To understand the heritage of Mad River Glen, you have to start with geography. The 54-year-old Fayston ski area is dominated less by its namesake waterway than by General Stark Mountain, an imposing 3637-foot peak that honors John Stark. He was the Revolutionary War hero who coined the New Hampshire state motto, "Live Free or Die" -- a line that seems to carry the same sort of implicit challenge as Mad River's promotional slogan, "Ski It If You Can."
But daredevil athleticism is no more important than family recreation at the "resort." And that attitude inspires intense loyalty in its many fans. The late founder Roland Palmedo thought of the operation as "not just a mountain amusement park." He found the term "winter community" more to his liking. "It's very non-commercial," suggests Bill Heinzerling, who first discovered the Mad River "mystique" in the mid-1950s. "Everyone who skis there is sort of kin. It's like going home to Grandma's house."
Grandmas, grandpas and young whippersnappers were among the 15 "old-timers" who gathered in May to share reminiscences about the place as part of a videotaped oral history series called "Mad River Remembers." Additional sessions take place this Saturday and in January. The project coincides with Mad River Glen's anticipated designation later this fall by the National Register of Historic Places, according to marketing director Eric Friedman. "We have families that have been coming here for four or five generations," he points out. "There are a lot of great stories to be told."
Heinzerling, 67, believes that the founder's story alone is worth recounting. Before his first visit to Vermont ski slopes half a century ago, he already knew Palmedo. "Roland was a quintessential man for all seasons. He was a fighter pilot in World War II and an investment banker, born in Brooklyn, who spoke five languages. He created the national ski patrol system in 1934, established the 10th Mountain Division ski troops in 1938 and edited a book that was the bible of international skiing. I knew that whatever he did here would have substance."
Then, of course, there's the 2000-foot vertical drop. That's the distance Mad River's legendary diesel-powered single chairlift still travels when negotiating the steep contours of General Stark Mountain. Heinzerling knows those contours well; he ran the ski patrol from 1967 to 1972, and still volunteers or skis for pleasure a few times a week.
Palmedo sold the resort to four New York bankers in the early 1970s. Another owner, Betsy Pratt, was in charge a decade later. When she decided to get out of the business in 1995, the facility became a collective venture. Patrons bought more than 1900 shares, making Mad River the only large cooperative ski area in the state. Heinzerling thinks there are very few others nationwide, if any.
He is proud that the place values tradition: for one thing, no snowboarders are allowed. Heinzerling is also enamored of the surrounding countryside. "To me, the Mad River Valley is the most unique place in Vermont," he says. "It's more or less pristine. We have no traffic lights, no shopping malls. At the ski area, we prevent the kind of development you see at Killington and Stowe. There's no room at Mad River Glen to expand. Most of the others base their profits on real estate; ours are based on ticket sales and season passes."
When Massachusetts native Richard Burgess showed up in Fayston one fall day in 1970, he found General Stark Mountain ideally suited to his hermit-like minimalist lifestyle. Then-manager Ken Quackenbush hired him as an attendant at the very top, where the single chairlift ends.
"I was interested in alternative energy and the job at Mad River Glen allowed me to live off the grid, like a pioneer," says Burgess, 57, who goes by the name Radkin. "Up there, I was often clouded in. I'd have no sense of where the rest of the planet was. It seemed like a magical land of fairies and snowshoe hares. For a while, you could forget about the Vietnam War and all the crises in the world."
Radkin worked side by side with Guy Livingston, a man at least 20 years his senior. "The weather was so fierce, two people were needed to help with the lift because we could only stay outside for 15- or 20-minute shifts," Radkin explains. "I always loved talking with Guy. He remembers life in the Valley when it was just horses instead of cars."
Radkin's vehicle in those days was a 1936 Ford pickup with a wooden "house" built on the back. He parked the portable home in the woods below the mountain. To generate enough electricity for one light bulb and an FM radio, he juiced up a battery by pedaling the three-speed Raleigh bicycle given to him at age 8.
Though he tended to travel and find work elsewhere in the warmer months, each autumn for several years Radkin returned to Vermont, always partnering with Livingston at their annual Mad River Glen assignment. During the winter of 1977-1978, however, the younger man actually lived in the crude hut at the single chairlift's last stop. He constructed bunk beds and bookshelves, but the dwelling didn't have indoor plumbing. "I took snow baths every morning. One Christmas, I didn't come down for 13 days."
He rigged up a windmill that drew power from a Kenmore Speed Queen clothes dryer perched on the roof. That inefficient gizmo was soon replaced by an antique Zenith wind charger, which required regular maintenance to prevent the blades from icing. Everything at that elevation was susceptible to freezing. When he played his trumpet, Radkin found the valves could quickly become coated. "As skiers came up on the lift through the clouds, they might hear the wind turbine or my horn," he recalls. "They knew I was the tinkerer, the experimenter, the alternative energy fellow."
Wind was both his friend and his enemy. While whipping along the mountainside, it could spell danger -- especially when Radkin was required to lubricate the pulley that moves the chairlift, an almost acrobatic endeavor. Once, his ponytail became entangled in the gears. "I lurched and a chunk of my hair went up the lift without me," he says.
Radkin explains that his moniker is short for "radio kinetics." Part of his philosophy, he adds, is that "all we have to do is tune into the right frequency."
For a time in Radkin's self-described "life of pilgrimage and transition," Stark Mountain was paradise. Eventually, he moved to Shelburne Point, where he lived in makeshift digs for years. "Mad River Glen has charisma," he muses. "It connects the past with the future."
The past is still quite vivid to Lucia Putnam of Fayston. She first skied Mad River as a teenager, in March 1949, then came back with her husband-to-be Nelson in 1954. They also spent time at Stowe.
By the mid-1960s, the couple was living in Syracuse, but found themselves in Vermont once again. "We had four kids and I was pregnant with our fifth," she says. "Mad River Glen had childcare. Stowe did not."
The burgeoning family frequently encountered vacation adventures on the snow-covered Appalachian Gap, a shortcut to the ski area they preferred to the long route through Richmond. "We'd have to wake the children and usher everybody into the back of our van," she says. "That was before four-wheel drive was invented."
The effort was always worth it for the Putnams, who relocated to the region in 1980. "There's a community atmosphere," observes Lucia, now 69. "It hasn't changed much over the years. But Mad River made such a big difference in our lives. It was our whole lifestyle."
The resort can accommodate about 1200 skiers on a busy day, compared to the 7000 to 10,000 at larger ski areas. "It's an intimate mountain," Bill Heinzerling notes. "All the trails come together at the base."
They are also all under a canopy of trees. While places like Killington and Stowe have widened their trails to enhance the snowmaking process, Mad River Glen relies primarily on precipitation. As a result, there's less of an impact on the natural habitat of General Stark Moun-tain. The terrain is relatively unspoiled; the ecosystem is preserved.
"Although we were state-of-the-art in the beginning, at the high end of the ski industry and toe-to-toe with Stowe, in the early 1960s Glen Ellen and Sugarbush started to attract the Kennedys and Cher," marketing director Eric Friedman says. "Mad River became the ugly sister. But now it's come full circle. People have begun to appreciate the old-fashioned quality. It's a cool place."
So cool that aficionados have taken the Mad River Glen mantra around the globe. The photographs displayed at General Stark's Pub, the local watering hole, include souvenir snapshots of the bumper sticker on the Great Wall of China, at the International Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal, on a tank deployed in 1991's Operation Desert Storm and on a giant turtle in the Galapagos Islands.
It's proof that fans of Vermont's most unusual ski area are never far from "Ski It If You Can" -- even when they can't.