stowe, he grew disenchanted with financial squabbles and encroaching commercialism. His dream was to start a ski area that is not “just a place of business, a mountain amusement park, as it were. Instead, it is a winter community whose members — both skiers and area personnel — are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport.” Palmedo believed that a ski area should be kept natural, with narrow trails that snake down the contours of the mountain. “We’d go walk around in the woods, up and down, backward and forward,” said Ken Quackenbush, who hand-cut 80 percent of the trails at Mad River while serving as general manager from 1952 to 1983. “We got a good sense of the woods and the flow of the mountain.” Palmedo was not interested in money, as long as the ski area paid for itself, says Quackenbush, who at 92 lives in nearby Montpelier, Vermont. Palmedo loved the warm, congenial gemütlichkeit of European skiing, and wanted to re-create it for his wealthy New York and Connecticut friends. “Once he had the basic infrastructure, he never wanted to change anything. He’d say it was just fine as it was.” In 1972, Palmedo sold the ski area to a friend, Truxton Pratt, who 93
Mad RIver Glen is a one-of-a-kind community whose
Brooke Slezak; opposite: Brian Mohr
members are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport.
Generations of Mad River Glen skiers have banded together to preserve skiing as it used to be: wild, challenging, and more about adventure than amenities.
died three years later, leaving it to his wife. Betsy Pratt was, famously and infamously, adamant about preserving Mad River as the founder had envisioned it. Her 20-year reign coincided with the era of great ski-area expansions, when the sport left its simple roots and became a business, bulldozing broad highways on mountains and laying down manicured carpets of man-made snow in an appeal for bigger markets and dynamic growth. By not following the pack, Betsy Pratt became the steward of a legend — a ski area that refused to change with the times.
s a spoiled skier of Western slopes, I was concerned by the stories of this ungroomed paradise: alarming tales of tall, tight bumps on steep and narrow trails, of skiing over mossy boulders and frozen waterfalls, and down pencil-thin lines through tight trees. On my first day, I was attempting to navigate Free Fall’s moguled minefield with some degree of decorum after watching Chris Mayone, the Basebox bartender, swallow up another line of impossible bumps with the grace of Fred Astaire on a ballroom floor. “Those moguls are your friends,” he called up as I eased my way through the storm-tossed sea. “They tell you where to turn.” Mayone moved to the Mad River Valley fresh out of college to live 96
y the early 1990s, Betsy Pratt was tired of the burden of keeping Mad River Glen alive, but she refused to sell to anyone who might betray Palmedo’s dream. In her mind, the only people she could trust running it were Mad River loyalists. A nonprofit cooperative seemed the best solution. Pratt wanted more for it than it was worth, says Deri Meier, one of the cooperative’s chief midwives and a former executive at Mobil Oil, a business-school professor at the University of Vermont, and a Mad River Glen homeowner since 1966. “But we were buying more than a ski area,” he said. “We were buying a brand, and along with it loyalty, passion, and history.” Shares went on sale in the summer of 1995 at $1,500 each, and the deal closed a few months later. Today, about 1,700 individuals hold 2,200 shares, with each valued at $2,000. “The business has exceeded expectations, but the blood, sweat, and tears of governance also exceeded expectations,” said Meier, chuckling at the memory. He watched over finances during the board’s first six years. “There were a lot of heated discussions about how to make ends meet: Should we build more trails, should we charge more, should we open more terrain?” In the end, they didn’t change a thing. Shareholders seem pleased with the board’s management. Palmedo had said that the key to Mad River’s success would lie in the community’s personal involvement, attachment, and loyalty, Quackenbush told me. “I’ve been surprised how involved they continue to be,” he
After a day of tight trails through the trees, Mad River locals, like bartender Chris Mayone, greet friends and neighbors at the no-frills Basebox. At the Box — calling it a lodge would be boastful — the decor is homemade, the food unpretentious, and the sense of ownership is palbable.
the life of a ski bum. During his first 15 years, he skied fast on the wide, groomed runs at Sugarbush, just a few miles away. He considered himself a very good skier. One day, a friend introduced him to Mad River Glen. He left in an ambulance. After knee surgery and months of physical therapy, he said sayonara to Sugarbush and bought a season pass at Mad River. “The mountain showed me that I wasn’t such a good skier after all. Now, 15 years after that injury, I can ski anything well.” Terry Barbour, director of the Mad River Ski School and a member of PSIA’s elite National Demo Team, concurs. “This mountain humbles everyone, even the best skiers,” he said as we rode up the double. “It’s the most demanding mountain I know. It points out the littlest flaw in your technique. And it has many moods, and they may change several times a day. You’ve got to adapt to all conditions imaginable. That takes a lot of talent.” Mad River Glen’s legions of expert skiers Y rave about a handful of attributes unique to Mad River that make all the difference. First, except for some patch snowmaking at the bottom, every inch of snow is natural. Second, Mad River skiers know how to ski the bumps, so they create the right rhythm through them. (The corollary: Snowboarders are banned because they destroy that rhythm.) Third, the single lift carries no more than 475 skiers per hour into the expert terrain, compared with a high-speed quad’s skier delivery rate of nearly 2,000. While weekend visitors might endure 30-minute lift lines at the base, once on the mountain it feels like they’re all alone. Lars Bruns, the 38-year-old president of the Mad River Glen Cooperative, essentially the ski area’s CEO, put it well: “Doing crazy things in the woods is what it’s all about. You put together new runs, new combinations, drop cliffs and waterfalls, ski through narrow trees and trails and creek beds, over moss, logs, and jams. It’s all fun stuff.” And that’s the president of the board talking.
Brooke Slezak; opposite: Brian Mohr
“There’s nothing snazzy around here except the skiing, and the best of that is in our secret stashes.”
added. “They really want to maintain the original spirit, and they are doing it against all my expectations.” Nothing says that better than the debate that began a decade ago over the replacement of Mad River’s iconic single chairlift, built in 1948 and increasingly breaking down. Some Co-op members favored replacing it with a double chair, arguing it would shorten weekend lift lines and attract more nonshareholder skiers, an important source of revenue. In the end, 77 percent of shareholders voted to replace the Single with a single lift just like it. “I favored the double chair,” said Meier, “but maybe they’re right. Fewer people on the mountain makes for better skiing on our narrow trails.” “The Single is our identity. It epitomizes what we are about,” said Lars Bruns, who was sharing a salad with his wife, Colleen, at one of the tables in the Basebox. The handsome couple might look more like Aspen than Waitsfield, Vermont, yet every morning he skins to the top of the mountain before heading into work in Burlington, an hour away. “There’s nothing snazzy around here except the skiing, and the best of that is in our secret stashes like Iwo Jima, Split Ends, the 20th Hole, Octopus Garden, Door #3, Hangover Highway, and Squirrel Shot. If you’re good enough, it’s just great skiing everywhere.” The Co-op runs a tight operation — no debt, no shareholder assessments, and little capital reserve. So to pay for the new lift, the board got creative in raising contributions. The back of each chair bears a plaque in bronze with the name of a $5,000 donor. A larger plaque, attached to each of the 24 lift towers, mentions a $25,000 donor. And the original chairs, 158 in all, were sold for $279,000. In the end, that idiosyncratic Single — both the old and its new iteration — raised $1.9 million, which covered the cost of the new lift. “You know, the common thing we all share is our desire not to see Mad River change,” Lars said. “We’re just trying to keep the dream going for coming generations.”
efore flying to Vermont, I often visited madriverglen.com to track ski conditions. I didn’t learn much on the topic — conditions are constantly changing, even hour-to-hour — but I discovered a lot about the spirit of the mountain in that daily snow report. Currently the ungroomed terrain is generally edgeable and dramatically better than the last couple of days, but still relatively “technical” skiing. Conditions were back to what we’re used to: firm, loud skiing that makes one feel like an out-of-control bobble-head doll tearing down the hill — frequently known as “good” conditions. I know that our current conditions are not only not lousy but are in fact quite good. There’s no ice. There are no mandatory stretches of grass skiing, no water bars to maneuver past. This weekend I wasn’t the only person searching for silver linings in the bar. Those who endured reported pleasant-enough skiing conditions and said we were just being spoiled babies. Throughout the day we saw a wide array of precipitation, including freezing rain, graupel, sleet, and snow. It was like skiing on silky Styrofoam. The uninitiated might wonder why so many people tolerate
As the quest for bigger and better consumes the world’s ski resorts, Mad River Glen stays true to its roots. The facilities are charmingly rustic, the community is close and supportive, and the terrain — ungroomed, unforgiving, and unapologetic — epitomizes the very best of East Coast skiing.
0-minute lift lines to ski a 2,000-foot mountain. What is the secret, 3 the allure across all age groups, that makes Mad River Glen the focus of so many lives? My answer settled on tribal bonding. Call it a club, if you will, but it’s more basic: a shared experience in something completely unique and engrossing. Family is a big component, as are friends, and so is the spirit of sport from an earlier, simpler time. Look around on a weekend and you see every age — tots of 4 flowing down a moguled double diamond, 80-year-olds with broad smiles on their faces carving turns on one of the area’s few groomed runs. Often three generations of a family sit together over lunch. Laughing, joshing, storytelling, shouted greetings. It’s like a club, but funkier, without pretensions or superficialities. It’s New England bedrock. “I think it’s the passion for skiing — but also the passion for this place — that is our common bond,” Betsy Jondro had said. “The spirit here is the spirit at the core of skiing, just as Rolando wanted it. That core spirit is very present here. And we feel good about ourselves for preserving the ideal, with its clear purpose and meaning beyond money …. Sure, we are total snobs, no question. Look at our motto. It says it all: Ski It If You Can.” s Y
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