He's a longtime ski instructor, one of the best MRG skiers ever, and was instrumental in founding the Cooperative.
Can you share some of your earliest memories of Mad River Glen and what drew you to the area? How has the place remained the same and how has it changed?
John: I have very fond memories of staying with our family friends, the Hillys, at their farmhouse in Waitsﬁeld in the mid-fifties. Mad River was just the Single and the Practice Slope rope tow. The rope tow served only the one wide, steep slope and nothing else. The Single had about a hundred chairs and the line backed up to Rockefeller’s, so it was soon bumped up to the 158 chairs that it’s had for most of its sixty years. (Many kids will remember that if you sat in chair 123 or 124, depending how things were placed on the cable that year, you would pass chair 7 at tower 7.)
Above mid-station, the Single had Catamount, Chute, Fall Line and some connecting trails (not all of which are still there). Paradise was a place some folks might bushwhack out to once in the spring for a nice picnic. For the most part, the woods were un-skied until much later. In those days, the Single still had woolen blankets, which required extra lift attendants. They were a pain for the patrol too, because quite a few would blow off on their way down, and they needed to be retrieved on sweep or earlier, depending where they were. Of course, kids thought it was great that they’d blow off, and we used to enjoy seeing how many we could spot.
Some of the other trails I remember include the 19th Hole, which was named because it went to the bar at Mad River Barn. It started from Bunny because Lower Antelope wasn’t cut yet. The upper Antelope was cut the next year, and originally it was called the Palmedo, until the whole thing became Antelope a year later.
20th Hole came much later. It had been logged in the early sixties, and in the late sixties the toppings had collapsed onto the ground and the logging roads were still in good shape. Motivated by John Westfall, a few of us started to ski to The Barn that way at the end of the day. We called it 20th Hole because it was beyond the 19th. Nobody cut back to Antelope until quite a bit later.
That’s when the woods started to be skied a bit more, but you had to drag people in there, and most of them did not get hooked. You could easily recognize tracks and remember who had been where earlier in the week. It also was just woods, no cutting, although dead trees generally came down if they could be pushed over.
Paradise had been cut by then and since the area just beyond it was fairly flat (smooth, no bumps, although it was tipped up pretty steeply) we called it Paradise Flats. There was also Minnesota Flats. Many other names have fallen out of use. Mill Brook was the understated name of the Chimney between Canyon and Glade. There was Subglade, Inner Bush Belt, etc. The original Octopus’s Garden was below Birdcage. Three Cliffs was in a different spot too. There was Gnurn Chimney, in a nod to the Hobbit books, and in a nod to the way New England towns are named, there were Fall Line North and Fall Line South, which were east and west of Fall Line.
At Mad River we have always cherished the eccentricities of the folded hillside, the magic of the mountain in winter, and the remarkable poetry of our forested land.
So a lot of details have changed, but le plus ça change... The spirit has remained the same. Mad River has always been about family, friends and skiing, and there’s always been a sort of reverse snobbism. That sounds pretty simple but it’s misleading because the word “skiing” means something rather different at Mad River. It’s a bit hard to describe but I’ll try an analogy with walking, hiking, and running.
This is admittedly oversimpliﬁed, but I think it makes my point clear. Walking is a physiological process. Running demands more strength and agility, but it’s still “merely” physiological. Hiking is much more than physiological. Where you are is an integral part of the experience. Two different one mile running races are as similar as possible; everything is standardized. Two different one-mile hikes are completely different from each other. Even if the hikes are similar in ways that make the physiological process of hiking the two hikes quite similar, they are two different hikes with their own identities.
Skiing doesn’t have different words, all three of these meanings exist within the word “skiing.” To be sure, it is probably true that all ski areas have aspects of all the meanings, but Mad River cherishes and cultivates the meaning that is analogous to hiking. The left side of Porky is not the right side of Porky!
In contrast, most ski areas seem to me to be moving actively away from that. The trails get straightened, widened, and generally homogenized. Rolls are ﬂattened, character is removed, and we are left with parallel arcs that seem as though they were built by the highway department to standardized dimensions. “A green trail should be between X and Y meters wide and not more than Z degrees steep. Corners should have a radius of at least R meters and we expect to handle Q skiers per acre-hour.”
This is an active attempt to take “where” out of the picture, to move away from the meaning of “skiing” that Mad River folks hold most dear and cultivate the somewhat different sport that is denoted by the merely physiological meaning. In contrast, at Mad River we have always cherished the eccentricities of the folded hillside, the magic of the mountain in winter, and the remarkable poetry of our forested land. Skiing, for us, is quite intimately about “where.”
What does skiing mean to you as a person? You are well-known for being one of the best skiers on the hill. I believe you were featured in Sports Illustrated skiing the woods at MRG, how did that come about? You have also continued to be a ski instructor and founded the GMVS school years ago.
John: The Sports Illustrated article was quite a lot of fun. It was geared towards skiers who were extremely passionate about the sport, and not necessarily aimed at the ultra-athletic side of things. In fact, the photographer was a colorful fellow who had only been on skis a couple of times before and getting him to spots in the woods was a hoot. We tried to show him how to do a kick turn and somewhat later he commented, “If the purpose of the kickpole is to kick the pole straight up your ass, I’m getting pretty good at it.”
GMVS (originally Mad River Valley School) was hatched on the deck at Mad River on the red plywood benches (before someone painted them the wrong color!). For a couple of years, Al Hobart and I had frequently said to each other, “We should start a school like Warren Witherell has at Burke.” It had become a fairly routine exchange, like “How are you?” and “Fine.” It was almost devoid of meaning, just a verbal dance we went through every couple of weeks. One day Bill Moore joined us on the deck and said, “We should start a school like Warren has at Burke.” Al and I went into our little verbal dance as usual and then Bill caught on and said, “No. I really mean it.” So we looked at each other and said “Oh,” and started a school. If it weren’t for Bill, I’m not sure it would ever have happened. We might still be just saying “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks.”
Even in college, and during the GMVS years, I’d help out with kids’ classes at Christmas. This is my fiftieth year on the ski school, although there’s been at least one year that I did plenty of line-ups and got zero classes, so it depends a bit how you count. There were only two or three winters that I was actually full-time on ski school. Mostly I’ve just worked weekends and been busy with my own business, Super Thin Saws, during the week. (And yes, my ski school nametag says “Grandpa.”)
I’ve worked for every Ski School Director except Bud Phillips. During his era, I was a kid taking lessons from the ski school: Bud, Trodd Fortna, George Ericsson, Cliff Taylor, Don Powers. I took lessons from many of them and learned some skills, and more importantly, a deep love of the mountain. One of the most important parts of Mad River today is the kids’ programs where today’s instructors pass along the passion (and of course, a few skills, too!) to the shareholders of tomorrow.
People refer to you fondly as “the Grandfather” of MRG, and you have seen your share of the ups and downs of the mountain. What has made it so important for you to work to preserve MRG?
John: It’s widely recognized that Mad River couldn’t be what it is today were not for the passion and vision of Roland Palmedo and then Betsy Pratt. Their unusual visions of what the ski area should be, made a different sort of a place, even in the fifties. And as other ski areas “modernized” and Mad River stayed true to its roots, the difference got only greater (With the one exception that Mad River was the first place to have the woods so widely skied by so many, and eventually other ski areas decided to copy.) We can never adequately express the debt of gratitude we owe to these two individuals, and to others who helped them.
Most of us bought shares for a different reason. It was more like buying art. We were funding our passion—buy a breathtaking tapestry by that peerless old master, Mother Nature.
It should also be stressed, that we owe perhaps a somewhat smaller, but still important thanks to ourselves, the Mad River shareholders. One can perhaps ﬁgure out ways to construe purchasing a share as something that makes reasonable ﬁnancial sense, but most of us bought shares for a different reason. It was more like buying art. We were funding our passion—buy a breathtaking tapestry by that peerless old master, Mother Nature.
Looking forward to the next phase of MRG’s history and the recently launched Preserve Our Paradise Campaign, what are your hopes and aspirations for MRG? How do you weigh the balance between maintaining the original character of the place with modernization?
John: Obviously what skiing means most deeply to me, and to other Mad River shareholders and regular skiers, is the meaning that’s all about the “where.” To some extent there is a connection to nostalgia (I do rather wish the wooden plywood benches on the deck were still red!) but you can’t live in a museum and some types of modernization can be good.
We bought this amazing place because of its spirit, and we must, at all costs, manage without any type of modernization that would damage that, such as homogenizing the trails. However, I don’t see much likelihood of anything like that being part of the modernization, so I’m not worried. It’s just a small trap to keep our eyes open for and avoid falling into. The bigger pitfall, I think, is that this “spirit” of Mad River means subtly different things to different people, and as a Co-op we must not go forward with one person’s vision, or even the vision of a small number. In my view, inefficient as it is, we need to find a way to hear all the slightly different views and then go forward with a synthesis of everyone’s views. (This would be impossibly inefficient if all our views were not rather similar.)
Finally, can you tell about your family, where you live, and what you do when you are not skiing or on the mountain?
John: Annette and I have lived in Moretown since 1972. A couple of years after moving there, we rebuilt the horse barn attached to our house to be the home of GMVS in the full knowledge that we’d run it as a ski lodge whenever the school moved on, which took five years. By then our daughters Megan and Katie had been born. In 2011 we were flooded rather badly by Hurricane Irene and we rebuilt part of the former ski lodge as an apartment for Megan, who is currently on the Co-op board. Katie, her husband, and their three daughters live in Bozeman, Montana (which at least makes them closer than when they lived in Switzerland). They are Bridger Bowl skiers, because it shares a bit of the spirit of Mad River.
In summer I do some road biking because it is body-friendly. I still love hiking, but my aging body complains quite loudly about any down-hiking, so I limit it to walking up when I can ride down a lift. In winter, alpine touring is perfect. Even in October and November when it can be really submarginal skiing conditions, when I can hike up and skitter down without having to walk, I’m a happy guy.
I’ve skied quite a few different spots, and I’ve never found anything remotely as special as what we’ve got on the flanks of Stark Mountain.
I still keep quite busy working at Super Thin Saws. It involves a bit more travel than I’d choose, but often I can add on a weekend or more in the Alps or Rockies, sometimes with lifts, sometimes with skins. That’s a lovely treat and since I’ve been doing it for a lot of years, I’ve skied quite a few different spots, and I’ve never found anything remotely as special as what we’ve got on the flanks of Stark Mountain.