When most people think of skiing today they think of high-speed quads,
gondolas, multi million dollar lodges, computerized snowmaking systems and
fifty dollar lift tickets. In terms of location, most people recognize either
Vermont or Colorado as skiing meccas, home to conglomerate or corporate
owned resorts. A vast difference from the day of the ropetow, five-cent
hot chocolate, and a neighborhood hill owned by a local farmer.
When Mark and I drafted the first trail map of Polar Peak we would have
imagined that it would have become so much more than just a hill. This is
story about a duo who definitely aren’t your average neighbor, definitely
not your average kids.
Saturday morning in the middle of September I was sitting in the mountain
office, reading a back issue of Ski Area Management. As I sip down some coffee,
which really was doing nothing to improve my opinion of caffienated beverages,
I glanced across the desk piled with wickets, blank ski reports and striped
lift tickets, I take note of a folder crammed full of pictures. I grab for
it. As I open up the folder, staring me in the eye is a picture of Mark and
I standing at mid-mountain with the night skiing lights and two snowguns going
in the background. In the picture Mark has a proud smile, while I have my
trademark serious poker face. I look at the picture and question myself for
a minute, “How did the time go by so fast? It’s so hard to believe its almost
been a decade.” I then hear the pounding of a hammer, a common sound at Polar
Peak during the fall, and I emerged out of that school of thought and started
heading up the hill to help Mark with the new Summit Express.
When my brother Mark and I started the Polar Peak Project back in 1991
I was only 11 and he was only 13. I think the reason we really took to skiing
is because we could relate to it. Growing up on a farm is a real treasure,
with all sorts of resources at your disposal. The project started out as
creating a little place for us to ski when we had some natural snow, however
we kept upping the goal. It was a nice sized hill which faced south. For
years it had been used as a cow pasture, but to us young dreamers it had
much more potential than having a bunch of heifers trompling all over it.
It was a ski area, an impressive hill that we wanted to live our teenaged
We started early to kick off our first official ski season, I remember one
brisk Columbus Day digging holes for the ropetow. We cleared 2 slopes from rocks
and debris on the main face. After asking our father about snowmaking, he was
able to describe the basic concept of the art of snowmaking to us so we set
out to do just that: make snow. We just wanted to see if we could do it at first
so we gave it a try towards the end of October on the first sub-freezing night.
While it wasn’t that impressive, it was a start, and we were very proud
of our results. It consisted of two 2hp compressors, a sprayer gun and 250 feet
of ½” garden hose.
We decided to give the system a try on one chilly Saturday morning, October
27, 1990 behind my grandmother’s house. We started everything up and it ran
fine, only one problem: no snow. Upon closer inspection we discovered that the
water we were spraying out was freezing on the grass, just not in mid air….
Dilemma.. Once again we were close, but needed to find the link in the puzzle,
the answer to why it wasn’t freezing in mid air when the temperature was below
freezing. Mark must have rearranged the system something like 5 times before
one Sunday, December 1, 1990 after a rough morning of freeze-ups we finally
got everything right and the conditions were just perfect enough that we started
making snow, real honest to goodness snow!!!! We celebrated our accomplishment
by skiing on it all day, even though it was only about 2″ deep and covered an
area of about 150 square feet. We now felt that we could do anything. Afterwards
we checked the data of the temperatures with that of October 27 and noticed
that there was a major difference in one thing: the humidity. Our culprit was
the amount in moisture in the air.
We were so impressed that we got it to work that it quickly became our obsession.
Our first official ski season kicked off on January 13, 1991 to a fresh 6″ snowfall.
The ropetow was still under construction, however, so Mark, our cousin Scott
and I were all busy shoveling snow to make a walk way up the hill. The skiing
that day was fine, butr we knew we had to do something about getting a lift
up and running. Mark and I undertook the first lift, the true Polar Peak Summit
Express in March of 1991. After a year of convincing and ski years of walking
up the hill, we had finally talked our dad into buying us 600 feet of rope and
letting us use an old pick up truck. We compiled some beat up old 4×4’s, a couple
of pulleys, a souped up rim, and with Mark’s engineering know-how we had a ropetow.
Presto! The First Day, March 7 was a bittersweet one, after tons of adjusting
and building our ropetow was finally complete and ready to be celebrated on
some of the first and only snow of the season. In brief I got in two runs before
I saw the first and second towers trailing up behind me. Needless to say, I
got the hell off the rope and bailed in a hurry. We discovered that we could
build a lift, we just needed to work on some improvements.
It was a do-able deal. Some years would supply us with a season of good snow,
however others would give us only a handful of days. If we wanted to operate
for a good season we would have to learn the art of snowmaking, from an expert
this time. At that point snowmaking on the main peak seemed like yet another
unobtainable goal, however deep down knew we could do it, someday. Since we
had limited knowledge on snowmaking we started writing letters about two days
after our lift totalled itself for the season. We really had nothing better
to do so we’d figured we give it a shot. We wrote a letter to five ski areas
telling them of our interest in the subject. Our first and most thorough response
came from a Mr. Israel Slutzky from Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, a major ski resort
about 45 minutes west of us. Mr. Slutzky offered to give us a tour around Hunter’s
snowmaking plant, which we graciously accepted. One day we somehow convinced
Mom and Dad that this “field trip” to Hunter was more important than another
boring day of school, so we packed up the family car with the intentions of
actually learning something about snowmaking.
When we first met Mr. Slutzky we were amazed at his bountiful knowledge and
life experiences. He showed us around the plant, described in detail how snow
was made: the need for compressed air, high pressure water, and low temps and
humidity. After giving us a basic mental image of what was going on to make
the white stuff come out of those guns, Mr. Slutzky went more in-depth with
the complexities of snowmax, environmental restrictions and hydrocooling. That
day mark and I had made a life-long friend and mentor. We also fell in love
with the mountain, it was so well run and established that much of what we wanted
to do was right there at Hunter. That afternoon riding home in the car down
the steep mountain road called 23A, all Mark and I talked about was snowmaking,
and how next year we were going to make snow. Mom and dad were sitting in the
front admiring our determination and ideas but in reality thinking it was impossible.
That summer as we slowly started to gain responsibilities on the farm, we would
constantly look up at the hill (which was still name-less) and dream about making
snow on it, having a reliable lift on it, and just having fun. Every afternoon
Mark would be hard at work, working on gun designs and predicting how much snow
we would be making an hour. I was a bit skeptical, but nonetheless I believed.
The next season really progressed well – it was a landmark year, and the year
we decided on the name of our new ski area. One day Mark and I were sitting
bickering at the dining table in my grandmother’s farmhouse. The bickering was
over what we would call the hill, that it needed a name now, something that
was distinct, cool sounding and related to winter. A number of names were thrown
out ending in mountain, or ridge, or hill, but none of those names were appealing
and descriptive. Finally Mark came up with “Polar Peak” Polar came from the
root beer soda he was drinking, peak came from… I don’t know, we just like
the name “peak.” So Polar Peak it became.
That season turned out very well, and it was the first season that we found
out we were having an impact. People started to learn about our ski resort by
word of mouth or just driving by and becoming curious. In December a group of
friends came out and instantly fell in love with the place, and when Mark told
them the name was “Polar Peak” their vocabulary was non stop about it. They
loved the snow, that we trucked in by our own quads ( our snowmaking system
was not yet strong enough to provide enough snow on the main peak so we carried
in snow from big drifts). That season was quite an accomplishment, as we made
it last once again until the end of March when the warm weather finally made
us call it quits.
The summer of 1992 was the year that we really started construction on the
mountain. First we upgraded the lift to make it more reliable and added night
skiing lights, but perhaps the most drastic undertaking of that summer was the
construction of a baselodge. Dad gave us an old hay wagon that had three 3′
sides and an open front (where the doorway would go), and some lumber. Quickly
thereafter Mark drew up the blue prints and got to work. Some of the blueprints
we had planned were pretty outrageous, and expensive. We finally settled on
making a small A-frame on the wagon. Then 14, Mark was busy building a lodge,
and I helped out when I wasn’t working around the lift. The lodge was finally
finished around October 10th and we officially placed it at the base of the
ski area. We then took the 4’x 8′ warming hut and slowly turned it into an office.
Mom and Dad opted to purchase us a 120gpm pump for Christmas so that we could
make snow down on the hill, and not blow air back through the lines in the house
when the gun froze up.
Roughly a month later we opened for skiing on the second day of November after
a night of snowmaking. Once again the base was only about 3″, but the skiing
was great and thanks to overcast skies the snow lasted all day. That season
started off quiet but slowly gained momentum, and by January we were getting
a couple of people from school out for night skiing every night and the snow
was really great. We lit up Upper and Lower Glade every night for skiing with
about five 300-watt lights, and people loved it. Cars were slowing down on the
road to watch us ski, and on a overcast night you could actually see the glow
7 miles away.
In January Dad told us about how Mount Snow used to create what was called
“Fountain Mountain”, a glacier created by pumping tons of water. When the ice
started to melt it softened and people would ski it, well into June. With that
thought Mark and I started on our next expedition, Glacier Making. Now picture
this: you are a regular, sane person driving in your car and you look out to
see these two kids spraying 120GPM of water on a slope when the temperature
is 10 below. You think, “insane kids”, we say “easy, cheap snowmaking.” And
it worked out so well that we were able to lay down close to 3 feet in 3 nights.
That season we made a lot of good friends who became dedicated to the peak
and actually helped define what the peak was all about. On March 12, 1993 we
held our first and last Irish fest blow out. It’s a long story, but just put
it this way – if you want to have a small party don’t tell anybody ’til Friday
afternoon, or as we learned the whole school will end up there and crash it.
Even if the school is 15 miles away and you live out in the backwoods. Kids
will find a way to any kind of function, don’t ask me how, they just will. The
morning afterwards the smell of the square bales smoldering in the bonfire infiltrated
the valley, and Mark and I were busy cleaning up Milwaukee’s Best cans, getting
ready for the largest storm of the year, the “Blizzard of 93”. We just made
it, it snowed and snowed and didn’t stop until we had 26″ of snow on the ground.
It turned out to be a great year thanks to a blizzard and a yearlong snowmaking/
glacier making committment that built the base depth on Beginner Novice trail
close to 7 feet deep. It was a week after the blizzard that a local newspaper,
The Independent did a small article on Polar Peak. They took a picture
of Mark and me, standing on the fronts steps of the lodge, looking up at the
mountain as if we were planning what was next. It is perhaps one of my favorites
of all time. The high school newspaper, The Owl also produced a small
article about us.
The summer of 1993 was the busiest summer of our lives. To this day I still
can’t figure out how the hell we got so much done in so short a time. We added
more hose to our snowmaking force thanks to a donation from our bus driver’s
fire company. We took the side off of the lodge, gave it the name Carinthia
lodge and expanded it by 50%. We also took apart the Polar Peak Summit Express
and rebuilt it, and later on we even ripped out a stone wall that was in the
way and added a nice landscaping around the base area. I would say that the
current Polar Peak, the up-to-date Polar Peak was born that summer. Much of
what you see today is a result of all of that hard work. That year was also
the best season in our history, not to mention that it was the year that would
define Polar Peak as a true mecca for skiers and snowboarders alike. We were
feature once again in the high school newspaper, and we were also featured on
two television programs: WTEN out of Albany and WTZA out of Kingston.
Needless to say, we started to become celebrities and Polar Peak was getting
just as popular as any other place. There were tons of great skiing, tons more
facilities, and we once again beefed up the snowmaking system. We found that
we would need more workers. So how do you get people to come out and work without
forming a payroll? To convince people to play with water outside on a night
in the middle of January? Well, with teenagers it’s not too awfully hard, for
three things will drag a teen out of the house for a night: 1) a warm place
in the middle of winter with tons of stupid R-rated movies; 2) Plenty of food
and beverage opportunities, and 3) girls. Most of the time as a teen there really
isn’t anything else to do but get in trouble, so Mark and I started bringing
out friends for a night or two. Most people were fascinated by the fact that
we made snow, and that if they put in some work they could ski for free. Others
were glad to have a place to go and watch dumb movies, while yet others couldn’t
devour the generic brand chips and soda fast enough. Nonetheless our snowmaking
crew had expanded from 3 the year before to around 12. We would constantly amaze
the neighbors, for they knew that if it was below freezing the chances were
high that Mark and Tom were busy making snow.
That season finally wrapped up in April after 100+ days of great skiing. Those
were our founding days. We later moved on to get an air compressor with which
we gained the ability to make real snow using compressed air and water. Mom
and Dad bought us a 125cfm air compressor the following Fall, and from there
history was made. Mark designed and developed a whole line of snowguns called
the “Peak Series” or P series. Today there are 7 different designs, we still
use the P-1000, P-4000, and the P-7000 on a regular basis. With a compressor
and increased pumping power we developed the ability to make around 2′ of snow
on a 50′ to100′ area in a night. We were also featured on an AP photo with the
guns going in the background (the one I was mentioning at the beginning of this
tale). With high capacity snowmaking we were once again able to extend our season,
and by then we had gained the recognition of being kid snowmaking pioneers.
We would later go on to having an early opening of October 5th in 1996 with
the latest closing ever of April 20,1997.
From there the seasons seem to have flown by. After that season Mark started
college and in 1997 I started college. Seasons seem to go by quicker with a
little less skiing since we have to keep up with the demands of the real world,
but it is always nice to know that you have a true home to come back to, for
us it is Polar Peak, the Vail of New York. We still work on Polar Peak and operate
it on weekends. Currently we are working on a program we call Polar Peak 2000,
a project to bring Polar Peak into the new millenium of skiing. Polar Peak 2000
is a project that we have undertaken this year and will continue for the next
3 years so that we will be able to operate Polar Peak no matter how busy our
schedule is – it’s called efficiency. From new long-lasting lifts, to an easy
to operate snowmaking system and trail reconfiguration, this program is going
to redefine the Polar Peak experience. This year we replaced the Summit Express,
reconfigured Lower Polar Run, rebuilt our mid-station unload area and put a
deck on the lodge. It’s looking to be a great season this year.
I think what really made Polar Peak succeed was the combination of the two
of us, Mark the optimist and engineer, and me the Pessimist and businessman,
and of course the support of two excellent parents. It was our dedication and
commitment to creating a number-one place that is dedicated to skiing, where
the lift doesn’t need to be running for people to have some great skiing. A
lot of times people are happy just to come out and be there, to enjoy the snow
and the quietness of the great outdoors. It’s not too far fetched to see the
two of us and others skiing, hiking up Glade during the middle of a snowstorm
for a couple of terrific powder runs. We ski, and Polar Peak skiers and riders
come because they love the sport, regardless of rain, snow, sleet or mud. The
terrain is great and the lifts are simple ropetows, the lodge is small but quaint,
and we groom the snow with snowmobiles, but the experience remains unmatched.
It’s skiing like it was at your favorite hill 35 years ago, the return to innocence.
A true skier enjoys each run for what it is, a captured moment in time, which
we will never get back. What Polar Peak lacks in vertical or snowmaking, or
whatever, it makes up for in heart. No high speed quads here, just a small backyard
operation that is all about our love for skiing, where we focus on skiing when
we start making snow in October until we finally call it quits in April. As
I glance out my dorm window well on my way to earning my Bachelors in Management
and Technology with a concentration in Technological Entrepreneurship (of course)
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I often wonder what the future will bring.
Will there be room to grow in an industry that I really love? A well-paying
job involving skiing or a chance to someday make another real Polar Peak? Maybe
someday we could develop Polar Peak to accommodate future Olympic champions
at least to pay the bills. I don’t know, like most other people about to reach
the second decade of life I really don’t know what I want to spend the rest
of my life doing. But Mark and I are willing to try and find it. Mark graduated
from SUNY Cobleskill in May and is currently undertaking a snowmaking foreman
position at Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, and I am working there also this upcoming
winter season as a Marketing Intern. Who knows, maybe this is the start of our
furthering ski industry education. We would like to thank all of our family
and friends who helped Polar Peak make it to what it is today. Until next time,
may your next run be great.
Ed. note: Somehow, I’m convinced that Mark & Tom can accomplish
anything that they set their minds to – I’m not too worried about their
future. For more on Mark and Tom, and The History of Polar Peak Ski Bowl
please visit their website at: http://www.hudson.pair.com/polarpeak