On Mount Greylock’s Thunderbolt Trail
In 1938, a German ski team was dispatched to Western Massachusetts by Adolf Hitler to compete in the Eastern Downhill Championships, which were held that year on the slopes of Mount Greylock.
Over 7,000 spectators lined the wooded ski trail called Thunderbolt. They witnessed the defeat of local favorite Rudy Konieczny of Adams, who was that year’s runner-up, by the University of Munich’s Fritz Dehmel.
Seven years later, during the Second World War, Konieczny was killed in combat while serving as a member of the U.S. Army Tenth Mountain Division in the Italian Alps. In 1999, at the summit of Mount Greylock, descendants of the Konieczny family took part in a ceremony dedicating the Thunderbolt Ski Shelter to the former skier and soldier. This winter, that dedicated shelter will keep dozens of skiers and boarders warm as they wait for the beginning of this year’s Thunderbolt Ski Race.
Skiing is a pastime steeped in history. Many of its most famous trails whisper old stories that can still be heard through the frozen snow pack. Not many trails, however, are as legendary as the Thunderbolt Trail, which continues to wind its way unassumingly through the eastern hardwoods of Mount Greylock, just as it has for more than three-quarters of a century. At 3,491 feet, Massachusetts’ highest peak does not enjoy the impressive elevation or the reliable snowfall of so many other notable peaks across the skiing landscape. But few mountains have played so important a role in skiing’s history.
“The Thunderbolt [is] much more than just a ski trail,” David Goodman suggests in Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski Tours in New England and New York. “Built in the wake of the Great Depression, the trail formed the hub of a bustling ski subculture.” Indeed, it was the growing local interest in skiing as a winter activity that led to the trail’s creation in the first place.
By the time construction on the Thunderbolt began, ski pioneers had been exploring Mount Greylock for decades. In 1908, two years after receiving his Ph.D. in chemistry, Schenectady’s Irving Langmuir became the first skier to glide through Greylock’s glades. But it is another first for which the intrepid backcountry skier and chemist is best known: Langmuir won the Nobel Prize in 1932, becoming the first in his field to do so.
A year after Mount Greylock’s first skiing alumnus received his Nobel, the local ski culture of Western Mass. was preparing to construct a world-class run down the Berkshires’ biggest mountain. In 1933, Massachusetts’ 107th Company of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), based in Savoy, began cutting the trail they called Thunderbolt, named after a Revere Beach roller coaster located just north of Boston.
The Thunderbolt Trail was given an Expert Class-A ranking by the United States Eastern Amateur Ski Association (today’s United States Ski and Snowboard Association) and quickly earned an impressive reputation. “It’s undoubtedly the most thrilling wooded run yet built in the country,” marveled Colorado’s celebrated downhill champion Joseph Duncan. “It beats anything in the Rockies.”
Increased popularity soon followed. “A number of local ski clubs made the pilgrimage to Greylock every weekend,” notes Goodman. They included “the Mount Greylock Ski Club, the Thunderbolt Ski Club, and the Ski Runners of Adams, as well as local college teams from Williams and Amherst colleges.”
Thunderbolt’s inaugural race was held in 1935. The winner, with an impressive time of two minutes and 48 seconds, was Dartmouth College’s legendary Dick Durrance. A year later, Amherst College’s Jarvis Schauffler earned the victory, clocking in at two minutes and 26 seconds. But the all-time course record was set in 1948 by Norway’s Per Klippgen, who practically flew down the 1.6-mile route, descending its 2,050 feet in just two minutes and eight seconds.
In February, 2010, the Thunderbolt Ski Race celebrated the 75th anniversary of its original running. Racers were timed along the same course that had been cut by the CCC decades ago, but competed with the advantage of plastic boots, metal edges, helmets and all the other outdoor trappings common to today’s mountain adventurers. The winning time was three minutes and one second. The following year it was two minutes and 59 seconds. (Thunderbolt 2012 and 2013 were canceled due to lack of snow.)
“Modern equipment and technique [are] still no match for the guts, passion, and style of the ski pioneers,” Goodman notes.
Following Klippgen’s race, the Thunderbolt fell into a long period of relative dormancy, with only a few unofficial races running irregularly throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. During the 1970s, there was talk about putting a lift on Greylock, but those plans never came to fruition. As the saplings and brush of the Berkshires continued their slow encroachment on Mount Greylock’s famed trail over the next couple of decades, it began to look as though final chapter of the Thunderbolt’s ski history had already been written.
But the 1990s saw resurgent interest in backcountry skiing. Hoosac Valley High teacher Blair Maher produced the documentary Purple Mountain Majesty: A History of the Thunderbolt Ski Run, which won first place for amateur documentary film in the Northeast Film and Video Festival in 2000. Local backcountry enthusiasts then began meeting, clearing and skiing the trail regularly. Suddenly the Thunderbolt was reborn, and a legend was alive.
“[Modern-day] Thunderbolt skiers have done more than restore a ski trail,” notes Goodman. “They have created a living museum on Mount Greylock, bringing history to life and recreating the vibrant community that thrived around the trail.”
Maher served as president of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners for three years and race director for two. He is still an active member of the board. The organization aims “to preserve the integrity and continue the legacy of the Thunderbolt Ski Run,” which they do, in part, by organizing and hosting the annual Thunderbolt Ski Race.
This year’s Thunderbolt Ski Race will be held on March 1. The competition will be limited to 120 racers divided into four categories: alpine, telemark, snowboard, and women’s open (combining alpine, telemark and snowboard). (For more information, see http://www.thunderboltskirunners.org/race.)
As always, racers won’t merely be competing with and against the others on the trail that day, but with all those who have slid down Greylock’s slopes before, contributing to the lore that is the Thunderbolt Trail.
“As you descend this epic run today,” Goodman suggests, “picture yourself shadowing a 1930s racer down the Thunderbolt. The skier clad in wool knickers is bearing down the mountain on his long wooden boards. His baggy clothes flap hysterically in the wind. Friends cheer … you follow, hanging on as you hurtle through history.”
Skiing the Thunderbolt has long been a reverential experience. Thanks to the dedicated locals who have restored interest in the trail as well as accessibility to it, the Thunderbolt experience will be enjoyed for many winters to come.
(Originally appeared in Preview Massachusetts, and then in the Valley Advocate.)