Mad River Cult

Skiing Vermont's obstinately down-home resort

I ripped my ski pants wide open—ripped 'em from one knee right up the inseam and straight down to the other knee. I had been slaloming through a tight stand of trees at Mad River Glen, Vermont, when abruptly, my line ended. Swiftly approaching a full-grown pine and a human-size birch sapling, with no room between them, I chose the sapling and cruised into it at high speed. I flipped forward, clutching the trunk, then somersaulted off like a pole-vaulter, to the accompaniment of a prolonged rip, and divoted the snow with my forehead. Things like that can happen at Mad River.

My three partners — Mad River tree ninjas all — had seen me crash. Fingers were pointed at my legs; there was much sniggering. I looked down. Strips of nylon dangled from my pants like Tibetan prayer flags.

The pants were too tattered for slopeside duct-taping, but given the snow conditions — a rare mother lode of deep, talcy East Coast powder—stopping for the day was out of the question. Stopping for five minutes was out of the question. So I skied all afternoon in a pair of pants my mother would call a shmatte, which is Yiddish for, among other things, an article of clothing unfit for a scarecrow. Nobody at the ski area gave me so much as a second glance. At Mad River, people tear their pants open all the time.

It's possible you don't know anything about Mad River Glen. The place is small, after all, with only a 2,000-vertical-foot drop and just one lift to the summit. This lift is a single chair—as in one person at a time—and is powered by an engine that sounds like a sack of potatoes being run through a clothes dryer. Mad River's owner, Betsy Pratt, wouldn't dream of replacing it. She views grooming, snowmaking, trail-widening, or anything that even smacks of modernization as downright heretical. Something new at Mad River means it's been added since the invention of the plastic ski boot. And there isn't much new. The on-mountain communication system is via World War IIera field phones. The base-lodge cash register needs to be cranked to ring up a sale.

The locals' devotion to the area borders on the absurd. Mad River is one of the last bastions of truly challenging, play-it-as-nature-drops-it, lawsuits-be-damned skiing in North America. When there's ice at the area, which is often, the locals not only ski ice, they genuinely seem to enjoy skiing ice. When there are exposed rocks, which is always, they not only leave P-tex behind, they apparently like leaving P-tex behind. When the bumps are bulletproof, they ski bulletproof bumps. They ski Mad River when the base consists solely of a solid glaze. No complaints; no desire to ski anywhere else.

The funny thing is, they could easily ski anywhere else. For all its separatist leanings, Mad River, located in the Green Mountains of central Vermont, is surrounded by high-tech superpowers like Killington, Stowe, Okemo, and Sugarbush. Yet only Mad River, a fraction the size of its neighbors, with no resort facilities, has a cult following. That's because only Mad River has seen the intermediate-pandering, golf-course-adding, five-course-lunching, featureless-grooming ways of the modern ski industry and decided to flip it the bird.

To a small but passionate group of skiers, such bravado has inspired reverence. Mad River's red-and-white bumper stickers, free to all visitors, have become the pirate flags of the ski community. It's a worldwide phenomenon—I've seen them on cars in Jackson Hole, in a barroom in Montana, on a lift shack in North Dakota, on the side of a tram in Val d'Ishre. Their eight-word message, printed in simple block letters, is the hard-core skier's haiku: mad river glen—ski it if you can.

GORP Guest Mike Finkel
Mike Finkel, the author of this article, has skied Iran, ridden yakback, & rolled down a mountain inside a beachball. And now he wants to make ski-bums of us all. Mike was a guest on GORP's forum from November 29 to December 19, 1999.

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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