| November 14, 2011, 6:08 pm
It can feel as though you’ve somehow gone back in time when you’re driving up the looping curves of Route 17 in northern Vermont and take one last turn, toward the spine of the Green Mountains, to suddenly find what appears to be the movie set of a small 1960s ski resort brought painstakingly to life. There is a cluster of quaint yellow and blue rustic clapboard buildings. A rutted dirt parking lot. A single-chair lift rising into the clouds over narrow trails that seem to pitch and hurtle down the mountain.
Here at Mad River Glen, you won’t find high-powered quad chairlifts or gondolas. You’ll find hardly any snow making or grooming. And you won’t find snowboards at all — they aren’t allowed. What you will find is a cult of simplicity and rugged outdoorsmanship, and a form-follows-function aesthetic in which some of the best skiers in the country are often kitted out in a kind of duct-tape-and-deerskin-gloves reverse chic. They pray at the altar of natural snow and are impatient with the kind of spoon-feeding that many ski resorts serve up these days, in which the bumps are literally smoothed out for their customers. “The skiing is so different from the places where everything is just like a big superhighway because it’s been plowed or groomed,” says Elliot Wiener, an attorney from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., who’s been coming here for years. “You get to Mad River Glen and it’s like driving the back roads. What would you rather do — drive the interstate or drive the back roads?”
It’s the kind of place that could only be in New England. Mad River Glen was founded on a particular sort of flinty East Coast old-money bedrock that is still apparent to the eye if you know how to read the code. Just look around the lodge, called the Basebox, at lunchtime and count the L. L. Bean Norwegian sweaters and the characters who look like they could have stepped out of the pages of “The Official Preppy Handbook” (which calls that sweater “the nearest thing to a Prep membership card,” and which also name-checks Mad River Glen). In fact, the place owes its current existence to an actual marriage of society and sport. Because as it happened, it was a dance card that was signed at an exclusive Montclair Ski Club party in 1954 that would determine the eventual fate, and the legacy, of the mountain.
It all started in the 1930s with Roland Palmedo, a New York investment banker and a dedicated skier. He was one of the original investors at Stowe, helped start the National Ski Patrol and was the founder of the Amateur Ski Club of New York, which held parties at J. P. Morgan’s house on Long Island. Palmedo and some fellow enthusiasts began scouting terrain for a new Vermont ski area that they imagined would be a mecca for the sport itself and not its trappings, where they would hand-cut trails that followed the natural contours of the mountain, always seeking the fastest, most direct way downhill — the “fall line” — and where the point would be to commune with the mountain itself. They homed in on General Stark Mountain, and Mad River Glen opened in 1948. Palmedo’s finance friends began to meet on Manhattan corners with their wooden skis on Fridays for the drive up. One of them was Truxton Pratt, a banker who joined the volunteer ski patrol.
In the winter of 1953, a Vassar College graduate named Betsy Stratton from Greenwich, Conn., was invited up to Mad River Glen, where she met Pratt. “I had this blind date at Christmas,” she remembers. “We walked to a party, and halfway there I decided I had to marry him. He was the best skier on the hill by far. It took me till April. He was in Montclair Ski Club — he’d been president of that club — and they had a dance. He signed my dance card and danced with me, and we were engaged a week later.” Truxton Pratt and a group of friends bought Mad River Glen in 1972, and when he died three years later, Betsy Pratt, who was raising their children in Greenwich, bought a controlling interest in Mad River Glen, determined to run it the way their friend Roland Palmedo had envisioned.
That meant decisions that could seem ornery — against most snow making and grooming, against snowboards and, really, against almost anything new at all — but had everything to do with preserving the look and feel and spirit of Mad River Glen. And, in a funny way, the same things have played out at the ramshackle Inn at Mad River Barn just down Route 17 from the mountain, which Pratt runs and where, at a peppery and eccentric 83, she still holds court in a cashmere sweater and mended khakis.
The Barn was another Roland Palmedo idea. He convinced friends to buy property that bordered the mountain’s private land and held two farmhouses that could sleep 50 people in bunks. They put in a pub room with a huge stone fireplace and stuffed caribou, moose and bear heads on the wall, and called it the 19th Hole. A ski run, also called the 19th Hole and not appearing on the trail map, led directly from the mountain to the Barn for the après-ski scene. Pratt bought it decades ago. “I’ve changed nothing anywhere,” she says. “When somebody’s done something really well, you don’t have to change it.”
This testament to New England thrift, and to Pratt’s own personal philosophy, is also at the core of what Mad River Glen is today. In 1995 Pratt sold it “to the skiers,” as she puts it, a co-op of some 2,000 loyalists committed to protecting everything that makes the mountain so unusual — a very Vermont arrangement and one of the few of its kind in the nation. “This is a way of life,” says Walt Haviland, a longtime Mad River Glen skier who moved from Westchester, N.Y., to the valley 19 years ago with his wife, Ave, a shareholder. “I have skied in Europe, Switzerland, France, most of the ski areas out west, just about all of the ones in New England,” says the grandfather of three who still skis moguls, “and there is no place that equals the pleasure of skiing down closed trails. In other words, you can’t just wander anywhere you want to go; the trails decide where you have to go. And black-diamond trails at Mad River are equal to double-black-diamond trails out west, easily.”
The steep, wild terrain — served by four lifts — can indeed be so challenging that Mad River Glen’s iconic red-and-white bumper sticker, SKI IT IF YOU CAN, is often read as a dare. The truth, says Pratt, is that it’s really more of an exhortation. “If there’s snow, go!” she says. “It has nothing to do with your ability.” But the conditions mean that skiers have to work harder at control and technique — I can confirm that those who are intermediate skiers certainly do — and kids who grow up skiing there are said to be able to ski anywhere and on anything. My daughter, who started at Mad River’s small, excellent ski school at 5 years old, proudly announced, “I can ski on snow, rocks, grass and ice!”
“When you’re out west,” says Rick Causey, who works at the mountain’s ski shop and at the Barn, “you can spot a skier from back east. And sometimes you say, ‘They have to be from Mad River, the way they’re making turns!’ ” Rick, the long-haired cook, and his brother, Matt, the genial bartender in the pub room, are known as the “Barn boys.” (Rick plans to use the name for his custom-ski business.) With their ski-bum dude drawls and Rick’s menu of cheeseburger pizza and Brobdingnagian cookies, they probably give the place a bit more of a Matt and Rick’s Excellent Adventure vibe than it had in the past. But hardly anything else has changed, and the Barn, like the mountain, feels like something of a secret.
“How did you find this place?” Elliot Wiener asked across the breakfast table on my family’s first morning a few years ago. He and his friend Bennett Fradkin have been coming up from Hastings-on-Hudson with their families for years. “I can be really very fussy about staying in places,” says Fradkin, an architect. “If it weren’t for the people and the history and the experience. . . . I mean, I’ve asked for a new mattress a couple of times, the bed was missing a leg, it was held up on a book. But it couldn’t have been more fun and enriching to have spent all this time there.” Somehow, as with the mountain, the very things that could be drawbacks or deprivations are instead celebrated by the regulars and turned into lore.
“It’s pure ‘Fawlty Towers,’” says George Michelsen Foy, a writer from New York. “And it’s pure New England. My kids love the Barn as much as the mountain.” Foy has skied around the world but has found himself enthralled by Mad River Glen, even using it as a setting in a novel a few years ago. “I’m half French,” he says, “and it reminds me of the places that I grew up skiing in the Austrian Alps. It’s just beautiful. Even Aspen or Taos, they’re nice, but they don’t have that kind of miniaturized, jewel-like quality, the mix of trees, the configuration of the valley.” He smiles. “I also like that it’s hard.”
Even though there are only 45 trails on the map, there are many more runs through enchanted forests and over frozen waterfalls (some named, some not) that aren’t shown, and it’s a point of pride to be able to say you skied Ice Palace or Octopus’s Garden. “You can be skiing there for all these years,” says David Zaus, a season-pass holder from TriBeCa, “and in the woods, there are still a dozen places you’ve never been in before.” Zaus and his wife, Donna Downes, often ski here with their 14-year-old daredevil daughter. “But the family part of it goes beyond your own family,” Downes says. Zaus adds, “We’re sailors, and we have had people approach us on our sailboat and recognize us — ‘You guys are skiers at Mad River, aren’t you?’ — when we were a thousand miles from home.” They are seasoned travelers, but this, Downes says, “is our favorite place in the universe.”
As with all favorite places, no one ever wants this living museum to change. They want to tell stories about the first time they went down Paradise, the legendarily hair-raising run with the six-foot drop. They want to see Betsy Pratt out there skiing her favorite run, Porcupine, and talking at breakfast about selling the Barn and her 800 acres, but never doing it. They want to tromp into the Basebox lodge and eat lunch under the old trail signs and wooden skis decorating the beams overhead. “It’s used and scruffy,” says Marisa Bowe, an editor from New York who found herself so charmed by Mad River Glen that she goes up to work in the Basebox kitchen during the winter season. “They’re not trying to preserve it to be a ‘perfect’ thing, they’re just trying to preserve it as it is. What’s that Japanese word? Wabi-sabi. They’re not trying to be wabi-sabi, they just are.”
And if you want to find the spirit of the place — a kind of tao of gnarliness — and why it summons this devotion that can verge on the mystical, you’ll take your place on the single-chair lift line and wait your turn to swing up into the air. It’s impossible not to feel it, as you start to rise through the scene of snow-laden woods straight out of Narnia and fall into a kind of pensive hibernation and meditation on the mile-long ride. “It’s so quiet,” George Michelsen Foy says. “And when it gets really frosted, when the trees up there are sheathed in ice, it’s just otherworldly.”