A trail for the hardy
After a two-hour hike up, schussing a path treacherous, steep, and storied
ADAMS -- Like most who embark upon a pilgrimage, I set out for a compelling reason without knowing exactly what to expect from my travels.
The object of my midwinter meditation was Mount Greylock - and more specifically, the steep, narrow Thunderbolt Ski Run cut along its eastern slope.
Tucked into the northwest corner of the state, the highest peak in Massachusetts has beckoned wayfarers before, including Herman Melville, who extolled the "purple majesty" of the mountain in the dedication to his 1852 novel, "Pierre."
But the footsteps I longed to trace were those made by mill workers and farm boys from Adams, which sits in Greylock's shadow. They and other early New England skiers made Thunderbolt one of the most famous racing trails in the country in the 1930s and early '40s.
President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps cut the run in 1934. It was the brainchild of the Mount Greylock Ski Club and other local civic groups. Named after a roller coaster at Revere Beach, the trail drops more than 2,000 feet through various steeps and turns labeled Big Bend, Big Schuss, and Needle's Eye. During its heyday, Thunderbolt became the venue for numerous state and Eastern downhill championships, including a fabled race against a team from Hitler's Germany.
As an Eastern skier with a lifelong interest in history, I was drawn by Thunderbolt's siren song.
I enlisted my cousin Bill for the trip. We have skied together since we were kids, and I knew he wouldn't refuse despite the two-hour hike to the top of the mountain.
"The mountain looks bigger than in the photos," I said.
"Yeah, just a little bit," Bill deadpanned, as I assured him that we wouldn't be skiing either of the rockslides that scar the mountain's face.
Our first stop was Corner Lunch, a mom-and-pop establishment decorated with enough mounted fish and trophy bucks to make Field & Stream proud. As we ate our bacon and eggs, we chatted with longtime proprietors Dick and Joan Carrigan. Sure, they remembered the stories of Thunderbolt in its prime, when ski trains from Hartford and New York delivered spectators to the big races. Of course, they knew how the trail fell into disfavor once ski lifts became popular after World War II. And, yes, they regularly serve those who still arrive to ski the backcountry trail. But they don't usually come on days like this when the temperature plummets into the low teens.
Any nervousness we had about tackling Thunderbolt vanished 20 minutes later at the trailhead at the end of an orchard road. To our surprise, there were a half dozen cars parked nearby, which we took as a good sign.
I had learned a lot about Thunderbolt thanks to Blair Mahar, an Adams native who produced the documentary "Purple Mountain Majesty: A History of the Thunderbolt Ski Run" in 1999. He's also a member of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners, a group that helps maintain the trail and is planning to hold a 75th anniversary race here next February.
"The guys who skied this trail were real men," Mahar said before we set off. "Many worked the early shift at the textile mills and would then hike up and ski it every afternoon. And on weekends they'd hike it more than once."
The hike, he said, was half the fun - and it certainly started out that way. The first half hour takes skiers along a narrow, rolling path that leads from the Thunderbolt finish line. The second part begins at the base of Thunderbolt where the trail expands, perhaps to 40 to 50 feet wide, and becomes much steeper, reaching a 35 percent grade in some areas.
This is where I first began to feel that I was following in footsteps greater than my own. The first race held here was the Massachusetts State Downhill Championship in 1935. Snow that day reduced the field from 42 to 18 racers, whose first champion was Dartmouth freshman Dick Durrance, who went on to the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 1936.
As documented in Mahar's film, Durrance's success helped inspire the men of Adams to take up the fledgling sport. They later formed their own club, the Ski Runners of Adams, and eventually took the team prize away from Dartmouth at the 1939 state downhill championship.
Lost in thought, I was brought back by Bill, who winced from the pain radiating from his groin.
"I pulled something a while back, and it's getting worse," he said, as a trio of smiling skiers passed us on the way up. Despite his best effort, he couldn't even raise his left foot past the snow cover. I had visions of him being taken off the mountain on a stretcher and the inevitable accusations from my family about dragging Bill along on some foolish stunt.
I shouldered his skis as we slowly made our way up the mountain for another hour - both still determined to make it to the top. But as we reached the foot of the Big Bend, the trail's first big steep, he couldn't go any farther.
"Just keep hiking up," Bill said. "Meet me here, and we'll ski down together."
At the summit, the trail's fieldstone and timber warming hut, named after Adams ski legend and fallen Army 10th Mountain Division Sergeant Rudy Konieczny, was toasty thanks to a giant woodstove.
Two snowboarders were exiting when I entered to change into my ski boots. We shared a knowing glance and wink, acknowledging we were about to have a run more meaningful than any taken at resorts with $70 lift tickets. On a good day, Thunderbolt can draw 30 to 40 such like-minded souls.
Starting my descent I realized that the trail is much narrower going down. So much so that it makes Norwegian Per Klippgen's course record of two minutes and eight seconds (set in 1948 on wooden skis) seem like a suicide run.
My goal was to take my time, since the snow was a bit chunky and loose with small moguls. I found, however, that my best bet was often to barrel through some sections of the trail and hope I didn't end up like the racer who lost control and broke his jaw against a tree.
"It can be scary when you're racing," said Adolph Konieczny, 85, who had shared his memories of skiing Thunderbolt with his older brother in the '30s and '40s. "It was a wonder we didn't break our necks."
Konieczny was there when a ski team from Germany arrived for the 1938 US Eastern Downhill Championship. The best skiers from the University of Munich made up the squad, which, some have argued, was sent to help reassert German athletic superiority after Jesse Owens's triumph at the Berlin Olympics.
"They actually had porters to carry their skis up the mountain, unlike the rest of us," recalled Konieczny, who was among the 7,000 spectators here that day. "They were good, and they knew it." In fact, German racer Fritz Dehmel took first place and set a new course record.
I was engaged in an imaginary downhill skirmish with those racers when I reached Bill at Big Bend, which drops 300 yards to the right while sloping to the left.
Mahar had told me that the old-timers really knew what they were doing when they cut Thunderbolt. And it was true. Like most classic New England trails, such as the original Nosedive at Stowe, its difficulty comes not just from steepness, but from narrowness. I found that even medium radius turns were out of the question in many sections - either because of trees, moguls, or the natural contour of the trail.
We followed Thunderbolt through three smaller drops (The Steps) that allow skiers to pick up speed before funneling them into Needle's Eye, a 15-foot-wide chute that should be taken head on. From there we tackled Big Schuss, the trail's second and final big steep, and The Bumps, which were designed to weaken skiers' legs as they approached the finish line.
Bill's injury held up, but because of his condition we had stopped often to relish what Konieczny called the "loneliness" of the mountain. We celebrated the simple joy of being alone on the peak. The last thing we wanted was to hike up again.
Matthew Bellico can be reached at email@example.com.