When he was 12, John Buchenroth received a Christmas gift of $10, which was a considerable sum in 1962. It turned out to be a life-changing gift for the Bellefontaine youngster. Three days later, he put on warm clothes and took his money to the area’s new Alpine ski resort, which had opened for its first season a few days before Christmas that year.
“It was my first day of skiing,” recalls Buchenroth, 73. “The lift ticket was a dollar-fifty, rental was a buck, my first lesson was a buck-fifty. And I fell in love with the sport.”
Sixty ski seasons later, Buchenroth is still in love — and he’s passed along his enthusiasm for skiing to thousands of beginners who have strapped on their first pair of skis at the Logan County resort now known as Mad River Mountain. Buchenroth is supervisor of the Ski and Ride School at Mad River, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this season.
Mad River has been owned by Vail Resorts since 2019, when the Colorado-based company purchased all 17 properties previously owned by Peak Resorts, Inc., including three other Ohio resorts. Mad River isn’t the oldest resort in Ohio — Snow Trails in Mansfield opened a year earlier — but it lays claim to being the largest in the Buckeye State, covering 144 acres, with a peak elevation of 1,460 feet above sea level.
The vertical drop is just 300 feet, a molehill compared to ski mountains out West (Vail, the flagship of Mad River’s corporate owner, boasts a vertical drop of 3,450 feet), but this humble Ohio ski hill has been the resort where generations of central Ohioans have learned to ski, either on their own or with their school ski clubs. Olympic and X Games snowboarder Louie Vito, who learned to ski at Mad River, went on to be a superstar. Most others simply move on to bigger mountains but bring their kids back to Mad River to get their start.
“We’re teaching kids and grandkids of people we have had in our programs,” Buchenroth says.
Located in the tiny village of Valley Hi, just outside of Bellefontaine, Mad River Mountain offers 20 ski runs, from the beginner area at the base of the hill to steeper, more challenging slopes and one wooded glade. There is a terrain park for Alpine acrobatics and a tubing park touted as Ohio’s largest. With Ohio winters unpredictable for snow, snowmaking is a must at all Ohio ski resorts, and Mad River has 128 snow guns, capable of covering all 144 skiable acres.
The resort’s new-ish lodge opened in 2016 after a fire destroyed the original lodge in 2015. The new lodge has increased capacity, seating 800 hungry skiers in the cafeteria and about 200 in The Loft bar.
The first couple of years have been a bit rocky for the new owners. The ski industry nationwide took a big hit during the pandemic, and operations during the 2021–22 season at Mad River were curtailed due to labor shortages and warm weather in December, which delayed the resort’s opening until Jan. 6, says Larry Kuebler, general manager of Mad River.
“We got a late start [and] we took away some operating hours, and people were not thrilled with that,” he says. “I don’t blame them one bit.”
Kuebler was optimistic as he was preparing for the opening of the 2022–23 season. Vail Resorts promised a $20-an-hour minimum wage for all positions, and Mad River started the season fully staffed, which has allowed a return to normal operating hours. Plans for the 60th anniversary season include weekly events, expanded menu offerings in the lodge, and a return to live music in the bar.
Vail Resorts considers attendance figures to be proprietary, Kuebler said. Prior to the pandemic, the resort’s previous owners said publicly that the ski hill sees about 150,000 skier visits and 40,000 tuber visits per season. Most come from Columbus, Dayton, and other mid-Ohio locations.
“We have so many passionate skiers who have been skiing here for so long, and they’re proud to call it home,” Kuebler says.
Over the past couple of decades, downhill skiing has witnessed a participation slump as Baby Boomers are aging out of the sport and not as many younger people are picking it up. Keubler said Mad River’s response has been to focus on recruiting new skiers and getting them involved in the ski school.
“If we’re going to help the overall industry, we have to focus on getting them to love the sport as we do,” he says.
School groups can be found at Mad River every night of the week. Many young skiers learn the sport through their school ski clubs, including Brady Whiteside, 18, a graduate of Hilliard Davidson High School who started snowboarding at Mad River in the seventh grade.
He learned to ski from Mad River instructors, who “taught us the basics” and inspired self-assurance, Whiteside says, so that later, when he began traveling to ski the much longer and steeper runs at Colorado resorts like Winter Park and Arapahoe Basin, he had confidence in his ability.
“You can only prepare so much for those crazy trails [in Colorado], but they took me as far as I could [at a hill the size of Mad River].”
Now a freshman at Ohio State University, Whiteside says Mad River can seem small, after skiing the big western mountains, but he will be going back to the local hill this winter.
“It’s close, and when I go to Mad River, I’m going to snowboard with friends,” he says. “We make our own fun.”