Saturday, December 1, 2007

Mad River Glen - Ski It While You Can

Pictured - From the Sunday, Ski Edition Travel Section -"Old Faithful", the single chairlift at Mad River Glen, a mountain known for its devotion to tradition and its ubiquitous bumper sticker, "Ski It If You Can".

I rode the single chair last Winter, rode it to a decision that may end up defining my skiing apex. I skied not as a youth. My family didn't ski, so I didn't start young. I passed up opportunities to learn in college for no good reason, despite enjoying my one attempt during a half day visit to a small hill in Connecticut. I moved to New York, then its suburbs, forgetting all about skiing until my children were about six years old and we visited friends in their second home along the Hudson River, not far from the Windham ski area. Our friends offered to help us get started. We knew that if our kids were ever going to really enjoy skiing, their best chance was to start young, so we became skiers.

The kids learned quickly, even though they were only skiing 10 or 12 days a year. I was 40 years old and a slow learner. I needed more than a day of group lessons on the bunny hill, but eventually I made it to the chairlift and took my first trip down a real slope, an easy green (beginner's hill), but I was excited and ready to do it again. Skiing was a lot more fun than waiting in the lodge for the kids. Ski lodges look great in pictures, but if you are skiing on weekends and school holidays within a three hour drive from New York City, they are crowded, noisy and hot. Staying out of the lodge was a no brainer and for several years I would ski on my own in the morning, then join the kids when lessons ended.

With an occasional group lesson I improved cautiously for a few years, reaching the point where I could ski most blue (intermediate) slopes. But fate and age were working against me. A herniated disk ended my jogging, but, cruelly, had no effect whatsoever on my appetite. I suddenly went from a fit 40 to a fat 45. Unexpected events at the office sent me to Tokyo and Lima on weekends that I might otherwise have spent in upstate New York or Vermont. I was still skiing once in a while, but I wasn't improving. The kids found a little extra ski time through school trips, scouting expeditions and invitations from friends. Now if I tried to join them, I was trying their patience.

Despite my deterioration, I found one hill at Windham that, although marked as a black (most difficult), was within my ability if conditions were good. The fact that my son could now taunt me as he passed me while skiing backwards did not deter me, the steeper hill was exciting and I was having fun. One day I tried a pair of shorter skis and found I could handle the other blacks at Windham comfortably. This deluded me into thinking that I was becoming a better skier -a fantasy created by perfect conditions and the demo equipment, but one that motivated me to aspire to the double black, expert only hills.

I spent another two years skiing the occasional black, but gaining no ground on the elusive double black. My ski time was limited. Although still fat, I was reasonably fit otherwise, but I just wasn't getting anywhere. Then we spent a week with friends during February, 2005 at Heavenly, a large resort straddling the California-Nevada border at the Southern end of Lake Tahoe. My skiing was unimproved, but my enthusiasm was reignited. Heavenly had deep, deep, deep snow and spectacular views. I still remember skiing a ridge, with the sparkling, pure blue of Lake Tahoe on one side and a series of icy peaks emerging from a sea of fog on the other. Heavenly was so exciting that I squeezed in some extra days skiing at Plattekill when we got home.

This extra skiing in 2005 paid off in 2006. I started with a few days of warm-up skiing on my own, including my first lesson in years. Then a weekend trip to Gore and Lake Placid with my son, now a college student, produced my best skiing ever, including one scary adrenaline rush down "Lies", a double black and by far the steepest hill I have skied. My son was actually skiing with me for most of the trip, detouring into the woods when my cautious pace got too boring. Then we spent a great weekend at Okemo with my sister's family, including my young nephews who were just learning to ski and a special guest appearance by my daughter. There was a future for me as an old skier. I could keep up with my nephews for a while and maybe even see a little more of my own disappearing kids.

I was completely psyched for the Winter of 2006/2007. I had just retired from the practice of law. Comedy has surprisingly flexible hours. I could, and did, get into better condition, my best in the last decade. I read a Time's story on baby boomers aspiring to become expert skiers, including a group paying a fortune for a special clinic with the goal of skiing Wolverine, one of Windham's double blacks. "I can do this", I thought and started the season with new skis and two weekday visits to Windham. Weekday skiing was a new experience -no lines, ever, for anything. Group lessons became a group of one. At times the expert slopes were so isolated I wondered if anyone would ever find me following a bad fall. I quickly reached the point where I was comfortable on both of the open double blacks, Wolverine and Wedel. I was even looking for short stretches of bumps, like the Wall, trying to develop my previously non-existent mogul skills. When my son suggested a visit to Mad River Glen, I thought I was ready.

When we reached Mad River Glen the single chairlift already had a modest line. My son and I headed for other lifts, hoping the line would dissipate while we warmed up. After a few hours on some very nice runs, including a few small bumps and some short sections marked as expert, my son could wait no longer. We headed for the line, which had lengthened, and our first trip on Old Faithful.

Bumper sticker notwithstanding, there's an easy way down from the single chairlift; Upper Antelope, a winding intermediate trail. When you exit the chair, you can jump right onto a narrow black trail through the trees, or start on Upper Antelope and switch to a black later. We started on Upper Antelope. Conditions were reasonably good thanks to recent snow, but the base was not deep. Mad River Glen does not bother to mark any trail as a double black, but its blacks are mostly narrow paths cut through glades. The shallow base meant the paths were at their narrowest, confined by roots and rocks that might be buried in a snowier year. My son turned off at the second marked black trail, I peered after him at a trail that looked like it had been created by a small herd of inebriated deer and said "no thanks". Lower Antelope was my last chance to veer onto a black and it looked almost manageable. "Almost" is the operative word in that last sentence. I passed it by, thinking I would ask my son to scout it for me, and go back later if he thought I could handle it. We met at the bottom and had lunch. My son said the run he had just descended was too tough for me. I asked him to scout for something easier as he headed back to the single chair and I returned to the other side of the mountain.

When we met again it was late in the day, he hadn't spotted an "easy" black run off the single chair and I was too tired to try one anyway. I'll find one tomorrow, I thought, as I purchased two "ski it if you can" t-shirts. But my son had skied most of Mad River Glen, he decided he was ready to move on to neighboring Sugarbush the next day. My opportunity was gone, at least for that Winter. Mad River Glen was haunting me, even as I enjoyed visits to Okemo and West Mountain with the extended family.

There's always next year? Maybe. Next year is this year. I've gained back some of the weight I lost in the Fall of 2006, partly because my ancient and aching left knee is telling me it has a torn meniscus and it wants the same arthroscopic surgery I gave my right knee twenty years ago. With rest I can probably get through this ski season without surgery, maybe postpone surgery indefinitely. Unfortunately, rest means limited training and probably skiing even more cautiously than usual. Who knows what will happen after this Winter. Mad River Glen - Ski It While You Can.


mhass30 said...

Don't let this fool you. He's been tricked down a few double blacks.

Anonymous said...

Windham is great!

mhass30 said...


Anonymous said...

Where do Mad River Glen skiers spend the summer? Some go here: