Rededication to tradition

Singular sensation still uplifting spirits at Mad River Glen

Email|Print| Text size + By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2007

In the snow sports industry, progress doesn't just trump aesthetics. It usually obliterates everything in its path.

But while many resorts are focused on installing the latest high-tech equipment to zip customers up the slopes as fast as possible, one ski area in northern Vermont is taking a different approach: The cooperative that runs Mad River Glen in Fayston just spent eight months and $1.54 million rehabbing its six-decade-old Chair No. 1, a mechanical relic billed as North America's longest and oldest single-chair ski lift still operating in its original location.

The price tag for restoring this cherished contraption is nearly four times what it cost to develop the entire resort when it first fired up its signature one-seater 59 years ago this week. But the expense is not what's startling. The fact that all the money is being raised by volunteers committed to a mind-set of slower-paced skiing is what makes this preservation project so admirable.

"If I didn't know this place, it would blow my mind," said Eric Friedman, 43, an original shareholder in the co-op ownership and the resort's marketing director for 12 years. "This Single Chair had become the icon of the ski area. The Mad River Glen community rallied around this project so much, it's unbelievable."

Mad River Glen takes pride in its reputation as a no-frills mountain that defies convention. Its longtime slogan - "Ski it if you can" - comes off as more of a dare than a catchy tagline, but Mount Stark's serpentine, ungroomed trails laced with ice and obstacles are worth the warning. Liberal out-of-bounds rules enhance Mad River Glen's status as a mecca for backwoods skiers, but its more infamous policy is the one that prohibits snowboarding. As the only New England mountain (and one of only four in North America) to ban boards, such staunch refusal to accede to changing times makes the 3,637-foot ski hill seem a bit standoffish. Yet the locals don't care what outsiders think, and the co-op is cordial enough to offer free loaner skis to any boarder who shows up unaware of the policy.

"We have a niche," said Friedman, "that other ski areas would kill for."

It is difficult to think of Mad River Glen as synonymous with opulence and progress. But in 1947, the New York Times praised the under-construction resort as "one of the most lavish in the country." Mount Stark had a prime "ski train" location 14 miles from the Middlesex station where the Montrealer and Washingtonian lines ran, so when the 1948 season rolled around, the area's opening was a big deal, luring 600 people to gawk at the two cast-iron bullwheels, 21 state-of-the-art lift towers, and 69 chairs that snaked a mile up to the summit.

"I remember the date exactly - Dec. 11, 1948," said Jean Theobald, 78, of Titusville, Fla. As the reigning Miss Vermont, she had the honor of opening the ceremonial lock that allowed Chair No. 1 to operate.

"Fayston was hardly on the map before then," said Theobald, who grew up in the town under her maiden name, Peatman. "Most places had no running water and no flush toilets. With the coming of the ski area, that put us on the map."

Mad River Glen added a double chair in 1962 and several small lifts followed, but "Old Faithful" remained the primary access to the most challenging terrain. Purists embraced the simplicity of the single chair - 12 minutes to the top, skiers alone with their thoughts, wrapped in blankets amid the blissful aura of Green Mountain beauty - but the lift was never designed to have a lifespan of 60 years. Its tower bases were eroding; its diesel motor was loud, foul, and prone to mishap.

In 1975, a customer caught his parka in a chair, tried to pull it free, and yanked the drive train from its housing, plummeting seven passengers to the ground and to the hospital. Mad River Glen was actually one of the region's first areas to allow snowboarders. But the practice was stopped in the early 1990s because the lift couldn't handle the stress that occurs when boarders push off to disembark.

"That's one of the danger points," said Ken Quackenbush, who managed the resort in various capacities from the early 1950s through the '80s.

He said he doesn't want people to think he's unsentimental, but when you're responsible for safety at a ski area, "that's what keeps you up at night."

Keeping a low profile while cultivating a fervent local following, the resort changed hands several times during the 1970s and '80s before the Mad River Glen Cooperative was formed in 1995 to buy the area and operate it under a charter that preserves the "unique character" of Mount Stark. "From Day 1, the co-op knew the Single Chair was a project that had to be dealt with," said Friedman.

The group researched various options - a quad, a double chair, even a detachable single - but the overriding factor was the impact a new lift would have on skier density. Old Faithful moves 500 skiers per hour up the hill, a paltry figure compared with similar-sized resorts. But the big difference is evident on the slopes. You might spend 25 minutes waiting in a lift line and riding to the top, but at Mad River Glen, you're likely to have a trail all to yourself.

In 2006, when it came down to a vote to refurbish Old Faithful, quarrelsome campaigning among the 1,750 co-op members was the only certainty. The group's bylaws required a two-thirds majority to make any major change to the mountain, and as Friedman put it, "I would argue that you couldn't get two-thirds of our shareholders to agree whether or not the sun is shining."

Yet the vote passed, with a resounding 81 percent approving.

In order to have the refurbished single ready for this season, the co-op closed early last April, even though a spring storm had dumped 2 feet of snow. It was Easter Sunday, and Friedman was in possession of the final four chair rides. He sent his two boys, Eli, 7, and Ben, 9, up ahead of him. Then Friedman climbed aboard, but not before bestowing the final chair upon Quackenbush, who had dedicated six decades of his life to Mad River Glen.

"Ken's 90," said Friedman. "He hadn't been up on top of the mountain in six or seven years, and the look on his face was priceless. There were so many people there that day. All the old-timers showed up. Just sharing a nip of whiskey with Ken on top, it was like a stroll down memory lane."

Over the summer Old Faithful was disassembled. The towers were trucked to Maine, where they were sandblasted, structurally solidified, and repainted. New concrete bases were installed. New chairs were built to the exact specifications of the originals, and the diesel motor was replaced with a quieter, cleaner, electric version. Friedman said the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Stark Mountain Foundation have helped to raise $1.35 million of the project's cost, and much of the money has come from fund-raising, such as auctioning the old chairs and selling small brass nameplates affixed to the new ones.

The official rededication of Chair No. 1 is set for Saturday. A number of folks who attended the original opening - including Miss Vermont 1948 - will be in attendance. But a blizzard allowed Mad River Glen to open nine days ahead of the scheduled ceremony, giving the co-op the chance to break in Old Faithful early, amid conditions that made for one of the best opening days in area history.

No one seemed to mind that the party had been crashed by Mother Nature. Especially not the locals.

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