Ski Industry News

Mad River Glen, VT–Where Skiing is a Sport Not an Industry

by Greg Colquitt | April 2, 2016

When El Niño dealt his cards this year, we knew the East was going to be less than thrilled.

The West got slammed, and the East saw enough snow to get a Floridian excited. Such a dismal winter was predicted, but I don’t think anyone knew it would be as bad as it turned out. Regardless of the weather, you can never take the spirit out of a community like Mad River Glen.

Well folks we have reached the proverbial end of the line for the 2016 ski season. We did all we could to extend things just as long as possible but alas we have flat out run out of snow.

~from Mad River Glen (Vermont) website

Staying true to certain parts of the skiing experience isn’t always easy.

As a kid, when your older, bigger, stronger, sexier, and beefier brother is doing something it generally

Fall snowmaking at Arapahoe Basin, CO

Fall snowmaking at Arapahoe Basin, CO

means, at least in your mind, you should too. Out West, they have million dollar snowmaking operations. In the East at a place like MRG (Mad River Glen) in Vermont, they rely solely on traditional snowmaking methods for their base depth and powder days–ya know, the kind of stuff that falls from the sky. This was the kind of year, though, that had Eastern skiers booking flights to Denver, Salt Lake, and Seattle wondering why God had no mercy.
The scene just last month at Mad River Glen

The scene just last month at Mad River Glen

After 44 days MRG closed up shop. Staying viable in a business that relies on fickle weather patterns becomes, well, tough business when the snow doesn’t show up. Eyes start darting to the West where snowmaking is ubiquitous and wondering if it can be implemented back East. In a lot of places, it has successfully created something out of nothing–quite literally in a place like Ober Gatlinburg in Tennessee,  which uses SnowMagic’s Infinite Crystals Snowmaking systems to make snow in temperatures up to 30 degrees above freezing. Let that sink in.
Even the local big boys of New England–Killington, Stowe, Okemo–are making snow. So not only is your burly brother churning out snow, but your neighbors are too. Keeping up with the Joneses?

In today’s environment, how does MRG stay true to what it was founded upon as “a place where skiing is a sport not an industry, working with nature not against it”?

Tradition – The Single Chair

It’s Tevye’s dream, this place. The iconic single chair lift (one of only two remaining lift operations of its kind in the country) takes skiers along a solo vision quest to the area’s highest point on top of Stark Mountain. The lift transports skiers, yes, but also serves as a working homage to the rich history of the mountain and MRG’s passion to maintain it.Single chair MRG In fact, when the original lift needed some serious repairs, the mountain was able to raise 1.7 million dollars to keep it going. A modern two person lift, by comparison, would have cost $300,000 less. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but if it’s broke, well, you better fix it. We’re glad they did.

Challenge – “Ski It If You Can”

This year we really couldn’t ski it, but that’s beside the point. The point is that you don’t get a slogan like that for being chump change. There’s a lot of reasons why this place is the real deal such as ice cliffs, steeps, tree skiing from the gods, and of course, natural snow. Mad River Glen is widely considered one of the most challenging mountains in the Northeast and though considered one of the smaller areas, it still has some 2,000+ vertical feet for you to drop.
Not that comfortable on your sticks yet? Don’t let all this information and that slogan scare you. There’s still a hefty amount of terrain suitable for all levels. This is the kind of place that you’d feel comfortable letting your kids run off and do their own thing, where getting your chops is encouraged, and skiing down its narrow trails winding through the trees is a near religious experience, not a competition.

Grassroots – The Nation’s Only Skier Supported Resort

When faced with the challenge of preserving its single chair lift, MRG turned to its owners–the skiers. in 1955, Mad River Glen’s skiers banded together to create the nation’s first skier cooperative in order to “ forever protect the classic Mad River Glen skiing experience by preserving low skier density,natural terrain and forests, varied trail character, and friendly community atmosphere for the benefit of shareholders, area personnel and patrons.”  Without the co-op, the spirit of MRG would struggle to stay viable in a skiing environment characterized by consolidation and gentrification. At most resorts, the skiers and boarders (no boarders at MRG!) are the backbone of revenue, but that backbone rarely gets a say in decisions made on their hill. By contrast, MRG asked its skiers by way of a vote whether or not it should keep the single chair. They responded…with over a million dollars.

The bottom line is this: don’t forget about the East.

While this years winter weather pattern produced dismal resorts, it is, after all, only weather and we know it’s bound to change. Next season, look East. In particular, head to the Mad River Glen valley in the heart of Vermont. “Ski it if you can” should be interpreted not just as a challenge to your legs and mind, but as an earnest request–if you have time and a set of skis, if you can, go ski it. Doing so is to be a part of one of the last remaining memorials to our nation’s history of skiing.

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