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The 75th Running of the Thunderbolt Downhill Race

It's one wicked-old ski race in New England.
posted: 01/28/2010
A racer charges down the Thunderbolt in the late 1940s.

While the cowbell whackers of the world will unite at the Olympics this February, Right Coasters will gather for an entirely different ski race on home turf, a race that has hosted legends and Nazis alike. On February 20, skiers and boarders will stand atop western Massachusetts’s 3,491-foot Mount Greylock for the 75th running of the Thunderbolt Downhill on a steep and narrow trail that was once New England’s premier downhill course. There are no lodges or chair lifts; the only way to the start gate is by hiking or skinning.

The Thunderbolt was originally cut and cleared by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, with the first race held the next year. From 1935 through World War II, the course attracted world-class racers and drew fans by the thousands thanks to a ski train that came from Manhattan. Competitors included Aspen legend Dick Durrance and Toni Matt, who famously straightlined the headwall at Tuckerman Ravine in 1939. In 1938, when Greylock hosted the U.S. Eastern Downhill Championships, Nazi Germany entered a team. Later, after skiers abandoned the course in favor of lift-served ski hills, it gradually deteriorated until it was just another hiking trail in the Mount Greylock State Reservation, skied by no one but a few devoted Thunderbolt Downhill racers. And we all know what happened to the National Socialist Party.

But after years of backbreaking course restoration by the Thunderbolt Ski Runners—a handful of local volunteers and history buffs—the Thunderbolt has risen again. The racers will compete in six categories: alpine, telemark, snowboard, female, fastest ascent, and, of course, the vintage-gear class. With all 120 race spots filled by early November, the ’Bolt is poised to reclaim some of its past glory. Hopefully no one invites the Nazis.  —Todd Felton

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