The 20/20 Challenge: Mad River Glen (Week #15)
One Snowboarder's Quest to Hit 20 Vermont Resorts in 20 Weeks
Since we’re all friends now, I can be honest with you — I’ve been nervous about skiing at Mad River Glen since I began this project, and for good reason. The legendary ski area’s slogan is nothing short of a dare from a playground bully: “Ski It If You Can.” I hear the word “wimp” at the end of that sentence, but that’s just me.
Mad River is not exactly a place for people like me who hung up their skis in the ’90s and haven’t gone back. Nor is it a place for folks who learned to ski on a hillock of ice in Western Pennsylvania. Mad River is serious terrain, with jagged rocks and frozen waterfalls waiting to cause catastrophic injury. Or at least that’s how I see it. This isn’t a place for casual skiers looking to amble down lazy cruisers.
Not only is Mad River’s terrain somewhat panic inducing for nervous skiers, but it’s off limits to snowboarders. Year after year, the members (Mad River is run cooperatively) vote to keep snowboards off Stark Mountain. Alta and Deer Valley in Utah are the only other holdouts in the war against the upstart sport.
But, despite this moratorium, Mad River welcomes newcomers, assuming they leave their snowboards in the car. Because its member-owners don’t monkey in the condo trade, Mad River has the feel of a ski area of yore — it’s all about the skiing.
While I found no shortage of fanatical Mad Riverites to show me around the mountain, Tom Theohary stood out for his devotion to skiing. The 43-year-old happily admits he is a ski bum of the first order. He moved here from Massachusetts to ski, works seasonally as a software consultant, plays in a punk band called One Inch Punch, and refers to his girlfriend as his “sugar momma.” His ski-bum cred seems pretty solid.
Theohary didn’t hold it against me that I’m a snowboarder. Nor did he judge me for not being able to carve turns like Lindsey Vonn. Though I did get points for looking just as glamorous.
Before we headed up the lift, Theohary, whose face was concealed by dark goggles and a thick red beard, asked me what I wanted to ski. I told him I had no real agenda, but I’d like to stay off the moguls since I’d only skied three times in the past five years. Theohary agreed to do his best, though avoiding moguls is a near impossibility at Mad River, where bumps the size of Sherman tanks cover much of the mountain.
We began the day on the famous single chairlift, one of only two left in the country. The other serves tiny Mount Eyak Ski Area in Cordova, Alaska.
There was something thrilling about riding the single chair to the summit. It allowed a few minutes of quiet reflection and a chance to admire Mad River’s rugged terrain. The landscape has a wildness to it, setting it apart from its heavily manicured contemporaries.
At the 3637-foot summit, we skied past the entrance to Catamount Bowl, billed as “everyone’s favorite warm-up run.” To me, it looked like a death trap. Every trail at Mad River is harder than its color-coded signage would suggest. A green run is the equivalent of another resort’s challenging blue trail.
We headed down Upper Antelope, a windy cruiser — if such a thing exists at Mad River — and ended up on the cross-mountain Broadway. From there, we dropped down onto Porcupine, a peppy straight shot, before arriving at the base area. After a few more runs down benignly named “intermediate” trails like Bunny, Snail and Chipmunk, my legs were completely pumped out.
But we still hadn’t done a woods run — and, my guide told me, you can’t ski Mad River and not make a woods run. I could barely untangle my skis long enough to make it down a trail named for a furry animal, and now he wanted me to try hop turns in the glades. Awesome.
Thankfully, Theohary suggested a 30-foot shortcut between the twisty Catamount and Antelope trails. I still managed to bungle it, but now I have the bragging rights — I skied the woods at Mad River Glen. Fifteen down, five to go.