At long last, Mad River Glen gets a new lease on lifts
There were murmurs of winter this year in the Green Mountains on the last morning of September. Traces of snow were visible on some of the highest peaks, already shorn of their red and orange coats. At Mad River Glen ski resort, a parade of forest-green chairs slowly glided up and down the mountain, occasionally collecting or dispensing a leaf-peeping passenger. In one sense, the familiar hum of the lift's drive train marked the first notes of a swan song.
After nearly 60 years of defining not just the ski area but the character of skiing in Vermont - perhaps the essence of skiing, period - the original Mad River Glen single chair is entering its last season of service. Climbing and falling 2037 vertical feet, "Old Faithful" has witnessed leather boots and long wooden skis navigating the steep, rocky terrain. The single chair has seen the hot-dogging days of the 1970s, the brief storm of snowboarders on the mountain and the new prowess of telemarkers gracefully bowing to the powder. Its lift operators, stationed at the bottom, mid-station and top, have recycled ZZ Top and Grateful Dead tunes thousands of times.
Under the single chair's watch, porcupines have fallen from the sky, babies have snuggled against their ski-mad parents' chests, and generations of show-offs have strewn their goggles, poles and Rossignols on the slopes. After this winter's snow is gone, in spring 2007, the lift will be dismantled, refurbished and replaced with new single chairs in a $1.54 million restoration project.
The old single chairs, meanwhile, are about to become the hottest commodities in Vermont, thanks to a unique fundraising effort by the only cooperatively owned ski area in the United States. Of the 158 old green thrones, 140 will be auctioned off through Mad River Glen's website. Ten will remain in the hands of the ski area; three will go to essay-contest winners. And this Saturday and Sunday, when Mad River Glen celebrates its Green and Gold Weekend, the raffle kicks off for five of the single chairs.
It's a fitting send-off for one of the most beloved icons in the ski industry. The single chair ranks alongside Mad River Glen's red-and-white "Ski It If You Can" bumper stickers, which have been photographed in Antarctica, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and on the Space Shuttle. "There's nothing else like the single chair," says photographer Brian Mohr, who spends about 100 days each winter at Mad River Glen. "It's such a magical place, and the chairlift has a lot to do with that magic. It has soaked up the energy of skiers having the time of their lives and emanates that energy that has been stored up over the years."
The Mad River Glen single chair had an inauspicious start. Snow fell too hard for it to open as planned in the winter of 1947- 48. So the grand opening for the lift, and the ski area, was postponed until December 12, 1948, when 600 skiers flocked to Fayston for a free ride up Stark Mountain and a schuss down its narrow, newly cut trails.
The first rider was Jean Peatman, that year's Miss Vermont. She was helped off the chair by Mad River Glen architect Sandy MacIlvaine, dressed as the Revolutionary war hero General Stark, and longtime lift operator George O'Neill. "It was quite a ceremony - a lot of hoopla," says Bill Heinzerling, a volunteer ski patrolman and unofficial historian for Mad River Glen.
Built by American Steel & Wire for about $150,000, Mad River Glen's was not the first single chair in the world - that honor belongs to one installed at Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1936. (The Sun Valley lift was later moved to Mount Eyak in Cordova, Alaska, and is today the only other operating single chair in North America.)
Single chairlifts were the fashion of the day. The first one in the East ran for a while, starting in 1937, at Belknap Recreation Area in Gilford, New Hampshire, where Gunstock Mountain now welcomes skiers and riders. Besides Mad River's single seat, Vermont also saw one at Stowe, where Fayston-based poet Ann Day remembers being given raccoon coats for the chilly ride to the summit of Mount Mansfield.
At Mad River Glen, skiers burrowed under woolen capes, then left them behind on the chairs to go back down to the base. "They were a nuisance, because they would blow off," says Heinzerling. "Ski patrol would have to do a blanket run, and you'd end up at the base with a bunch of capes over your head."
Though Mad River's single chair wasn't the first of its kind, it was the only one in the lower 48 states to outlast rampant ski-area development. That trend spurred owners to replace their doddering lifts with more efficient quads, six-packs and trams. Whisking as many skiers and riders as possible around a mountain in a day yields shorter lift lines for customers and heftier bottom lines for resorts. Out West, for example, Vail has a lift capacity of more than 53,000 customers per hour.
The managers of Mad River see things differently. "We're not a high-speed area - we never have been and we never will be," says Ken Irish, the current lift supervisor.
Since its debut, the Mad River chair has more than doubled its capacity, from 200 skiers per hour, on just 69 chairs strung 165 feet apart, to more than 450 per hour. It's still a minuscule figure by most standards. The result is that there may be a wait for the single, which is the only direct route to the top. A more welcome consequence is that there are fewer skiers chewing up the snow. "You might stand in line for 20 minutes," says Irish, "but once you get to the top, there's no one else on the trail - you're not afraid to run them over."
Irish says he's seen his fair share of buffoonery among Mad River greenhorns who fail to grasp the "single" part of the chair's name and slide onto the loading platform in twos and threes. When it dawns on them that they must ride alone, he says, some skiers are miffed about the loss of socializing time.
For Mad River veterans like Burlington's Rachael Miller, however, solitude is the best aspect of the single. "It's completely stress-free from figuring out who is going to ride with whom," she says. "Or having to talk to someone when you just want to be psyched for the next run."
For others, the 12-minute ride to the top is every bit as social as other lift experiences, since the chairs are close enough for skiers to conduct conversations with riders in front of and behind them. Then there's the trash talk that flies between riders on the lift and the skiers below, doing their best to strut their stuff on some of the mountain's most unforgiving terrain.
"It raises the nerve factor," says Dave Bouchard, a Mad River regular from Hinesburg who rides the single some 26 times in a day when he competes in the annual Vertical Challenge. "You might nail a particular section, or you might crash and burn, and people love that, too."
Skiers usually dust themselves off and keep going, Bouchard says. But, as the Mad River single entered the 21st century, the ski area's shareholders knew that the lift would not always weather its own troubles so gracefully.
For the first couple of decades, wear and tear on the single could be comical. Parts of the cable were gnawed by porcupines, one of which fell into the lap of an unsuspecting rider in the early 1960s. Burlington's Miller remembers a giant gob of grease landing on her brand-new Burton jacket a few years ago. Lifties at the bottom were ready with a can of instant grease cleaner. "Obviously that happened a lot," she says. "When the skiing is that good, how can you be mad?"
But with so many aging components, repairs to the lift were becoming expensive. By 2004, replacing the single with a new double chair was among the three options considered by Mad River President and General Manager Jamey Wimple.
That transition might have been just fine with some Vermont skiers. "It's a horrible waste of a day - standing in line, then riding up alone, moving so slow," writes one anonymous skier by email. "I hate it. Give me a high-speed quad any day. I want to ski, not waste my day trying to get to the top."
The majority of Mad River's 1700 shareholders, however, were determined to keep the single. In April 2005, 81 percent of them voted to restore the lift with brand-new components.
The project will be partially funded by the online auction of the chairs. The minimum bids are $1000, and bidding is initially open only to shareholders. (The organizers hope to use this carrot to attract more shareholders - shares go for $1750 apiece.) If any chairs remain after January 30, bidding will open to the public.
According to Mad River Glen Marketing Director Eric Friedman, the new single will look just like the original. It will still take 12 minutes to get to the top. The single will still perplex newcomers, infuriate type-A folks who don't want to wait in line, and delight powderhounds. Riders will still listen to the whoops of the occasional skiers below, or to the mid-station classic rock that interrupts the silence of the falling snow.
"The restoration is a wonderful thing," says Heinzerling. "The best thing that has happened to Mad River - other than its being founded."