Ghosts of the Thunderbolt - Ski Mag

Ghosts of the Thunderbolt

One of the nation’s most historic race trails, dropping from the summit of Massachusetts’s highest peak, was almost lost forever. Then a group of dedicated locals stepped in to keep the Thunderbolt legend alive. And have some fun doing it.
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Thunderbolt Tout

By Nathaniel Vinton. Photographs courtesy of Thunderbolt Ski Museum and Jonathan Selkowitz.

At the base of Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, they call Rudy Konieczny the “Hero of the Thunderbolt.” The second part of the name refers to the jagged ski trail that the 107th company of the Civilian Conservation Corps slashed out of the mountain in 1934, when work was scarce and skiing was an exotic European import.

The Thunderbolt began hosting annual races in 1935, and it instantly became one of America’s first great ski trails. Its sidehills and streambed traverses served as an essential test track for the country’s first generation of Olympic alpine ski racers—men like Dick Durrance and Bob Livermore. The Thunderbolt was only a few years younger than the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel, Austria, and four years younger than Wengen, Switzerland’s Lauberhorn.

But the Thunderbolt suffered from neglect. Bypassed by the chairlift boom, Greylock hosted its last FIS-sanctioned race in 1948. The one-and-a-half-mile track through the woods, accessible only by hiking, was in danger of being over-grown until the late 1990s, when a grassroots movement among backcountry skiers started its resurrection.

As for the “hero” part of the nickname, it might be a term that’s thrown around all too promiscuously in sports history, but it’s perfectly apt for a guy like Konieczny. He was one of roughly 20 local racers who took their then-rare ski talents to Europe as part of the 10th Mountain Division. In the spring of 1945, just weeks before V-E Day, Konieczny’s kin back in the Berkshires got a letter from Governor Maurice Tobin.

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“The Commonwealth of Massachusetts acknowledges with deep sympathy the great sacrifice made by the family of Rudolph W. Konieczny, who died serving in the armed forces of the United States of America in World War II,” wrote Tobin in a letter now displayed at the Thunderbolt Museum in nearby Adams, Massachusetts.

Konieczny was 16 years old when the Thunderbolt was cut. In 1938, he skied it in less than three minutes, besting a course record set by Durrance. It took uncommon guts to strap on long hickory boards and plunge through the Needle’s Eye, a section of the course where the forest crowded in so close that turning was impossible.

One can ski the Thunderbolt now and marvel at the bravery of Konieczny and his cohort, but it’s safe to assume that it was child’s play compared to the test they faced when they met Hitler’s armies in Italy’s Apennines, occasionally setting off down far milder slopes with full knowledge that they might never regain the vertical, or might only have time to get off one strategic rifle shot before being captured or maimed for life. The ski troopers who returned from the war helped lay the foundation of the modern American ski industry, which included hundreds of race hills.

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We were just shy of Greylock’s 3,491-foot summit when we stopped to rest, hydrate, and admire the snow-dusted belfries and repurposed mills of Adams. We had driven up the night before from New York City, 170 miles to the south, eager to measure ourselves against the mountain whose whale-shaped profile inspired Herman Melville while he wrote Moby-Dick.

The three of us had recently become proud members of Thunderbolt Ski Runners, the nonprofit group founded in 2010 “to preserve the integrity and continue the legacy of the Thunderbolt ski run.” Our $25 membership fees got us early registration privileges for the race, which TSR had relaunched to commemorate the trail’s 75th anniversary.

The modern event is part downhill, part endurance race. The most coveted trophies—for the King and Queen of the Mountain—go to the man and woman with the fastest combined times for ascent and descent. But my friends and I were in no big hurry on this early March day last year. The race had been canceled—for the second year in a row—due to insufficient snow cover.

The TSR e-mails we’d gotten said an informal group was going up anyway, and about 50 of us had turned out, variously equipped with skis, snowboards, and snowshoes. Almost everyone was ahead of us, hanging out in the cozy stone shelter near the top. Later in the afternoon, everyone would head for the Thunderfest, the post-race celebration in the center of the handsome town below us.

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We had hiked up about 2,000 vertical feet, through sections with names like The Steps and Big Schuss. Only a few rocks jutted out amid the proto-moguls formed by local backcountry skiers who ride the Thunderbolt all winter long.

Now we stood at the trail’s most intimidating turn, Big Bend. Just below us was the toughest part of the trail, a 35-degree pitch about 300 yards long. Above us, the trail followed a long, gentle ridgeline to the summit—the upper section narrow enough that a fresh snowfall bent the boughs of the trees inward to create an emerald archway.

Standing there, I was reminded of the Brink, part of the Birds of Prey downhill at Beaver Creek, where a long flat section out of the start gives racers a quiet interlude before a sharp drop-off slaps them back to reality. Steve Nowicki, an old-timer from Adams, would later tell me about the time “one of the kids from college” died after miscalculating Big Bend. “He never put in a skid or anything. He just came down straight. He flew and hit the tree and killed himself.”

We continued up to the top, crossing a little snowmobile trail that spirals up Mount Greylock and creates the biggest jump on the course. Inside the shelter we found our cheerful comrades, milling around sociably and adjusting their Gore-Tex and fleece for the descent. Mounted above them on the stone chimney of the central fireplace was a plaque honoring Konieczny’s memory.

Soon all were summoned outside for a group photo, and then we lined up to begin our descents. Some thoughtful person saw to it that a lookout stood watch over the snowmobile crossing to prevent any collisions. Liberated from the tyranny of the stopwatch, we skied down in social clusters, stopping at the various breakovers to appreciate the spread eagles, working the trail’s margins to find softer snow.

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A driving force behind the Thunderbolt’s comeback is Blair Mahar, a teacher from nearby Hoosac Valley High School whose title within the race organizing committee is sergeant at arms. In 1999 Mahar and a group of students began a historical study of the race, interviewing senior citizens and examining old newspaper clippings. The project’s result was Purple Mountain Majesty, a documentary film that restores “the ’Bolt” to its place among more celebrated early downhill racing sites of the Northeastern U.S., such as Mount Washington’s Inferno, Cannon Mountain’s Taft Slalom, and Stowe’s Nosedive.

A star of the film is Steve Nowicki, now 92. Nowicki began skiing the Thunderbolt at age 17, and he still lives in Adams, where he was born. I met him there one Saturday afternoon right after I returned from covering the Sochi Games, and we talked about the Olympic courses.

“You got a thing all marked out for you—you have to go through different poles and whatnot,” Nowicki said, referring to modern racecourses. He gestured up toward Greylock. “Over here, you just come down the trail whatever way you want to come down.”

Nowicki learned to ski by simply following good skiers up the slope and studying their moves. He enjoyed himself so much he invested in a pair of Groswold skis, paying a local shop owner a dollar a week for them over four or five months. Nowicki figures he went up and down the trail 50 or 60 times. In1942, he finished fourth at the Massachusetts Downhill Championship.

Most winters, Nowicki said, there were 60 or 70 racers—the very best practitioners of a sport as new then as slopestyle is now. Nowicki recalled one year when a team of German collegiate stars showed up. Archival photos from 1938 show them with Nazi insignia on their sweaters.

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“Hitler sent down his best skiers, and boy, them guys come down, they set up a record,” Nowicki said. “They were big, tall guys.”

A few years later Nowicki went to war against them. After a year of infantry training he went into the Army’s air force, learning to fly B-25 bombers.

 “Me, I never went into the ski troopers because I wanted [to be a pilot]. I used to fly the 25s. We were all ready to go when President Whatever-You-Call-It dropped the A-bomb. When he dropped those two bombs that was it.”

Nowicki came home, got married, and raised five kids. With a series of businesses to run, he was too busy for skiing. By the time Mahar and his students showed up on his doorstep with their research project, he was one of the few custodians of Thunderbolt memories.

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“Right now I guess I’m the only guy left. One of the boys died just last week. He was one of the last ones.”

Today Nowicki turns out for the Thunderfest every year, happy to stand for photos beside his old gear, which is on display in the museum. He remembers when as many as 7,000 people would turn out to watch the Thunderbolt, most of them coming by train, finding farmers in sleighs waiting at the station to take them to the hill. There was a lot more snow in those days, he said, and on the weekend of a competition Adams felt like the epicenter of the ski world.

“It was in the papers. Everyone knew all about it,” he said. “When they had the big races, boy, you couldn’t beat it then.”

Nathaniel Vinton is a reporter for the New York Daily News and former World Cup racing correspondent. His book on ski racing, The Fall Line, is due out in February.

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