“In Search of Paradise”
Adventure Writing 2014
January 30, 2014
At the base of Mad River Glen, it is -15 degrees without wind-chill. In the warmth of the basebox lodge, patrollers insist “we’re lucky there’s no wind today.”
Good god it is cold. No wind today my ass.
I am suspended mid-air in a chair made for one, rocking back and forth as I slowly ascend to the summit, where fresh powder and rugged terrain awaits me with frosty, open arms. The GoPro awkwardly secured to my helmet catches the wind as it soaks in the breath-taking views that serve as compensation for the frigid conditions. Bursts of blinding sunlight behind snow-encrusted pines, white-topped ridgelines for miles in every direction, and deep powder stashes below combine to create the perfect winter wonderland vista. “My mom always told me the best things in life are worth waiting for.” Eric Friedman’s mother had it right; this is worth the wait. After weeks of freezing rains followed by warm, 40-degree January days, winter is finally here and the Single Chair lift at Mad River Glen is open at last.
Because it makes relatively little snow – on only about 15% of its trails – Mad River Glen has been suspending its midweek operations and only opening one trail on the weekends for the past two weeks. Despite neighboring resorts boasting nearly full mountain access and blasting their trails with manmade snow, Mad River Glen’s lodge remains full of laughter and any open trail is skied continuously throughout the day. Nestled in Fayston, Vermont, Mad River continues to thrive while maintaining its commitment to natural snow, a feat that would be impossible for any other mountain.
Mad River has been dependent on Mother Nature since its inception, and thus coping with temperamental winter months is ingrained in its very being. Construction on Stark Mountain, the future site of Mad River Glen, began in December 1946, with the intention of a grand opening the following November. However, snowfall into late spring and then an early winter the following November halted operations. The machinery necessary for lift construction remained buried under snow, delaying the opening until December 1948. Mad River has withstood its fair share of rough winters, beginning its career with three ski seasons coming and going without much snowfall. At a mountain so dependent on nature for snow, the survival of the mountain amidst the snowmaking machines of nearby resorts can be credited to the unique community of skiers who return year after year, overcome by a tremendous love of the “particular mountain” and the sport of skiing that it preserves.
The piercing blue eyes of Mary Kerr, author of the historical account of Mad River Glen, A Mountain Love Affair, demand honesty in my response to her question: “Well, what is adventure?” I pause.
Downhill skiing seems like a rather mundane adventure for a 20 year-old like myself, whose fate as a skier was decided before I could walk, when my dad took me speeding down mountains in a backpack, much to the distress of the other parents on the slopes. However, rumors of Mad River Glen, hidden in the peaks of the Green Mountains and home to legendary glades and unbelievable snow, have traveled with me throughout my skiing career. “We’ll take you there when you’re older. When you’re ready” was my father’s constant refrain. His depiction of the iconic single chair to the summit, so cold that they once provided wool blankets to keep skiers company, contributed to the enthralling shroud of mystery that surrounded Mad River in my youthful eyes. What’s more, at the top of this solitary journey, “Paradise” lies hidden. A trail deemed “an actual black diamond in the east” by experienced skiers, and highly acclaimed by my father. “Paradise” remained illusive to our father-daughter team in the winter of 2013. In the winter of 2014, following my newly discovered instinct to push my limits, I turn to face the mountain that has for so long loomed on my horizon.
Past the mid-station, the sunshine becomes a little more consistent, and like a morning glory, I instinctually turn my face to bask in the warm rays. Below me, “Chute” promises to be my first real test as I embark on my adventure. “Chute” was the first trail cut on Stark Mountain and facilitated the tramway that would bring material up to the summit. Mad River skiers have one man to thank in particular for their trails, General Manager Charlie Lord. Lord was by no means inexperienced in trail cutting, as he was responsible for engineering the two possible routes that I can take in my journeys between Middlebury and the Mad River Valley, Route 100 and the Appalachian Gap Road. Lord laid out the first five trails at Mad River Glen (Chute, Catamount, Fall-Line, Grand Canyon, and Porcupine), and masterminded the installation of the Single Chairlift, arguably the icon of classic New England skiing.
“The bottom line on this place is terrain. You take away the community, and all the other stuff that everybody talks about, and the lifts and whatever. It’s just a great hill. We have 2000 vertical feet with no run out, sustained pitch. You can scare the daylights out of yourself every step of the way if you want to, but you don’t have to. The way the trails meander around, it is really good skiing for pretty much anyone that appreciates the kind of skiing that we have.” Marketing Director Eric Friedman’s honesty somewhat de-romanticizes the idyllic community I had built in my mind while simultaneously increasing my excitement for the “narrow, twisty turny trails” awaiting me.
The trails at Mad River Glen were cut to follow the fall lines of the mountains, rather than to accommodate snowmaking machines or groomers. While most eastern ski mountains began with trails like those at Mad River Glen, grooming and straightening to create wide-cut “boulevards” have since eclipsed the practice.
The shared love and appreciation of the challenging terrain of Stark Mountain is the undercurrent to the Mad River community and draws skiers from all over the world. The initially controversial slogan “Mad River Glen: Ski It If You Can” was deemed “too intimidating” and yet has proven to be a brilliant branding strategy that has attracted intrepid skiers for years.
As a recently self-diagnosed “Adrenaline Junkie,” I have spent the past several months in pursuit of my next big thrill. I took up slalom waterskiing, reaching speeds of over 35 mph on glass-like water in the early summer mornings. I pushed and pushed, until a particularly bad wipeout left me with a broken ankle and a four-month recovery time. When I replay that fall, I can’t help but question why. Why did I push myself so hard when I used to be so content with mere mediocrity? When did flying to Mars and leaving my comfort zone back on Earth give me such a buzz? This summer, I expanded my comfort zone to 14,000 feet in the air when I jumped out of a plane. And now alpine skiing no longer gives me that gut-wrenching sensation of terror that is at once horrifying and exhilarating. Now that I arrive at the next chapter of my skiing career, I continue my search for stomach-dropping adventures. “Mad River: Ski It If You Can”…Challenge Accepted.
A logically crafted strategy for descent replaces what once would have been mind-numbing fear and confusion at the winding, rock-strewn, mogul-ridden trail through the trees. At one point not too long ago, I would have looked down at Chute from the lift and thought No way in hell. I am not jumping off that rock. It’s too patchy, too steep, and too public. Instead, I find myself picking out potential routes, thinking strategically and excitedly about my impending descent. Several minutes later, my plans become a reality as I plant and turn around moguls, rocks, towers, and ice. I reach a rock wall, only a two-foot drop, and finally my nerves start to kick in. Eyes scan the precipice, straining to find a point to launch. I breathe easy. Skier’s left, a layer of powder cushions both the rock face and the landing.
Bend knees. Deep breath. Go.
* * *
The trail transformations at most Ski Mountains is but one aspect of the increasing homogeneity of the ski industry. Loss of character is the price most ski resorts pay in order to stay afloat. Roland Palmedo noticed this trend in the 1940s, while he was leading the development of Stowe on Mt. Mansfield. He came to the mountains of Vermont in the 1930s, when he discovered the terrain and average snowfall of Mt. Mansfield and endeavored to develop it into the newest “skiing Mecca” of the east. However, petty squabbling between the Mt. Mansfield Lift Co. (Palmedo’s group), the Hotel Corporation, the Ski School owner, the lumbermen, and the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club left Palmedo dissatisfied. The increasing commercialization of Stowe was the final push that led Palmedo to walk away from Mt. Mansfield and towards the ski area of his dreams, one dedicated to the sport of skiing rather than profit.
In her lakeside home, gazing at the breathtaking view of the Adirondacks, Mary Kerr, who knew Palmedo personally, remembers that he “felt it was necessary to maintain the integrity of the mountain. What has happened in the industry is that the mountain is just there.” Where there is admiration in her gaze, there is sadness in her words. Outside the window, the drop dead gorgeous mountains of the Adirondacks are left in their natural state, rising majestically over Lake Champlain. They are not mutilated, and their topography remains unaltered, unlike the nearby peaks that have lost so much to the ski industry.
“Just imagine what [Roland] would say if he could see [the ski industry] today”, Eric Friedman shakes his head in reprimanding disappointment, as if my camera can respond with the voice of the multitude of ski resorts within Vermont that have become further commercialized than Palmedo could have ever dreamed.
After two years of research across the state of Vermont, Stark Mountain in Fayston was chosen to be the site of Palmedo’s new project. With the support of the brilliant engineer, Charlie Lord, and Vice President of the Mt. Mansfield Lift Company, J. Negley Cooke, Palmedo agreed to the purchase and the official break with the Stowe project. Thus, in 1946, a deal was struck and Mad River Glen was born.
Today, Mad River Glen stands alone as the only skier-owned mountain in the United States. When it was time for her to step down in 1988, former President Betsy Pratt decided that the only leadership that could preserve Palmedo’s vision was the skiers themselves, and she declared that she would rather shut down the mountain than see anyone else hold control over it. 1995 marked the transition year to cooperative ownership, during which Pratt worked with a group of Mad River enthusiasts to develop guidelines for the new leadership that would ensure the continuation of Palmedo’s values. Certain rules, such as a maximum number of shares (4) owned by an individual, were put in place to avoid any one person gaining too much control. As of today, over 2,200 shares have been sold, and shareholders represent citizens of over thirty states and several different countries. All of these individuals remain committed to the Cooperative’s mission statement “to preserve and protect the forest and mountain ecosystem of Stark Mountain in order to provide skiing and other recreational access and to maintain the unique character of the area for present and future generations” (Kerr 155).
* * *
The dedication to the beauty in strapping two boards to your feet and plunging down into fresh, natural powder between tall evergreens is the atmosphere in which my father learned to ski. He chose to teach my younger brother and me at mid-sized New England mountains, creating an appreciation for fun terrain and good skiing, rather than flashy lodges and luxurious accommodations. Therefore, when I first came to Mad River one year ago, despite iffy conditions, I became enthralled by its quirky charm and atmosphere that reminded me of all the small communities at the ski areas of my past. Last time, I had come to fulfill the challenge posed to me by that taunting slogan, but upon my return this winter, I find that my priorities have shifted. Challenging my body and mind to master skiing on foreign terrain remains my goal, and yet I cannot help but be fascinated by the very essence of Mad River. The people who choose to stop at the base of the Appalachian Gap Road, rather than continue down to German Flats, hang a right and hit up Sugarbush, hold something special and intangible in common.
Blood pumping a little faster now, the lift ride is not nearly as frigid as before. Channeling my inner owl, I twist my neck to take in the snowcapped mountains and valleys and lose my breath again. It’s not like the view is new, I’ve been living here for over a year, and yet I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the three mountain ranges that surround my home in Vermont. In the middle of the Green mountains, I look west to the Adirondacks of New York and East to the Whites of New Hampshire, and marvel at my luck once again.
Ski tips up. Poles in right hand. Go.
Disembarking from the single chair, I immediately look up to the right, where I know the trailhead to Paradise lies hidden. A wooden sign reads “Paradise Closed Today.” The temptation to ignore this warning and embark on my adventure is overwhelming.
“Paradise” is a supposed rite of passage for Mad River skiers. It was originally declared too dangerous to be an official trail, but thrill-seekers and daredevils continued to trek through the woods to leap over the waterfall and down its steep turns. Thus, in 1984, Manager Bob Cooke decided to put “Paradise” back on the map, making it the steepest official trail in New England. Such a reputation is daunting, and dissuades me from my original plan of disregarding the sign and venturing out to “Paradise” today.
Next time. Next time. I want a thrill, I want to have fun, but I don’t want to be stupid. Don’t be an idiot, Fernald. You don’t want to lose the rest of your season. You will get to “Paradise.”
I head to “Fall Line”, “Paradise’s” steep companion, instead. Cutting under the lift, I shoot across “Chute” and into a small path through the white evergreens and deep powder-stashes and emerge on “Fall Line.” Narrow, winding, steep and mogully, my knees, quads, and ankles are pushed past their breaking points, and yet I speed downward.
I pause at the crest of a hill, turn to my friend Parker and finally voice what I’ve been thinking for the past few minutes. “Holy SHIT this is so gorgeous…literally where the hell are we right now? This is unreal. This snow! Where did it COME from?” Only slightly amused, Parker chuckles, nods in agreement, and we’re off.
Sweating, exhausted, I ride the fall line all the way to the base. Now is when I realize that on this sunny, -15 degree Thursday, the mountain is occupied by myself, Parker, and the volunteer members of the Mad River Glen ski patrol.
No wait time; once I’m back in line, I’m suddenly alone again. Somehow, every time I ride up, I get less cold. I’m only lonely when the wind picks up. I wonder how much good those wool blankets used to do?
Mad River boasts the only remaining single chairlift in the continental United States, yet there was a time when the single chairlift could have been fully extinguished from Mad River skiing. In 2007, the maintenance of the lift was put to a vote by the shareholders. The choice was between the reconstruction of the single chairlift, which would be a highly expensive, time-consuming endeavor; or the replacement of the icon with a new double, an efficient and relatively cheaper operation. In an overwhelming majority, the members of the Mad Rive Glen cooperative decided to preserve the history and character of the mountain, and opted for a historical reconstruction of the lift. President and General Manager Jamey Wimble led the charge, making the project “his baby” and assembling a team of engineers and construction specialists that he knew from his extensive experience working at ski areas. His choices were “the only people [he] would trust with such a task.” The chairs that skiers ride up today are perfect replicas of the originals, the support towers were trucked to Maine, reinforced, and then reinstalled, and the building at the bottom remains the same. This project was projected to cost 1.8 million dollars, so Wimble began to fundraise. Appealing to the wide support base that forms the Mad River Glen community, he and his team were able to raise enough funds to cover the entire project, making it essentially free for the mountain. Thus, the image of the single chair swaying in the wind and transporting eager skiers to the top of Stark Mountain remains a testament to the old days of skiing, but also as a reminder that those days are not over, and the Mad River community still values founder Palmedo’s vision of a place where the integrity of man and mountain can coexist.
* * *
Earlier in January, Mad River Glen seems dead in the blistering cold that pierces through my layers and whips my bare hands unrelentingly. A deserted ski mountain in the midst of a snowstorm is an eerily disconcerting place. The blanket of white hugging the ground implies that hoards of anxious skiers should be thronging about the lift lines and encasing their feet in the uncomfortable boots that enable them to speed down trails without fear of broken ankles. Instead, the wind searches seemingly in vain for objects and bodies to whip with its cold tendrils thick with snow. Its hunt ends with the tall flagpole in the middle of the empty ski racks…and myself. Fingers raw, I finish my last shot and drag my toes forward over the snow-covered, icy earth, careful not to lose my balance and my camera in one fell swoop. I’d been riding an adrenaline high all morning, having narrowly escaped plunging to an icy death on the drive up the Appalachian Gap, the steep and winding mountain pass to Mad River Glen. Just now my heart rate is returning to normal. Upstairs in the building to my left, several hardworking individuals are catching up on paperwork and, as the message board so eloquently states, “Praying for Snow.”
* * *
As Jamey clarifies for me during our meeting, and Eric emphatically reinforces later in an interview, “we are not a resort, we are a ski area!” slamming his fist on the table. “When people ask ‘what’s the difference?’ for me, a ski area sells lift tickets and passes. Yeah we sell French fries. Yeah, we sell beer and that kind of stuff. But the bottom line, the lion’s share of our revenue comes from tickets and passes. Resorts sell other stuff and that’s the difference. And it’s really hard for a ski area to make it.”
Eric’s tone shifts, his eyes gaze off in the distance. He has been marketing director for 18 years, since the founding of the co-op. According to everyone else in the Mad River community, he “lives and breathes Mad River.” His voice almost catches, and the light-hearted jokester of two minutes ago is replaced by a sentimental man whose dedication to his community is palpable. He goes on to elaborate on the importance of the people who work to keep Mad River running. Employees who return every year, knowing full well that their employment is very much dependent on the snow, do so because of their love for the mountain and all that it represents. Employees such as Chris Mayone, who spent ten years trying to join he staff at Mad River Glen. Initially attracted by the challenging skiing, “the people were the rope that held [me] here.” Chris literally knows everyone in the basebox as we stroll from General Stark’s pub to the opposite end of the cafeteria. Over twenty years as the manager of the pub means “you’ve got to know everybody’s name, and their drink of choice. People here expect to be treated like family…no, like a friend, because sometimes you treat your friends better than your family.” Not only are the customers and shareholders treated like close friends, but those men and women who work hard behind the scenes to make Mad River happen are given such treatment as well. Walter Carpenter has only been working at Mad River for three years. This is the fifth ski mountain he has worked at, something that Jamey Wimble teases him about. With so much varied experience, Walter maintains that there is something special about “the Mad.” “It’s like the Haight-Ashbury of Ski Mountains…minus the drugs.” Fighting an uphill battle for his life against illness and a broken healthcare system, Walter found solace and employment in the Mad River Glen community.
* * *
This is it. This is your deadline. Today is the day you ski “Paradise.”
Only one problem: I’m alone. And “Paradise” is closed. Nearly every other trail on the mountain is readily accessible, and yet the one trail I need, I can’t get to.
Just hike up, ignore the sign and ski it. You can do that. You have to do that.
I approach ski patrol officer after ski patrol officer, casually bringing up “Paradise” and the conditions of the day. “Paradise is one of those trails you want good conditions on. If it’s not open, it’s for a reason” seems to be the only response I’m going to get. The line for the single chair is shortening, and as I obey the red “WAIT” sign covered in a light dusting of snow, I remain conflicted. Neck strained to see the incoming chair, I release my knees and enjoy the steady ride to the summit. The consistent snowfall, a blessing on the trails but a curse on the lift, finds its way into my goggles, through my face-mask and freezes the back of my neck. Shoulders hunched, eyes down, I think.
My original debate: Adventure. Or safety. Adventure? Or safety?
However, with the elevation gain, comes a gain of insight. Idiotic thrill seeking. Or intelligent admittance of defeat. Idiotic thrill seeking? Or intelligent admittance of defeat?
If I fall and hurt myself and I’m alone…and the trail is closed…ski patrol won’t happen upon me and neither will any other skiers.
Now not only am I by myself on the lift, but also on this adventure. I experience solitude unlike any other.
I am a strong and independent individual. Get over this, Fernald.
At the top, I look to my right at that fateful sign “Paradise Closed Today,” my stomach drops and I turn my back. Angry and ashamed at myself, I take “Fall Line” to the basebox and head in for lunch. Later that evening, driving home through a terrifying blizzard, the loneliness overwhelms me.
Why didn’t I do it? Do I need someone else to make me feel safe? What is wrong with me?
Can’t I do it all on my own?
The answer of course, is no. There is a difference between thrill seeking and senselessness. I may not have conquered “Paradise” yet, but I will return soon. Its gates have been opened and I have an adventure to finish. Next time I come with back up, because “Paradise” alone is no paradise at all.
Kerr, Mary K. A Mountain Love Affair: The Story of Mad River Glen. Waitsfield, VT: Mad River Glen, 2008. Print.