From cowbell champagne parties to broomstick wars on one ski—a look at Valley events, past and present…
Driving down Route 100, you’ll pass unconcerned cows leisurely grazing on green hillsides, and small towns with general stores and tidy clapboard houses. Impression: a quiet, rural life. But there’s more going on in the Mad River Valley than the cows let on. Dotting the calendar, in and among New Year’s celebrations, the summer equinox, and leaf-peeping season, are events and traditions that have endured for decades and are celebrated by generations of Vermont natives and visitors alike. Here’s a nostalgic look at events past and present.
The Gelandesprung Championship is a long-jump tradition dating back to the 1960s, when Mt. Ellen was Glen Ellen and you could ski for the season for just $150. A massive jump is built in the same place each year—on the hill facing the base lodge, making the deck the perfect spot to watch costumed and courageous competitors fly into the air, leaping for long-distance glory.
Every March, as the winter winds down, we find an excuse to drink champagne. The Cowbell Champagne Party originated in 1963, when Glen Ellen’s founder, Walt Elliott, invited guests behind the bar on the second floor of the base lodge (then known as the Golden Thistle) to test their cork-shooting prowess. If they hit the cowbell (a gift from Städeli Lifts) that was hanging from the rafters, drinks were on the house. Sugarbush resurrected the tradition when Mt. Ellen turned half a century old. Today’s bell was a gift to Win Smith from Walt’s daughter, Tracie, but the contest remains the same. If you’re old enough to buy a bottle and your aim is true, a prize and Champagne Party glory are yours.
The Chez Henri Cup, an annual wine-and-cheese-fueled ski race held at Lincoln Peak, made its debut back in 1986 when longtime Valley restaurant owner Henri Borel combined his love of skiing with his love of wine. These days, skiers of all ages compete for the best time on the Racer’s Edge NASTAR course. (Now ninety-one, Borel himself is still a regular competitor.) Winners get medals and affirmation at the after-party held at Chez Henri, along with fondue and wine (of course), and the chance to win raffle items donated by area businesses. It’s a true community event, and proceeds are given to local nonprofit organizations.
Men in bikini tops, women dressed as chickens, kids in superhero costumes, and resort owners in Aloha shirts race down the slope toward a 120-foot-long, ice-cold pond with the intention of not getting wet. Since 1969, Sugarbush has attracted spirited skiers of all shapes and sizes to participate in Pond Skimming, an annual rite of passage from winter to spring. According to former Sugarbush marketing director Chan Weller, the Pond Skimming competition is the second longest running in the country. Selling out annually with 110 participants, it’s still going strong, with second and third generations of the same families dressing up to brave the icy waters.
Recognizing that no lone run can justly measure a skier’s talent, Mad River Glen hosts the annual Triple Crown Competition, challenging skiers to three competitions in Mad River’s “Ski It if You Can” style. How gracefully can you make it down Lift Line’s challenging terrain under the single chair? How many vertical feet can you track in a day? (The record is a whopping 60,000!) Can you make it through the mogul field with finesse? Every year, one man and one woman are coronated (crown and all). Three days, three events—and 365 days of bragging rights.
Nothing says summer like sunshine, cold brews, and bluegrass music. 2018 marked the eighth annual Brew-Grass Fest hosted at Sugarbush’s Lincoln Peak. About thirty local brewers from across the state pour some of their favorite brews (some traditional, some funky, some limited edition, like last year’s Maple Barrel-Aged Czernobog by Harpoon or Orange Dream from Otter Creek—think creamsicle). Food vendors set up shop with items ranging from traditional BBQ to wood-fired pizza to tater tot nachos. Jammin’ bluegrass musicians keep the vibe feeling good all day long. There’s no better way to taste the finest liquid Vermont has to offer than with your friends, a sample cup, and a pretzel necklace around your neck.
The Warren Parade, which took its seventieth trip down Main Street in July 2018, is a beloved Independence Day celebration that rejoices in patriotism and the right to free speech in the form of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) political satire. The parade has evolved over the years: At its start, it was a post–World War Two victory march, with kids and their cows meandering their way down the street. The event gained popularity and took on a Mardi Gras–style atmosphere when Vermont’s open-container laws were relaxed in the 2000s. Hundreds of bottles of champagne were sold during the parade, and local businesses took snow shovels to the streets to clean up debris. These days, even though open-container laws are back in place, there’s still fun to be had for the thousands of spectators. You might see Bernie Sanders (in real life or as a giant papier-mâché float), you might get soaked by snow guns, and you will definitely hear live music coming from the balcony of the Warren Store.
From the early 1970s until the late 1990s, music festivals brought the talents of Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Doc Watson, and Phish to the Sugarbush mountainside. Every year, with local anxiety running high and crowds reaching into the thousands, festival organizers would plan for the worst. One former Sugarbush employee recalls taking the microphone at an event and announcing, “If you want to do this again, you need to leave this place cleaner than when you arrived.” The crowd complied. Decades later, the Frendly Gathering has brought that “leave no trace” festival sensibility back to Sugarbush. For the past two summers, Frendly festival-goers from the age of three on have set up camp and hula-hooped, practiced yoga among the butterflies, eaten tempura-fried broccoli, and danced to the tunes of Twiddle, Turkuaz, Madaila, and other favorite bands.
These days, the month of March means a series of events that are becoming new traditions, including the Island Weekend and Sugaring Time Festival. Yet the March Madness of yesteryear takes the cake for bringing crazy fun to the mountain almost every day of the month. The Tube Off sent folks in inner tubes down a sculpted mountain run. Sometimes they made it the whole way; other times they flew off the berms, to the delight of the crowd. The Waiter’s Slalom featured ski-boot-clad waitstaff from Valley restaurants competing to see who could balance a tray carrying a filled glass and bottle from one end of an obstacle course to the other. There was Disco Ice Skating, Casino Night at the Sugarbush Inn, the Mini Superstars Olympic-style games, and the Valley House Dance Contest. The Tomato Wars, an innovation likely born over a nightcap at a local bar, brought hundreds of tomato warriors from Boston and New York to Bragg Hill for a day of well-planned and well-intended debauchery. Armbanded teams competed with bags of tomatoes—like paintball, but with donated fruit—to win a giant game of Capture the Flag. If you were hit? Your only hope for aid was back at headquarters, where a draught of beer would put you back on your feet.
And then there was Sloshwicking. Racers clad in one snowshoe (to get up the hill) and one ski (to get down) raced in the name of “Slosh”—a made-up town fighting a made-up war … with broomsticks. (You’d be hard pressed to find a more useful tool for tripping your competitors facefirst into the snow than a broomstick.) The sixtieth anniversary sounds like a good time to bring this one back.