Riding Ski History: Mad River Glen’s Single Person Chairlift

Posted By: Zeke Piestrup on June 12, 2009 2:11 pm


To preserve or not to preserve, that is the historic preservation question.  When the building is the Capitol Records building, the book is the Codex Sinaiticus, the document is the Magna Carta, the question of whether or not to preserve physical history for future generations is not complex.

But what of historic preservation and skiing?  Currently, the sentiment for preservation is best seen in the proliferation of lost ski resort websites.  There are sites for ski areas long gone, but not forgotten on the web, for Colorado, Alaska, California, New England, and every other place where chairlifts once ran.  Ski resorts preserve memories and history as well as any building, book, or document. 

Ski museums do a fantastic job of preserving super cool artifacts of ski history.  The old wood skis, the “push sticks”, and what we now call high-top shoes that our ancestral brethren called “boots”, all preserved to elicit many more “oh wow”s for generations of skiers to come.

It’s a space issue.  You can’t fit a chairlift in a ski museum.  And is there anything under the umbrella of Ski History more memorable than a ski lift?   By yourself, it’s a contemplative journey.  With friends, it’s a bonding session.  With strangers, it’s a discovery session.  Chairlifts are pieces of history that you’re allowed to touch.

The chairlift is totally of its time.  Like the automobile, human ingenuity can be dated by it.   And sentiment, as preservation is a populist issue, is overwhelmingly on the side of the chairlift. 

The shining example of chairlift preservation is found at Mad River Glen in Vermont.  It’s affectionately called “The Single” and is one of only two functioning single person chairlifts in the country! 

Chair #1, The Single, is an antidote to a leap-before-look life pace.  It crushes  gadget distraction.  An obvious important distinction of the single person chairlift: you are alone.  You are left with no human distractions.  Ascending General Stark Mountain at Mad River Glen, alone, the slow and methodical pace of The Single equals immersion and contemplation.  Twelve minutes, 2,037 vertical feet, it is a journey through and out of time.

The Single also offers a “how to” manual on the preservation of historically important chairlifts.  A group called the Single Chair Capital Campaign partnered with two non-profit groups — the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Stark Mountain Foundation — to raise $1.6 million for the historic rehabilitation.  In 2008, Mad River Glen unveiled the restored lift.

“It’s a real treasure. You have an artifact of this age and complexity, and it’s still working,” says John Johnson who wrote a history of the lift for the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

The money for the lift was raised in a variety of creative and capitalistic ways.  The restoration project replaced all the chairs.  The old ones were auctioned off with minimum bids of 1k each.  Naming rights were auctioned off for the towers, and the bottom and top terminals.  Brass name plaques on the back of chairs were priced at 5k.

The financial support of donors is a must, because from a traditional biz perspective, keeping these old lifts around does not make financial sense.  Mad River’s restoration of The Single cost $300,000 more than it would have to simply install a modern double chair. 

Ah, but what price for cherished history?  More than eighty percent of Mad River’s shareholders voted for the restoration, which according to Mad River’s Eric Friedman “was amazing because our shareholders never agree on anything.”  The shareholders’ foresight was affirmed by the incredible amount of publicity that followed the restoration story.  The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today, CNN all profiled the preservation of The Single, bringing national exposure to a local landmark.

Currently, the only other operating single is in Mount Eyak, Alaska. That lift owns the historical distinction of being the oldest running chairlift in the country. Originally constructed in 1936, the lift was sold by Sun Valley to Mount Eyak in 1974, transported by train to Seattle, ferried to Cordova, and army helicoptered onto the mountainside where it lives today.

The single person chairlift helps us peer back into the cosmos at the genesis of skiing.   To ride The Single is retracing the steps of ski history.  One without frills.  “The single chairlift remains the last working link to a time when American downhill skiing was all sport and not money,” writes Preservation Magazine.

For Mad River Glen, a rugged mountain ranked by Ski Magazine as the most challenging on the east coast, The Single is both an historic landmark and a representation of a skiing ethos.  A derivative of Mad River’s motto “Ski it if you can” forms an instruction to skiers worldwide for Chair #1, aka The Single.  Ride it while you can!

Zeke Piestrup ( More Posts)

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