I never planned to give up downhill skiing, but between marrying a flatlander who had never skied himself, moving to Delaware, and having kids, somehow getting on skis just never made it to the top of the priority list until this winter. But when Matt and I finally decided that it was do or die, I knew our first experience as a family had to be at Mad River Glen.
I’ll confess that although I grew up skiing there, I was nervous about returning after a 16-year absence. (I learned to ski there when I was eleven and was a regular throughout high school and college until I moved away for graduate school.) Of course I wondered if I would still be able to get myself down the mountain in one piece. But I also was worried that perhaps Mad River might have changed in the intervening time. I had lots of cherished memories of tying a bandana around my neck and flying through groves of snow-covered pine trees down to the lodge that smelled pleasantly of sweat, must, and French fries.
I’m happy to say that although I won’t be competing in races anytime soon, I was able to get from top to bottom at a reasonable clip and without injury. More importantly, I was delighted to see that almost nothing about Mad River has changed in since I was last there. Significantly, the famous Single Chair is still in operation (although thanks to a complete refurbishment in 2007, it no longer breaks down periodically leaving one in solitude to contemplate the fierce moguls on the trail below it). Snowboards are not permitted, so everyone is still getting down the mountain on skis. The chili seems to be made with the same recipe. And of course the mountain, battered though it’s been by ice storms in the past decade, is still the same beautiful challenging place its always been with stunning views of the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks and plenty of chances to zip among the trees, their crystalline branches stretching skyward. It’s not a big place, but there are lots of steep trails, plenty of bumps, and a certain amount of bare patches and ice, all of which mean the same run can be an entirely different experience at 3 p.m. than it was first thing that morning. Even the prices seem to have budged very little – midweek everyone from age 6 to 70 can ski all day for $39 and kids five and under ski for free.
The things that are different are all definitely improvements. There is a rope tow for the children, so that they can practice as long as they need to at the bottom of the mountain before going up on the chairlift. The mountain owns more equipment and some of the easier trails are groomed a little more than they were in the past (although most of the trails are still to be found in their natural state – there is minimal snowmaking here). Locally-produced beer made with maple sap is now offered on tap in the General Stark’s Pub in the Base Box. There are now snowshoeing trails and a naturalist program as well as a brand new nature center with interactive exhibits. There are also noticeably more children skiing there, a result of the great rates and programs to say nothing of cooperative ownership. Mad River boasts lots of three- or four-generation families, many of whom are shareholders in the ski area with a vested interest in keeping it a great place for young and old alike.
There is a purity to the experience at Mad River, a flavor of what the sport was about in the early part of the twentieth century before the advent of spas, gourmet food and designer clothing. This isn’t a place to see or be seen. I’m pretty sure that some of the people I recognized – yes there were familiar faces, even for me – were wearing the same parkas and hats they had on in 1993, with perhaps some strategically placed duct tape to cover the ravages of time. Few people hang around at the lodge. In fact, just as I remembered from my childhood, it seems like everyone on the mountain descends on the cafeteria precisely at noon, eats for twenty minutes, uses the bathroom, and then is back up the mountain by 12:30 (this may seem like an obvious recommendation, but on a busy day it’s better to wait and have lunch at 12:35 if you can swing it).
And here’s the thing about Mad River skiers: many of them are among the best you’ll find anywhere in the country, if not the world. But they aren’t showy about it. The general sentiment is that skiing is fun, everyone should do it (no matter what the weather or the conditions), and that they are just happy to see you on the mountain, having a good time. Which means that you don’t feel intimidated even as you watch from the chairlift as people do amazing and graceful things on what look like impossibly narrow, steep, icy, and bumpy portions of trail. Because you know that at the bottom those same people will be happy to give you tips and to encourage you perhaps to give that intermediate trail you were eying on the last run a whirl. Packs of children ski even the most challenging trails, their enjoyment and physical accomplishment evident on their faces.
Tommy picked up on this spirit instantly, and when before he even had a chance to put on his rented skis wanted to know when he would get to ride the single chair to the top of the mountain. And after a day and a half of slogging up the rope tow and down the small hill at the bottom under the tutelage of the staff at the ski school, he was able to turn well enough through the gates that the teachers gave him the go-ahead if not to ride the single, at least to go up on the mountain.
Whereupon his grandmother, who has covered every inch of the mountain in her thirty years of skiing it, swooped in, took him up the Sunnyside Double Chair, and led him down to the bottom, just as she did with me when I was only a little older than he is. He never looked back to see if Matt and I were following. Later as we were riding up the chairlift, we saw the two of them, Tommy linking his turns, my stepmother urging him on, and the two of them cheering and hugging with the sheer pleasure of his success.
Mad River’s slogan is “Ski it if you can”, which makes for a bit of machismo, even on the part of the kids who are there (as evidenced by the proud display of bumper stickers on their helmets). But the fact of the matter is that anyone can ski Mad River – and if they do, they are sure to have a great time.
Mad River Glen is located on Route 17, in Waitsfield, Vermont, about an hour from the Burlington Airport. They offer onsite equipment rentals, a daycare, excellent skiing programs for kids, and clinics and lessons for adults as well.