Image: Made River ski area
Toby Talbot  /  AP
Skiers ride the Mad River ski area single chair lift in Fayston, Vt. The 158-chair lift, one of only two still in operation in the U.S., is being replaced in a $1.5 million renovation that will be financed in part by auctioning off the chairs to nostalgic skiers. More are on the way, though: The new lift will also be a single.
updated 2/5/2007 7:05:25 PM ET 2007-02-06T00:05:25

It is a relic of skiing's past, when lifts were novel, tickets cost $3.50 and everyone rode solo.

Fifty-eight years after it began ferrying skiers up General Stark Mountain, Mad River Glen's single chair lift remains a beloved anachronism. But its days are numbered — sort of.

The 158-chair lift, one of only two still in operation in the United States, will undergo a $1.5 million renovation after the season ends. The diesel engine that powers the lift will be replaced with an electric motor, the towers will be sandblasted, repainted and installed anew and the wooden chairs will be replaced.

But tradition won't be thrown to the wind: The new lift will be a single, too, bucking the modern trend of covered gondolas that carry up to six skiers at a time. And that's fine by many, who savor uncrowded trails and speak reverentially about the solitary 12-minute ride to the 3,637-foot peak.

"Just being able to hear the sounds of the mountain, the wind whistling across the gap. It's a contemplative time," said skier Jen Greenwood, 32, of Nantucket, Mass., standing at the base of the lift on a crisp, sunny Monday afternoon.

"The fact that it's a single chair keeps the crowding down. There's always room to ski off the trails at the top. I wouldn't want them ever to change it," she said.

At most resorts, investing in such a simple, outdated machine would be unthinkable. At Mad River Glen, which is said to be the nation's only cooperatively owned large ski resort, it's par for the course. The resort does little snowmaking and bans snowboards, priding itself on natural, no-frills skiing.

"They very much honor skiing's heritage," said Heather Atwell, director of programs and public affairs for the Vermont Ski Areas Association. "It doesn't surprise me in the least that they've decided to refurbish the single chair. It's definitely a place that honors its past."

Although Mad River Glen is owned by its shareholders, it is open to the public and anyone can ski there.

The lift, built at a cost of $150,000 by the American Steel & Wire Co., originally had 69 chairs. It made its debut in January 1949. Powered by a 140-horsepower diesel engine, a cast-iron bullwheel and more than two miles of steel cable, it now carries about 500 skiers per hour to the top.

Cutting-edge at the time, the lift helped revolutionize skiing in the mid-20th century, according to John Johnson, a historic preservation consultant who wrote a history of the lift last year for the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

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"It was a safe, quick, efficient way to get a lot of people up the hill quickly, as opposed to rope tows, which were very tricky to learn and rather hazardous," Johnson said. "It's a real treasure. You have an artifact of this age and complexity, and it's still working."

Mad River Glen's approximately 1,700 shareholders opted to essentially rebuild the lift, rather than build a more modern, multi-passenger system that might have cost less.

"There's a big sense of tradition here, and keeping the single underscores that," said skier Peter DalNegro, 71, of Canton, Conn. "On an early morning, when you're one of the first to go up, you have the sense that you have the whole mountain to yourself. I've written poetry in my mind riding up. When I can remember it later, I write it down."

Work will begin in spring, according to spokesman Eric Friedman.

Slideshow: Around the World "It'll start the day after we close this spring, whenever that is, and go through summer and fall and we'll have it done for October, when we open for fall foliage rides," said Friedman.

The project is being financed with donations. So far, Mad River has $700,000 worth in hand.

On Feb. 24, the shareholders will participate in a closed-bid auction of 140 of the chairs, with a minimum bid of $1,000 each. Some folks plan to use them as deck chairs, others as furniture.

Five other chairs will be raffled off, three will be awarded as prizes in a "Why I Love Mad River Glen" essay contest and the rest will be used for promotional purposes at the resort.

"I'm getting one and putting it in the rafters of the cathedral ceiling in my living room," said Friedman.

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