Cortland, NY – When the lake-effect snow cranks up off Lakes Ontario or Erie, work in New York’s Southern Tier ends early, and the rest of the day is spent choking on powder turns in a blinding blizzard into the night under the lights of Greek Peak. Dinner is a Power Bar, or waits until the lifts stop loading at 10 pm. For those with day jobs, the real virtue of Greek Peak lies in their night skiing that provides a 13-hour window to get in some runs each day. Any night of skiing is better than going to the health club after work or going home and watching TV. It is rarely too late to take a few runs.
Greek Peak is not a destination resort. Rather, it is a Central New York ski area that introduces skiing and snowboarding to people new to the sport, and breeds racers, hardcore skiers and enthusiasts of all levels by providing affordable winter recreation. It also attracts a few busloads of novice and intermediate skiers each weekend from the skiing-deficient states of Maryland and Delaware who are looking for a cheap weekend getaway in a friendly and unpretentious environment. Most of Greek Peak’s clientele, however, hail from central New York’s Southern Tier cities of Binghamton, Cortland, Owego, Ithaca, and Elmira. With season passes starting at $199 (early bird price, $99 for students), Greek Peak is an excellent value for local skiing. While it doesn’t have any terrain to make your hair stand on end, or a massive vertical drop (952 feet, and every foot counts!), it is a great place to make turns, bash bumps, ski the trees, jib in the park, or speed through a racecourse.
WHEN MOTHER NATURE DOESN’T COOPERATE
For the times when the lake effect snow misses Greek Peak, the snow making crew maintains a very solid base…very solid. Many nights I’ve spent skittering down the icy manmade glacier while reminding myself that it is still better than sitting home and watching television.
The snowmaking philosophy at Greek Peak over the last couple of decades seems to have been to make a dense product that will weather the inevitable warm spells and January thaw. The denser the base, the longer it will last. If you see a snow gun operating while you are on the slopes at Greek Peak, it is usually not a good idea to ski on that new snow before it is chunked up and smoothed out. Your skis will likely slow down faster than your body, which could result in a face plant, as the moisture content in man-made snow at this ski area is higher than that you will find at other resorts. They create a solid foundation to last the season. You can always count on a good base even after a drenching rain.
Unfortunately, while they do make some nice surfaces when the conditions permit, there are times when this glacial surface can become bulletproof. Sharp edges are a must. These conditions are ideal for training people how to really carve, and some excellent racers come out of Central New York. Anyone can ski on good snow, but those trained on Greek Peak’s man-made snow can ski just about anything. During prolonged cold spells, however, the snow quality is much better.
LAY OF THE LAND
Greek Peak is spread along the north side of a broad ridge. Five double chair lifts, one triple and a Magic Carpet serve Greek Peak’s 29 trails, and all lifts are numbered successively as one looks from climber’s right to climber’s left. The lifts are all pretty old and slow, but since the mountain isn’t too high, the ride to the top averages about ten minutes. It can easily take less than five minutes to descend.
The facilities at Greek Peak are far from modern, either. The main base lodge, at the right side of the resort, contains the ticket booths, lockers, bag-lunch area, pub and cafeteria. It is quite drab and has the feel of someone’s finished basement. The food is your basic low-quality base lodge cafeteria variety of hamburgers, pizza and fries. The food in the pub was particularly poor last season, but at least you can wash it down with a beer. The menu seems to change every season, but the food seems to have gone from bad to worse. Live entertainment is available in the bar on some weekends.
The A-Frame lodge, one of Greek Peak’s original buildings, is located just above the Magic Carpet. It is usually skied to from the slopes and is ideal for a quick pit stop and snack in front of the fireplace. The main base lodge was built lower down, across the creek and is easily accessible from the large parking lot.
If you are standing at the base lodge looking up at the hill, the furthest lift to the right is Chair 1. Directly in front of the base lodge is lift 1A, an old chair purchased from Sugarbush (Vermont) in 1997. It is the newest addition to Greek Peak, replacing the original side-by-side T-bars. The old T-bar track is now a new black diamond trail called Alcmene, a narrow fall line trail with lift tower obstacles. Chairs 1 and 1A go to the same summit and offer the best skiing at night under the lights on four advanced trails: Iliad, Alcmene, Elysian Fields and Odyssey.
Iliad is the most prominent trail on the front face right between chairs 1 and 1A, fairly wide with two-thirds of it generally left ungroomed. It is a great place to learn how to ski the porcelain bumps that only get groomed down a couple of times a season, only after there is barely a fleck of snow left on the solid ice after a thaw/freeze cycle. A ribbon of groomed trail to skier’s left of the lift towers offers a smooth reprieve. The next trail over on skier’s left, Odyssey, is a steeper fall line trail that is often used at night by the Cornell Racing Team for slalom practice.
The next trail further to skier’s left, Olympian, is the steepest trail at Greek Peak. Not lit for night skiing, Olympian features a 40-degree headwall that plunges onto a fun bump run. I sometimes try to get to Greek Peak before dark so that I can get a few runs on Olympian before they close it for the night.
Elysian Fields is the challenging double fall line trail to skier’s right of lift 1A. The skier’s left side is groomed smooth, but halfway across the bumps begin. The further to the right you go, the better the natural conditions get and the steeper the slope gets. The skier’s left side of this trail is groomed smooth and gives this trail a blue square rating, even though the right side is of black diamond difficulty.
When I started skiing at Greek Peak 23 years ago, Iliad was a blue square. At some point in the last decade, they decided to leave most of this trail ungroomed and re-rate it as a black diamond. The advanced trails at Greek Peak are barely tougher than the intermediate trails at most Vermont resorts, as rating systems are relative to the ski areas themselves. Even though these trails pale in comparison to Vermont’s expert steeps, they are still plenty of fun and provide the most challenge at Greek Peak.
Below Elysian Fields is the Meadow, a wide area of less pitch where two trails converge and where Greek Peak has built their new half-pipe. A run down Elysian Fields can be spiced up with a run through the pipe. Below the half-pipe lie a few choices of blue and green trails to return to the lifts.
Facing the mountain from the base lodge, Chair 2 is tucked between the A-Frame Lodge and the main Base Lodge to the left of Chair 1A. It accesses the terrain park and some of the longest green circle cruisers on the mountain, one short black diamond and one very nice glade. The Magic Carpet and Chair 3 access the learning areas, and are on the left-most side of the base lodge across the bridge from the rental shop, before the tubing area.
Chair 4 is the furthest lift to the left of the main side of the mountain and does not start at the base lodge, but rather is accessed via chair 3 – or any other chair lift provided you know where it is. It is set down off to the side of the main green circle trails and its entrance can be easily missed. When it is busy on the weekend, chair 4 will have a shorter line than any other lifts on the front mountain due to its remote location.
Zeus, a fairly steep expert trail, sits directly beneath Chair 4. Snow doesn’t stick very well to its fairly steep headwall, and there may be bare spots, ice, or ice with gravel in the narrowest part of this trail. Smile, because you’re there for the entertainment of lift riders overhead. Chair 4 also accesses blue and green trails as well as the backside of the mountain during the daytime hours via the Chair 5 triple.
The Chair 5 area, or the “backside”, can be a pleasant escape from the weekend crowds on the main side of Greek Peak. Chair 5 parking is nearly slopeside, and you can ski right to your car at the end of the day, however, there are no amenities there including ticket booths. You boot up at your car. Be sure to head back before dark, as none of the trails accessed by Chair 5 are illuminated for night skiing. This area is primarily used by pass-holding locals in-the-know, since there are no signs on the main road indicating that there is a ski area and you must need to know which dirt road to drive down. There are no facilities at Chair 5, although they did provide a porta-john last season.
The Chair 5 side is almost like a completely different ski area. We like to think of it as ‘our’ ski area when our posse of friends park and party there with lawn chairs, coolers and a BBQ. It has turned into a regular locals’ tailgate party on the weekends. The Chair 5 triple accesses some nice, wide blue cruisers, one black diamond and a beautiful glade. The snow on this side is usually much better than on the rest of the mountain because it doesn’t see as much traffic and is closed after 4:00 pm. Rarely is there more than a 5-minute wait for the lift, and usually you can just hop right on this self-loading knee-breaker. Be sure to grab the chair with your hand before sitting or you will get bashed hard.
My favorite trail combination is on this side. When you get disembark the lift, head down and to the left into Alsos glade, which is clearly marked with a sign warning of natural conditions and hazards. Where it comes back out onto the trail, traverse directly straight across the trail towards the trees (be sure to watch for traffic coming from up the hill) and cross through the woods that separates the trails. Head under the lift and down Lower Mars, which leads to a steep black diamond bump run with natural snow directly under the lift. The furthest right line is the steepest and generally has the nicest bumps.
Greek Peak has a few glades and tree runs, two of which are on the trail map: Aesops Glade and Alsos Glade. Aesops is a three-tiered glade in a spruce forest off Chair 2, and Alsos Glade is on the backside and can be accessed during daytime operating hours via Chairs 4 and 5. When enough natural snow has fallen, snow is generally softer in the glades without that man-made glacier underneath.
There are a few off-the-map tree runs that have been cleared by the locals. I dare not disclose the locations in such a public article, and the ski patrol does not like people in these areas. They especially don’t like it if you poach a trail that has been closed and posted with the “Trail Closed” sign. Greek Peak’s patrol is quick to pull a lift ticket or suspend a seasons pass if the skier/rider is found on a closed trail. Poaching a trail that has had the snow guns blowing on it all day long may seem like a tempting way to make fresh tracks at the end of a cold night, but don’t do it.
GET WITH THE PROGRAM
There are many racing programs for all ages at Greek Peak, the most popular being NASTAR. There are also club teams for kids and adults, as well as a Master’s Racing program. The Wednesday Night Racing League is a friendly series that encourages skiers of all abilities to try running gates on the racecourse, and offers clinics during the hour before each race begins. The pros will teach racing basics to anyone who is participating in the league. A seed race is held the first week, and racers are ranked and divided somewhat evenly onto teams of four, but there’s always a lot of sandbagging going on at the seed race. Racers compete as a team against the other teams, not as individuals. Your goal is to improve your own time to put your team ahead. After each race there is a party in Orion’s Pub where they serve pizza, subs and wings to race participants as results of the day’s race are posted. At an awards party at Orion’s after the last race of the season, everyone takes home a prize.
For snow sliding neophytes, Greek Peak is probably one of the best places to get started. Greek Peak offers first time skiers and snowboarders a fantastic deal with a money back guarantee. For $20 midweek, or $35 on weekends, a first time skier gets gear rentals, lessons and a lift ticket along with a guarantee that they will be able to turn, stop and control their speed on the Alpha slope – or their money back. It costs $5 more for snowboarding.
Once outfitted with rental gear, the newbie exits the building and crosses the bridge to the learning areas. Instructors are waiting at the bottom of the Alpha slope and the Magic Carpet to give the gifts of skiing or snowboarding.
A few years ago, I tried snowboarding for the first time at Greek Peak. The Alpha slope was just right for learning. The other green trails that can be accessed off of Chair 2 are also gentle, wide and forgiving. I did get to the point of linking turns, but snowboarding didn’t do it for this old two-planker, so I decided free the heel and try telemark skiing. Telemarking is becoming very popular at Greek Peak, especially on “Telley Tuesday” nights and on weekends that feature an informal telemark festival and picnic. Sometimes telemarkers outnumber those with the locked heels on Tuesday nights at Chair 1. Greek Peak has telemark instructors on staff, though they do not rent telemark gear. Telemark equipment can instead be rented at the Cayuga Ski and Cyclery in Ithaca. After three decades of alpine skiing it was time for a new challenge. It gave me more respect for the local ski hill, as it suddenly seemed much bigger and more challenging.
Two years ago my husband and I took his two grown children (and son-in-law) and his two grandchildren (ages 9 and 11) from Virginia to Greek Peak to get them on skis for the first time. The youngsters and the adults both used the Magic Carpet for an ascent to the top of a very short learning slope with just enough pitch to get some speed to make their first turns. My first time at the Magic Carpet, I was able to see how the instructors worked with the kids and the adults who were first learning, and was very impressed with their patience and ability to get people to smile and have fun. The kids did so well that by the end of our evening we took them up on Chair 3 and down the Alpha slope. They got such a thrill out of riding the lift that the giggling didn’t stop the whole way up, and continued on the way down amidst the spills. The Alpha slope provided just enough challenge for these kids and lots of room for them to test out their new skills. As usual, the kids did better than the adults, but the adults had a great time as well.
Greek Peak is all about kids. Nearly every school in Central New York has a ski program. Greek Peak hosts dozens of schools that arrive in buses after classes, and the children are required to pass tests that will allow them to ski the more difficult terrain. They take clinics with instructors and are tested to advance to the next level. As an avid night skier, I find that the adults are firmly outnumbered by rowdy pre-teens and teenagers. When the buses leave at 8 pm, the shrieks of laughter, singing and shouting fade away down the road and the slopes quiet down, except for the sound of a few adults schussing into the winter night.
One of the nicest features Greek Peak offers is free instruction at any level. Anyone can take a lesson, or as they like to call it, a ‘clinic’, at Greek Peak for free with the purchase of a lift ticket (or season pass). There are stations with flags at the bottom of Chair Lifts 1, 1A and 3, and at the video shack where red-jacketed ski and snowboard instructors wait until someone approaches for instruction. Usually the clinic is one or two runs long and involves some kind of exercise to improve technique, and sometimes even a video analysis. Anyone can take advantage of the video analysis. Simply stop at the flag that is uphill from the video shack on the trail under Chair 1 (Iliad). When the light on the shack turns from red to green, proceed toward the camera demonstrating your turns while the tape rolls. When you get to the shack the instructor will review the tape with you and suggest ways to improve your technique. Greek Peak is a wonderful place to fine-tune your skills with free professional instruction.
There isn’t much else going on near Greek Peak as far as food and entertainment go, unless you drive 10 miles to Cortland or 20 miles to Ithaca. Cortland isn’t much more than your typical Central New York small city in a rural county, but you can probably get a cheap room at the Quality Inn and a Big Breakfast at Denny’s. Ithaca is a small, but diverse city abundant with international cuisine, bars, galleries and theaters fueled by its academic community, as it’s home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College. Hollenbeck’s Cider Mill, less than one mile west of Greek Peak, has the best pies, fudge, apples, cider and donuts around, but is only open until 5:30 pm. A stop there before or after skiing is always a good thing. Bruce Hollenbeck runs the place and has been a Greek Peak skier since the old days. He can really chew an ear about skiing, so budget some time to chat while you pick up your pie and fudge.
Greek Peak includes condominiums for rent and for sale across the road from the slopes, but the bus groups stay at hotels in Ithaca or Cortland with their improved meal options and other amenities that are lacking at the mountain. There has been talk over the years about turning Greek Peak into a year-round resort with golf, a water park and mountain biking. Greek Peak management says that there are plans to develop more real estate, as well as to put in a hotel/convention center with a golf course. There is a plan for a waterslide in the hotel, but no plans exist for any developments of outdoor recreation such as mountain biking or a water park. Greek Peak will remain what it has always been: a place where Central New Yorkers enjoy skiing and snowboarding during the winter.