True Believers - Ski Mag

True Believers

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Soul, Feb 2005

When my 3-year-old son was ready to ski, I decided I would take him to Mad River Glen for his first lesson. "You're insane," friends told me. The "Ski It If You Can" mountain? With little grooming, little snowmaking, and the toughest terrain in the East? The place where the beginner slope looks like a black-diamond and short adults can hide behind the moguls? Why would you do that to your child? they asked. Are you sure you're fit to be a parent? Well, I answered feebly, Mad River Glen is full of surprises.

Mad River's reputation as the roughest, toughest ski area in the East is based largely on truth. In this age of snow surfaces as regular and dependable as a McDonald's french fry, Mad River Glen makes snow only on the bottom 15 percent of the mountain, and there only to extend its season. Barely half of its terrain is groomed. Left to nature's whims, the often brutally steep trails are moguled and pocked with conditions that would cause closures at other areas: rock cliffs, icy waterfalls, frozen moss. Mad River skiers actually debate the best techniques for skiing on frozen moss.

With its tiny parking lot (about 500 spaces), 1950s lodge and low-speed, non-detachable lifts-just three doubles and the original single from the area's opening in 1948-Mad River is often derided by the ignorant (or the willfully clueless) as a living museum of skiing's formative years. But, in fact, it's the last best place to find out just how good a skier you really are. It's also the perfect place to appreciate what the old-timers put up with-on edgeless wooden skis and ankle-high leather boots, no less. Secreted away in Fayston, Vt., Mad River is the most surprising ski area in the East, defying almost every tenet of modern resort management theory, yet also inspiring incredible loyalty. Says 81-year-old Arthur Clifford, one of 1,750 shareholders in the Mad River Glen Cooperative, "It's my mountain, and I don't want it to change."

Mad River's contrarian nature isn't accidental. Its leading founder, Roland Palmedo, was a wealthy New York investment banker, outdoorsman and skiing pioneer who previously had helped start the lift company at Stowe in 1938. Palmedo became disillusioned by Stowe's postwar growth, detesting what he considered the rise of commercialism and non-ski-related fluff. So even in the late 1940s-skiing's infancy in the U.S.-Mad River Glen was envisioned as the anti-resort, a place for purists, devoted only to the sport, the community and the mountain. According to Ken Quackenbush, Mad River's longtime general manager (1958-1983), Palmedo once famously said that he was "not interested in making a lot of money. We just want a nice, friendly, New England-style ski area. "That's the kind of talk that gets resort executives fired these days.

Palmedo sold the ski area in 1972 to a group led by Truxton Pratt, a wealthy Mad River skier. When Pratt died in 1975, his wife Betsy took control. Pratt, now in her mid-70s ("It's rude to ask a woman her age," she has noted), is no stranger to tilting against convention. Until recently, she smoked a corncob pipe. She once abolished the racing program because racers refused to hike up the course in order to ski down. She has been known to call people on the phone and ask, "Would you like to know why I think you're an idiot?"

But Pratt, in part through benign neglect, preserved the rough-hewn character of Mad River Glen. When she finally decided to sell it, she is said to have turned away offers from wheeler-dealers, preferring instead to sell the area to its devoted skiers. In 1995 she got her wish. Mad River fans formed the Mad River Glen Cooperative and set out to buy the mountain. By 1998 they'd sold 1,667 shares at $1,500 each, paid Pratt $2.5 million, and formed the only skiing co-op in America. Today the area's shareholders elect a board and employ a small staff. President Jamey Wimble, who runs the place, asks, "Can you imagine having 1,750 bosses?"

Butor the most part, this system not only has succeeded, it has helped the resort become perhaps one of the most enlightened in the industry. Almost all the things you're not supposed to do, Mad River does. And-surprise-it works. Every winter morning, as cars jam the parking lot, Mad River reminds us that not all progress is forward.

Consider, for instance, the lifts. Mad River is essentially two mountains side-by-side: the snaking, narrow trails and monster-mogul runs of General Stark Mountain and, on the peak to the north, a variety of glades, blues, bump runs and the beginners area, Birdland, all accessible from a double chair. But to get at what Wimble calls "the prime real estate," the oldest, toughest, highest terrain on General Stark, you have to hike up or ride the single chair. Yes, a single chair-the last one in the lower 48. (Mt. Eyak, a local hill in Cordova, Alaska, still runs the continent's first single chair, installed at Sun Valley in 1936.) Wimble emphasizes that "the love for the single chair comes from the skiers, not the mechanics."

On most modern lifts, huge belts connect a motor to a gearbox on the bullwheel, which propels the lift cable. The belts act like shock absorbers, handling most of the wear and tear, and they're easy to replace. Mad River's single chair employs an old-fashioned ring-and-pinion gear system that connects the engine directly to the bullwheel. The Co-op has upgraded it several times, but it still costs as much to maintain as the resort's four other lifts combined. Just before the key moneymaking holiday season last year, for instance, the shaft on the bullwheel broke. Lift mechanics had to find raw stock steel and have it custom machined. While they waited, all that prime skiing real estate was shut down, which hurt ticket sales. Wimble asks rhetorically, "If you were a traveling salesman and relied on your car for your livelihood, would you be driving a Model T?"

The skiers love the single chair, however, not only because it's old and quaint and the last of its kind, but because its low capacity means that once you get up to the summit, you're virtually alone. Wimble muses about moving the single chair to a less strategic section of the ski area, but if he ever proposes it at a shareholders' meeting, he'll likely hear a standard Mad River response: "Get the rope!"

It was that deep-rooted love for the single chair that brought about the resort's infamous snowboard ban. Most skiers forget that in 1986 Mad River was actually one of the first ski areas in the nation explicitly to allow snowboarding. But the way boarders, without ski poles, had to push off when unloading made the single chairs swing and frequently derailed the cable. So Betsy Pratt banned boarders from the single. Since that also eliminated their access to Mad River's best terrain, two high-school boarders cussed her out at the local supermarket. In 1991, she banned snowboards from the mountain altogether.

With support for the ban running strong and deep, shareholders voted overwhelmingly to maintain it during their first meeting as a co-op in 1998-and haven't officially voted on the issue since. "No one is calling for the end of it," says Eric Friedman, Mad River's marketing director. "I don't think anything will change for at least a generation."

With boardable Sugarbush acting as a pressure-release valve only four miles away, "We hardly get any complaints anymore," Friedman says. A few uninformed boarders still get turned away at the ticket window every few weeks-and receive the option of free rental ski gear for the day, if they ask politely.

Not surprisingly, however, the ban has created a rebel subculture at Mad River. Almost weekly, a few sniper snowboarders sneak in from an upper road, rip through the terrain to cries of "Snowboarder on the hill!" then quickly hustle to a waiting getaway car.

Conventional wisdom says that it's financial suicide for a ski area to ban snowboards; it's said to cut ticket sales by 20-30 percent. "Yeah, maybe we do lose revenue," Friedman says. "But isn't it nice to have a ski area that doesn't make all its decisions based on money?"

Mad River's approach to snowmaking and grooming is similarly unusual. Modern skiers want manicured corduroy, conventional wisdom says, and if they don't get it, they'll ski somewhere else. But snowmaking and grooming are more than just expensive amenities, they are also nearly impossible to provide on the narrow, twisting trails that give Mad River its old-time feel. Snow guns tend to ice and kill trees along the trail edge; grooming machines need wide, relatively flat, open surfaces. So Mad River saves its money and counts on those narrow, tree-shrouded trails to preserve the natural snowfall from wind and sun the old fashioned way-by leaving it alone.

The result is that skiing at Mad River is as close as you can get to lift-served backcountry skiing in the East. It's also one of the few places where you can still experience what it was like in the heartier days of skiing. When New England's early trail designers cut a trail, their top priority was embracing the simple joys of sliding downhill. They flowed runs along the contours of the mountain; they incorporated scenic vistas or heart-pounding rocks and drops. Mad River's Antelope trail isn't much wider than a hiking path. It hooks and banks like an amusement park roller coaster, and you can almost reach out and touch the trees on either side. This preserves the snow, but it also preserves the idea that skiing is, at its heart, about communing with nature. Rather than sliding down some smoothly machined, minimally inclined carpet, you're part of a living mountain. Stop by the side of the trail to examine bear marks on a beech tree and instead of hearing the scraping sound of six dozen edges coming at you, you'll hear the faint whistle of the wind in tree branches.

That's what you expect at Mad River. Then there's the unexpected. In January, after dropping my kid off at the ski school, I carved fat GS turns into the commodity that Mad River supposedly doesn't offer: the king's corduroy. The next day I found boot-top, windsift freshies in the eddies, and I hadn't even tasted the trees. I felt no need to counter boredom by totaling up "verts" on an altimeter watch. Other mountains may feel as adventurous as descending a tilted golf course; here, when you hit the bottom, you feel like you've accomplished something.

Quackenbush talks about the time he went on a trip to three neighboring resorts. "They were all so alike I couldn't tell where I was." Just as there's a market for sports cars, minivans and trucks, Mad River was the first to discover a niche for back-to-basics skiers. "We don't make our money from real estate, lodging, condominiums or food and beverage," resort president Wimble says. "We make it by putting the 'ski' back in 'skiing.'"

According to standard ski-management wisdom, Mad River, with its tough terrain, old lifts and snowboard ban, should be losing money. But, surprise: With only about 82,000 skier visits each year and just nine years into the Co-op, Mad River has paid off Betsy Pratt and put $2 million back into the resort. Last year it made about $300,000 on less than $2.5 million in gross revenues, producing a 12 percent return that most resorts would envy.

Mad River is also one of the last of the big mountains to preserve another great advantage from skiing's golden days: community. Every Thursday you'll find Johnnie Mead, a retired gas-station owner, eating the Reuben special in the Base Box daylodge restaurant with his Over-the-Hill Gang, so named because they drive over the pass every week in Johnnie's wood-paneled Ford station wagon. One of Mead's pals, a retired dairy farmer, points to his wife and says, "She and I bushwhacked over the mountain before there were lifts here. Watched 'em pour the foundation for the Base Box. Been coming here ever since." He's 81 ticket sales by 20-30 percent. "Yeah, maybe we do lose revenue," Friedman says. "But isn't it nice to have a ski area that doesn't make all its decisions based on money?"

Mad River's approach to snowmaking and grooming is similarly unusual. Modern skiers want manicured corduroy, conventional wisdom says, and if they don't get it, they'll ski somewhere else. But snowmaking and grooming are more than just expensive amenities, they are also nearly impossible to provide on the narrow, twisting trails that give Mad River its old-time feel. Snow guns tend to ice and kill trees along the trail edge; grooming machines need wide, relatively flat, open surfaces. So Mad River saves its money and counts on those narrow, tree-shrouded trails to preserve the natural snowfall from wind and sun the old fashioned way-by leaving it alone.

The result is that skiing at Mad River is as close as you can get to lift-served backcountry skiing in the East. It's also one of the few places where you can still experience what it was like in the heartier days of skiing. When New England's early trail designers cut a trail, their top priority was embracing the simple joys of sliding downhill. They flowed runs along the contours of the mountain; they incorporated scenic vistas or heart-pounding rocks and drops. Mad River's Antelope trail isn't much wider than a hiking path. It hooks and banks like an amusement park roller coaster, and you can almost reach out and touch the trees on either side. This preserves the snow, but it also preserves the idea that skiing is, at its heart, about communing with nature. Rather than sliding down some smoothly machined, minimally inclined carpet, you're part of a living mountain. Stop by the side of the trail to examine bear marks on a beech tree and instead of hearing the scraping sound of six dozen edges coming at you, you'll hear the faint whistle of the wind in tree branches.

That's what you expect at Mad River. Then there's the unexpected. In January, after dropping my kid off at the ski school, I carved fat GS turns into the commodity that Mad River supposedly doesn't offer: the king's corduroy. The next day I found boot-top, windsift freshies in the eddies, and I hadn't even tasted the trees. I felt no need to counter boredom by totaling up "verts" on an altimeter watch. Other mountains may feel as adventurous as descending a tilted golf course; here, when you hit the bottom, you feel like you've accomplished something.

Quackenbush talks about the time he went on a trip to three neighboring resorts. "They were all so alike I couldn't tell where I was." Just as there's a market for sports cars, minivans and trucks, Mad River was the first to discover a niche for back-to-basics skiers. "We don't make our money from real estate, lodging, condominiums or food and beverage," resort president Wimble says. "We make it by putting the 'ski' back in 'skiing.'"

According to standard ski-management wisdom, Mad River, with its tough terrain, old lifts and snowboard ban, should be losing money. But, surprise: With only about 82,000 skier visits each year and just nine years into the Co-op, Mad River has paid off Betsy Pratt and put $2 million back into the resort. Last year it made about $300,000 on less than $2.5 million in gross revenues, producing a 12 percent return that most resorts would envy.

Mad River is also one of the last of the big mountains to preserve another great advantage from skiing's golden days: community. Every Thursday you'll find Johnnie Mead, a retired gas-station owner, eating the Reuben special in the Base Box daylodge restaurant with his Over-the-Hill Gang, so named because they drive over the pass every week in Johnnie's wood-paneled Ford station wagon. One of Mead's pals, a retired dairy farmer, points to his wife and says, "She and I bushwhacked over the mountain before there were lifts here. Watched 'em pour the foundation for the Base Box. Been coming here ever since." He's 81. And what other resort offers a 10-year pass? There are even a few loyalists who are skiing on their second 10-year pass. That's devotion few resorts can match.

Mad River still has that intimate, goofy quality you usually only find at little local hills. Many resorts throw costume parades and host weird events, but how many have buffet dinners, after which old-timers stand up and tell stories about the good old days? In 30 years, will skiers be calling this season the good old days? At Mad River they will.

It's that old-time (but forward-thinking) devotion to community that brought me and my 3-year-old to Mad River's ski school. A few years back, Wimble and Friedman came up with one solution to solve the problem that the rest of the ski industry is working on: how to mint new skiers. Mad River now offers a free season pass to every kid 12 and younger whose parent buys a season pass or a $99 multiday Mad Card. It works.

I used to hate attending ski school as a kid, standing in the middle of a trail while some Austrian lectured me on technique. But on the sidelines of Mad River's Rockin' Robbins program, I watched preschoolers rush from their parents to meet their familiar skiing pals. Even the parents knew each other. And it was a bargain: $75 for five hour-and-a-half weekly sessions.

My son Henry's class consisted of six kids and three instructors, which allowed Patty Beaupre to give him the attention he needed as a newcomer. She showed him a pizza wedge. Two runs later, Henry made the first turns of his life while clutching a stuffed pink pig.

As we drove home, he couldn't stop talking about his new buddy, Patty. "Where does she live? Do you think she lives in that house? What about that one over there? What about that one? Does she live over there?" This went on for 20 minutes, until he fell asleep.

It had been so cold and windy that day that even the hardiest adults had gone into the lodge or headed home early. Henry had given up on bike-riding after one fall; would his first alpine adventure make him abandon skiing as well?

That night at dinner, Henry said he loved his day. At first I was shocked. Then I remembered that Mad River, like my son, is always full of surprises.

FEBRUARY 2005

s 81. And what other resort offers a 10-year pass? There are even a few loyalists who are skiing on their second 10-year pass. That's devotion few resorts can match.

Mad River still has that intimate, goofy quality you usually only find at little local hills. Many resorts throw costume parades and host weird events, but how many have buffet dinners, after which old-timers stand up and tell stories about the good old days? In 30 years, will skiers be calling this season the good old days? At Mad River they will.

It's that old-time (but forward-thinking) devotion to community that brought me and my 3-year-old to Mad River's ski school. A few years back, Wimble and Friedman came up with one solution to solve the problem that the rest of the ski industry is working on: how to mint new skiers. Mad River now offers a free season pass to every kid 12 and younger whose parent buys a season pass or a $99 multiday Mad Card. It works.

I used to hate attending ski school as a kid, standing in the middle of a trail while some Austrian lectured me on technique. But on the sidelines of Mad River's Rockin' Robbins program, I watched preschoolers rush from their parents to meet their familiar skiing pals. Even the parents knew each other. And it was a bargain: $75 for five hour-and-a-half weekly sessions.

My son Henry's class consisted of six kids and three instructors, which allowed Patty Beaupre to give him the attention he needed as a newcomer. She showed him a pizza wedge. Two runs later, Henry made the first turns of his life while clutching a stuffed pink pig.

As we drove home, he couldn't stop talking about his new buddy, Patty. "Where does she live? Do you think she lives in that house? What about that one over theere? What about that one? Does she live over there?" This went on for 20 minutes, until he fell asleep.

It had been so cold and windy that day that even the hardiest adults had gone into the lodge or headed home early. Henry had given up on bike-riding after one fall; would his first alpine adventure make him abandon skiing as well?

That night at dinner, Henry said he loved his day. At first I was shocked. Then I remembered that Mad River, like my son, is always full of surprises.

FEBRUARY 2005

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