The many secrets of New York’s Catskill Mountains
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.