Mad Riven Glen shareholder Josh Tower voiced concern during the co-op’s annual meeting in April, on the eve of MRG’s 70th anniversary season.
He noted that the ski area’s newest trail map shows 52 trails, an increase from prior years that also includes the labeling of “new” glades … like in a public way so that anyone with a trail map can now find what used to be semi-secret stashes enjoyed mostly by locals in the know.
The new trail names help clarify mountain navigation and define difficulty levels for skiers who aren’t as familiar with the area, explained MRG general manager Matt Lillard, a Cornell graduate who was hired in 2017 after serving five years as GM at Eaglecrest in Juneau, Alaska, as well as holding previous GM and marketing positions in Vermont at Okemo and Magic.
As for the glades in question — “Merten” — they were named so people could avoid being diverted or lost on Lower Antelope, Lillard said, assuring Tower that not all of MRG’s iconic glades would be appearing on the map.
Ski patroller Wendy Harman offered her take, saying better trail names are helpful for patrol in finding injured skiers.
This is just a glimpse of how business is conducted at the only skier-owned mountain in the United States. It’s one of many, many features that make historic Mad River Glen unique in the industry. Longtime marketing director Eric Friedman encourages anyone to attend a co-op meeting to see exactly how things get done here.
“Trust me, it ain’t like Vail,” Friedman says.
MRG’s 70-year tradition
When the Single Chair opened for the first time at MRG on Dec. 11, 1948, it was the longest, fastest lift in the world. A mile in length, the chair was built by American Steel and Wire Co. It has been running ever since and was given a $1.8 million historic restoration in 2007. It is the fastest fixed-grip chairlift in North America.
The heartbeat of the ski area, the Single Chair encapsulates the mission of the MRG Cooperative, which was established in 1995 at the end of the Pratt ownership era, to maintain and preserve the skiing experience rather than overhaul or upgrade it. The co-op held true to its ideals in a time when ski resorts were undergoing massive transformation and commercialization.
Today, Mad River Glen is the only ski area in the nation to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has more than 1,800 individual skierowners who have purchased more than 2,200 shares. This isn’t to say that the ski area is a dinosaur. Far from it. In the last 20-plus years of co-op ownership, MRG has invested more than $5 million in capital improvements, consistently reinvesting in the mountain’s infrastructure. And the skiing remains timeless.
The co-op, in partnership with the Stark Mountain Foundation, also is in the midst of a $6.5 million “Preserve Our Paradise” campaign that will fund four essential initiatives: mountain preservation, skier safety and service, youth and family development, and community preservation. The effort has raised $4.3 million to date and some of those maintenance projects will include renovations to rundown buildings, addressing space concerns for kids’ programs, necessary lift maintenance, and snowmaking systems maintenance and upgrades. The campaign strives to continue to raise funds for an endowment, working toward securing Mad River’s future in perpetuity.
Savor the experience
The Single Chair and three double chairs control uphill capacity in such a way that doesn’t dump scores of people onto the trails at once, ensuring your adventure down isn’t cluttered. MRG remains one of only three areas in North America that prohibit snowboarding. “Combined, these qualities create a ski experience that stands in stark contrast to the mainstream world of skiing,” the area’s revamped website proclaims. “Both the skier-owners and the management team understand that skiers come to Mad River for the unique combination of legendary terrain, sense of community, low skier density and intimate atmosphere.”
The MRG trail system follows the contours of General Stark Mountain, and all trails lead to a single base area, making it fun and safe for families and friends to ski together. It also offers the most challenging and diverse ski terrain in New England, with more than 2,000 feet of vertical on expert terrain with no run-outs. There are plenty of blues and greens to satisfy every level of skier, too, but the glades and deeper off-piste skiing at MRG is legendary.
Ski it if you can
Walk into General Stark’s Pub in the Basebox Lodge and “The Wall of Fame” tells it all; perhaps tells a little more than you want to know. Enshrined here is a collection of snapshots of the famous red-and-white bumper sticker — Mad River Glen: Ski It If You Can — proudly displayed in locations all over the world and in many different languages. They all say basically the same thing, that the connection between MRG and those who ski it is like none other.
The story of the sticker is an interesting one. New York marketing executive Gerry Muro was riding the double chair in 1983 and struck up a conversation with the woman seated next to him, who asked him how he would describe the skiing at MRG. Hard wasn’t the right word, Muro told her. Challenging was closer. They talked more.
The woman finally introduced herself as the owner, Betsy Pratt, who went on to visit Muro in his New York offices to talk more about launching a promotion that would appeal to better skiers and to those who aspired to be better skiers. The price was right for the bumper sticker campaign, and the rest is history. Pratt sold the area to a group of skiers in 1995, and the sticker continues on, stronger than ever.
“Ski It If You Can” won a National Ski Areas Association Marketing Award as one of most recognizable brands in the industry. It has been studied and compared alongside the most successful multi-million dollar marketing campaigns in the ski industry, begging the oft-asked question from experts in the field: How much do you pay to run this campaign?
“About 700 bucks,” says Friedman. “We actually make money on them because we sell them in the store.”
So order your craft beer first, then peruse the Wall of Fame collection at General Stark’s. You’ll see three naked men holding the bumper sticker on a Romanian beach. You’ll see the sticker on the canopy of a U.S. Air Force F-16, on the tram at Jackson Hole, at the World Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal, the Great Wall of China, the DMZ in Korea, the Galapagos Islands, the gates of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, the Tower of London, various South Pacific and Caribbean islands, bars in Vietnam and Kosovo, the summits of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount McKinley, and at dozens of ski areas from New Zealand to New Jersey.
MRG shareholder and astronaut Cady Coleman took it to a whole new level, holding the sticker in the Space Shuttle en route to the International Space Station. It was one of her two permitted “personal items” and signified everything the sticker, the mountain, meant to her. “As a young girl, she skied Paradise,” Friedman recounts her story, “and she said if I can ski Paradise as a kid, I can do anything.”
Yes, you can
Don’t get hung up on the most frequent interpretation of the “Ski It If You Can” moniker by believing that Mad River is a mountain only for experts, only for the aggressive, only for those skilled enough to not be chewed up and spat out. The logo also beckons those to please come and try if you have the chance, because if you do not, you will be missing out on a skiing experience in its purest form, a treasured throwback that is quite honestly unavailable at any other resort.
Yes, there’s snowmaking at MRG. Yes, there’s grooming. Yes, it’s a mountain for any and all families. There’s a race program. It is home to the most prolific telemark skiing community in all New England. The renowned ski school and its “I Can” model caters to first-timers, to kids and adults, to telemarkers, to those wanting to improve in the bumps, to groups and privates. There are womenonly clinics, Freeheel Fridays and more junior programs than can be listed, both daily and seasonal and ranging from new skiers to gates racers to freeskiing competition tracks.
Mad River is the home mountain for the Harwood Union High School alpine race team, 2017 boys state champions. It is also the home mountain of widely read and respected meteorologist Josh Fox, whose Single Chair Weather Blog spots weather patterns weeks and months away, for better and worse. He will not sugarcoat it, which is also emblematic of the Mad River skier.
“You never know what you’re going to get on the mountain,” Friedman says. “But if you can ski it here, you can ski anywhere.
“It’s so great to see all the families out there … they don’t care what the conditions are like,” Friedman says in a recent episode of “Mad River Glen Today,” a bi-weekly TV show he hosts that blends — often awkwardly — ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ with ‘David Letterman’ with ‘Wayne’s World.’ “All the families being here is the epitome of Mad River Glen’s ethos and our culture.”
The show is filmed in General Stark’s Tavern and airs this season on MRV-TV. It is must-see TV for MRG fans. That is, if it hasn’t been canceled yet. In each episode the motley crew manages to perch itself precariously on a cliff (as MRG skiers tend to do) of potential community partnership and FCC disaster, but they somehow have managed thus far to remain on the air.
“Shocking,” chimes in General Stark’s bartender Doug Barnes, a show sidekick.
A family connection
Tom Mehuron is the third generation of his family to operate Mehuron’s market in Waitsfield, which was founded in 1941. Here is his MRG tale:
“My introduction to Mad River Glen as a kid growing up in the Mad River Valley was through my family’s business, Mehuron’s Supermarket. The head of cafeteria at MRG, Tex Thompson, would arrive at our back door before our store opened and he would begin to assemble the items he needed that day for the food operation there. All of this was recorded on hand-written charge slips and we would bill the ski area once a month. Later, as I worked as a meat cutter in that store, one of my jobs was to grind the fresh hamburger they would need for the weekend, 150 to 200 pounds at a time. They still get our burger. No frozen patties at MRG!
“I only did a bit of skiing at MRG as a child. My grandfather was an investor in Walt Elliot’s new Glen Ellen ski area That investment came with a free season’s pass, and since no one else in my family skied, I got the pass, so most of my skiing until I was an adult was there.
“When I got out of college, I went to work at the family market. We were still helping Tex get his food orders ready and he convinced then owner Betsy Pratt to give me a season’s pass for helping him and the Basebox food service. I skied quite a bit there over the years, developing some great friendships and ski buddies. You pretty much only ski alone at MRG if you really want to. Everybody is friendly and eager to share experiences and time together. When (Betsy) sold to the co-op, I bought two shares to both support the effort and continue the friendships I had developed.
“The loyalty to MRG that shareholders show to the ski area, they also show to local businesses. As over the years I have come to own the supermarket, I see so many shareholders as customers that even as my skiing days have diminished over the years, I consider being a shareholder as a great investment in our community and future. Mad River Glen skiing is real. It is original. It is family and it is fun. It is like no other in this day and age that I know of.”