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Firsthand Report: Mad River Glen - True Believers
By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist
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 this magnificent mountain.

Revisiting the various sections of the ski area with Eric, he led us to every loose clump of snow on the mountain 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 typography 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 his white rabbit hole. By the end of Paradise 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 Vince and I had time for just a few more runs before starting the 10 hour drive back to our home in Northern Virginia. Our last run was a full descent of Antelope trail. I felt like a 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 went on and on for MRG’s full 2000’ vertical. Great run, even greater ski area!

Mad River Glen 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

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Colleen
8 years ago
Your photos are amazing!
Connie Lawn
8 years ago
I also have great memories of days at Mad River. What will you do for an encore? Connie
JohnL
8 years ago
Welcome to the Cult!

What waterfall is Vince landing? The photo is from a tight angle.

The main waterfall at the top of Paradise is normally higher than 6 feet…
Denis
8 years ago
Great story and pics Jim. I’m so glad you got there. Denis
Denis
8 years ago
I have seen the Paradise waterfall disappear in big snow years. The last time this happened was in Feb/mar. 2001. In low snow conditions it can be as much as 12 ft. I’ve hiked to it in summer and it is downright scary with an overhanging dirt/turf “cornice” and easily a 15’ drop. I only recall one waterfall there but many many small rock ledges that get draped in blue ice with powder pockets in between. MRG regulars ignore that and just ski.
Bob
8 years ago
As a Mad River Glen skier for over 25 years, and a founding shareholder in our Co-op, I’ve read many news articles about our great ski area. Some have been embellished a bit, and some have been completely inaccurate. Your article, Jim, tells it exactly as it is. We the “regulars” always enjoy showing first time visitors around, as many people who open a trail map on the slopes have found out. Thanks, and spread the word.
Fishnski
8 years ago
That is probably my Fav Tr for Mad Glen & it is going to revive my NE trip list!… Thanks JimK…I’m hoping though that we can come to a happy compromise & get some high speed luxery & maybe a few more upgrades to the ski area before
I make the trip back north..sorry..I can get past “Quaint”..
Denis
8 years ago
Well, I’m a shareholder too, and one of the earliest ones. One of MRG’s secrets that makes it so good is that the single chair can only put about 400 skiers/hour on the top of Stark Mountain. Once there they can spread out over a mile or so of ridgeline. The snow does not get packed down into ice and the crowds are minimal. I have often skied Lower Antelope without seeing another skier. On weekends there is always a wait in the liftline but the slopes are always uncrowded. You can have high speed quads with crowds on the slopes or you can have crowds in the liftlines. Pick one.
Tom
8 years ago
Yo son,

Fix your link

“Check the Mad River Glen website for numerous special deals and other information: www.madriverglen.com”

That last part is a hyperlink that doesn’t work. It links to http://www.dcski.com/articles/www.madriverglen.com
Mike French
8 years ago
We were staying on the mountain and our first day was great, then came a day of unrelenting rain that resulted in the entire mountain closure- we thought we’d just pack it in and go back home to DelMarVa areas where we are from. I heard all skiing was closed from MRG to Jay in the north to Whiteface in NY.

Here’s Jay’s magic touch- we were the only place in the NE to get snow for the entire following 24 hours, and we had waste deep powder in the glades the next day. From the Beaver Pond Glade to Andre’s Paradice, it was… well- paradise.

I hope Mad River fared as well, but most of the NE was utterly destroyed in about 8 hours. Jay sprang back to life before we could hit the dusty trails the following day!

Mike
Sharpen your edges. And pencils.
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