Mad River Cult

Bumps Aren't Smoothed

It was just before dawn and no longer snowing when I drove into Mad River's parking area, which is actually a crook in a hairpin turn on Route 17. Across the road, past a small cluster of base buildings, Mad River erupts. There is really no other way to describe it. From the valley floor to the rounded, 3,600-foot summit, General Stark Mountain does not pause to take a breath. There's no such thing as a flat spot at Mad River. Terrain served by the single chair, which chugs straight up the fall line, may very well have the longest continuous stretch of steepness anywhere in the United States, East Coast or West.

I crossed the street and saw that the chair was about to start up. Milk Run is a 40-year-old Mad River tradition: The first 25 people who show up when the ski patrol performs its early-morning mountain inspection are allowed to ride the single. The only stipulation is that if even one chair is skipped, Milk Run is over and the dillydallier and everyone behind him or her are not allowed on. The day I was there, only nine other skiers and one dog, a mutt named Cleo, arrived in time to board the chair.

As I passed over the first few lift towers—scaffolding-like structures that look like miniature Eiffel Towers—the earliest rays of morning washed over the mountain, illuminating the tips of snow-heavy firs. The chairlift is slow and arthritic, emitting an anemic pop each time a chair winds its way around the ancient bullwheel. At maximum capacity the lift hauls 400 people per hour. I had plenty of time to study the mountain on the 20-minute ride to the top.

Mad River is divided into two sections: the single-chair runs and the double-chair runs. Trails off the single have calmly utilitarian names like Chute, Lift Line, Fall Line, and Glades. At Mad River, there's no need to make skiers feel undeservedly proud merely because they made it down a run with a grisly name. The single-chair runs, which twist down the mountain with drunken abandon, are the hardest slopes at Mad River. They are the hardest slopes in the East—Stowe's front four included. Hell, they are some of the toughest slopes in America. Not only are they steep, they are entirely unmaintained. Obstacles aren't marked; ice isn't covered; bumps aren't smoothed. This is fine when the snow is soft and forgiving, as it was when I was there, but horrid during drought seasons. Snowmaking covers but eight acres of Mad River's 800-acre playground; groomers don't cover much more.

The Sunnyside double, rising at a 45-degree angle to the single (to the right if you're facing the mountain), services slightly easier runs. But only slightly; mostly they're just shorter. Basically, Mad River is for expert skiers. Nearly half of the 32 slopes acknowledged on the trail map are given a diamond; the dozens of off-the-map glades and rock jumps and narrow tree shots are all strictly in the double-diamond realm. Even intermediate trails at Mad River would easily earn expert status at most other Eastern areas—if they were open at all. Beginners and lower intermediates would be far happier at Mascara Mountain.

At a quarter to seven in the morning, of course, Mascara isn't open. A tradition like Milk Run—a veritable petri dish for lawsuits—could only take place at an area like Mad River. Once you've boarded the chair, Milk Run doesn't have any rules. You can ski any run you want, even one that'll be closed during regular hours. I hooked up with two locals I'd met at the Barn and we headed down Antelope, one of Mad River's expert-even-though-it's-marked-intermediate slopes. Basically, Antelope is endless bumps. But because nearly everyone who skis Mad River is an absurdly smooth skier, the bumps were cursive and fluid, conducive to a steady rhythm and easy to absorb. And the three inches of new snow lent our skis a sweet buoyancy.

Three quarters of the way down we veered right, off the trail and through a thin opening in the woods. This, I was informed, is a run called 19th Hole. Like several well-known Mad River slopes, it's not on the trail map; everyone who needs to know where it is already knows, and everyone who doesn't know shouldn't know. We flew down it at top speed—19th is an abandoned logging road—and were spit out, conveniently, at the back door of the Mad River Barn, more than a mile from the base of the single chair. Breakfast was a tall stack of blueberry pancakes.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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