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Mad River Glen’s Rhythm Man

Unload it if you can. PHOTO: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Unload it if you can. PHOTO: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Mad River’s Rhythm Man

For 15 years, lift operator Brian Aust has been a fixture of the fastest fixed-grip chair in North America

Mad River Glen’s Single Chair has taken skiers some 2,000 feet up the face of the mountain since 1948 (refurbished in 2007). At a speed of 550 feet per minute, it is the longest and fastest fixed-grip single chair in North America and said to be one of the only lifts in the country where skiers can simultaneously unload and load at the mid station. Brian Aust is one of the few lift operators willing and able to pull off such a maneuver.

A savant of migratory songbirds, Aust, affectionately nicknamed the ‘Warbler,’ has been perched at the mid-station since 2002. Using binoculars to watch for skiers approaching the loading ramp from below, he hollers to confirm if they are planning to unload or continue to the summit. Should they choose to hop off halfway, Aust ushers them out and the next skier in line takes their seat, all in a matter of seconds. The dance happens in time to the music of his expertly curated playlists.

As skiers near the mid station, they’re likely to hear everything from rock ‘n’ roll to jazz to bluegrass, even classical. The Grateful Dead gets a full hour every day lest people complain.
During summer months, the Jersey-born liftie with a Master’s in ornithology works as an interpretive ranger in the Vermont State Parks, leading groups of visitors and students through educational programs of his own design. When the snow starts to fall, Aust switches gears and goes back to interpreting the rhythm of the Single Chair.

“There’s such a sense of community here that comes together organically,” says Mad River Marketing Director Eric Friedman. “The people are what make this place what it is–everyone here is crazy, but they’re our crazies. Warbler is the epitome of that.”

Sierra: Fifteen years is a serious relationship. Do you only have eyes for the Single Chair?
Brian: If I had to sit at the top of a high-speed quad and just watch that all day, I wouldn’t even last a whole season.

How’d she win your heart?
After a while you realize you’re part of something special; you’re responsible for this unique machine that can really hurt people if you’re not on the ball. It looks simple but it’s not. Anyone can sit by a button and stop the chair when somebody blows it, but it’s different with the Single Chair.

Loading and unloading on the same chair sounds insane.
Making that switch is something only a few operators will do. I’ve only had one collision, and it was between two very experienced skiers. It makes my boss a tiny bit nervous, but he knows I know what I’m doing, and I know I don’t want to get too cocky.

So it’s a “Load Here If You Can” situation. Got it. How did you become part of the “Ski It If You Can” crowd?
When I came to Vermont for college, I signed up for the ski races and then never raced. I’d just take the cheap lift ticket and go ski. Eventually, I became a Mad River skier with purpose and gusto.

Define ‘Mad River skier.’
It means you’ve finally figured out how to shed your sloppy ways. We’ll seek out the places most people wouldn’t want to ski. When the bumps are crunchy and hard, we’ll ski them anyway.
Besides the sometimes-formidable conditions, what drew you to Mad River?
I connected with the mountain on their environmental and ecological ethos. I’m very impressed with the low-key vibe and lack of development. It’s all about the skiing. They seem to have the right approach.

The music you play has also become part of the mountain’s vibe. What tunes are you into?
I like rhythmic music and I happen to hip-hopings like hip hop, but they don’t sound great if I’m playing it outside, and I want to give people a good experience.

So how the heck do you choose?
There is a universal accessibility quotient–certain songs you can play that mostly everybody will like. I couldn’t possibly go wrong with Duke Ellington on a Saturday morning. My favorite thing to do is to match the music to whatever the conditions are.

Just how does one DJ the weather?
It’s in the song titles. If it’s a cold, stormy day, I will pick out song titles that go with that. If you like Phish, think ‘Tweezer’ or ‘Seven Below.’ You might hear ‘No Quarter’ by Led Zeppelin or Billie Holiday’s ‘Stormy Weather.’

And if the sun is shining? 
For a blue-sky day, ‘Fire on the Mountain.’

Is there a “Do Not Play” list, too?
What I don’t like to do is play music with a barrage of words, unless it’s the Beastie Boys, and I don’t like playing today’s version of pop music or anything that would ruffle a 7-year-old. No swear words or suggestive content when you have families riding the chairlift.

Ever go on radio silence?
When I turn the stereo on, I’m turning off the sounds of nature, so some days I just don’t turn it on. People will ask, ‘Where’s the music?’ and I tell them, ‘Listen–it’s all around.’

For more on Aust, check out Power Production’s Iconic Lift series, season two.

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