The Ski Race America Nearly Lost
In the Northwestern corner of Massachusetts, there’s a big, spectacular mountain that goes by the name of Greylock. It stands 3,491 feet tall—higher than any other natural point in the state—and, at the summit, a towering war monument shaped like a Chess pawn pierces 93 feet further into the wicked skies. Among the sea of rolling hills that is New England, Greylock is an anomaly; in part due to its grandesque nature, but also because of its unique relationship with ski racing—a relationship that’s compelling, heartbreaking, and, somehow, ongoing.
This story, depending on who you ask, begins in the early 1900s, when adventure-hungry outdoorspeople would hike to Greylock’s snow-laden summit, then make turns all the way back down with seven-foot-long wooden skis. The landscape was filled with briers and rocks and other New England-y obstacles—meaning the skiing conditions were anything but easy. But the terrain underneath all that pesky crap was unlike anything those skiers had experienced; it was wonderfully steep, sustained, and raw.
By the 1930s, the act of skiing on Greylock had gained popularity. Most of the partakers were from Adams, the town where Greylock stands, but folks from elsewhere were catching onto the hype, too. And, by ‘34, this momentum culminated into a major change: Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) armed with steel tools cleared a real, top-to-bottom ski trail and called it The Thunderbolt—named after a rowdy rollercoaster in the nearby town of Revere. (If you’re wondering: Yep, Adams is named after Samuel Adams and, yep, Revere is named after Paul Revere.)
The Thunderbolt was one among many trails ordered through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—part of an effort to employ struggling Americans during a difficult financial time for the nation. Other notable CCC trails include the Nose Dive in Stowe, Vermont, as well as the John Sherburne and Gulf of Slides Trails on Mount Washington, New Hampshire. These trails collectively provided a win-win situation for the nation: the jobless received jobs, and the general public had a newfound wealth of recreational opportunity to enjoy.
When Roosevelt formed the New Deal, ski racing was certainly not one of the primary topics on his mind… Employment rates, economic stability, and improved infrastructure were understandably more important goals. But, nonetheless, when The Thunderbolt was born, so was one of America’s most impressive ski racing venues.
On February 17th, 1935, thousands of people gathered for The Thunderbolt’s very first ski race: the Massachusetts State Downhill. A wild, eclectic collection of athletes bounced down the trail’s rugged terrain—hanging on to dear life in pursuit of sweet, sweet victory. There were no gates. It was just a top-to-bottom brawl. (They were also timed on their way up, as if the race wasn’t intense enough already.) And, in first place was none other than Dick Durrance, the Dartmouth College athlete who would later become a national champion in multiple events, and compete in the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany: the first Olympic Games that included alpine skiing.
Durrance and company set a strong tone for The Thunderbolt’s future on that February day in Northwestern Massachusetts. And, in turn, throughout the following years, this trail would host many more high-level ski races—each one drawing loads of fans and high-level athletes alike. Perhaps the most notable event of all was the 1942 Massachusetts State Downhill, when a 16-year-old sophomore from Adams High named Bill Linscott showed up and, to everyone’s surprise, won. He beat out a number of worthy opponents, including the mighty Durrance, and became an instant local hero
On the surface, The Thunderbolt’s future was looking promising. Between the successful races taking place and the surplus of folks just skiing the trail for fun, all appeared to be well. But in the background, a couple of major factors were indicating otherwise.
For one, ski resorts—places where you could ride lifts, pomas, J-bars, and T-Bars instead of trudging to summits on your own—were opening at unprecedented rates. This meant hosting ski races became a lot easier, and old-school hills like the Thunderbolt were, unfortunately, irrelevant. Meanwhile, a far bigger force was also at hand: World War II. Most Thunderbolters left skiing behind to serve. Though, interestingly enough, the town of Adams sent more troops to the 10th Mountain Division per capita than any other U.S. city. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
The ski resort boom and World War II both had major impacts on The Thunderbolt. The trail became almost completely dormant and, subsequently, those briers and rocks and other New England-y obstacles began to dominate the landscape, yet again. Some people would ski the trail occasionally, but it wasn’t anything like the good old days. And when it came to ski racing in particular, that ship had sailed entirely. No races were held at all.
“I grew up in Adams and always had a love affair with the outdoors, especially Mount Greylock,” says Mahar—a born and raised Adams skier, and biology teacher of 20 some-odd years at Adams High. “I’d heard about the Thunderbolt, but at that time, in the ‘90s, it was a pretty rough trail. It was skiable, but it really wasn’t maintained at all. Just not a great run [laughs]. Nonetheless, my natural, curious mind wondered about The Bolt and I started learning about its crazy history. I knew I had to tell the story, somehow.”
With a shoestring budget acquired from a grant, Mahar rounded up a bunch of savvy highschoolers and created a documentary, for school credit, about The Bolt. Upwards of 20 students worked on the project—handling cameras, sound, artwork, research, and more. It was the real deal. They called the film Purple Mountain Majesty—honoring the certain hue of Purple that Greylock dons with just the right light, especially in the early and late hours of the day.
“We really expected it to come out like some cheesy, public television documentary but, at that time, computer editing was just kind of hitting the market and it came out better than we ever thought,” says Mahar. “It won first place in the Northeast Video and Film Festival and things really took off from there.”
Mahar put everything he had into Purple Mountain Majesty and, along the way, his passion for The Bolt grew immensely. More specifically, he desperately wanted to clean the trail up and get it back in tip-top shape. So, the already-busy biology teacher rounded up a small contingent of like-minded, passionate skiers, and they got to work whenever they could—hacking away at the grown-in mess just like the CCC troops had done decades before.
“By the early 2000s, there were about four or five of us heading up there all the time to clear the trail again,” says Josh Chittenden: a jolly Adams local who worked on Purple Mountain Majesty as a high school junior. Today, he’s the manager at a famed, nearby gear shop, Berkshire Outfitters, and probably knows The Bolt better than anybody.
“Back then, the trail really had no caretakers,” he says. “Trees were down. The brush was thick. The whole mess was accumulating.”
The trail eventually began looking like its old self. Optimism outgrew the mess. And, in 2008, Mahar, Chittenden, and other local skiers took the next step by forming the Thunderbolt Skirunners: a real-deal organization aimed at protecting and preserving the integrity of the Thunderbolt Ski Trail. And as they returned the trail to its original form, their dreams grew even bigger. The topic of ski racing came to the forefront once again, and plans began evolving for a race in the winter of 2010: the trail’s 75th anniversary.
“When we decided to have the race, we knew we’d want to widen the trail and reclaim it. That’s when the bulk of the work began,” says Mahar. “We began cooperating with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation in a very official, formal kind of way. We’d go up and flag trees we wanted to remove, they’d approve ‘em, and we’d take ‘em down. That’s when the trail really began to get a lot wider and a lot more safe.”
Deep down, no one knew what they were doing. Or, as Mahar puts it, “We had no idea how to pull a race off. Absolutely. No. Idea.” They understood, of course, that hard work was required to pull off the race. But it wasn’t entirely clear how much hard work was lied ahead.
“There are a lot of jobs that you just don’t foresee right away,” says Chittenden. “To really pull off a good, quality race, it takes a lot of help and a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Who’s going to park cars? Who’s going to spot racers down the whole trail? Who’s going to cover timing? Who’s going to cover safety? For that last factor alone, we’ve had to find 30-something ski patrollers just to ensure the race is safe.”
The organizers gave themselves nearly two years to plan the race—which felt like the blink of an eye—and, when it was finally go-time, everything clicked. Most importantly, there was snow on the ground: a major relief considering The Bolt has no snowmaking and relies entirely on Ma’ Nature for proper conditions. Additionally, the Build-it-and-They-Will-Come approach proved to be successful. Volunteers lined the trail from top to bottom on race day, loads of skiers showed up to compete, and spectators flowed in steadily. Alas, ski racing had returned to The Thunderbolt.
“We had everything from old college racers to new racers to everyone in between, and got about 100 racers up there that very first year,” says Chittenden. “The new race tries to mimic a little bit of the olden-day race, when you had to ascend Mt. Greylock with your own power—whether it was with snowshoes or skins—and get timed on the way up,” says Chittenden. “After the hike, your time stops, then your downhill run is timed separately.”
After that 75th anniversary race, the Thunderbolt Skirunners were fired up and agreed keep it going. So, in 2011, the crew pulled the whole darn thing off again. But the Thunderbolt just wouldn’t be the Thunderbolt without some drama; from 2012 up to the present day, the race’s success rate has been unpredictable…
“We’ve tried to hold the race for eight years now and, in those eight years, we’ve pulled it off four times,” says Mahar. “Oftentimes, we try to hold the race and there’s really good snow up through February, then we lose it. We have medals, we have trophies, we have T-shirts, and then we come within a few days of the race and just get rain or whatever else might come. So, we’re batting 50%.”
Batting 50% gets old. So what the Thunderbolt Skirunners hope to do, moving forward, is work smarter, and not harder.
“What we’re thinking about doing is running it a bit more like the Olympics—maybe holding it every three or four years,” says Chittenden. “That way, we can build the hype for each race and keep ourselves sane.”
“If we do that, it might feel a bit more special,” adds Mahar. “People might want to volunteer more and race more.”
In other words, there will be no Thunderbolt race in 2018. There will be a separate ski-mountaineering race on the Thunderbolt this winter, weather permitting, that’s part of the New England Randonee Series. But the Thunderbolt Skirunners’ alpine event is going to take a breather—a well-deserved, understandable breather. And, in doing so, they intend to shift their focus back to the mountain itself.
“We’re going to take some time off. Enjoy the mountain. Reassess,” says Mahar. “On a weekend, you’ll find 100 people a day on the Thunderbolt. And, it’s kind of a catch-22; we’ve made the mountain more popular, but with that comes a lot of traffic, so we want to maintain The Bolt as a place for people to come and ski, but in a way that we can preserve the mountain.”
This isn’t a sad ending. It’s not an ending, at all, really. Ski racing on The Thunderbolt will live on. Because this trail—this rugged, insane, historic trail—has a way of instilling a irresistable hope in people that will never die.
But Chittenden says it best: “The camaraderie is what keeps the trail up and going. That’s what it’s all about. Skiing’s just a bonus.”