I’ve just met my new favorite East Coast ski area–Mad River Glen, an iconoclastic ski
area in a whole variety of ways. It’s a ski cooperative–that is, it’s owned by the skiers, which makes it one of a kind in North America. It’s one of just three ski areas that don’t allow snowboarders in (the other two are Alta–another favorite ski area of mine–and Deer Valley, both outside Salt Lake). It does minimal groomingand that only on its intermediate and novice runs. Its expert terrain and the trees and secret glades for which it’s famed stay untouched.No high-speed quads here. Mad River Glen has the last operating single chair lift in the U.S. MRG, as it’s known, is not about volume, it’s about experience. It has limited uphill capacity to keep its runs uncrowded.
Its mantra: Mad River: Ski It If You Can, is a challenge. But it’s a bit misleading; the mountain’s trails loop and turn, meaning a novice can take one route, a more expert skier take another, and then meet at an intersection below. It also helps you get better–you can practice a bit on more challenging terrain and then shift to less challenging trail.
New York investment banker Roland Palmedo founded Mad River Glen in 1949. This ski pioneer was an avid sportsman–one visitor to his Park Avenue apartment had to step over the skeleton of a kayak–who built Stowe’s first chairlift. Early on, Palmedo (whose exploits also included flying in a World War I Navy air squadron protecting the English coast) saw the danger of over-development and in Mad River created a ski area focused on preservation. And Mad River remains true to Palmedo’s early vision. Its goal is to “forever protect the classic Mad River Glen skiing experience by preserving lo skier density, natural terrain and forests, varied trail character and friendly community atmosphere.”
It is friendly, unquestionably. Parents hauling skis, boots, poles, lunch bags and kids find strangers helping them with their loads. It’s the sort of thing that keeps skiers coming back, not just season after season but generation after generation. Ry Young, head coach of the Mad River Freeskiing Team, whose alumni just took first and third places at the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships–also known as the USX– at Crested Butte last weekend, is a third generation shareholder.
Why does Mad River Glen produce champion skiers?
“We have terrain here that nobody else can match,” Young says. “There’s steeps and trees up there that you that can’t find anywhere else and the technical skills that come out of that are transferred easily across the globe.”
One illustration of the Mad River Glen mindset is the community’s efforts to promote back country skiing in Afghanistan. It is trying to jumpstart eco tourism in Bamiyan, a mountainous region located in central Afghanistan (about 150 miles from Kabul) on the ancient Silk Road. It was also the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban. Led by a former Mad River Glen employee Jonathan Hoffman, whose nonprofit, Direct Aid International, has funded schools, a library and school supplies in Afghanistan, the Mad River Glen community is working to provide 25 sets of back country ski equipment to train local guides and rent to tourists. To help fund this effort, Mad River Glen has created foreign language versions of its “Ski It If You Can “ motto. The first are out now: Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian and Greek. In the works: Hebrew, Russian, Dari, Finnish, and Farsi.
This community spirit is what makes Mad River Glen so special, says Brent Harrewyn, a professional photographer who also coaches the MRG freeskiing team and shoots stunning video of MRG skiers. “This place teaches us that we are lifelong students of skiing,” he says. “Here, skiing is much more than a healthy activity and sport–it’s a lifestyle where community is the center of it, not flashy competitiveness.