Snowstorms Mean Thunderbolt Anniversary Race Downhill From HereBy Ryan Holmes
12:52AM / Tuesday, March 02, 2010
ADAMS, Mass. — If Blair Mahar had it his way, he'd be teaching classes all the way into July.
All photos courtesy Thunderbolt Ski Runners
Skiers wait their turn at the run at the top of Mount Greylock back in the trail's heyday.
Mahar, a biology teacher at Hoosac Valley High School, is like many of his co-workers who crave an occasional snow day but don't want too many in fear it might cut into their summer vacation. This winter isn't a typical one for Mahar, however, as he's had to prepare for the 75th anniversary race of the Thunderbolt Ski Run — and that means plenty of snow.
The last formal race on the Thunderbolt took place in 1948 and, since then, the slope has mainly been used by ski enthusiasts brave enough to hike the two hours to the top of Mount Greylock just to make a single run. But two years ago, Mahar got together with some of the trail's biggest fans and formed a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the trail and making its diamond-anniversary run a reality.
Thus the Thunderbolt Ski Runners were born, with Mahar serving as president.
"One of the biggest duties of the Ski Runners is performing basic trail maintenance," Mahar said. "We take out overhanging limbs and trees that have blown down during storms and in the fall, we go up there with weed whackers and remove all of the summer growth. We get rid of all of the prickers and briars. They grow crazy up there, so we take that all out in order to keep the trail safe.
"For the past two years, we've been basically widening the trail and putting in water bars, so that erosion isn't a problem. We've also put in a massive bridge that allows skiers to get across a creek."
With the Thunderbolt in the best shape it's been in since the 1950s, all Mahar and the rest of the Ski Runners needed was enough snow to pull off the race, which was originally scheduled for Feb. 20. Things didn't go according to plan, however. Up until late January, the trail had a solid one-foot base and many of the 120 skiers and snowboarders who had registered for the race were taking practice runs. Then came a lull in the snowfall. Mix in a few days of unseasonably warm temperatures, and the race was in jeopardy of being canceled.
Mahar had originally said there would be no make-up date if the weather did not comply, but after seeing the passion of more than 100 volunteers dedicated in seeing the run go through, he decided he would try the race again on March 13. (The race runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but no new registrations are being taken.)
Last week, Mahar got some good news when a pair of snowstorms dumped over 2 feet of snow on and around Mount Greylock. Mahar got his snow day and all the white stuff he needed to feel confident the anniversary run would go off as planned.
Courtesy Thunderbolt Ski Runners
The original and new run down Mount Greylock.
"I don't even watch the weather so much," Mahar admitted. "After we delayed it from the 20th until the 13th, I really didn't think we would have it. We went from having rocks and sticks showing up there to about 3 or 4 feet of snow. It's about a waist-high right now, and we're really confident that the race will go as scheduled. It would take extremely warm temperatures in the next 12 days for all of that snow to go away."
"The long-range forecast is calling for the 30s, so I think we are golden."
With snow falling all day Wednesday and most of Friday last week, Mahar said that was more than enough to survive Thursday's daylong rain showers. As someone who has skied the Thunderbolt for the past 15 years, Mahar said he was more than satisfied with the trail when he took a practice run on Sunday.
"We got so much snow on Wednesday that we had a snow day," he said. "I live in Savoy about 2,000 feet high, so whatever is happening outside of my window is what is happening up on Greylock. I wasn't really worried about the cold rain. If it was 50 and raining, I would have been a little more worried. But even a cold rain can help pack the course down. Going up there today, I was really pleased with how much snow we had."
The Thunderbolt Ski Trail is Adams' most famous and historic ski run, a 1.6-mile long trek cut along the northeastern slope of the state's highest mountain. The Thunderbolt was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and has a vertical drop of 2,050 feet. A challenging and sometimes dangerous run, the Thunderbolt was used as a training ground by some Olympic skiers in the 1930s and 1940s.
Club members hike two hours up the side of Mount Greylock; it's faster coming down.
Now 40 years old and with a family at home, Mahar admitted that he's limited his runs down the Thunderbolt from 20 to about five or six times a year. He's still very passionate about the slope, however, and continues to enjoy the history of the trail as much as anything. Eleven years ago, Mahar came up with the idea of the Thunderbolt Race while working on a documentary about the trail.
"I think the main attraction is the trail has so much history," Mahar said. "I'm a history buff and every time I ski it, it's like going back in time. You can go ski that trail and it's the same trail that existed in the heyday of skiing in the 1930s or 1940s. The first race was in 1935 and the fact that it happened right here in Adams is just awesome.
"They used to call Adams a little Switzerland. It looked like a little Suisse ski community. People actually came on trains from New York and Boston to ski in Adams."
The Thunderbolt Trail is 15 feet wide at its narrowest point and 75 feet at its widest. Mahar said it's pretty similar to a black diamond trail at Jiminy Peak or Mount Snow, with a few extra winkles involved.
"You get a lot of vertical drops, and going down Greylock is a nice, long run," he said. "It doesn't differ that much from a black diamond trail at Jiminy, but it's more narrow. It's hard to slow your speed down on the Thunderbolt. It's narrow and that allows you to pick up your speed really quick. The last thing is that it's backcountry conditions. You can pick up some ice, some moguls and some hard-packed powder. It's not so much the terrain as much as it is the conditions that make it an expert trail."
Whether it's the history, the adventure or the difficulty of the trail, there seems to be a very big buzz surrounding the Thunderbolt Race. Mahar doesn't have a shortage or racers or volunteers, all who seem very eager to play a little part in one of the biggest things in Adams' past.
"I think people are looking for something different," Mahar said. "It probably goes back about 10 years or so. People are becoming more dissatisfied with lift lines and expensive lift tickets and $10 sodas at Mount Snow. I think people want something new and say to themselves, 'Why can't I ski for free?' The hike is long. It's about two hours, but it's part of the experience. People seek out the old-fashioned experience and they do it because it's not easy.
"I think people like that challenge."
For more information, www.thunderboltskirun.com/.