The many se­crets of New York’s Catskill Moun­tains

Powder - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Story by Porter Fox Photography by David Red­dick

THIS STORY BE­GINS with Rosie be­cause it can’t be­gin any­where else. Rosie is the kind of per­son you can’t miss. She comes at you like a fisher cat, quick and low with a toothy smile. She asks who you are with, why you are with them, where you’re go­ing, and what trail you just skied. The last ques­tion is not an easy one to an­swer at Bel­leayre Moun­tain, the old­est oper­at­ing ski area in New York’s Catskill Moun­tains and one of the old­est in Amer­ica. Of the 51 runs, de­scend­ing 1,400 ver­ti­cal feet, most look the same. Bel­leayre’s trails are from a dif­fer­ent era, four years after WWII ended, when sim­ply get­ting to the bot­tom was a feat. The trails don’t wind back and forth through the trees. They start at the top and drop di­rectly down, no turns, no doglegs, just straight lines, one after the other, stacked up on the north face like cig­a­rettes in a box. That’s how they do it in the Catskills, straight up, straight down, straight at you, no bull­shit. You gonna skeeit? From da top? What’s ya name? Rosie Kelly, 64, doled out in­tro­duc­tions at Bel­leayre’s mid-moun­tain bar: Duff, her “friend”; Bobby, her “lover”; Barb, her bar­tender. Duff was the im­por­tant one, she said, be­cause she needed to have friends when she moved from Brook­lyn to Pine Hill in 1984. Pine Hill is the name of a clus­ter of about three dozen build­ings three miles down­hill from Bel­leayre. It’s one of the old­est towns in the Catskills, where nat­u­ral snow is thin and his­tory deep. The Bri­tish built forts through­out the range dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War to con­trol trade over the moun­tains. In 1609, Henry Hud­son sailed half­way around the world be­fore sail­ing the “Great River of the Moun­tains” and dis­cov­er­ing the Catskills. Be­fore the Rock­ies, Sier­ras, Cas­cades, and other great moun­tain ranges of the West were dis­cov­ered and pop­u­lated by Euro­pean im­mi­grants, the Catskills were the roof of the New World. Three cen­turies later, as pho­tog­ra­pher David Red­dick and I dis­cov­ered last win­ter, they still hold their own. The anvil-shaped mas­sifs of the range sit on the north­east­ern ter­mi­nus of the Ap­palachian Plateau, ex­tend­ing more than 700,000 acres be­tween the flat­lands of the leather­stock­ing re­gion of up­state New York and the deep cleave of the Hud­son River. Thirty-five peaks in the range reach over 3,500 feet. That’s more than in all of Ver­mont’s 6 mil­lion acres. After the first ski area in New York opened in 1935—Simp­son Ski Slope in nearby Phoeni­cia— thou­sands of skiers boarded the New York Cen­tral Rail­road for Wood­land Val­ley. Ski­ing was heat­ing up in Amer­ica then. The 1932 Win­ter Olympics in New York’s Lake Placid sparked the craze and small ski re­sorts spread through­out the range. At their peak, hun­dreds sliced through hard­wood forests be­tween Al­bany and New­burgh—from full­blown des­ti­na­tions to ma-and-pa hills to 300room Borscht Belt one-run­ners like Grossinger’s and The Con­cord (that in­spired the film Dirty Danc­ing). Then the 1970s hap­pened; jets re­placed cars and trains, and the great ex­o­dus from East to West be­gan.

Most of the small Catskill re­sorts died. (There are only four that re­main: Bel­leayre, Plat­tekill, Hunter, and Wind­ham.) Even the Borscht Belt re­sorts, where per­form­ers such as Frank Si­na­tra, Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Se­in­feld got their start, were gone. By 2018, ski­ing in the Catskills had be­come a mem­ory to most—ex­cept for a few thou­sand lo­cals and city dwellers who now skied wide-open cor­duroy and knee-deep back­coun­try runs all day, ev­ery day with­out a worry in the world that Amer­ica’s first moun­tain range had been all but for­got­ten.

Which is all Rosie ever wanted. A for­got­ten place to go, hide out, ski, and raise her kids. After more than three decades, she’d had too many first tracks to count—tracks with friends, tracks with strangers.

It was 3:10 p.m. when she asked what tracks we’d been mak­ing. By 3:50 p.m., she had given us her life story, a com­plete his­tory of Catskills ski­ing, her plans for the next decade, a map of the re­sort, a three-drink buzz, and a prom­ise to meet again.

The day was done for. Ski pa­trol be­gan sweep­ing the trails, and the sun dive-bombed for the dark side. This was Rosie’s mo­ment. She bid farewell to the bar—friends and lovers be damned. Golden light splin­tered through the birch for­est and a liftie walked across the dirt lot with an empty liter of root beer stick­ing out of his gym bag.

Rosie clicked into her bind­ings and pushed off, one more run. Crys­tals launched into the air from the tails of her skis. Her knees flexed as she arced her boards and made elon­gated S’s down the hill. Lift pole, snow gun, mogul, whale tail, she glided around them all, re­bound­ing into a mo­ment of weight­less­ness be­tween each turn as she fol­lowed the cig­a­rette-straight line to­ward home.

IT’S HARD TO SAY WHETHER THE Catskills made the Hud­son River or if the river made the moun­tains. They come as a pack­age; one doesn’t ex­ist with­out the other. Wa­ter is ev­ery­where through­out the range—carv­ing through the peaks, launch­ing off water­falls, cas­cad­ing down cul­verts un­der the high­way to a sys­tem of aque­ducts that leads 100 miles south to the great maw of New York City.

It was, in fact, the Big Ap­ple that ul­ti­mately pro­tected the Catskills and brought ski­ing to them. After lum­ber­jacks felled thou­sands of trees to sa­ti­ate the city’s build­ing boom—even­tu­ally silt­ing in the Hud­son River and threat­en­ing freight traf­fic there—state leg­is­la­tors passed the “For­ever Wild” law, pro­tect­ing swaths of for­est along­side the Hud­son, in­clud­ing 286,000 acres in the Catskills. A few decades later, when the state leg­is­la­ture needed to cre­ate new jobs where hun­dreds had been lost, it built the first ma­jor ski ar­eas in the re­gion.

Bel­leayre was a nat­u­ral pick for the first re­sort. New York­ers had been ski­ing it since a New­burgh man, Maltby Shipp, and his son post­holed all 1,400 ver­ti­cal feet of the moun­tain in 1929 with sev­en­foot hick­ory boards. Four years later, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps (CCC) went to work build­ing lodges, lifts, and trails through­out the area. More than 2,000 pri­vate re­sorts, ski clubs, back­yard rope tows and ho­tel hills fol­lowed, and the New York ski scene was born—a scene that is sur­pris­ingly ro­bust to­day. New York still has more ski ar­eas (43) than any state in the coun­try and ranks fourth in skier vis­its.

After a long sleep at the mod­ernist Scrib­ner’s Catskill Lodge in Tan­nerville, we drove a stone’s throw from Bel­leayre to a lit­tle moun­tain caught in the throat of a long, frosted val­ley. The val­ley walls lin­ing Lower Meeker Hol­low Road were laced with birch and maple, long red barns, and hay bales pin-

The trails don’t wind back and forth through the trees. They start at the top and drop di­rectly down, no turns, no doglegs, just straight lines, one after the other, stacked up on the north face like cig­a­rettes in a box.

ning the frozen farm­land to the ground.

Two lifts rose 1,100 ver­ti­cal feet from the base of Plat­tekill Ski Re­sort to the 3,500-foot sum­mit. Be­tween them were a few lift en­clo­sures—de­signed to mimic gam­brel barn roofs in the val­ley—an over­sized base lodge, dirt park­ing lots, a dirt drive­way, and about 200 skiers lap­ping trails as fast as they could.

Plat­tekill is the Alta of the Catskills. The Lit­tle Ski Area That Could has fewer trails but gets more snow than most re­sorts in the range, av­er­ag­ing 150 inches an­nu­ally. It is easy to for­get that New York State borders two Great Lakes (On­tario and Erie), and that lake-ef­fect storms of­ten carry all the way to the Catskills. Sit­ting on the north­west­ern fringe of the range, Plat­tekill rings out most of the mois­ture be­fore storms warm up and dry out.

The moun­tain’s 38 trails are only open Fri­day through Sun­day. (You can rent the whole place for $3,500/day mid­week.) If it snows 12 inches or more, the staff will get the chairs spin­ning mid­week as well. Last year, “Platty” opened on a Mon­day after re­ceiv­ing four feet of snow in one dump. It wasn’t a fluke, re­sort owner Las­zlo Va­j­tay told me as he pulled up Na­tional Weather Ser­vice radar im­ages of the storm. Pre­cip­i­ta­tion spanned all the way from Man­hat­tan to Al­bany in the im­age. The red dot in the cen­ter of the mael­strom was po­si­tioned pre­cisely over his moun­tain.

Va­j­tay, 56, started ski­ing at Plat­tekill when he was 7 and never left. He taught ski­ing, met his wife, Danielle (also an in­struc­tor), pro­posed and got mar­ried there. In 1993, he bought the place. The Va­j­tays didn’t have deep pock­ets, so when their an­cient DMC 3700 groomer broke down, they hired a nearby me­chanic, named “Macker,” who learned how to fix it. He fixed all of the groomers on the hill, then re­fur­bished an older model that Va­j­tay bought for a song. In 2014, Plat­tekill be­came the only au­tho­rized Bom­bardier ser­vice cen­ter in New York and Penn­syl­va­nia.

Mean­while, one of their snow­cat clients asked them to work on their snow guns as well. There was no snow­mak­ing at Plat­tekill when Va­j­tay bought it; the Platty crew cob­bled one to­gether from used guns and pumps they sal­vaged from old fire trucks. They took the job on and now part of Plat­tekill’s busi­ness is also re­pair­ing snow-mak­ing equip­ment and lifts through­out the North­east. “We run this place like they run farms in the val­ley—no debt,” Va­j­tay said. “The one time we had to bor­row, we asked our skiers to chip in for a new lift. We paid them back on time, with in­ter­est.”

Va­j­tay’s stan­dard look is one of ex­cite­ment, or shock. His clear blue eyes are pen­e­trat­ing, and his gray hair is usu­ally messed up by a ski hat or hel­met. The “shock” part is real. He is gen­uinely amazed at how well he and his crew have done with a small ski area in an era when many oth­ers have gone belly up. Sixty-five re­sorts in New York have closed in the last 40 years, ac­cord­ing to the New Eng­land Lost Ski Ar­eas Project.

In the new world of mega re­sorts, Plat­tekill is a time cap­sule of the way things used to be—steep runs, wild-eyed lo­cals, friendly staff, boot cub­bies, $2 frozen pizza slices, and an over­sized base lodge bar, where auburn alpen­glow set­tles on the last skiers of the day cruis­ing down. The hand-hewn rafters, deer antler chan­de­liers, stained pine pan­el­ing, an­tique snow­shoes and skis hang­ing on the wall reel the clock back to the 1980s, ’70s, ’60s —when tele­vi­sions re­ceived three chan­nels, ev­ery car had 300 horse­power un­der the hood, politi­cians were ac­count­able for their ac­tions, and all any­one in the North­east wanted to do in the win­ter was sleep and ski.

Thirty-five peaks in the range reach over 3,500 feet. That’s more than in all of Ver­mont’s 6 mil­lion acres

It’s easy to fall into that world at Platty. The day we ar­rived was the Fri­day be­fore the an­nual “Beach Party.” The ticket-seller-bar­tender-re­cep­tion­ist-of­fice-man­ager-land­scaper gal took a break from blow­ing up bal­loons and un­fold­ing last year’s tiki dec­o­ra­tions to give us tick­ets be­fore Va­j­tay took us on a tour of the grounds. Here was the Pr-moun­tain-ops-ticket-sales-man­ager’s of­fice; there were the ski lock­ers; there was the cafe and the cab­i­net-sized ski shop run by Ge­orge Quinn—who wrote two books about ski his­tory in the Catskills and knows the range bet­ter than any­one since Rip Van Win­kle. Lastly, Va­j­tay showed us the main eat­ing hall, where a cir­cu­lar fire­place flick­ered in the mid­dle of the room, it­self an ac­tual in­ven­tion of the 1960s that now ab­so­lutely vibes the place with a ’60s aura.

Out the dou­ble pic­ture win­dows at the north­ern end of the Block­buster Lounge was a quiver of dou­ble-di­a­mond runs Platty is known for: Block­buster, Freefall, Plunge, North­face, all of which are pitched straight down. At the top, a long, wooded ridge hems in the re­sort.

Va­j­tay had rounded up a scrappy crew of lo­cals who were anx­ious to go, in­clud­ing Scott Ketchum, a long­time lo­cal who moved to Phoeni­cia the same week that Jimmy Hen­drix played at Wood­stock a few miles away and grew up ski­ing Simp­son’s rope tow. After a quick in­tro­duc­tion, Ketchum of­fered to show Red­dick some left­over pow­der in the trees while Va­j­tay and I talked.

Turned out that, at Platty, “left­over pow­der in the trees” was code for: tra­verse 45 min­utes east across the ridge; find a foot of fresh a week after the last storm; plenty steep and plenty of ver­ti­cal; bad route-find­ing at the top; a thicket of trees so dense it be­came im­pos­si­ble to sim­ply get down; mul­ti­ple over-the-han­dle­bar mo­ments; bro­ken pole; run-in with an ornery neigh­bor who had fired a shot­gun over some­one’s head the week be­fore; a few laughs; and, fi­nally, a smelly pig-pile ride in a pickup truck back to the re­sort.

IT’S NOT JUST LIT­TLE GUYS IN THE CATSKILLS. There are some big fish as well, like the big­gest fish of them all: Hunter. Or Hun­tah, as you’ll hear in the base lodge. Look­ing at the corkscrew­ing, ter­raced ter­rain on the hill, and the hun­dreds of skiers lined up to load onto its lifts, it’s easy to mis­take the re­sort for an amuse­ment park. There is that much go­ing on.

Hunter was the first ski re­sort in the world to in­stall snow­mak­ing top-to-bot­tom and the first to cover 100 per­cent of the moun­tain. (Nearby

Grossinger’s gets credit for mak­ing the world’s first ar­ti­fi­cial snow in 1952.) With a ver­ti­cal drop of 1,600 feet on the 3,200-foot moun­tain, Hunter is a beast. If you know where you are go­ing, it has some of the best lift-ac­cess back­coun­try you can find south of Ver­mont. It is also one of the few re­sorts in the re­gion with an “up­hill pol­icy.” Two hours be­fore the re­sort opens, you can skin up one of two routes and ski down. Once the lifts open, you can ski any trail.

The day we ar­rived, the hill was quiet and the sky was wa­ter-glass blue. It was cold for March, and most of the pow­der from the week be­fore had kept its loft. A lo­cal back­coun­try skier named Jamie Ken­nard had said it was also un­tracked in a few spots in the woods. In 2010, Ken­nard, 44, be­came a mem­ber of the ex­clu­sive Catskill 3500 Club by climb­ing all 35 peaks in the range taller than 3,500 feet. In 2014, he and his brother cre­ated a new club by be­com­ing the first to ski all 35 peaks as well.

Ken­nard was a clas­sic mi­grant from the city who, after spend­ing years com­mut­ing from New York, fi­nally pulled the plug and moved up­state with his wife, Tracy. They built a stun­ningly beau­ti­ful wine bar, Brunette, in Kingston and con­tin­ued de­sign work they’d done in the city. Ken­nard’s In­sta­gram feed makes it look like he is pi­o­neer­ing on the Alaskan fron­tier: plump trout on a fly-rod on the Eso­pus Creek, mush­room-pick­ing, hik­ing, cut­ting skin tracks straight up the side of a 4,000foot peak. All of this two hours from Amer­ica’s largest city.

He was right about the snow. The first run, he ducked into the woods on the north­west flank of Hunter and fol­lowed an old trail to a se­ries of open­ings in the trees. Ketchum, who was walk­ing to a mogul com­pe­ti­tion when we ar­rived, tagged along as did a young freestyler named Rob Sharpe. The snow was good but the turns were tight, so Ken­nard led the crew to a ravine on the other side of the moun­tain for the sec­ond run.

There were wide-spaced trees, steep wind­ing chutes, pil­low lines and plenty of open­ings where you could pick up speed. The ravine fol­lowed a stream and tight­ened to­ward the bot­tom of the hill. Ken­nard hopped over a snow bridge near the end of the run and fol­lowed a sin­gle track all the way down. At the bot­tom, he led the crew across a wooden bridge and popped out of woods onto a begin­ner slope filled with skiers.

BY 11 A.M. WE WERE BACK IN THE PARK­ING LOT and headed out. Platty’s beach party, just an hour away, was too good to miss, so we fol­lowed Schoharie Creek west on Route 23A through the Rusk Moun­tain Wild For­est to Route 30.

The lifts were full but there were no lines when we ar­rived. Thirty rac­coon-eyed skiers lounged in Adiron­dack chairs on the porch while a steady stream of oth­ers made GS turns down Block­buster. A lit­tle boy clung to the rail­ing of the walk­way lead­ing up to the lodge when we ar­rived, scream­ing that he didn’t want to stop ski­ing. The crowd took pity on him; no one wanted to leave to­day and most of them didn’t.

As the lifties down­loaded on the last chair, Platty faith­ful gath­ered in the base lodge. Christ­mas lights wrapped around the eves of the lodge. All of the cub­bies were full and lo­cal his­to­rian/ back­coun­try guru Ge­orge Quinn and two friends on a fid­dle and gui­tar played blue­grass mu­sic in the cor­ner. They don’t get paid or ask for tips, Danielle Va­j­tay said. They just show up and play on what­ever floor doesn’t have mu­sic.

Up­stairs, the Bongo Surf band from New Jer­sey knocked out 1960s beach hits in the bar. They were in­cred­i­bly good. The ticket-seller-bar­tender-re­cep­tion­ist-of­fice-man­ager-land­scaper gal was wear­ing a pink T-shirt, flow­ers around her neck, and Hunter S. Thomp­son sun­glasses as she

poured Mai Tais and dark ‘n’ stormys for the crowd. One of the Platty em­ploy­ees that Red­dick had skied with the first day donned a flow­ery Hawai­ian shirt and a snorkel strapped to his hel­met and gog­gles. An hour into the beach party, he was act­ing like he might have lost his mind—stand­ing on the cafe­te­ria ta­bles in front of the band, pre­tend­ing to do the breast­stroke. He had nailed his ac­tual snor­kel­ing flip­pers to a beam, then hung his pint-sized daugh­ter’s flip­pers op­po­site his.

Rosie, un­for­tu­nately, was nowhere to be found. But her friend Duff was there. He greeted me like we were child­hood friends. He said that he saw me ear­lier on the porch but when he came out to find me I had dis­ap­peared. “You know in ‘Bat­tlestar Galac­tica’ when one of the char­ac­ters is search­ing for the other and he says, ‘My search is over,’ and he turns around and she’s gone, just gone, you know, man, like not there any­more?” he said.

I did not know—and was happy when Va­j­tay showed up after ski­ing and in­tro­duced me to some friends: a fa­ther who drives three hours each way to ski Platty; and Har­vey Road, ed­i­tor of the wildly suc­cess­ful NY Ski Blog who didn’t set foot in a bind­ing un­til he was 40 years old. When Va­j­tay gave Road a free sea­son pass for the cov­er­age, Road cre­ated an an­nual event of his own. One day a year, he opens a tab on his credit card at the bar and in­structs the bar­tender to give a free beer to any­one who shows her a valid ski pass. “I came back from one run and there was $235 on my credit card!” Road said.

The beach party peaked around 4:30 p.m. The pa­per pineap­ples and plas­tic flow­ers that had been hung the day be­fore glowed in the af­ter­noon light. It was not a huge party, maybe 150 peo­ple, but it seemed like some­thing big­ger. Ev­ery­one knew each other like a re­union.

As grand masters of the melee, Va­j­tay and his fam­ily spoke ex­cit­edly with a group of friends by the pic­ture win­dows in the front of the bar. Las­zlo had learned to ski on the hill be­hind the win­dows five decades ago. He said the T-bar back then was the old steel coil type that lifted him up and spun him around back­ward when he was too light to weigh it down.

He rode it with his friends over and over, learn­ing to an­gle his old skinny boards on their sides and carve a turn. When he got older, he learned to ski the zip­per-line on the side of Block­buster, then carve GS turns down Freefall and Plunge. It was fate that he and Danielle took the place over.

Ski­ing in the Catskills is about fam­ily, loy­alty, and en­durance as much as it is about snow. It is an old place where one gen­er­a­tion passes the keys off to the next and the cy­cle, much like the sea­sons that bring the snow, con­tinue on for­ever.

Las­zlo Va­j­tay is not just the owner of Plat­tekill, he grew up ski­ing there. He and his wife, Danielle, run the ski area like a farm—debt free. They also run it as a fam­ily. Above, Las­zlo shares a chair­lift with his son, Matt, and rips apart one of Plat­tekill’s sig­na­ture bump lines.

Hunter Moun­tain lo­cal Jamie Ken­nard shows the way to a back­coun­try stash just two hours from Amer­ica’s largest city.

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