Thunderbolt Ski Race Celebrates History Of Mountain's Trailblazers
A unique ski race on Mount Greylock Saturday celebrates the history of those who braved the mountain’s trails years ago.
Art Bourdon grew up skiing the Thunderbolt Trail on Mount Greylock in Adams, Massachusetts.
“It’s a rough trail and when we were skiing it, the equipment we had was practically nothing, you know?” Bourdon said chuckling. “Just a strap around the ski.”
Bourdon and 18 others from the town used the skills they honed on the mountain when they went to serve their country during World War II. Blair Mahar is a friend of Bourdon’s and in 2008 helped formed the Thunderbolt Ski Runners.
“So all these guys from Adams grow up cutting their teeth skiing on the Thunderbolt as teenagers with the mountain in their backyard basically,” Mahar explained. “They become very proficient skiers and in the early 1940s, the first U.S. mountain division, the 10th Mountain Division is formed out in Colorado. You had to have three letters of recommendation just to get in. So you had to go to local people in the area who could testify as to your mountaineering and ski skills. So these guys all get their three letters and they’re just volunteering like crazy to go into the 10th Mountain Division.”
As part of the weekend’s celebrations, the Thunderbolt Ski Museum is hosting a lecture by author Charlie Sanders Friday night. Sanders’ book The Boys of Winter highlights the role U.S. ski troops played in the Second World War.
“More men from Adams went into the 10th Mountain Division during World War II per capita than any other town in America,” Mahar said. “So we’re a small town, but per capita we sent a lot of boys off to the 10th.”
Bourdon says all but one of the Adams boys came home after serving in the 85th, 86th and 87th regiments of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Italy. Rudy Konieczny was killed in action on April 17, 1945. He is commemorated in Sanders’ book and in the Thunderbolt museum along with the other men from Adams. Bourdon, now 90, recalls a night in Italy’s Apennine Mountains when members of his unit got separated from one another.
“He says well Sergeant, go back and get them,” Bourdon recalls. “So I went back down the mountain. We were almost on top. Went back down the mountain, in the dark, 3 o’clock in the morning. I knew these guys were near a cliff. I didn’t hit it in the right spot, but I was right above them. So I was talking to them telling them to go my left and I’d pick them up and we’d go back up the mountain. The rock beneath my feet let go and down I went.”
Bourdon’s injuries landed him the hospital for 13 days.
“I fell off a cliff and got hurt,” Bourdon said. “You don’t get any medals for that.”
When Bourdon and the others returned to Adams, they continued skiing Mount Greylock, offering lessons to kids three nights a week during the winter.
“When we came home, now that’s another story,” Bourdon said. “We all joined together. It was just like old times all over again.”
The Thunderbolt Trail was a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. After its inaugural race in 1935, the trail garnered the attention of Olympians from across the world and served as the site of championship races for what is now the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. In 2010, Mahar and others brought the race back for its 75th anniversary after it had been missing from the mountain for more than 30 years. What makes the race so unique is that the stopwatch starts at the bottom of the mountain. Skiers and snowboarders strap their equipment onto their backs and trek three miles up the mountain to race 1.6 miles down…just like the old days. The fastest total time up and down the mountain is less than one hour. As in years past, Bourdon hopes he and the other 10th Mountain veterans can place the medals around the necks of this year’s winners.
“You take the Thunderbolt right now and you take an eight year-old kid with the new equipment like they have today, he’d come down there like nothing,” said Bourdon.