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Ski Lines: The Catskill Four offers good skiing

Ski Lines: The Catskill Four offers good skiing

The weekly ski column from Phil Johnson
Ski Lines: The Catskill Four offers good skiing
Belleayre Mountain.
Photographer: Peter Hines

With spring break in January now over, what is a skier to do? 

Forget about what you saw out the window in recent days. There is a lot of good sliding left this winter. And if you are thinking about going south, forget sun and sand. How about skiing in the Catskills? 

Not many of us do, it seems. Asked about the clientele at her mountain, Windham senior public relations manager Becky Pine said “98% of our skiers come from the metro New York City area.”

Like most of you, when I think skiing, I usually think north. But there is some great skiing in the other direction, too. There are four appealing areas in the Catskills, all covered by “The Killington Rule” — less than a two-hour drive from our area. The Catskill Four deserve a try. Windham, Hunter,

Belleayre, and Plattekill are all good day-trip options for skiers from our area. 

Let’s take a look at them in order of seniority. 

Belleayre is the oldest. It was also the first New York State operated area. Opened in 1949, a key contributor was Schenectady ski legend Dot Hoyt Nebel, the U.S. Ski Team member in the late 1930s who was called on to help lay out the original trail design. She would go on to lead the ski school there for more than 20 years. 

Located in the town of Highmount off Route 28 west of Kingston, the area has prospered since being absorbed by the Lake Placid based Olympic Regional Development Authority in 2012. Belleayre has 50 trails spread across a ridge line with a vertical drop of 1,404 feet. In recent years, the lodges at the area have been modernized, snowmaking coverage is now almost 100% and the lift system features the “Catskill Thunder,” the most modern ski area gondola in New York State. The terrain for beginners is excellent, and so is the instruction program. 

Plattekill in the town of Roxbury has roots dating back to the 1950s, but what is there today is due primarily to the efforts of Laszlo and Danielle Vajtay who brought the area out of bankruptcy in the early 1990s. While the area has been around for more than 60 years, it is by no means a relic. There are two chairlifts as well as surface lifts servicing the 1,100 vertical layout. Don’t expect “fancy” here. Plattekill relies heavily on a clientele of loyalists who are not slaves to ski area fashion. Powder Magazine in 2018 labeled it “The Alta of the East.”

With its Western Catskills location off Route 30 south of Schoharie, the area often benefits from lake effect snowfall, and conditions stay fresh with the regular Friday through Sunday only operation. (It is open school vacation weeks and holidays like this Monday). Want the area all to yourself? Plattekill is available for private mountain rental midweek.

Hunter, located west of Kingston, is Catskills skiing in the minds of many. The area opened in 1960 under the leadership of Broadway producer Jimmy Hammerstein and his entertainer friends, but they lasted only two years. It was taken over by the Slutzky brothers, who developed it over the next 50 years. The combination of their construction skills and a conscious effort to attract celebrities from New York City gave the area a winning combination of a well-conceived terrain — it was the first ski area to install snow making top to bottom — and ski area pizzazz — apres ski could start as early as 1 p.m. 

The area’s party reputation has often masked the high quality ski layout that features a 1,600 foot vertical and some of the most challenging trails in the Northeast. The area added five new trails and four new glades last year on Hunter North. But the big story lately is the purchase of Hunter by Vail Resorts. Other areas under the Vail umbrella include Okemo, Stowe and now Mt. Snow in our region, Hunter will be part a part of the EPIC pass network going forward.

Windham, east of Catskill, is the junior member of the Catskill Four, having been a private club until it was opened to the public in 1981. The area, just a few miles from Hunter, is defiantly independent and will be a good place to measure how stand-alone ski areas make out in the years ahead. The idea is to offer boutique services in a modern setting, and for those who haven’t been to the area in a few seasons, improvements are apparent. Lifts are new, the base area lodge has had a major upgrade and specialty services like a custom boot fitting lab and private club are right there slopeside. There is also good area lodging, both on the mountain and nearby. 

The lift service up the mountain, once poky, is now a quick-six person chairlift servicing a largely intermediate array of 54 trails with a vertical of 1,600 feet, almost all of it covered by snowmaking, much of which is now fully automated. There is night skiing, too.

For fun off the hill, Windham now offers a ski and ride Simulator, a virtual reality set-up where technology offers the experience of skiing everything from a mini hill to a world cup downhill course. The SkyTechSport Simulator is next to the patio in front of the base lodge where a new European-style umbrella bar is located. There is also a mountain owned tubing park close by.  

The Catskills Four have been a part of our ski picture for a long time. But many of us haven’t been paying attention. While each of the areas is distinct, all offer plenty to make a trip worthwhile. Yes, you can go south to ski.

NEW CHAIRLIFT DEBUTS AT WEST MOUNTAIN

It is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, and West Mountain in Queensbury is introducing its new Apex Chairlift, a fixed grip triple, on Northwest, starting with a maiden voyage at 6 p.m. Friday. It will also be the season debut for the Northwest terrain, which will include some new freestyle features on the hill. 

LAPLAND LADIES

The Lapland Lake Nordic Center will offer its popular women’s-only cross country ski program Jan. 25 starting at 9:30 a.m. at the area in Benson. It is a reservation-only program taught by women instructors for beginners up to intermediates. The $60 cost includes a ski pass, instruction and lunch. Equipment is available for rental if needed. Registration is on the area website www.laplandlake.com or by phone at 518-863-4974.

LOTS OF SNOW COMING

The weather is about to change and the second half of the winter will be unusually snowy in the northeast. So says the Skiing Weatherman. Herb Stevens was the lead meteorologist at Channel 13 in Albany in the mid-1980s before creating The Skiing Weatherman brand that was featured on television stations through the Northeast for more than 20 years.
Rhode Island based, Stevens does forecasting for resorts and other private clients now. After a warm early season, he sees major snow storms for the region between now an April. Wax up the skis, there is plenty of good sliding coming soon. 

Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].

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