The Ski Clubs of Mad River Glen
The Mad River concept goes totally against the grain of commercial ski areas
By David McKay Wilson
A lifelong skier, I always dreamed of being the guy with a place on the mountain. Park my car for the weekend. Walk to the lifts. Ski home at day’s end. Light the fire, pour myself an IPA and call it a day.
But with a career in daily journalism, the financial demands of raising a family and the escalating cost of skiing together, I either did daytrips close to home with the kids, stayed at a relative’s place in New Hampshire, and splurged on annual trips out West to feed my skiing mojo.
But then I discovered the White Plains Ski Club, one of New England’s fabled ski clubs, high up in the Green Mountains, at the base of Mad River Glen.
Seven years after that propitious discovery, I’m deep into club life. I’m here on a Sunday night in mid-February, hunkering down overnight in a powder dump that left 5 inches today, and promises another foot in the morning. My car still hasn’t moved..
It turns out that ski-club membership is about the most economical way for New England families to get away, and have a home on the mountain, where you walk five minutes to the ski hill in the morning, and you can ski the Backdoor trail off Lower Antelope at days’ end to the lodge.
Members pay $20 a night for a bunk in a house that sleeps 32. There are two bunks per room, and shared bathrooms for men and women. The club provides the fixings for breakfast, for which you pay $3 a day, and dinner goes for $12 when at least 15 are there for dinner. That’s when we hire a cook to feed us all.
Otherwise, the sizable kitchen, with two stoves, two dishwashers and two refrigerators is shared among those who’ve come for the week or weekend.
The club is a cooperative so chores are assigned upon your arrival – it might be shoveling the walk, or cleaning up after dinner, or sweeping out the ashes from the circular fireplace. There’s also a requirement to come up on a work weekend in the summer or fall – or suffer a $75 penalty.
Ski clubs harken back to the boom-boom early days of American skiing in the 1950s and 60s, with ski areas sprouting up like topsy in Vermont and New Hampshire. The ski clubs provided a way for suburbanites near New York and Boston to get up north with the family for the weekend. They also doubled as a social club during the week in the suburbs.
Our club’s regular meetings have been replaced by conference calls, as members now live from New Jersey to Boston.
The socializing takes place up at the club – sitting around the circular fireplace, swapping stories about one’s latest exploits making turns through the Mad River woods, or sitting around the kitchen table playing Scrabble with the kids.
There’s no TV here, but we installed wi-fi a few years back keep everyone connected.
The six ski clubs on Schuss Pass on the mountain at Mad River Glen Ski grew up as part of the mountain’s business plan in the 1950s and 1960s. Mad River founder Roland Palmedo was a member of the Amateur Ski Club, which built its house right next to the Mad River lodge. Down Schuss Pass you’ll find ski clubs calls Hartford, Montclair, Jersey Whiz Skiers, and Ramapo.
Each is cooperatively run – a fitting complement to Mad River Glen, which became a nonprofit cooperative in 1995 after owner Betsy Pratt sold it to a group of skiers who were intent on maintaining the ski area’s laid-back attitude, and dedication to a skiing experience unparalleled in the Northeast.
It helps fulfill the vision of Mad River founder Roland Palmedo, who settled on creating a ski area at General Stark’s Mountain in Fayston after being among Stowe’s founders.
Said Palmedo: “A ski area is not just a place of business, a mountain amusement park, as it were. Instead, it is a winter community whose members, both skiers and area personnel, are dedicated to the enjoyment of the sport.”
The area’s shareholders – and I am among about 1,700 others – set the mountain’s policy, which includes a ban on snowboards. Without an abundant source of nearby water, there’s limited snowmaking, so Mad River skiers have to deal with the impact of climate change.
The main mountain’s summit of 3,637 feet is served by a single chair lift – an improved model, but the same concept as Palmedo had in 1949. You get up to a lower peak on a double chair. There’s two more shorter doubles, and that’s it, folks.
The Mad River concept goes totally against the grain of commercial ski areas, which have boosted up-hill capacity with their high-speed quads and six-packs. With a smaller capacity, it limits the number of skiers on the mountain, which means the trails are never crowded, and the natural snow can stay fresh longer.
That was the experience Monday morning when we awoke to a foot of fresh powder outside, with the snow still coming down sideways. We put on our boots at the club, walked down the lane to the lift, and had an epic day on the mountain, with powder everywhere.
The lines were long, but the trails were wide-open. We kept mostly to the Double chair, skiing the Gazelle Woods, where we found powder up to our knees. By day’s end I took the Single to the summit, and headed down the roller-coaster run called Antelope.
On Lower Antelope, I found the Backdoor trail to White Plains Ski Club, which I’d cleared two years earlier on a work weekend.
It had 18 inches of untouched powder.
Then I skied the Backdoor home.