It’s a fact: any hill is a great place to be on a powder morning. If you’ve got a split snowboard, Randonée or Telemark gear and skins, you don’t even need lifts, just a slope. But if there’s light, fluffy snow in the forecast, and you are a skier (no snowboards allowed!),one of the truly legends in the northeast for enjoying the steep and deep is skiing Mad River Glen in Fayston, Vermont. You just have to hit it right.
It was raining hard as we turned off I-89 headed toward Route 100 and Waitsfield on Sunday, March 5. A huge, warm storm was dumping flooding rains across the northeast as far north as Mont Tremblant in Quebec. In central Vermont, the Mad River was showing us how it got its name; chunks of broken ice were churning and crashing together in the raging flow. While impressive, it didn’t seem to bode well for the skiing the next day.
Our one shred of hope was the weather forecast, which called for 6 to as much as 10-inches of fresh snow as the storm moved out to sea and dragged down some colder air. By the time we pulled into The Den for an early burger dinner we were seeing a little heavy, wet snow falling, just enough to make the roads greasy. By the time we tucked into our cozy room at The Millbrook Inn for the night, the snow was coming down a little faster, but it was still turning to slush the instant it hit.
The Millbrook Inn is a true Mad River classic, one of the original ski lodges which opened when Mad River Glen did in 1948. Not much has changed on the mountain since then. Though the Inn probably feels like it did in 1948, it does have modern plumbing and good wifi throughout. Joan Gorman, who has owned the Inn since 1979, is a true Mad River Glen fanatic and will become your friend in 10 seconds or less. Riley, the house dog, is a friendly presence who makes you feel at home, too. This is a perfect place to base if you are looking for skiing and lodging the way it used to be (some say the way it should be.) With advanced notice Joan will serve you dinner and everyone who stays gets a fabulous made-to-order full breakfast.
When we went to sleep that night, we could hear the wind beginning to moan about the eaves of the old house. In the morning, I woke up early to find my car buried under drifted snow. By the way, when I say “find my car,” I mean that literally . . .
Powder Heaven: Skiing Mad River Glen
I grabbed a shovel and cleared enough snow to eventually be able to pull the car into the one swipe plowed into the driveway. We were the first ones at breakfast (which starts at 7:30) and had our car cleaned off, packed and were on the road by 8:15. The lifts at Mad River turn at 9 on weekday mornings. It took almost 20 minutes to make the short drive to the mountain through near white-out conditions. There appeared to be close to 2 feet at the base, though with the shifting wind drifting the fluffy white stuff in every direction, accurate measurements were impossible.
The parking lot had maybe 20 cars when we arrived and the base lodge was almost empty. There are advantages to almost-impassable roads. Every pair of skis on the rack outside was at least 90 mm underfoot–my Phantom Crystal Ships (113 underfoot) for once weren’t the fattest skis in sight. I was suited and booted in time to make one of the early chairs on the double–the only lift running.
The wind that had been moaning in the valley was a howling monster as you rode up the mountain. The few folks ahead of me were already chopping up the steepest lines under the chair and in the woods nearby. Mad River Glen is home to many of the best tree skiers on the planet. I’m clearly not in the same league as these powder pros.
At the top, I decided to drop into untouched powder on the intermediate trail, Quacky. Intermediate at Mad River Glen means the bumps are only thigh high, but in waist-deep powder those bumps mostly disappeared. Every once in a while you’d hear your edge bite the raincrust beneath the powder, but not very often. It seems that the snow had fallen perfectly, starting a little sticky to adhere to the crust below, then getting progressively drier and lighter as the night went on. Epic conditions!
For the next couple of runs I cruised in and out of the trees at my own leisurely pace. I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone and occasionally rested by skiing the mere 8 inches of light, fluffy powder that had accumulated on the groomed trails after they’d groomed . . .
This seems as good a time as any to tell you that Mad River Glen is very different from any other large eastern ski area for three undeniable reasons:
First, they deliberately limit their lift capacity; the two main lifts are an older double which most other ski resorts would have long ago replaced, and the iconic single chair which they spent 1.7 million dollars to restore in 2007. This lack of uphill capacity sometimes (OK, always) means lift lines on the busiest days, but also always means less traffic on the slopes. The snow simply holds up better at Mad River than anywhere else. Even a couple of days after a big snowdump, you can still find stashes of untracked. That doesn’t happen at areas where detachable lifts dump thousands of skiers at the top of the hill.
The second difference at Mad River Glen is that they don’t make snow. Sure, it means they open later than many areas, and they don’t always have perfect conditions. But the feel of that natural snow under your skis is unmistakable. You rarely find the glacial substrata of blue ice—the stuff that appears in the afternoon of high-traffic days—that often hides beneath the flawless corduroy at other areas. Speaking of flawless corduroy, Mad River does groom their beginner slopes (some of the best anywhere, by the way) and some of their intermediate terrain. You don’t have to be a great skier to enjoy a great day at Mad River.
One other advantage of no snowmaking: no snowmaking pipes. On a powder day you can duck into and out of the woods wherever you want, no pipes lurking beneath the snow to bust your shins . . .
The third big difference at Mad River Glen is that this is a ski area–they don’t allow snowboards (they will, however, rent skis and boots for free to any snowboarder who shows up by mistake). Mad River is a cooperative, owned by shareholders who seem disinclined to allow snowboarders on their slopes, ever . . .
On this particular day, I don’t think the lack of snowboards on the slopes made any real difference. The snow was falling so fast and hard that tracks were filling in almost as soon as they were made. But in more normal conditions, you do notice the difference. The bumps at Mad River seem to be more “ski friendly,” in both shape and size. And you never see a novice snowboarder “willowleafing” down a steep trail on their heelside edge scraping off all the snow as efficiently as a bulldozer. (Come to think of it, you don’t see many novice skiers wedging down the steeps at Mad River, either . . .)
After a couple of absolutely phenomenal runs off the double, I hit the base and found that the single was open. Of course there was a liftline–almost a dozen people, but I toughed it out for the two minutes it took to get on the lift and rode to the top in solitary splendor. By now I had my powder legs under me and generally followed Upper Catamount, Lynx and Beaver, scooting into the woods wherever I saw an enticing opening, back out onto the trails when I felt like it. I never saw another soul until almost at the base–most of the “traffic” was obviously seeking out more challenge on Chute, Fall Line and Paradise and the woods between. I rarely crossed another track, never made a turn in anything but untracked powder. At one point I stopped and tried to lean on my poles to catch my breath only to have them plunge up to the handles before encountering anything solid. With narrower skis I’d have been getting face shots, but as it was I just floated on a sea of white, never sinking in more than knee deep.
By the time I finished my fourth (or was it fifth? sixth?) run, my toes, nose and fingertips were frozen. The snow was coming down harder than ever (they eventually measured from 26 to 36 inches of undrifted snow in various places on the mountain–so much for the “up to 10 inches in the forecast). The parking lot was full and the liftlines were beginning to lengthen and I was beginning to worry about the long drive home. But in just a couple of hours I’d had had the best day (so far) of a season that has produced an unbelievable number of powder days.
You know what they say about Mad River Glen: Ski It If You Can. Personally, I say, if there’s snow in the forecast, Ski It You Must.