Mad River Cult

Betsy's Mountain

That evening, I ate dinner at the Barn with Betsy Pratt. She is one of the most stubborn, most opinionated, most exasperating, most in-love-with-the-mountains people I have ever met. How many other ski-area owners actually encourage their skiers to get off marked runs and play in the woods? In one breath she'll quote Chief Seattle on environmentalism; in another she'll bad-mouth Vermont's governor, Howard Dean. Between, she puffs on her pipe. A concise description of her came from one long-time local:"She's tweaked." She has worn the same navy-blue parka since time immemorial and can be seen on the slopes nearly every day. Pratt skis her area smooth and slow and in sync with everything around her, like the frontman in a blues ensemble. She is 66 years old and has lorded over the mountain since her husband, Trux, died in 1975. And make no mistake: Mad River is Betsy's mountain, through and through. What she says goes, and Pratt has never been one to bite her tongue.

On snowboarding:"Snowboarding on a ski mountain is like playing croquet on the 18th green—you can do it, but I don't think it's appropriate." (Snowboarding is forbidden at Mad River, and Pratt loves to tell about the time she sent away Governor Dean when he showed up at her area with a board.)

On snowmaking: "I hate man-made snow. If you want snowmaking, go ski somewhere else."

On ski-industry profiteering: "It doesn't make sense. You don't ask your rivers and lakes to make money; why ask your mountains?"

On why she's no longer a member of the Vermont Ski Areas Association: "They lie too much."

On Mad River's out-of-date facilities: "They're not that old. The Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1880 and people still use that."

On mainstream resorts: "Boring."

The tragic thing is that Betsy is thinking about retiring. Though she's been threatening this for the past decade, there are signs she's now serious. After 45 years of incorrigible unhipness, Mad River may soon be forced to acknowledge modern realities.

I figured I should take advantage of Pratt's permissiveness while I still could. So the next morning I got on line for the single in order to ski Paradise, Mad River's most infamous run. Even referring to Paradise as a ski run seems deficient; it's too steeped in Mad River lore to be anything as humdrum as a ski run. Paradise is more a concept—an entire hillside of wooded backcountry with myriad skiing options. It was cut decades ago, not by the owners of Mad River, but by the skiers, and Paradise still does not appear on the trail map. It has, however, finally earned a mention in Mad River's brochure, along with this warning: "Until you become familiar with the area, you must ski with someone who understands Paradise and how to survive it." It says it right in the brochure: Paradise must be understood.

I had first heard of Paradise when I was very young. It was mentioned by other skiers with reverence—a run on Paradise is a visit to skiing's Oval Office, etc., etc.—yet spoken about only infrequently, preserving its cultish mystique. People referred to the run's waterfall jump as if it were a beast from Greek mythology. It'll kill you. Fall and you die. You can't even look at it. Paradise is the type of run more people talk about than actually attempt. Of course, I was itching to ski it. So I persuaded Eric the Deadhead, Kyle the Stockbroker, and Chick the Tree God to take me.

We gathered on the deck of the summit's decrepit warming hut, a prime spot for viewing the Green Mountains. The mountains are mogul-shaped and evergreen-blanketed—less severe and more serene than West Coast peaks—with a distinct rime line snaking its way across. We herringboned up a short hill and onto a path that led to Fall Line. A quick patch of easy bumps and we swung left, through an unmarked but well-tracked opening in the woods, and poled through trees so tightly packed only tiny beads of light made it to the snowy floor. I removed my sunglasses. And then, nailed to a birch in a small clearing, we saw a hand-painted wooden sign:


We looked down a trail about the width of a catwalk. Eric, Kyle, and Chick leapt in. They banged knowingly through a collection of moguls, many with a rock surprise on the downhill face, then stopped and waited for me to catch up. It was time to jump the waterfall. The thing is indeed mean-looking: a jagged agglomeration of rock one story high, encased in a foot-thick layer of jaundiced ice. It stretches the entire way across Paradise—a natural tollbooth of sorts. The landing zone is populated with white birches and choppy bumps, and is about as steep as anything you can descend without using a rope. This is not a place you want to fall.

My partners, obvious Paradise veterans, made the jump look simple. I'm a solid skier but no air maestro, so I eased over to a corner of the fall, a spot that looked the least dangerous to jump. After a minute of failed visualization, I decided to simply go for it. The snow was tracked but still soft, so a slight mishap wouldn't necessarily spell disaster. I pushed off, and felt that panicked tightening of all my muscles from throat to stomach as it dawned on me: I'm flying. I banked my skis to set up for a clean landing—one that wasn't going to send me into the trees—and thudded to earth. Beautiful, no, but at least upright. I was in.

My giddiness at successfully pulling off the jump emboldened me. I threw myself into the steep bumps at full speed, caution to the wind, the way Paradise should be skied—a whirling jig through bull-size moguls, over rock outcroppings and tree stumps and even a bale of hay. The powder between the bumps created geysers of spraying snow. I made a good 50 turns, all short, clipped half-moons, before flopping into a snowbank, legs burning.

The best was still to come. We ventured deep into the forest on a mission for untracked lines—Paradise has a thousand different options. On Paradise, however, you don't really ski trees; you ski woods. We each found an uncut swath, and silently went through the pre-tree-skiing ritual. Pole straps off. Goggles on. Mind ready to absorb the flood of a billion bits of bark-covered data all flying in your face at once.

I plunged in, hands in front of me like a ski racer, swatting low-lying brush out of the way. I bobbed and weaved, ski tips inches from tree trunks, shoulders skimming against bark. Branches cracked like bull whips, smacking goggles, tinging pole shafts, clawing pants. Ski tails connecting with wood produced jarring bass-drum thwonks. Snow tumbled from treetops. I picked up speed, with no place wide enough to check it; faster, faster, dizzy from the kaleidoscope of shadow and light, faster, bloody-lipped from branch burn, faster, a gruesome crash moments away, seconds, milliseconds, faster, then out of nowhere, an opening—stop!

We skied four pitches like this, through all of lower Paradise. And then, literally inches from liberation, I crashed. On the final pitch, I could see the light of the catwalk marking Paradise's end, and decided to straight-run the last section. It didn't work. I finished the run with a pair of shredded ski pants and a good round of ribbing from my group.

After skiing that day I drove into Waitsfield seeking Marsha Nicholson, proprietor of The Village Seamstress. Marsha looked at my ski pants, then asked if I was newly arrived in the area.

I said I was.

She asked if I had been tree skiing when I ripped my pants.

I admitted I had.

"Welcome to Mad River," she said, and began sewing.

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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