WAITSFIELD, Vt. - As a late-season snowstorm raged in Vermont's Green Mountains, taps rang out from the base of Mad River Glen's historic single chairlift. It was Easter Sunday 2007, and the ski area's Single - a historic structure that had come to define the Mad River Glen experience - was on its last run.
Ken Quackenbush, the ski area's longtime general manager, boarded the last chair to the summit that day and sat huddled under a vintage woolen poncho, the kind given to skiers over the years to keep them warm on the lonely 12-minute ride to the top. "It was cold," says Quackenbush, a World War II Marine veteran, when asked what that last ride was like. Then he softens: "You tend to get rather nostalgic and a little bit sentimental with something you've worked with so long. Other than that, it was just a chairlift ride."
But to loyalists, many of them shareholders in the cooperatively-owned ski area, the lift that they dubbed "Old Faithful" was never just a chairlift ride. For 58 years, it had carried 500 skiers per hour up General Stark Mountain, where they could embark on a true adventure down narrow trails, left mostly untouched by groomers and snowmaking equipment, and acres of trees, punctuated by the occasional cliff and frozen waterfall.
It's not an experience for the faint of heart. Eric Friedman, marketing director, quips that when natural snow is lean, the area's initials, MRG, stand for moss, rocks, and grass. As shareholder Paul Baccari says, "People who like grooming and wide-open terrain would never tolerate it."
With the Single dispensing skiers (but not snowboarders, who were banned from the area in 1991) at a rate of about eight per minute compared with high-speed chairlifts that put anywhere from 40 to 60 people per minute onto the slopes, crowds were never an issue. "People come to Mad River for the solitude," says Baccari, who makes the drive from Hingham almost every winter weekend. "It's not crowded; it's a community."
In a sport that has thrived on modernization - from high-speed chairlifts that carry as many as eight people to batteries of snow guns that cover bare slopes with manmade snow - Mad River has been an anachronism, almost a living ski museum. The area boasts only two snow guns, and skiers actually came because it had a single chair.
"Part of [Mad River Glen's] uniqueness is having 12 minutes to sit by yourself and soak in nature," says Baccari. "There really was nothing like riding that Single on a sunny February afternoon."
So when Old Faithful's engine started giving out, with its lift tower bases losing their integrity, the shareholders had to decide how to replace it. "It was an interesting decision-making process," Baccari says. "No one was for a high-speed lift or dramatically increasing the uphill capacity."
One option was to install a double chairlift that would carry twice the number of skiers, thereby reducing the sometimes long line. "The thought was that the mountain could handle a little bit more," says Baccari. "But the overwhelming feeling was that the Single is what makes Mad River Glen even more unique."
So over the summer, Old Faithful rose from the dead. Thanks to a fund-raising campaign that has netted $1.35 million toward the $1.54 million goal, the Single was refurbished. Next Saturday, 59 years and 4 days after the original Single opened, Mad River Glen will dedicate the new Single in a ceremony re-creating opening day in 1948. Jean Peatman, Miss Vermont 1948 and one of the first people to ride Old Faithful, is returning, and will join Governor Jim Douglas and Miss Vermont 2007, Rachel Ann Cole.
The restored Single has the same lift capacity and looks nearly identical. It was built to the original specs, with modern features to meet code, says Friedman, by lift manufacturer Doppelmayr CTEC. Only the lift towers were reused, but they were removed, sandblasted, straightened, repainted, and installed on new bases.
The fund-raising campaign kicked off in October 2006 and has been "a wild ride," says Penny Parson, a longtime Mad River skier and current Stark Mountain Foundation president. To date, more than 60 of the 147 chairs have been endowed at $5,000 each.
"My favorite story," Parson says, "is a former Mad River aficionado who called to say that he wanted to endow three consecutive chairs on the restored lift: one for his late father, one for his late son, and the third for himself. Being a third- and fourth-generation skier at Mad River is not unusual at all."
Peggy Shinn, a freelance writer in Rutland, Vt., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.