A Snowboarder's History of MRG
It was one of those crisp, clear, brilliant days that make Vermont winters so magical. The car was filled with anticipation, excitement, and a touch of anxiety as we puttered down App Gap.
My daughter, Isadora, was four and about to snowboard for the first time. Not only that, she would finally see the mythical ski area where Dad had disappeared so many times in the past. Her face was pressed against the window, peering upwards in disbelief as we rounded the slow, sweeping left in front of Mad River Glen. As I negotiated my way through a slew of skiers crossing the road, I heard the excited exclamation of a child,
“Dadda, dadda, is this it, is this where we go snowboarding?”
Not wanting to start this conversation on such a special day, I simply responded, “no Isa, we are hitting another mountain.”
The ever-questioning four-year-old could not be held in check with such an incomplete answer and quickly replied, “Why? I want to go here,” as she watched some children her age scurry across the road.
“Well, they don’t allow snowboarders.”
“I don’t really know.”
The Early Years
Mad River Glen was founded in 1947 on the ideal of providing the best possible skiing without the clutter of commercialization. With funding from members of the Rockefeller family, Mad River grew quickly, installing the iconic single chair lift in 1948. At the time, this lift, which accesses 2,037 feet of vertical, was a major step forward in lift technology. To further the experience, in the early days the trails would be side stepped in their entirety to provide a "groomed" run.
While the rest of Vermont's ski areas became more and more commercialized, Mad River maintained its original principles, remaining relatively undeveloped. When snowboarding started to mature in the late eighties, with a do-it-yourself backhill philosophy, it was a natural fit with the culture at Mad River. According to Eric Friedman, head of MRG marketing, in 1986, Mad River became the second area to open its slopes to snowboarders after Stratton.
Riders were allowed until the 1992-93 season when an incident between some local rippers and then-owner Betsy Pratt ended the relationship for good. There is a lot of swirl around what happened and I have heard many stories. I turned to Vermont snowboarding legend Seth Neary, who grew up riding in the Mad River Valley, for the straight intel.
There are many stories and legends about the whole Mad River Ban on snowboarding - I think a lot of things happening at the same time brought on the ban. Here's the Town Meeting Day Shut Down story that I think forever closed the mountain to snowboarders.
Every year in March, on Town Meeting Day, Mad River Glen opened the mountain to local school kids for a free day of skiing/riding. Now remember, Mad River was one of the first mountains to allow snowboarding in the East. They had a full rental and retail shop selling Burton Elites and Woody's. On this particular Town Meeting Day, a couple of snowboarders showed up to get their free ticket like everybody else and the woman behind the desk told them that it was too busy on that day so NO SNOWBOARDERS ALLOWED. As you can imagine, the snowboarders were pretty upset - and some words were exchanged.
A couple of weeks later, the same crew of snowboarders were skateboarding the Mehuron's Grocery store parking lot and they ran into Betsy Pratt, owner of Mad River Glen. One snowboarder had a video camera and asked Betsy why they were turned away on Town Meeting Day. Betsy said she felt accosted and made the statement "that's it - no snowboarding ever again." End of story.
Back then, the Mad River Valley produced a lot of professional snowboarders whose first turns were made at Mad River before Sugarbush allowed snowboarding. Jason King, Ali Goulet, Seth Miller, Myself, Lukas and Jesse Huffman, and Kris Swierz were all from the Mad River Valley. We all went on to have amazing careers, pro models, world cup victories, international coverage, etc. and we're all pretty bummed that the place where we grew up and learned to ski and snowboard is so closed-minded and not forgiving. Think about it - in this day and age, do you know of another co-op that denies participation?
- Seth Neary - Driven Studio
In 1995, a cooperative of skiers purchased the mountain and assumed operation and ownership. The issue of the snowboarding ban was brought to a vote and by an overwhelming 86% vote remained intact. Today, Mad River Glen is the only cooperatively owned major ski area in the United States. Its 1800 plus shareholders remain steadfast in their conviction to keep snowboards off their slopes.
A few years ago, one shareholder stood to say he thought the group should at least discuss the ban.
“I don’t want to get strung up over this,” the shareholder said. “But we never even talk about it. I mean, don’t string up me for this, but don’t you think we should at least discuss it?”
There was silence in the room. Then, from the back of the room, a voice: “Get the rope!”
Of course when you ask a shareholder why the ban remains, they inevitably do a hasty dance of rationalization, citing one or more of the following:
1. The terrain is too difficult and tight for snowboarders. (I split MRG 10-20 times a year and have not been overwhelmed by the terrain. Nor have any of the countless other riders to poach it over the years.)
2. The single chair doesn't work with snowboarders (Mount Eyak in Alaska currently operates a single chair and allows snowboarding. During the $1.5M restoration of the single, any offloading issues could have easily been fixed.)
3. Snowboarders are dangerous. (When I spoke with Taos owner Adrianna Blake a couple years following their opening to snowboarding, she stated that they have not seen any accident or injury increase strictly associated with snowboarders.)
Regardless of the justifications, it really comes down to the simple fact that the shareholders don't want to share the slopes with snowboarders. And this basically means that 1800 people have decided to prevent 5.1 million riders from enjoying the unique terrain and culture (minus the ban part). Sadly this also means they have locked us out of a major part of our history.