Roxbury, NY – The weather radio crackled with a Winter Storm Warning issued by the National Weather Service in Albany. Six to 10 inches of snow were expected overnight in New York State’s Capital District, and 11 to 14 inches to the south in the Catskills. The situation was setting up perfectly for a “Powder Daize.”
The forecast was looking good for a Plattekill Powder Daize”
There’s no shortage of steep shots at Ski Plattekill (photo courtesy Ski Plattekill)
Bumps line Plattekill’s signature Blockbuster trail from wall to wall. (photo courtesy Ski Plattekill)
There are “powder days,” and then there’s a “Powder Daize.” The latter is a term coined by Ski Plattekill owner Laszlo Vajtay for the opening of his Catskill ski and snowboard mountain whenever a foot or more of new snow falls midweek. Normally closed Monday through Thursday, Vajtay has fired up the lifts on Powder Daize since 1997 at a reduced-rate ticket price ($25 for the 2003-04 season). He leaves the groomers in the garage, presenting a powder smorgasbord for cost-conscious snow junkies from throughout the Northeast.
It takes someone with the mind of a skier to do this, and Vajtay is a rare bird in today’s ski industry. “Hell, yeah!” he answered when asked if he’d be spending the day on the hill with us, without suppressing an ounce of enthusiasm. It turned out to be a phrase that I’d hear him utter often. “I’ve got to get some reward for all of this,” Vajtay rationalized. “It sure isn’t the money, so it might as well be powder.”
The son of Hungarian immigrants, Vajtay spent his childhood traveling from his family’s New Jersey home to rip up Plattekill’s steep, natural trails. Later in life, working in the packaging industry, he still made the journey north each weekend to serve as the ski area’s “city boy” ski school director. In 1993, while watching the ski area drive itself into financial ruin, Vajtay purchased the resort out of bankruptcy at his ripe old age of 30 and decided to make a go of it himself.
Vajtay faced many hurdles in those early years. At the time, Plattekill relied upon natural snowfall to cover its slopes. The mountain is perfectly poised on the western slope of the Catskill Mountains, with sufficient elevation (base 2,250 feet, summit 3,350 feet) to catch moisture rolling in on Alberta Clipper systems and the lake effect engine off of Lakes Erie and Ontario. A lack of snowmaking, however, left Plattekill vulnerable to devastating thaws and seasons when Ullr turns a cold shoulder to the region. Vajtay had a solid business plan and an aversion to other ski area failures surrounding his resort, and instead embarked upon a modest plan to add snowmaking one trail a year during his tenure. Now covering 85% of the resort’s terrain, skiable conditions are virtually guaranteed at Plattekill all season long.
At the time of Vajtay’s purchase, Ski Plattekill had two primary lifts: a triple chairlift rising from the base lodge to the ridgeline on climber’s right, and a t-bar ascending to the ridgeline on climber’s left to access the area’s most challenging terrain. Vajtay purchased an old Hall double chair from nearby Belleayre, refurbished the lift down to its smallest gear, and spent four years installing the lift little by little as a replacement for the t-bar. His conservative schedule was implemented in an effort to avoid debt financing. The lift finally loaded skiers for the first time two seasons ago, providing a much-needed seat to relax on the way back up.
It may be only 150 miles from Manhattan, but Plattekill’s off-the-beaten-path location forces skiers and riders from the Big Apple to bypass such popular, closer favorites as Hunter and Belleayre. Those in the know, however, have discovered that when the parking lots at these other Catskill destinations are overflowing, there’s plenty of elbow room to be had at Plattekill.
FRESH TRACKS ALL DAY
I arrived in the Plattekill parking lot on a Powder Daize Wednesday to 15 other vehicles in the parking lot — including the employees’ cars. Two Philadelphians occupied a red Toyota pickup and a North Face tent that they’d pitched after their six-hour drive up in the storm the evening before. I shared the base lodge with a dozen or so other skiers anxiously waiting for the resort’s “new” double chairlift to open. Breakfast sandwiches were made to order as a skeleton staff worked the cafeteria line, and occasionally the electricity in the air was punctuated by their call to a patron to come pick up ready food.
After plowing the parking lots, Vajtay stood at the customer service counter answering the phone and trying to scrounge up enough employees to get Plattekill up and running for the day. The calls kept coming in, inquiring about the storm totals and whether or not Powder Daize was in full swing. “Hell, yeah!” he’d repeat to each and every caller. One didn’t need to hear the other half of the conversation to understand what was asked. “Hello, Plattekill — Hell, yeah! We sure are.”
The seeming Jack of all trades around the Plattekill lodge, Vajtay programmed lift ticket computers, continued to answer the unending string of phone calls, and lined up lift attendants and cafeteria staff from a pool of local school kids relaxing at home on a snow day. As a result, he was unable to venture outside to play. “10:30,” he advised after glancing at the clock on the office wall. “Stop back at 10:30 and I’ll be ready.” This game continued each half hour until Vajtay finally gave up, resigning himself to a day spent working in the office.
We grabbed the fifth chair to be loaded on the double, rising slowly above an unblemished field of white. Some 14 inches of light fluff had fallen overnight, and except for the novice catwalks from the top of each lift everything remained delightfully ungroomed. The notorious northwesterly wind that follows most Northeastern storms remained strangely absent from our party. Perhaps it was taking a snow day, too. We screamed down Freefall with the reckless abandon that such perfectly consistent snow depths allow, as cold smoke billowed around our thighs and hips. We had no right to expect such heavenly conditions in the Catskills, and for much of the day we almost forgot where we were. Even the rolled-out catwalks were soft, spongy and silent.
The energy was electric. Strangers swapped tales at the base of the lift, and huge grins plastered faces often obscured by snow-caked beards and moustaches. It was Plattekill’s first Powder Daize of the season, and locals were digging the scene. The normal cutthroat competition for unblemished lines is wonderfully absent when so few people show up for fresh tracks. Why be in such a rush when you can get first tracks all day?
Finally, close to noon, a sufficient number of lift attendants had arrived to open the triple chair. Just as the terrain off the double had turned to chowder, another 50% of the mountain was ready for new tracks. The 9 a.m. powder orgy began all over again, now some three hours later.
BUILT FOR SKIERS
Honestly, Plattekill is one steep mountain. Its full use of its 1,100 vertical feet belies that modest statistic. Black diamonds descend straight down the fall line at the center of the mountain, while blue squares and green circles meander and zigzag down the periphery. The previous owners jumped on the 1980s bandwagon to widen and straighten most of the resort’s expert terrain and attempt a slopeside real estate development, but they thankfully ran out of money before they had the chance to denude the intermediate or beginner terrain of any remaining character.
It may be a steep hill, but rank never-evers are taken care of, too. Plattekill has a perfectly pitched novice slope adjacent to the base lodge, Bunny Hop, that’s completely segregated from the other trails. Not a single trail merges into Bunny Hop from above, so beginners needn’t feel threatened by others speeding through. Serviced by its own rope tow, Bunny Hop is an ideal location for novices to make their first turns under the helpful tutelage of Plattekill’s ski school staff. A lift ticket, lesson, and rentals restricted to Bunny Hop is package priced at $50 per day ($10 more for snowboarding).
Special ski school programs aren’t limited beginners, either. Those who have been away from the sport for a while may take advantage of the mountain’s return to snow package with an all mountain ticket, rentals on new demo shaped skis, and a one hour clinic one-on-one with a private instructor to bring you back up to speed, all for $90. Also priced at $90 is Plattekill’s “Snowkidding” package including four hours of instruction, day care during the lunch break, rentals and a child lift ticket for kids 8 years of age and younger.
“Our focus is families,” Vajtay says when describing the programs. “Our trees are nature’s own terrain park.”
Nature isn’t the only thing at work in the trees, however. Ski Plattekill is world-renowned on the mountain biking scene, and an entire network of hairball bike trails unexpectedly provide a unique off-piste ski adventure for experts in the wintertime. “These mountain bikers are freakin’ nuts!” I remarked out loud to myself as I stood atop one such summertime route, contemplating exactly where I needed to make my first three turns to survive the steep and narrow chute on skis. Intrepid ski explorers will find oodles and oodles of these semi-secret bobsled runs all over the mountain.
Woodchucks have also clearly been at work clearing some of Plattekill’s out-of-bounds lines. The flat-topped topography of the Catskill Mountains lends itself well to traversing out beyond the ski area boundary in search of secret glades, but beware that many of these possibilities may in the end deposit you literally miles from the base lodge. For that reason alone, local knowledge (and perhaps a spotted car) is a must. Close to 1,500 vertical feet can be found. Most of these out-of-bounds lines that we explored lacked the pitch of the in-bounds terrain, and it was difficult in the hip-deep snow in the woods to build sufficient momentum to link more than a few turns. Imagine: too much snow! In southern New York State!
Plattekill is set amongst bucolic surroundings. (photo courtesy Ski Plattekill)
Plattekill sits in a sleepy corner of the western Catskills near the tiny hamlet of Roxbury. Don’t expect elaborate lodges, swank restaurants, or chic boutiques around here. In fact, if it weren’t for the hand painted signs lining Lower Meeker Hollow Road that urge skiers to continue up the country lane to Plattekill, you would surely think that you’d made a wrong turn as you breezed past rustic barns and sweeping meadows. This isn’t a destination for weekenders looking to be seen instead of skiing – it’s a refreshing respite from the teeming masses at nearby Hunter and Belleayre for value-conscious families and hard corps powderhounds. You’ll find no Starbuck’s latté at Plattekill’s cafeteria; instead, you’ll find strong Maxwell House coffee — along with made-to-order burgers, hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches. You’ll have to head elsewhere if you’re on the hunt for frills. Duct tape and skinny skis are de rigueur at Plattekill, not Bogners and the latest fat powder boards.
And you can expect things to stay that way, too. Those who have come to love what Plattekill is today shouldn’t worry about what Plattekill may become. Vajtay welcomes the right investor to share his vision for Plattekill to help him complete his growth model, but his vision is unwavering. “More vertical, a new base lodge, more beginner terrain and real estate development is in our future,” Vajtay explains. “We are the last undeveloped ski resort within three hours of the greater New York City area.” He goes on, however, to carefully qualify this statement. “We are not looking for a gross developer like the other conglomerates who are only interested in real estate. We wish to grow without losing our personality, and the unique feel to this mountain. We do not want to be molded into a cookie mold like all the others are becoming.”
The upstairs bar in Plattekill’s base lodge is cavernous, yet it filled up by 4:00 with what seemed like half of the ski area’s 350 patrons that day. The crowd was interspersed with various locals downing after-work suds in this one of Roxbury’s few watering holes. The atmosphere and conversation were both warm and inviting, and before we knew it three hours had somehow passed. The storm continued to rage in the dark outside, and we ventured out to find the cars beneath a fresh blanket of white as the brisk northwesterly wind finally made a fashionably late appearance at our party.
Bidding both new and old friends farewell, I slid the car down the access road as blowing snow hampered visibility. I struggled to peer through the windshield, as the narrow beams of the car’s headlights fought to pierce a hole in the white curtain. Yes, it was a “Powder Daize” indeed!