By Jim Kenney, aka JamesJ
EpicSki Travel Correspondent
January 18, 2010 — We believe. My teenage son Vince and I became firm believers in the all-natural magic of Mad River Glen (MRG) ski area after our first ever visit on a snowy Friday in early January, 2010. After five days of skiing the biggest resorts in Northern Vermont it was nothing short of a revelation to experience the best trail conditions of the week at the minimalist ski-area-that-could with its fleet of a whole two snowmaking cannons.
It helped that the bowl shaped, tree sheltered, narrowly cut, northeast facing trail layout trapped another two inches of fresh snow on the morning of our arrival, but that was just the frosting on the cake that lay beneath. On a good day, and this early season has seen a lot of good days, MRG features something rare and precious in the Eastern ski world - an all-natural base that holds a ski edge like no frozen manmade surface can ever quite replicate. For this and some of the best tree skiing in the United States, MRG has a legion of true believers.
If the winter climatology of MRG’s General Stark Mountain (elevation 3637’) is magical, then its ski topography borders on miraculous. The renowned expert terrain will astound advanced skiers raised on groomed runs. A little exploration reveals a trove of powdery glades, frozen waterfalls, cliff drops, and steep fall line runs with malleable moguls shaped by the area’s skiers-only guest policy. Yet intermediates and novices need not be deterred by the “ski it if you can” reputation.
First ride on the MRG Single Chair. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.
MRG has family friendly top-to-bottom intermediate runs off the iconic Single Chair (vertical 2037’) that are filled with curves and character. Solid intermediates can also enjoy a whole batch of blue square and single black diamond runs beside the Sunnyside double chair (vertical 1405’). And then there is Birdland, a secluded, scenic, mid-mountain beginner trail pod served by its own double chair (vertical 500’). At MRG the hardcore and the softcore joyfully intersect without pretension or animosity. The place immediately warmed the cockles of my sleep-in-the-car, change-at-the-gas-station, ramen noodle loving heart
Vince and I initially warmed-up on the fine range of easy to advanced trails served by the Sunnyside chair like Fox, Quacky, Bunny, Gazelle, and then Panther. But we both wanted to ride the famous single chair and see the summit of General Stark Mountain. Dorky tourist that I am, I asked a MRG regular (with wife and children in tow) for the easiest way down from the top. He was friendly and patient and steered us to Upper Antelope and Broadway.
Our random explorations came to an end at mid-day when we made a rendezvous at the base area flag pole with the effervescent Eric Friedman, a longtime MRG shareholder and the area’s marketing director. Eric is an absolutely awesome middle-aged skier whose ardent passion for this special ski area was obvious from the moment we met him. He took us on a fantastic two hour frolic that opened a world of glade skiing on one magnificent mountain.
Revisiting the various sections of the ski area with Eric, he led us to every loose clump of snow on the hill while relating fascinating details on the slopeside Kent Thomas Nature Center in Birdland, the $1.7 million restoration of the single chair making it the fastest fixed grip lift in North America, the Stark’s Nest summit warming hut used by Ski Patrol AND through-hikers on the Long Trail, and the fact that there’s never been a skier fatality in the history of gnarly MRG.
Rime ice near the Summit. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.
Unequivocally, the highlight of our time with Eric was an unforgettable pass through MRG’s signature black diamond glade, aptly named Paradise. It’s a steep, sheltered, marvelously varied, occasionally tight, but often fairly open glade. Like the rest of the mountain it held mostly beautiful soft snow conditions on the day of our early January inspection. The labyrinth of Paradise is a prime example of the miraculous MRG topography containing special touches like mandatory air over a pair of six foot frozen waterfalls, a healthy dose of big soft moguls in the more heavily trafficked sections, and side gullies with unexpectedly deep pockets of powder. I felt like a 56 year old Alice in Wonderland following Eric down a frosty white rabbit hole. By the end of Paradise glade Eric, Vince, and I were all wearing Cheshire Cat grins.
Mandatory Air. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.
Eventually we said goodbye to Eric and joined the brown baggers for lunch in MRG’s old Basebox Base Lodge. This is the ultimate retro, throw-back, old school, apres ski hangout. It includes the General Stark Pub where you can sample a Single Chair Ale and relax around a roaring stone fireplace with MRG regulars and shareholders. Mad River Glen Ski Area and its cooperative style of ownership is one of the most astonishing nonconformities in the modern ski industry.
The ski area opened in 1948, but all conventional rules of operation were broken when owner Betsy Pratt sold it to a Co-op in December 1995. The successes since then are numerous and irrefutable: paid off mortgage, replacement of Sunnyside Double Chair, renovation of Stark’s Nest hut, purchase of new groomers, and the historic restoration of the Single Chair. What a lesson in these recessionary times! The Co-op staff continues to run the mountain successfully with a financially conservative approach and deeply loyal customer base. Thousands have purchased $2000 shares in the Co-op, “… to forever protect the classic Mad River Glen skiing experience by preserving low skier density, natural terrain and forests, varied trail character, and friendly community atmosphere for the benefit of shareholders, area personnel and patrons.”
Tree skier’s Paradise. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.
After soaking up the genuine New England skier ambiance in Basebox lodge Vince and I had time for just a few more runs before starting the ten hour drive back to our home in Northern Virginia. Our last run was a full descent of Antelope trail. I felt like a human sports car zipping around the narrow, densely tree lined, low angle curves of the upper section. The lower section is not so lazy with a challenging series of bumpy S-turns that tumble on and on for MRG’s full 2000’ vertical. Great run, even greater ski area. Believe you me!
Plotting last run. Photo provided by Jim Kenney
Mad River Glen basic facts:
Summit Elevation: 3,637 Feet
Vertical Drop: 2,037 feet
Lifts: 1 Single Chair - America’s favorite chairlift. The Single is the last surviving diesel powered Single Chairlift in North America. 3 Double Chairs
Trails: 45 marked trails plus 800 acres of boundary to boundary off-piste access; 30% Novice, 30% Intermediate, 40% Expert
Average Season Length: 111 Days (typically mid-December through early April) Average Annual Snowfall: 250 inches per year
Lift Ticket Rates: $39 (midweek), $62/66 (weekend/holiday)
Check the Mad River Glen website for numerous special deals and other information: www.madriverglen.com
About the Author
- Husband, father and civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim’s ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism’s Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article. To read other articles by Jim, click here.