Mad River: Boarders Need Not Apply
December 5, 2020
When I first met Jimmy, we discovered we both love to ski. So of course we immediately started talking about where and when. He said he’s a hard-core Mad River Glen skier. To which I replied that I could only get there on weekends, so I sometimes avoided the place because of the long lift lines.
“There’s an easy solution,” he smiled. “Ski there during the week.” I told him I worked full-time and couldn’t do that. But soon I had the good sense to start taking some afternoons off, in part so I could join Jimmy and friends at Mad River. The group varies from four to as many as a dozen on any particular run. These folks have been skiing the place for literally decades, since they were students at UVM. Most of them belong to the Mad River co-op, a shareholder setup that makes MRG one of the only skier-owned areas in America. Shareholders spend extra money each year to support the mountain beyond the price of a season pass.
I soon realized there is a ritual to my friends’ afternoon experience. It begins with a ride up the big double chairlift. From there it’s a quick trip to a secret little spot where some natural, mostly-legal-in-Vermont substances are occasionally inhaled. I learned the hard way that I am at most a one-hit skier.
The real fun at Mad River is in the woods. If you look hard enough and don’t mind ducking the occasional tree branch, you can usually find good natural snow. Virtually every trail on the mountain has at least one or two shots – and often an entire run – off to the side somewhere. And no, I’m not going to tell you all the secret woods runs. Part of the fun is figuring it out for yourself. But I will tell you a bit about the marked trails.
First, however, a word about the snow at Mad River. The mountain’s “vaunted snowmaking system” consists of something like two guns to pad the base area. Otherwise it’s all up to Mother Nature. Meaning that on OK-to-good days, Eastern skiers get a full smorgasbord of how much fun it can be to ski on natural snow. And because Mad River proudly bans snowboarders, the snow doesn’t get pushed off as easily either. But this is Eastern skiing in the time of climate change. So except on powder days, there’s often a bit of ice to negotiate. You can end up smearing your turns a little on the steeps. After all, the Mad River slogan is “Ski It If You Can.”
The big double features a good pitch of over a thousand vertical feet before things mellow out. In particular look for Panther over to Slalom Hill. From the double you can also access most of Glade – steep, openly wooded and often holding good snow – and Canyon. Usually Canyon is a bump skier’s dream. On the rare days when it has been groomed, it transforms into an intermediate’s paradise.
The star of the show at Mad River is the single chair, a 12-minute ride to 2,000 vertical feet of challenging terrain. (The single wasn’t designed for the COVID-19 era, but I suppose it may offer one kind of solution for social distancing.) Long lift lines pile up at the bottom of the single most weekends. But the benefit is that the slopes themselves are uncrowded – which is both safer and a good thing when you have virtually no snowmaking.
From the top of Stark Mountain, the Antelope trail is the only easy way down. It offers an echo of New England’s past as a winding, narrow trail running top to bottom. Your other trail choices from the top of the single are the open bowl of Catamount, Chute directly under the single chair, plus Fall Line and Paradise. The latter two are often combined into “FallDise.”
Purists will argue that FallDise represents the essence of Mad River trail skiing. But I’ll put in a vote here for Chute, which descends straight down in a cascade of bumps and at least one honest-to-goodness waterfall. It’s a gritty, exhilarating challenge, made keener by the fact that everyone riding up the single is watching. Bring your A-Game.
Mad River days have traditionally begun and ended in the Basebox. Until this year the place had hardly changed since I was a kid. But this past offseason the Basebox underwent a major renovation project. (Sadly, that spelled the demise of the sign above the long urinal trough in the old men’s room, which read something like “No Diving! Severe head or neck injury may result!”)
The timing of the Basebox renovation is somewhat ironic because, given COVID restrictions, the lodge will see limited usage this season. Ski pass options are also restricted as of this writing to keep skier traffic under control and provide social distancing, so check the website or call MRG before you go.
Once COVID comes under control – presumably in time for the 2021-22 season — the Basebox will once again provide vintage après space. It’s usually packed with tired happy skiers scarfing down fried green beans and tall Vermont craft beers in General Stark’s Pub.
Once those happy days return, look for Jimmy and me by the fireplace.