Skiing's Heart Still Beats at Mad River Glen
Regulars rejoice as MRG celebrates its 70th birthday with an historically early opening day.
Steep, endless bumps. Ice cliffs and rocks galore. Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine on draft. More tele skiers than one could possibly count. Kids that shred like pros. The iconic Single Chair. Is there a ski area that better epitomizes the “Ice Coast” than Mad River Glen?
“Ski It If You Can,” goes the slogan, wearing the mountain’s onerous reputation like a badge of honor. Those seeking wide groomers, a faux alpine base village and heated, and high-speed bubble chairs should probably look elsewhere. But if you’ve made the pilgrimage to Mad River Glen, you already know this.
If the slogan scares you, it should. While Mad River has a solid selection of groomed green and blue trails offering a nice progression for learning, it’s a mountain best suited for expert skiers. If you’re used to skiing black diamond trails at other resorts, you may be in for a rude surprise when you find them significantly more difficult here.
It’s a place where you go to ski natural trails on natural snow, and with just seven snow guns and a tiny pond at their disposal, this won’t change anytime soon. Unfortunately, there is a cost that comes with limited snowmaking in an era of increasing temperatures and shortening winters. For all of its guts and glory, Mad River Glen often has short seasons with a late opening and inconsistent, unpredictable conditions – which is the double meaning at the center of “Ski It If You Can.”
This year isn’t like most other years, though. We’ve had a remarkable Snowvember in the northeast and, with over three feet of snow blanketing central Vermont, Mad River Glen celebrated their 70th anniversary with one of their earliest opening days ever. Nearly a foot of powder coated the slopes, and the collective mood was celebratory. Opening day is always a holiday of sorts for the faithful passholders at any ski area, but at Mad River that holiday vibe is doubled. In order to fully understand it, it helps to know some history about this hallowed ground of east coast skiing.
The year was 1947 and Roland Palmedo, founder of the Mount Mansfield Lift Company, who famously built the first chairlift at Stowe in the 1930s, feared that Stowe had drifted away from being a ski area into the realm of a snow-themed amusement park. “A ski area is not just a place of business – a mountain amusement park, as it were,” said Palmedo in a statement to prospective investors in what would become Mad River Glen. “Instead it is a winter community whose members, both skiers and area personnel, are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport.”
So Palmedo gathered some of those investors, including members of the Rockefeller family (whose descendants still own a chalet just off the bottom of Lower Antelope), and set out to establish a ski area that would prioritize skiing and the exploration of nature over slopeside amenities and entertainment. Mad River Glen opened to the public the following year with a one-person chairlift that brought skiers to the top of General Stark Mountain, where they could choose between five routes back to the base.
There were some improvements and one ownership change during the subsequent 48 years, but the true rebel spirit of Mad River Glen wouldn’t begin to take shape until 1995, when a group of die-hard regulars teamed up to buy the property and operate the place as the United States’ first ever cooperatively owned ski area.
“We’re not a resort—we’re a ski area,” said Eric Friedman, Mad River Glen’s Marketing
Director. “It’s important to make a distinction because it’s a different animal – a different economic model.”
“Mad River has a palpable sense of place,” he said. “It’s not like other ski resorts. As the world becomes homogenized and corporatized, we stand in stark contrast to that. It really resonates and is appealing to people. Mad River is not for everybody and not everyone’s going to love what we do, but there’s a large enough niche that appreciates the experience we offer.”
Friedman is spirited and convivial—an expat from New Jersey whose twenty-three years at Mad River Glen seem to have permanently preserved his youthful passion for playing in the snow. His enthusiasm is contagious, and everyone else waiting at the base area for the Single Chair to start running seemed to be just as excited. Only one person—a curmudgeonly teleskier in neutral-toned garb he apparently selected to match his mood —wasn’t in sync with the collective, positive vibe. “It ain’t like old days,” he scowled, referring to the large crowds. But the crowd bit back, and chided him good-naturedly in response.
There’s a unique sense of family here, not just in the sense that everyone seems to know each other, but also in the remarkable abundance of children, particularly given the mountain’s reputation for expert terrain. “It’s a pretty unique place where the kids or allowed a lot of freedom,” said Cy Hess, a father waiting in line for the Single Chair with his two young children. “It’s not just the terrain, but also the attitudes of the people who ski here. They let the kids go and do their own thing. Kids don’t know what a hard trail is—they just go down it because the adults go down it.”
I asked Heather Scandale, a mother of three children aged four to eleven, if she ever gets nervous about her kids skiing the expert terrain at Mad River. She smiled and shook her head.
“Not really. I feel like they’re in control and take really healthy risks.” This relaxed approach to parenting is refreshing at a time when helicopter parents seem hell-bent on protecting their children from the slightest physical or emotional adversity.
But to see this attitude as laissez-faire misses the point. The parents at Mad River Glen don’t care any less about the well-being of their offspring. Rather, they recognize the essential need for children to explore, learn, and yes, maybe even risk injury.
The lift started loading at nine o’clock sharp, and the eager crowd whooped and hollered. The mountain’s only other lift, the Sunnyside Double, wasn’t running – mostly because this powder bounty was unexpected and staff wasn’t yet available this early in the season. This resulted in long lines for most of the day, but nobody seemed to care.
Though it’s the only remaining single-seat lift in the country, the Single Chair is actually the fastest fixed-grip chairlift in the country when operated at full speed, so in a brief nine minutes I was at the summit.
On my way up I noticed a few sections with some menacing-looking drops. Aiming to avoid these until later in the day, I veered right and found untracked, shin-deep powder on the newly titled “Donkey” trail. A few turns later, I found two cliffs back to back, each about six feet tall. “I guess I’m doing this,” I thought to myself, pondering the imprudence that had led me to run this unexpected gauntlet on early-season legs. I clanked my poles, took a deep breath, envisioned the line and dropped. Pillowy, powder landings cushioned my descent as a rush of endorphins flooded my body.
I turned onto the freshly groomed Catamount and traversed across the face of the mountain, leading to another of Mad River Glen’s original trails, Canyon. The surface here was stiff and windblown, craving an abundance of skier traffic to slice and grind the stale snow into coarse, chalky crumbs. I did my due diligence as a human groomer and carved my way back to the base area.
The line had grown longer, but time moves differently at Mad River. Before I knew it I was back on the Single Chair. On my way up this time I met Mad River’s famous mid- station liftie, whose name I later learned is Brian Aust. A decorated ornithologist and local radio DJ, Brian blared classic rock from the mid-station to greet those passing through on their way to the peak – one of the many quirky characters that make the community at Mad River Glen so unique.
At the top, I worked my way over to Catamount Bowl for some smooth, surfy turns on dry, chalky packed powder that, under my feet, felt more like Montana than the Mad River Valley. With the upper trails covered in over three feet of dense, natural snow since the last rainfall, the snow was fast, grippy and infinite, with zero ice to be found. I worked my way into the widely-spaced trees below the midstation and found an abundance of fresh, dense powder. It was phenomenal tree skiing was for any time of year, let alone Thanksgiving weekend.
I met up with Friedman again at the bottom, and we hopped back on the chair to explore the summit. We shouted to each other across the space between our chairs, both excited for what awaited us at the end of the lift. “When we have good conditions, I’d put our terrain up against anybody’s,” he said. “We don’t have big open bowls, but we have enough shit that’ll make your butthole pucker! I’ll throw down with the Jackson Hole people any time!”
We side-stepped up the hill at the top of the lift and headed down Fall Line, which was surprisingly tame with an even, predictable surface devoid of the trail’s typical monster moguls. The tameness ended when we made a sharp left off the trail into the woods and shortly thereafter onto the lower half of Paradise.
For those who haven’t skied Paradise before, it’s the kind of trail that only an eastern skier could love. It’s certainly not for western transplants who “only ski powder,” or those who get precious about their P-Tex. There are mandatory drops over frozen waterfalls, giant tree stumps shooting out of the ground, and steep, narrow chutes. It’s part ski trail, part obstacle course. With early season legs working through heavy, ankle-deep snow, I struggled. I flopped my way down through the trees like a fish out of water, eventually navigating my way sloppily to the bottom of the trail. It was a humbling reminder that while I’ve made great strides in my skiing prowess, I still have plenty of room to improve.
On our next ride up, we encountered the Mad River Freeskiing Team. If you come here on a powder day or during their annual Unconventional Terrain Competition, you’ll witness this crew of young, fearless skiers launching off harrowing precipices that mere mortals wouldn’t dare touch. To ride the Single Chair on one of these days is to get a front-row seat to a big-budget ski movie.
While I couldn’t ski like those kids, I could at least redeem myself for my embarrassing display on Paradise. This time I dialed in and made a concerted effort to stay balanced and focused in order to confidently tackle the minefield of cliffs and bumps below. Mad River can bring out the best and the worst of you in the same day. You can be overly cautious and flounder around in the woods in the backseat like an overly ambitious jerry, or you can stare the mountain in the eyes, get in the zone, and say “I’ve got a PPO and I’ve already maxed out my deductible this year. Let’s do this!” There are few feelings better than conquering a difficult trail and immediately feeling progress take place. It’s what keeps me clicking my skis back on each year, and it’s what makes a dynamic and challenging mountain like Mad River Glen so alluring to me. It’s a place where, every time I visit, I find a better version of myself.
That’s why Mad River Glen matters. While I like high-speed lifts, luxury lodging and gourmet restaurants as much as the next guy, there is still a place for no-frills, no-makeup, unapologetic, soulful, natural skiing. While many ski resorts continue to chase the dream of becoming winter-themed amusement parks, Mad River Glen embraces the roots of skiing; family, adventure, the love of nature and the full-fledged embrace of winter.