Mad River Glen, VT

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One is the loneliest number...

On the seventh of April, 2007, clouds hung low over Mad River Glen. Above my head, the Vermont sky was the color of concrete and as impenetrable as a bank vault. Snow had fallen the day before, and the day before that, and the ground was covered by an 18-inch layer of powder that could be parted by the tip of my skis with no more effort than it takes to expel a breath.

This would be Mad River's second-to-last day of operations for the season; the second-to-last day of operations ever for the mountain's 58-year-old, diesel-powered single chair, which would soon be replaced with a new electric-drive single. If the notion that replacing a single chair with a single chair somehow represents progress seems dubious to you, you're not alone. Especially when you consider that the ski area is paying $300,000 more than it would have paid for a new double.

To understand how Mad River Glen can arrive at such decisions, you need a crucial bit of information: The ski area is the only one in the U.S. to be cooperatively owned. Nearly 1,900 shareholders have plunked down $2,000 each for the right to vote on issues that would normally be reserved for upper management. On March 5, 2007, I became one of those shareholders.

The co-op has existed since 1995, but Mad River's reputation as a maverick among Eastern ski areas has been around for much longer. The mountain still doesn't allow snowboarders, offers no lodging, and, in a region where global warming's effects are already being felt and snowfall can be sparse to nonexistent, owns two snow guns for its 45 trails and 2,037-foot vertical. Its "high-capacity chairlift is a lurching double. Its PR staff consists of a wisecracking, mildly overweight 43-year-old named Eric Friedman who likes to drink cheap beer, cuss, and tell off-color jokes in front of young children.

Mad River is also home to the finest expert terrain in the East. There's the stuff on the map - the relentless 40-degree pitch of Paradise, the cliff-studded huckfest called Lift Line, and the bump-strewn steeps of Chute. And then there are the off-map goods. Sinuous tree shots like the 20th Hole and in-your-face Octopus's Garden, with its numerous 15-foot ice floes that offer a single option: point 'em.

Only at Mad River has institutionalized sentimentality been coupled with such a pure love of skiing. And Mad River's devotees seem to revel in being part of an anachronism. It's either brilliant marketing or suicide by nostalgia.

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At its 1949 opening, with its then state-of-the-art monocable single chair capable of delivering a whopping 200 skiers per hour to the summit, it was positively ahead of its time. One newspaper headline even read, "A Tribute to Engineering Feat (sic) - The new monster development of Mad River Glen.

That headline must have irked Mad River founder Roland Palmedo, who, despite embracing cutting-edge chairlift technology, envisioned a ski area largely free of commercial interests and what he considered frivolous amenities. Palmedo, an investment banker, had already made an indelible mark on the Eastern skiing community by financing the state's first chairlift, to the top of Stowe's Mount Mansfield. Prior to that, in 1934, he'd helped form the nation's first ski patrol, at Mount Mansfield.

Palmedo ran Mad River for nearly a quarter-century, gradually adding terrain and making modest infrastructure upgrades. In 1972, Truxton Pratt, an avid Mad River skier and banking magnate from Connecticut, acquired the area. When Pratt died in 1975, his widow Betsy took the helm, and Mad River's gradual dissociation from the larger Eastern ski-resort industry accelerated.

At 79, Betsy Pratt is still able to ski Chute and go golfing nearly every off-season day. To call her notorious would be an understatement: She's the one who enacted the snowboard ban and shrugged off then governor Howard Dean when he made noise about the area's exclusion of snowboders. "He was extremely rude, she said. She used to smoke a pipe. She allegedly pawed through the garbage can by the ticket window in the name of market research, and rumor has it that she once chased a Canadian skier out of the parking lot. His crime? He'd asked if Mad River took Canadian currency at par.

The snowboard ban made Pratt famous. "I told them they could ride the double Monday through Thursday, she says. "But they said I was discriminating. So I told them to go away. Don't misquote me on this. But it was her stubborn refusal to modernize Mad River that best defines her reign, and it almost killed the business. As the ski industry began evolving in the '80s toward shopping, snowmaking, and ski-in, ski-out condos, Mad River teetered on the brink of irrelevancy. "I'd come up from college to ski for the weekend, and the place looked like a wasteland, remembers Eric Friedman. "The only people left were the hardcores who didn't care about anything but skiing. Still, the mountain remained open, even in the lean 1983 season that lasted for all of 25 days. It was rumored that Pratt was subsidizing operations from her personal nest egg.

In December 1995, weary of running a ski area, Pratt sold Mad River to a group of 1,000 loyalists who had formed a cooperative under her guidance. "I could have sold that mountain to anybody, but I wanted skiers in control, she says. "I wanted it run by people who love natural snow as much as I do, who understand that we can't guarantee an experience, we can only guarantee a challenge.

For $2,000, anyone can buy a share of Mad River. The money goes into a fund that covers operating expenses, maintenance, and upgrades. Key to the co-op's viability is a strict edict to remain debt-free. As Friedman puts it, "The minute we borrow, we're fucked.

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For the price of a share, you might think you'd get a season's pass, or a couple day tickets, or maybe some drink vouchers. You'd be wrong. In fact, shareholders are obligated to spend even more money in the form of an "advance purchase requirement of at least $200 annually on the mountain's modest infrastructure (most of this "Mad Money lands in the bar) to ensure at least a trickle of cash flow. Shareholders do receive a 15 percent discount on lift tickets and season passes and of course are eligible to vote on major issues and run for the board of directors. Pratt doesn't regret selling to the co-op. She's a shareholder herself, but she has her concerns. "What do we owe co-op owners in exchange for that advance sale? It's not an hourlong lift line on Saturday. She'd like to see the mountain adopt a $100 midweek season pass to tempt skiers into ditching work and getting their fix on a day when there might be only 50 cars in the lot.

Ultimately, Pratt is less the curmudgeonly matriarch she's widely regarded as, and more someone unwilling to sell her values south, no matter the outcome. "Without question, Mad River is a cult. I inherited a cult in 1975 and I sold one in 1995, and that will never change.

The intractability of the place is nothing new. Each subsequent owner has slowed the rate of change - ultimately to the point where replacing a single chair with a single chair becomes so crucial to the cult's identity that it's willing to pay a premium to do so.

Everyone I spoke with seemed entirely at peace with this truth, even as they acknowledge the very real limitations of the co-op's two-thirds-majority model. "The most efficient form of governance is dictatorship, says Jay Appleton, the 50-year-old chair of the co-op's board of trustees. "The only reason this place works is because it's small, and because our overhead is very, very low. Would it sometimes be better if we had one really rich owner? Of course. Are there times I wish we had one really rich owner? Absolutely.

Purchasing a share in the Mad River Glen cooperative does not a cultist make, but it does offer access to the co-op's inner workings - which largely consist of the annual shareholder meeting. I attended the April 7, 2007, edition of this meeting, fervently hoping in my inky journalist's heart for the sort of passionate debate that leads to hurled insults - or beer mugs.

Amidst the smell of wet wool and cheap beer, with lazy rays of late-afternoon sun playing through the base-lodge windows, 150 or so shareholders pressed themselves together in a swell of easy conversation and frequent laughter. My hopes for conflict dimmed. Everyone looked so…nice. There were hand-knit hats and frayed ski jackets, cups of beer, and sweaters shot through at the elbow. Friedman spent a few minutes wrestling with the PA system, looking flustered and sweaty in the way people do when their struggles are carried out in public. Outside, two young children repeatedly threw themselves off the steep drop underneath the single chair's first tower.

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Friedman mopped his brow and retreated. Jay Appleton stood up. "The first week of January, we were $150,000 behind where we needed to be. He spoke quietly and paused for effect, letting the grim news sink in. Murmurs in the crowd: Jesus! That's bad. And then: "By the end of March, we were $300,000 ahead of last year! The shareholders whooped and hooted and Appleton looked smugly pleased. "We sell skiing and that's it, Appleton continued. Nods and gospel-revival affirmations: Yes! Yes, that's right. "Our competitors don't intend to make money skiing. It's like going up against Wal-Mart! More cheers.

Exhaustive discussion of the single-chair fundraising campaign followed. Nearly $1,000,000 of the $1,540,000 tab had been netted through donations and sales of the old chairs (the final chair sold on eBay for $7,850 on April 15, 2007) and towers (still available for $25,000 apiece). A staccato burst of impromptu fundraising was held, and the million-dollar wall was breached. More cheers, more beers. The windows steamed up.

There was talk of the season just passed, which had proven so fickle that the area was forced to lay off all but four of its staff over the crucial Christmas holiday. Six weeks later, on Valentine's Day, the mountain was bombarded with more than 50 inches of snow in less than 20 hours, beginning a run of powder days that did not end until the season's close. In a painful bit of irony, the Valentine's Day storm came on a day when Mad River charged only $14 for a full-day lift voucher to any skier willing to exchange a kiss at the ticket window. It was a Hail Mary pass from Mother Nature, and whispered remembrances of epic days floated among the crowd. No vitriolic shareholder face-offs here.

One of the entertaining perks of shareholdership is access to the e-mail listserv, which tends to flare up occasionally with petty grievances. A couple of years ago, there'd been controversy over the pot smoking that occurs in the midmountain Naturalist Center, and whether the smoke might be damaging the pelts of the taxidermy specimens mounted on the walls. The building is still a popular smoke stop and the animals are still there; other than being dead, they look no worse for wear. More recently, there'd been exhaustive e-mail discussion regarding the lack of pole hooks on the new single, with two arguments quickly emerging: One, that the old single had pole hooks and that an exact replica had been promised, and two, that almost nobody uses the damn things and can't we forget about the frivolous minutia and get down to more important work? When I mentioned the debate, Friedman chuckled. "The original single never even had pole hooks, he said. "They were added later.

In any case, both issues seemed to die a natural death, and it occurred to me that being a shareholder in Mad River Glen is not unlike being a member of any organization: Its strengths and weaknesses are no greater or less than those of its members. Whether this seems a condemnation or a commendatioop's inner workings - which largely consist of the annual shareholder meeting. I attended the April 7, 2007, edition of this meeting, fervently hoping in my inky journalist's heart for the sort of passionate debate that leads to hurled insults - or beer mugs.

Amidst the smell of wet wool and cheap beer, with lazy rays of late-afternoon sun playing through the base-lodge windows, 150 or so shareholders pressed themselves together in a swell of easy conversation and frequent laughter. My hopes for conflict dimmed. Everyone looked so…nice. There were hand-knit hats and frayed ski jackets, cups of beer, and sweaters shot through at the elbow. Friedman spent a few minutes wrestling with the PA system, looking flustered and sweaty in the way people do when their struggles are carried out in public. Outside, two young children repeatedly threw themselves off the steep drop underneath the single chair's first tower.

[pagebreak]

Friedman mopped his brow and retreated. Jay Appleton stood up. "The first week of January, we were $150,000 behind where we needed to be. He spoke quietly and paused for effect, letting the grim news sink in. Murmurs in the crowd: Jesus! That's bad. And then: "By the end of March, we were $300,000 ahead of last year! The shareholders whooped and hooted and Appleton looked smugly pleased. "We sell skiing and that's it, Appleton continued. Nods and gospel-revival affirmations: Yes! Yes, that's right. "Our competitors don't intend to make money skiing. It's like going up against Wal-Mart! More cheers.

Exhaustive discussion of the single-chair fundraising campaign followed. Nearly $1,000,000 of the $1,540,000 tab had been netted through donations and sales of the old chairs (the final chair sold on eBay for $7,850 on April 15, 2007) and towers (still available for $25,000 apiece). A staccato burst of impromptu fundraising was held, and the million-dollar wall was breached. More cheers, more beers. The windows steamed up.

There was talk of the season just passed, which had proven so fickle that the area was forced to lay off all but four of its staff over the crucial Christmas holiday. Six weeks later, on Valentine's Day, the mountain was bombarded with more than 50 inches of snow in less than 20 hours, beginning a run of powder days that did not end until the season's close. In a painful bit of irony, the Valentine's Day storm came on a day when Mad River charged only $14 for a full-day lift voucher to any skier willing to exchange a kiss at the ticket window. It was a Hail Mary pass from Mother Nature, and whispered remembrances of epic days floated among the crowd. No vitriolic shareholder face-offs here.

One of the entertaining perks of shareholdership is access to the e-mail listserv, which tends to flare up occasionally with petty grievances. A couple of years ago, there'd been controversy over the pot smoking that occurs in the midmountain Naturalist Center, and whether the smoke might be damaging the pelts of the taxidermy specimens mounted on the walls. The building is still a popular smoke stop and the animals are still there; other than being dead, they look no worse for wear. More recently, there'd been exhaustive e-mail discussion regarding the lack of pole hooks on the new single, with two arguments quickly emerging: One, that the old single had pole hooks and that an exact replica had been promised, and two, that almost nobody uses the damn things and can't we forget about the frivolous minutia and get down to more important work? When I mentioned the debate, Friedman chuckled. "The original single never even had pole hooks, he said. "They were added later.

In any case, both issues seemed to die a natural death, and it occurred to me that being a shareholder in Mad River Glen is not unlike being a member of any organization: Its strengths and weaknesses are no greater or less than those of its members. Whether this seems a condemnation or a commendation depends on one's worldview.

One month later, I sat with Deri Meier on the deck of his Waitsfield home. The air was still and the sun hot enough that the frosty Budweiser Meier proffered when I arrived shortly after noon seemed essential. Meier is 69, short and trim, and could pass for a man 15 years his junior. A business professor at the University of Vermont, he still skis 30 to 40 days a year, mostly at Mad River, and makes the trek into Tuckerman Ravine once a season. On the day I visited, he'd been doing lawn work in a plaid flannel shirt, frayed blue jeans, and deeply lugged logger boots.

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I'd sought out Meier because he'd been instrumental in the cooperative's launch 12 years ago and because I'd heard the retired big-oil executive's business acumen was sharp. The next time you "pay at the pump, thank Meier; he launched the program back in the '70s, before being transferred to Iran to run Mobil's onshore operations. Not that he's universally liked. "Don't ask me what I think of Deri Meier, Pratt had said. "He's the beginning of the destruction of Mad River. All he thinks about is the business side.

Meier cultivates a pragmatist's view of the challenges facing Mad River Glen. "I worry about things that I can control, he said, feet propped up on the deck rail, eyes trained across the valley on the spring-thin trails of Sugarbush - where, thanks to extensive snowmaking, long swaths of snow remained - and Mad River. "I'm not saying climate change isn't happening, or that it won't have an impact. But to sit here and worry about it when we've got much more pressing problems doesn't make sense.

For Meier those problems include pervasive business-operations ignorance among shareholders, and the fact that Mad River has few options for raising revenues. "A lot of shareholders don't realize how fragile the operating situation really is. Everybody thinks it's all hunky-dory on the management side, but it's only worked because for the first eight or nine years, we were able to keep raising prices. We've run out of that price cushion.

A full-day, non-holiday lift ticket at Mad River costs $54; that's $15 less than at neighboring Sugarbush. "We need to spot big areas with extensive snowmaking at least $12, says Meier, who voted in favor of rehabilitating the old single chair not for any particular love of the old lift, but for its incalculable marketing value. "If we don't, people are just going to say, 'Hell, for $10 more I can ski Sugarbush and not trash my skis.' Are there people who would pay $80 a day to ski here? Sure. But we can't survive on them alone.

Eric Friedman agrees but thinks the area may have more wiggle room than Meier realizes. "We are the farmer's market of the ski areas, he says, likening the Mad River skier to the foodie who's willing to pay top dollar for a carrot that might have some blemishes but was grown in local, organic soil. "Some people are going to say, 'Fuck it, I want my gallon of milk for $2 and I'm going to get it at Wal-Mart.' But some are going to understand exactly what we're about.

Earlier in the season, on a powdery Saint Patrick's Day, I'd skied with someone who would pay $80 a day, and probably much more, to ski at Mad River. Sarah Haviland is tall, lithe, and pretty - a fluid skier with an easy smile and wide blue eyes. She swears frequently, but in a way that manages to be charming rather than crude. On our first run together, she hugged one lift operator and stopped three times to greet other skiers.

She was also among the 19 percent of shareholders who voted against the single chair, at least in part because she worries that the area's partnership with the Preservation Trust of Vermont (which created a tax-deduction loophole for donors) is too confining: It mandates no changes to the new single for 50 years.

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Haviland, the director of marketing communications at GE Healthcare in nearby Burlington, has been sk

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