A Legend in the Snow
Schussing down Mount Greylock’s Thunderbolt Trail
What do Nazi ski racers, J.K. Rowling’s wizards, Herman Melville, 10th Mountain Division heroes, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and one of America’s iconic ski races have in common?
The answer lies atop Mount Greylock, the modest Massachusetts high point.
At 3,491 feet, the Berkshire peak is a middling mountain, ranked 31st on a list of America’s state high points. Still, even with mountains, size isn’t everything. Story matters, too. Melville lived at the base of Greylock and dedicated his seventh novel to the mountain. More recently, J.K. Rowling chose the weather-beaten summit as the site of America’s leading school of wizardry—although it is protected by spells, so visitors searching for it have had no luck thus far.
For skiers, it is the real-life legends that capture the imagination. Greylock’s Thunderbolt Trail is one of the East’s iconic backcountry ski experiences, different than, but on a par with famed Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire. Built by the Depression-era CCC 107th Company, the Thunderbolt was designed as a world-class downhill course, but it also became a classic New England backcountry experience, where skiers trek uphill using “skins” (lengths of fabric that keep skis from sliding back down as they go uphill), then ski down on natural, ungroomed snow.
Famed and fêted in the 1930s, the trail and its eponymous race turned the town of Adams into a “little Switzerland,” complete with snow sports shops and a ski train that brought thousands of spectators from New York. Local Thunderbolt skiers competed in what was then the new Olympic sport of downhill skiing, and Adams sent more skier-soldiers to fight in World War II with the famed 10th Mountain Division than any other city in the country.
Before even getting to the Alps, the Berkshire boys had already faced off against a handful of Nazis—on the slopes of the Thunderbolt. In 1938, the German government, hoping to demonstrate Aryan superiority, sent a team of college ski racers to the famed American race. Archival footage shows them wearing their swastikas—and winning. The German students might have won the Battle of the Thunderbolt, but the 10th Mountain troops were on the winning side of the war. Ironically, many returning 10th Mountain skier-soldiers became pioneers of the new lift-served downhill ski industry, which pushed backcountry skiing into near oblivion. The Thunderbolt was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
Then, in the 1990s, the trail was rediscovered. Blair Mahar, an outdoorsman and Hoosac Valley High School biology teacher, recalls his fascination with the history in his backyard. “It wasn’t only that the trail was so important to the history of skiing,” he says. “Some of the people who made that history were still around.” Determined to preserve the stories, he enlisted students to make an award-winning documentary Purple Mountain Majesty. The 1999 film combines oral histories from Thunderbolt pioneers with archival film and photographs. Old equipment, artifacts, and footage also are on display at the Thunderbolt Museum in Adams.
One of Mahar’s students was Josh Chittenden, manager of Berkshire Outfitter in Adams and board member of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners, which preserves and maintains the trail. The renewed interest led to resurrecting the race, using the course from the 1930s, he says.
“There were so many questions,” recalls Chittenden. “How do we even get started? What about things like insurance, which the early racers probably never considered. Was it even possible?”
Ultimately, he took the plunge as race course director for what would become the 75th anniversary race in 2010 and set to work reclaiming the trail and clearing it of the most dangerous obstructions. Volunteers included 40 ski patrollers and 40 civilians managing everything from timing to registration to the pre-race dinner. But all the clearing in the world can’t tame this trail. East Coast skiers take pride in skiing on mud-splattered slush, weaving through trees, and dodging rocks and roots—the Thunderbolt serves all of those up.
“It’s an intermediate trail with expert conditions,” says Steve Sauve, a member of the board of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners. He might be understating the difficulty. The United States Eastern Amateur Ski Association (a precursor to the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, now the U.S. Ski & Snowboard) rated it an “Expert Class A Trail.” Typically resorts put out double-black diamond signs (experts only) when the slope is around 30 degrees. The Thunderbolt tops out at 35 degrees, and some of those sections have trees left, right, and center, rocks and roots underfoot, and tight turns. The trail runs 1.4 miles with a vertical drop of 2,050 feet—and there’s no road or lift to the top; you earn your turns, every last one of them.
“It takes two to three hours for newbies to go up, 45 minutes for the top guys,” says Crittenden. All that sweat earns a sweet four to six minute run down. Remarkably, years back, skiers on seven-foot-long wooden boards did the same.
The modern incarnation of the race is a project in flux. Since 2010, it has been planned as an annual event, with “king and queen of the mountain” honors going to the competitors with the fastest times. But winters aren’t what they used to be, and the race has been canceled due to lack of snow about as often as it has been held. So the Thunderbolt Ski Runners are giving the race a break. “It takes as much effort to plan it and not do it as it does to plan it and do it,” Crittenden says, “and that is dispiriting. We might pick up doing the race again once every few years.”
In the meantime, the race survives in a new incarnation as “The Bolt,” a part of the New England Rando Race series, sanctioned by the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association. The course is not for the faint of heart: three laps of climbing and descending Mount Greylock via skinning, hiking, and skiing. Last year’s warm and snowless February forced the race to move to Berkshire East, where a hardcore group of racers skied an alternate course of three laps up and down. It’s back on schedule for February 23 on Mount Greylock; the back-up location is the Catamount Ski Area.
Members of the Thunderbolt Trail Runners continue to maintain the trail, making it available to the public whenever the snow is deep enough. Of the four Class A trails built by the CCC in New England—the Taft Trail, Nose Dive, Wildcat, and Thunderbolt—only the Thunderbolt exists as it did in the 1930s, when it was described by national downhill champion Joseph H. Duncan from Colorado “undoubtedly the most thrilling wooded run yet built in the country, it beats anything in the Rockies.” On a deep-powder weekend, expect hundreds of skiers trudging up to schuss down in the tracks of history.