With all the snow Mad River got last season, it's a wonder it didn't rank No. 1. This museum of how skiing used to be (and some say ought to be) has almost no snowmaking. But last season Mother Nature took up the slack, dumping Western-style powder for months on end, which left Mad Riverites waist-deep in untracked fluffies, whooping with joy. Because Mad River has one of the ski industry's most loyal followings, and everyone else just stays away, it's no surprise that readers surveyed found almost no weaknesses and plenty to rave about: "They put the adventure back in skiing"; "the black-diamonds really mean expert"; "steep, natural, empty"; "real skiing without the glitz." All true. Owned and run as a co-op, Mad River feels like a multi-generational commune. Strangers chat in the liftlines, the lodge music is always groovy, and thigh-crushing trails descend narrow and silent because the 1948 single chair-the only way to access the big peak other than skins or snowshoes-blissfully limits the number of skiers on the mountain. Quirky, cantankerous and crazed as a Vermont farmer on hard cider, Mad River isn't for everyone and doesn't want to be. You'd better like bumps, because they don't groom the blacks. And when Mother Nature is cranky, Mad River's trails suffer more than most. Still, the place is such a fabulous monument to what one reader calls "ye olde New England skiing" that it ought to get a preservation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Indeed, Historic Landmark designation is already being discussed.) Anyone who likes chutes, trees, tele-whacking, cliff-jumping and the ultimate challenge should watch the snow reports: When powder hits the Greens of Vermont, ski Mad River-if you can.
WHAT'S NEW Sealed bearings on the Single Chair means no more dripping grease (will high fashion follow?). Also, ventilation in the bathrooms and a new (used) groomer.
A GOOD DEAL Anniversary day, last Tuesday in January, means 1948 lift ticket prices: $3.50. Also, on Valentine's Day, kiss at the ticket window and get two-for-one.
MEDALS GOLD Challenge, Terrain, Family Programs; SILVER Snow.
HIGH/LOW RANK Value (2), Challenge (3), Terrain (6); Lodging (50), Lifts (75), Grooming (76).
DON'T MISS Nature tours of the mountain with Mad River Glen naturalist Sean Lawson.
READER REMARKS (+) "Best terrain and challenge in the East. Period."
(-) "I am waiting for the Single Chair to collapse."