Ski it if you can. The legendary single chair at Mad River Glen is not for West Coast softies. PHOTO: Liam Doran
In the continental U.S. skiers typically move one direction: westward. Toward bigger mountains, higher elevations, and more consistent weather and snowfall. So I sometimes wonder how I ended up in Brooklyn, New York, after a childhood and adolescence amidst the Pacific Northwest's volcanoes, deep snow, and huge community of skiers and mountaineers.
Of course, skiing didn’t bring me here. Not in the way skiing’s siren call brings University of Vermont students to the Rocky Mountain West in droves or native Midwesterners to small towns like Telluride. Other forces drew me to this city and the flatter, colder coast, but just as skiing has always figured heavily into my identity, lifestyle, and community, it will here, too.
“Personally, I always thought powder skiing was the easiest type of skiing. We ski over the rocks.” --Betsy Pratt
The thing is, skiing makes a whole lot of sense in Colorado. The dedicated, down-home, unpretentious yet proud ski community out East isn’t as easy to understand. It’s not hard to love the mountains when they’re in your face all the time, beautiful and remote and unforgiving, typically basking in sunlight and with a fresh coat of soft snow. What’s hard is becoming a kickass, passionate skier when half the time you’re in the mountains--which are much lower affairs out here--you’re skidding around on solid ice in below-freezing temperatures with a highway at your feet. But those with grit, patience, and a true love of the sport make it work and make it thrive.
After all, this is the birthplace of skiing in the United States. The first ropetow (so, mechanized lift of any kind) in the States carried 1930s skiers up a slope in central Vermont that you can still ski today. It’s called Suicide Six, and it also held the first organized snowboarding competition in 1982. Tiny mom-and-pop hills abound in New England, catering to everyone from the next racing legend (Bode Miller hails from New Hampshire) to urbanites learning to slide around on snow for the first time. New York has more ski areas--43--than any other state. That’s 43 hills with die-hard locals, salty lift operators, aprés traditions, and memorabilia on the lodge walls. And that’s just New York.
But I’m not here to tell you why the East is worth your time. I’m a newcomer, after all. I’m not a blue-ice-hardened, weather-be-damned Easterner. In fact, one of those called “my people” soft last week--spoiled by consistent conditions and often-mild temperatures. I was on the phone with Betsy Pratt, the woman responsible for Mad River Glen’s co-operative ownership and, in large part, its fiercely independent culture.
“Eastern skiers are very good skiers--and I hate to say that around a Western skier--because of the challenges that we face,” Pratt told me. “Mad River, and Eastern skiing in general, it has an excitement about it because it’s not something you can count on. Personally, I always thought powder skiing was the easiest type of skiing. We ski over the rocks, then jump a waterfall to ski down over more rocks. The challenge of Eastern skiing is just a little bit different. And the skiers are loyal, that’s for sure.”
Pratt was one of a handful of folks I spoke with these past few weeks, people dedicated to skiing the East Coast not because they followed a job or a family this unpopular direction but because they believe in what these mountains--from New Hampshire’s Presidential Range to Vermont’s Green Mountains--have to offer. Most importantly, I needed beta. Where do I ski? Where can I get a good Bloody Mary? Who can sharpen my edges to a lethal angle? But I also wanted to learn what makes an East Coast skier; what keeps them here, what inspires them to get out the door, on their skis, and up into the mountains they call home.
“You don’t wait for a good day to go skiing. You make the best day possible out of it. There’s a ‘roll up your sleeves and get it done attitude’ in general.” --Jason Levinthal
“There’s just a can-do attitude, and there’s a lot of camaraderie because of it. That’s East Coast ski culture. You’re not handed a lot, but you have to make a lot out of it,” says Jason Levinthal, founder of J Skis and LINE. A longtime resident of Burlington, Vermont, Levinthal stayed put when LINE, which he headed at the time, moved to Seattle in the mid-aughts.
“This is where America started, right? You gotta build from scratch, including skiing,” Levinthal said. “You don’t wait for a good day to go skiing. You make the best day possible out of it. There’s a ‘roll up your sleeves and get it done attitude’ in general. There’s a lot of persistence and ingenuity in the culture and it’s true of skiing, too. If you go out in really shitty conditions, you find something to play on and make it the funnest day ever. A little rail, put a blue bale in the middle of the run, and you can have the time of your life on that all day. People are up for doing it. They don’t say ‘oh, this is really lame’ because they don’t have epic huge jumps and perfectly groomed this and that. It is what it is, so we have fun on it.”
Of course, that attitude isn’t unique to the East. My dad used to force us up to Snoqualmie Pass, one of the lower-lying resorts in the state, in the pouring rain on a regular basis. I actually hated soft snow for a lot of my young life, equating it with the concrete my tiny skis would get stuck in on those days. Characters exist everywhere, kids jibbing in the parking lot do, too. Levinthal wasn’t really talking about the individual characters, though, or the individual experiences. He’s talking about the shared identity, the collective culture, and that’s one that faces more adversity and uncertainty than most ski communities across the states.
Sure, skiing isn’t comfortable anywhere. That’s a big reason many of us love it--it asks something of you, pushes you out of your comfort zone, and makes you feel accomplished when you succeed. And while usually that means skiing a tight couloir, or sending a cliff just a little bigger than last time, this winter I think it’s going to look a whole lot like practicing my 180s in a Vermont backyard, skidding my way around creeks and patches of grass on blue ice, and freezing my ass off on a slow two-seater. And, of course, chasing it all with a Long Trail Ale.