I absolutely love ski films. If I can’t be skiing, give me that vicarious thrill. Not just the Technicolor works of art by Greg Stump, Warren Miller and Teton Gravity Research, which come complete with thumping musical scores, but also the fabulous, black-and-white movies of yesteryear, by film pioneers like Winston Pote, John “Jack” McCrillis and even the great Bradford Washburn.
A true gem of the genre is “Legends of American Skiing” by Vermont’s own Rick Moulton. It’s in these grainy images of skiing’s early days that you’re bound to come across footage of the famed Thunderbolt Ski Run, a daredevil route that stands alone in New England ski lore.
In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, ski enthusiasts set their sights on 3,491-foot Mount Greylock in northwestern Massachusetts, the tallest peak in the Berkshire Mountains. At the time, nordic skiing and ski jumping were the favorite pastimes of the winter outdoor set. The Thunderbolt Trail would play a key role in changing those perceptions.
“The Thunderbolt is like going back in time,” said Blair Mahar of Savoy, Mass. “I think that is what makes it special to everybody who seeks it out.”
First came the Mount Greylock Ski Club. Led by Charlie Parker and Arthur Larkin, the club hosted Mount Greylock’s first downhill race on the narrow, winding Cheshire Harbor Trail on March 4, 1934. That sparked interest in a bolder, more daring championship ski run, carved into the sheer eastern flank of Mount Greylock. The members of the 107th Company of the Civilian Conservation Corps quickly volunteered to do the work, which began in earnest in the summer of 1934.
Soon after it was cleared, the Thunderbolt — named after an old rollercoaster in Revere Beach, Mass. — captured the imagination of adventure enthusiasts, and well-heeled city dwellers from the South and the East began to flock by train and cars to the weary mill town of Adams, providing alpine skiing the jump-start the sport needed to become established in New England. Races soon followed, with the first — the inaugural Massachusetts Downhill Championship –— held in February 1935 (won by Hall of Famer Dick Durrance, then a Dartmouth freshman).
The Thunderbolt, Mahar said, was one of four original Class A CCC trails built in the 1930s in New England, and it’s the only one that remains just about as nearly as it did back in the day.
“The other three CCC trails are now found on lift-served ski areas,” he said. “On the ’Bolt, there is no snowmaking. No lights. No grooming. No B netting. No ski patrol. Just a historic ski trail — one of the first built in the country — on the highest mountain in Massachusetts.”
The 52-year-old Mahar, a high school biology teacher, amateur filmmaker and history buff, knows what he’s talking about. In 2008, he was one of four founders of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners (no doubt a nod to the Ski Runners of Adams from the 1930s), and is now the curator of the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in Adams. His documentary — “Purple Mountain Majesty; A History of the Thunderbolt Ski Run” — is the definitive work on the trail, celebrating the exploits of local icons like Rudolph “Rudy” Konieczny, “Greeny” Guertin, Bill Linscott, and dozens of others. Mahar’s film can be found on YouTube.
“The Thunderbolt is like a living museum,” he said. “Besides the history, the Thunderbolt offers some beautiful backcountry skiing in southern New England. With over 2,000 feet of vertical drop, expert trail conditions, and the ability to ski from the tower on the summit to your tailgate, it’s no wonder that people are increasingly attracted to the Thunderbolt.”
Mahar served as race director for the 75th anniversary of the fabled Thunderbolt race, held in 2010, and for three of the eight downhill races that the Thunderbolt Ski Runners organized after that.
“To ski the Thunderbolt today is to ski with those skiers who cut their teeth skiing it in the ’30s,” said Mahar. “Some were local farm boys, some were college blue-blood skiers, and some were Olympic skiers. Their legend lives on up there.
“When you ski the Bolt you ski it just like they did in the ’30s and ’40s. You skin up and you ski down, hitting all the famous twists and turns and pitches known by name — the Big Bend, the Steps, the Needle’s Eye, the Big Schuss and the Bumps. And you are on your own. It’s just you and the mountain.”
Looking for some company? Then plan on visiting Mount Greylock on Feb. 26, for the Thunderbolt backcountry race, part of the New England Rando Race Series. The series, which began in 2008, is a collection of Olympic-format “skimo” (an abbreviation of “ski mountaineering”) or randonee races in the Northeast, featuring nine different venues, including Middlebury and Bromley in Vermont, Dartmouth Skiway in New Hampshire, and Black Mountain of Maine.
None of those, however, match the mystique of Thunderbolt, said NE Rando organizer Jonathan Shefftz of Amherst, Mass.
“The mere existence of towering Mount Greylock in the commonwealth is enough of a wonder as is, and a ski trail on its flanks is even more astounding,” Shefftz said. “Skiing such terrain over so much vertical relief — more than all but a handful of lift-served ski resorts in all of eastern North America – is a thrill in and of itself. But thinking about how we are following in the footsteps — or rather ski tracks — of racers from the 1930s is inspiring.”
That combination of nostalgia and competition has proven to be an undeniable draw, just as it was almost 90 years ago.
“We’ve shattered prior attendance records at all our venues, with racers traveling from 13 different states and provinces, from as far away as Virginia and Illinois,” said Shefftz, noting that one competitor was actually from Hawaii “but his U.S. Navy submarine was docked in Connecticut at the time.”
Few of the series’ races can compare to the Thunderbolt in terms of sheer size. The Thunderbolt plunges 2,275 feet in a little under two twisting miles of undulating terrain. But that’s only part of the draw. It was described in awestruck terms in a 1939 guidebook to Eastern skiing as “one of the steepest and most difficult expert trails in the East.”
“This venue has it all — huge vertical relief per lap, skinning along varied trails in the woods, a steep hiking segment, and 100 percent ungroomed backcountry ski conditions,” Shefftz said. “We also have the essential support.”
The race support includes the Thunderbolt Ski Patrol (which receives the net proceeds from the entry fees) under the watchful eye of head patroller David Childs, and the trail work done in the fall by the Thunderbolt Ski Runners. The first revival of the historical “down mountain” format race was in 2010.
The Thunderbolt race format remains unchanged from its 2014 debut skimo race, though Shefftz acknowledges that the course layout gets tweaked from year to year. The race gets under way with a mass start at the gazebo in Greylock Glen. Competitors must skin toward the summit of Greylock, mainly via the Bellows South and Bellows Pipe trails, with a steep hiking segment along the way (“To mix things up,” Shefftz said). The spine-tingling descent follows the Thunderbolt Trail to the Dragon Trail and Thunderbolt Meadows. Then racers must repeat the loop two more times before finishing back at the gazebo, accumulating more than 6,000 feet in climbing and descending.
“You definitely have to be comfortable skiing beyond the resort groomers, but the pitch is not super steep, nothing like Tuckerman Ravine,” said Shefftz, who won the combined “King of the Mountain” award at Thunderbolt in 2011. “The race is also structured so that you can skip the hiking section or take fewer laps.
“Even though the podium is so competitive that a former race winner and season-long champion had to settle for sixth place at our most recent race, we still welcome all ability levels and also all types of skinning setups, including telemark and splitboard,” he said, adding that “over the years, we’ve had pretty much every possible type of snow conditions and weather conditions.”
That description pretty much translates to the quintessential New England ski race. Mahar said this rando event is a “totally different beast” compared to the Thunderbolt races that he organized from 2010 to 2013. “With the Thunderbolt Ski Runners downhill race, it was ascend the mountain, and then ski down on ungroomed backcountry conditions as fast as you can,” he said. “With the rando race, it’s three laps up and three laps down, with a mandatory boot-pack section and the transition zones.”
It is a huge effort, and not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. Participants are forewarned that while there are ski patrollers on duty, they can expect far longer response and extrication times than at a resort if things go awry. “This backcountry ski race is entirely self-supported,” and there are no aid stations, states the NE Rando website (nerandorace.blogspot.com).
In short, the race is worthy of Thunderbolt’s outsized history. According to an excellent article by Nathaniel Vinton in Ski Magazine, “Thunderbolt began hosting annual races in 1935, and it instantly became one of America’s first great ski trails.”
“Its sidehills and streambed traverses served as an essential test track for the country’s first generation of Olympic alpine ski racers — men like Dick Durrance and Bob Livermore,” wrote Vinton. “The Thunderbolt was only a few years younger than the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel, Austria, and four years younger than Wengen, Switzerland’s Lauberhorn.”
Sadly, the trail got left behind as the fledgling ski “industry” began to modernize, with better lifts and more and more amenities. As Mahar told Karen Given during a segment of NPR’s “Only A Game” in 2015, “You know, nobody wanted to walk up a mountain when you could ride up the mountain.” Thunderbolt maintained its legendary status, but the trail itself fell into disrepair.
“The Thunderbolt suffered from neglect,” Vinton wrote. “Bypassed by the chairlift boom, Greylock hosted its last FIS-sanctioned race in 1948. The one-and-a-half-mile track through the woods, accessible only by hiking, was in danger of being over-grown until the late 1990s, when a grassroots movement among backcountry skiers started its resurrection.”
That grassroots movement was led by a merry band of trail workers — the Thunderbolt Ski Runners — that included Mahar, and came nearly 60 years after the Thunderbolt last hosted a major championship race.
“By then, locals and backcountry enthusiasts were schussing down a trail overgrown by brambles and sticker bushes,” Given wrote. “The movie reminded the people of Adams of the town’s great skiing history. And it made them sad to see the course in such disrepair. As the 75th anniversary of the first championship race on the Thunderbolt approached, locals decided to do something about it.”
“The trail had grown in, wasn’t really anybody doing anything much,” Mahar told Given. “And then we began cutting it and kind of reclaiming it and, yeah, reclaiming that race.
“It’s nice to always remember where you came from as you’re trudging into the future,” he said.
By bringing back the race, Mahar and his crew made Thunderbolt, and Mount Greylock, whole again. Shefftz and the New England Rando crew, along with the Thunderbolt Ski Runners and the Thunderbolt Ski Patrol, intend to keep it that way.
But if you miss the New England Rando event, don’t fret. Weather permitting, the backcountry skiing on Thunderbolt is good through March and even early April.
“There is nothing quite like skiing the Thunderbolt in the spring,” Mahar said. “To skin up on a beautifully warm late March afternoon in a T-shirt and enjoy a snack on the summit in the sun with friends — if that’s all the Thunderbolt experience was, well, that would be good enough.
“But to then clip in and take a run down the ’Bolt on spring corn as the sun sets, it’s just absolutely magical, and an experience that’s hard to find anywhere else.”
An experience that goes well beyond any definition of a “vicarious thrill.”
The NE Rando Race is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 26, with the possibility of postponement to Sunday for weather conditions. Proof of vaccination (both COVID and flu) is required. For details, visit nerandorace.blogspot.com.
Mount Greylock State Reservation
30 Rockwell Road
Lanesborough, MA 01237