By Melinda Moulton
Elizabeth Stratton Pratt and I first met in 1978. She hired me to run her ski school desk at Mad River Glen. I had never met anyone quite like Betsy. She was loved, feared, respected, and, although tiny in body, her stature was tall and powerful. Not fond of idle chat, or any chat at all for that matter, when she spoke you listened because what she had to say mattered. I must admit that Betsy Pratt intimidated me, but she also became one of my first strong female role models and I wanted to be like her.
Betsy Pratt was recently inducted into the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. It would be impossible for any ski organization to ignore the significant role Betsy Pratt played in skiing’s history which is so often filled with accolades for the men who led the sport. She was an uncompromising force who ensured that Mad River Glen would always remain a unique world class mountain experience.
OPENED IN 1948
Mad River Glen opened in 1948. Roland Palmedo was an adventurer and New York financier. He and a few investors bought 1,800 acres of General Stark Mountain in Fayston, Vermont. He carved Mad River Glen into the eastern side of the mountain and promised that it would offer skiers the joy of the mountain experience and would not be driven by profits.
“I guess my earliest memories here of skiing is seeing Roland on the mountain. In those days there were not any machines to groom the trails and there was just the patrol to see that it was safe for people. It was in the 1950s and it took hours to get to Vermont from New York and you had to travel on mud and country roads. We would come to Mad River for 16 weekends in a row,” Pratt recalled.
She began skiing while at Vassar and became a member of the New York Amateur Ski Club, which was founded by Roland Palmedo in 1931. Their lodge remains at the base of the mountain. Pratt married Truxton Pratt, a New York banker, in 1954. She worked as assistant treasurer of the Ford Foundation and she worked on the Omnibus Television Program. She had four children: Polly Pratt, Amanda Pratt Seigel, Liz Pratt Redinbo, and Truxton Pratt. They all learned to ski at Mad River and the family had a ski home in the Mad River Valley.
She recalled in the 1988 film about Mad River Glen called “Spirit of a Classic” by Rick Moulton “I have always said it is the love for the mountain that holds the community together, and I think Roland Palmedo gave us that. He just built a lift so we can go up and enjoy the mountain. I have never taken a chair to the top and wished I was on the bottom.”
Mad River Glen is a one-of-a-kind ski area unmarred by change, and I encourage anyone who has been intimidated by its challenging slogan “Mad River Glen, Ski It if You Can” to put that aside and ski this mountain. It is a skiable mountain for those just starting out and the ski school is one of the finest in the country. Some of the gentler trails are “Bunny, Robin, Birdland, Snail, and Porcupine.” The snow is primarily real with some snowmaking which makes the experience that much more natural.
The mountain receives heavy snowfall because of its location within the Vermont Green Mountains. The humidity from Lake Champlain on the west coast of Vermont is carried southeast over the Green Mountains to support good snow conditions. The mountain provides a family and community experience with a small-town vibe and local energy that makes everyone feel welcome. I do not want to minimize the intensity of the mountain for those who have skied far bigger areas. Even the best skier will find challenging terrain that can send a chill up your spine and a flutter in your gut of excitement – trails like Fall Line, Chute, Paradise, and Panther. Woods skiing is encouraged and after a snowfall that is where you will find the most daring. With a 2,000-vertical-foot rise, this mountain is formidable, affordable, and has a uniquely easygoing character.
PURCHASED MRG IN 1972
In 1972 Truxton and Betsy Pratt along with Brad Swett and a few other investors purchased Mad River Glen from Roland Palmedo. They installed the practice hill chairlift, expanded the size of the Base Box, and installed some snowmaking. They were committed to preserving the mountain, protecting its natural beauty and vertical terrain. Trux Pratt died in 1975. Betsy Pratt, with four young children, bought out Brad Swett’s interest and with the backing of the other investors became the majority owner of Mad River Glen. For the next 20 years Pratt nurtured and led the business, mountain, skiers, community and her family with focus and determination. She skied the mountain, ran the business, visioned for its future, and kept it alive and thriving.
Her children reminisced recently at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame induction that she dug deep into the family’s resources to keep the business going through the toughest of winters, even mortgaging their home. One wonders how she found the resolve and the depth of commitment, but I believe that she genuinely loved the mountain. She connected with those skiers who arrived early for the “milk run” to catch the new fallen snow. She identified with those who took to the woods on a clear windless below zero February morning seeking to be alone with just the sound of their skis in the deep powder. In comparing Mad River to other ski areas, she noted: ''Modern ski areas are carpets. People at Mad River learn to ski because they ski in any conditions. Carpets don't teach people to ski, just to slide on snow.''
Pratt held tight to her love of this place protecting the skiers’ experience until one day she decided to retire. With her brilliant mind and visionary gift, Pratt decided to sell Mad River Glen to all those who shared her love of the mountain. Within a couple of years 1,500 Mad River Glen skiers stepped up to become the first owners of the mountain, and Pratt financed those who needed assistance buying shares. The Mad River Glen Co-Op was launched in 1995 and it stands stronger today, 27 years later, with well over 2,000 shareholders. For $2,000 one can own a piece of this mountain, which provides them with voice and a vote at the shareholders’ annual meeting. This solution protected and preserved the mission and vision of Roland Palmedo and Truxton and Betsy Pratt and now the shareholders. She was a maverick who bucked all the trends she disliked in the modern ski industry: consolidation, expansion, corporate ownership, and profit motivation.
A SKIER’S MOUNTAIN
Pratt, now 94 years old, still holds strong to the belief that Mad River Glen should remain a skier’s mountain and the shareholders have held firm to this policy. Snowboarding is not allowed at Mad River Glen, and it is only one of three mountains in the country to remain truly a skier’s mountain. For you see, most often you are alone on the mountain because of the limited lift capacity which controls how many people can ride up at any one time. The skiing experience is designed to allow skiers solitude, peace, and an independent run without feeling impacted by a high volume of people on the trails.
Today in 2022 the child I was carrying in my womb in 1978 when I first met Pratt is now a board member of the Mad River Glen Co-Op. The board is made up of local and out-of-state skiers and they report to the shareholders. Pratt leaves a legacy steeped in challenging work, personal sacrifice, innate genius, and gritty tenacity. In her own words, “I just think future generations will bring various kinds of equipment, different ideas, different athletic moves, whatever, but we will all challenge this mountain – we will all fall in love with this mountain and just being here.”