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I Love New York Skiing

I Love New York Skiing

Travel East
By Steve Cohen
posted: 08/27/2002

I've sat idling in my driveway for 15 minutes and still can't bring myself to turn the ignition key off. The journey has been epic, yet I know I've barely touched the soul of my home state's ski culture. After 15 days, 1,200 miles and 20 ski areas, one unshakable image of New York skiing persists: Like native son Rodney Dangerfield, it gets no respect.

Think of great ski states. Colorado and Utah come to mind. But New York has more ski areas than both those luminous states combined. In fact, with about 60 resorts, New York has the most ski areas of any state in the union. That number, however, could be higher or lower, depending on when the census is taken. "In good years the little guys open," says Ski Areas of New York President Rob Megnin. "In bad years they don't-and who knows if they'll be back the year after."

But that doesn't stop New Yorkers from skiing. Last winter, with a tally of 3.5 million skier days, New York recorded the fourth highest skier day total of any state in the nation, trailing only Colorado, California and Vermont. New York remains the only state in the U.S. to host two Winter Olympics-both at Lake Placid, whose Whiteface ski area has the largest vertical east of the Mississippi.

Empire State skiing, however, isn't about big, it's about little. Lots of little. Not one of the state's ski areas recorded 500,000 annual lift ticket sales, an industry benchmark for first-tier resorts. Nor do the tentacles of corporate skiing stretch here; none of New York's areas are owned by the handful of national resort conglomerates. New York does host a half-dozen areas run by governments, including three by New York State. There are also a handful of private clubs-unique vestiges of skiing's formative years-including Holimont, the largest private area in the country, and Skaneateles, perhaps the smallest. All but three of New York's major resorts light their trails, and most would cease to exist without their evening business.

At its core, New York skiing is about fiercely independent and devoted businessmen and women-virtually all native New Yorkers-running ski areas that are clinging to a skiing way of life that is fast fading as the national resort chains drive feeder areas back to pasture. It's about incubator ski areas that support the whole Disney-like world of skiing's elite resorts. It's about ski areas that never make anybody's Top 60 list, let alone register on the sport's national radar screen. New York skiing is about the roots of the sport, the essence of why we head to the mountains. And for that, skiing should be grateful.

The marketing wars fought by ski areas over size are legendary. They peaked in the late Eighties in Vermont with Killington conducting an aerial survey that purported to show that competitors were inflating their ski-terrain acre counts.

In New York, resorts continue to battle over size, but with a new twist. "We're the smallest area in the U.S.," John Goodfellow boasts of Four Seasons. Goodfellow is owner/ski instructor/cat driver/lot sweeper of the 80-vertical-foot anthill surrounded by subdivisions in Fayetteville, a Syracuse suburb.

Four Seasons is really a golf driving range. But it would be a mistake to think that this gentle incline and tiny patch of forest isn't a serious ski area. For 30 years, the place has drawn up to 4,000 skiers each winter, most of whom are a decade away from getting a driver's license. "Twelve is considered old for a Four Seasons skier," says Goodfellow, handing me a brochure for his kid's birthday party package.

His last lift upgrade was in 1978-"We went from a rope-tow to a J-bar," says Goodfellow. But he does have a legitimate snowmaking system and a relatively late model snowcat. And, fittingly, a miniature golf course outside the base lodge of his miniature hill.

"I like John, but I'm not sure he's correct about being the smallest in the country-or even the state," says Dan Fuller. Fuller is what qualifies as a conglomera in New York. He owns Bristol Mountain, the big hill on the western side of the Canandaigua Finger Lake. With 1,200 vertical, it boasts of being "the biggest ski area between the Adirondacks and the Rockies" and is where serious Rochester and Buffalo skiers go.

Bristol also runs two money-losing municipal operations in Rochester city parks that don't even total 200 vertical feet. One is Powder Mills, which is said to be a foot shorter than Four Seasons. It's certainly smaller, with a single slope about 50 feet wide and a rope-tow running up its flank.

It manufactures new skiers-most of whom Fuller expects will be Bristol customers-and some days up to 250 kids yo-yo Powder Mills' tiny spit of white. Fenced in on all sides, this area allows parents to bask in the warm spring sun, comfortable in letting even their youngest kids roam free. Powder Mills taps Rochester city water for snowmaking, making it probably the only area in the country with fluorinated snow. It also may be the only ski area in the U.S. where the ski patrol shack has a life preserver mounted on the wall among its rescue equipment, protection in case some small fry falls into the creek that runs along the base of the slope.

The downstate economic boom, fueled by record Wall Street revenues, still hasn't spread to Central New York, where manufacturing jobs have continued to ebb for much of the past two decades. Not too long ago, Smith-Corona dominated the typewriter business from its world headquarters in nearby Cortland. That's gone now, along with the Rubbermaid plant and 10,000 jobs at the shuttered IBM facility.

Still, skiing continues to survive, if not thrive, here in the state's Greek section, where a historically reverent band of Army engineers gave the surrounding towns names such as Syracuse, Ithaca, Marcellus and Homer. Greek Peak, the biggest of four areas within a 40-minute drive of each other, has suffered the most from the region's downturn but continues to plug away with innovative beginner programs-it even offers free video analysis on the hill. With a financial boost from the state's economic development agency, it has constructed a new snowmaking pond and developed a master plan to reinvent itself as a regional destination resort.

Until that happens, Greek Peak will continue to rely heavily on the region's big college population that surrounds it at Cornell, Ithaca and the State University at Binghamton, a total of more than 30,000 students. Says area owner Al Kryger, "It's not unusual to see African and Asian students not only try skiing for the first time, but to also touch their first snow."

Skiing clearly hasn't fully permeated the soul of Central New York. The DJ on WAAL, Binghamton's rock station, is moaning about afternoon snow showers. His misfortune is my good fortune as I roll toward Labrador, Toggenburg and Song.

Lab and Tog, as they are known locally, are friendly rivals and hard to distinguish from each other. A 10-minute drive apart on successive ridges, they are virtually identical 700-foot-vertical hills. Both are named for animal breeds, the first a canine, the second a Swiss goat. Both have historic cemeteries in the middle of their parking lots. Both are filled with kids as the snow the Binghamton DJ feared pelts the hills.

I finally figure out how to tell the areas apart: Lab is the ski area with the Wipeout pinball machine in its base lodge; Tog is the one with the large cornfield across the street. That's not surprising. While the state's global image is forged by New York City, it remains at heart a farming state. Labrador's base lodge was originally a 150-stall milking barn, and the region still boasts some of the largest dairy farms in the state.

Farm-raised Toggenburg Mountain Manager Larry Sipfle jokes, "Old parts never die here, they just enter our internal recycling program." When high-tech tower guns proved beyond its budget, Tog jury-rigged its own, bolting lengths of pipe up the sides of lift towers. When it needed a mount for a new fan jet snowgun, it fashioned it from an old T-Bar tower. Even its retired rental skis have found a home. Cut down to size, they serve as coat racks and, with holes drilled through their tips, serving trays for drinks in the Foggy Goggle lounge.

It's still blowing and snowing as I pull into Song in the early evening; the crowd is sparse but enthusiastic. I join the Megnin family, which lives across the street from Song, for five runs down the 700-foot vertical. Though it is a Thursday night, it is not unusual for the entire family-including Rob, his wife, Anne, and their three kids-to be skiing. "As long as the homework is done," says Rob, "we'll go out for a few runs. It helps the kids get to sleep."

Song has struggled financially for much of the Nineties and is the first of the Central New York family-owned resorts to succumb to corporate ownership. The lifts were always fine but the snowmaking, grooming, food service and overall infrastructure had grown weak. Now, a new investor group with deeper pockets-with connections to the Swain area in the western part of the state and a Finger Lakes golf resort-has taken over, promising to change Song from "ski area to mountain resort."

I quickly lose my concern that Song will lose its chummy atmosphere. As I sip my hot chocolate, Song Marketing Director Char Palladino slides into the seat next to me and slips me an envelope. "Take a look at these," she says excitedly. I expect the usual compliment of press materials but I'm surprised to find myself rifling through a stack of snapshots from Song's recent Mardi Gras party, with Char enthusiastically naming each local in the photos.

As I continue my cross-state journey, I get lost on my way to Brantling. Repeatedly. I know this because there can't be more than one huge herd of grazing buffalo in western New York. Thanks to the miracle of cell phones, Michelle Steinrotter, 23-year-old daughter of owners Fifi and Pat, successfully guides me into this 240-foot bump of a hill just south of Lake Ontario. Though it's less than 40 miles from downtown Rochester, Brantling is surrounded on all four sides-for miles-by working farms.

I have come because of Brantling's international reputation. Not for terrain, lifts, après-ski or any of the other typical ski area yardsticks, but as a factory. And what the Steinrotter family manufacturers here are ski racers. Last year, 11 kids in the Brantling race program went on to train at the nation's elite ski academies, the proving grounds for the U.S. Ski Team. Michelle herself was a five-time U.S. Collegiate Ski Racing All-American at Babson College in Maine.

But once they truly caught lightning in a bottle here. Olympic and World Championship gold medalist Diann Roffe-Steinrotter got her start at this tow-only area that doesn't even open until 4 pm on weekdays, when the kids are let loose from school. "You've got to go to Brantling," Diann implored when I saw her a few weeks before setting out on my odyssey. "It is so cool."

Retired now but still travelling the world to promote skiing, Diann continues to call Brantling her home area. You might think it mandatory, given that she's married to Steinrotter son Willi. But like all Brantling race rats, she became a de facto member of the extended Steinrotter clan when she joined the race program as a youngster. You can't help but feel that the Brantling shrines to Diann, including her namesake run and the big welcome sign that touts her accomplishments, would be there even if she wasn't an in-law.

After traveling the length and width of the state-which is shaped like a T-bone steak with its point facing west-I feel qualified to be the geographical arbiter of the New York debate on where "downstate" ends and "upstate" begins. For all intents, upstate is everything north and west of Albany, the state capital. Which means Hunter (or as the regulars call it, "Hun-tah") and Windham are downstate,ift towers. When it needed a mount for a new fan jet snowgun, it fashioned it from an old T-Bar tower. Even its retired rental skis have found a home. Cut down to size, they serve as coat racks and, with holes drilled through their tips, serving trays for drinks in the Foggy Goggle lounge.

It's still blowing and snowing as I pull into Song in the early evening; the crowd is sparse but enthusiastic. I join the Megnin family, which lives across the street from Song, for five runs down the 700-foot vertical. Though it is a Thursday night, it is not unusual for the entire family-including Rob, his wife, Anne, and their three kids-to be skiing. "As long as the homework is done," says Rob, "we'll go out for a few runs. It helps the kids get to sleep."

Song has struggled financially for much of the Nineties and is the first of the Central New York family-owned resorts to succumb to corporate ownership. The lifts were always fine but the snowmaking, grooming, food service and overall infrastructure had grown weak. Now, a new investor group with deeper pockets-with connections to the Swain area in the western part of the state and a Finger Lakes golf resort-has taken over, promising to change Song from "ski area to mountain resort."

I quickly lose my concern that Song will lose its chummy atmosphere. As I sip my hot chocolate, Song Marketing Director Char Palladino slides into the seat next to me and slips me an envelope. "Take a look at these," she says excitedly. I expect the usual compliment of press materials but I'm surprised to find myself rifling through a stack of snapshots from Song's recent Mardi Gras party, with Char enthusiastically naming each local in the photos.

As I continue my cross-state journey, I get lost on my way to Brantling. Repeatedly. I know this because there can't be more than one huge herd of grazing buffalo in western New York. Thanks to the miracle of cell phones, Michelle Steinrotter, 23-year-old daughter of owners Fifi and Pat, successfully guides me into this 240-foot bump of a hill just south of Lake Ontario. Though it's less than 40 miles from downtown Rochester, Brantling is surrounded on all four sides-for miles-by working farms.

I have come because of Brantling's international reputation. Not for terrain, lifts, après-ski or any of the other typical ski area yardsticks, but as a factory. And what the Steinrotter family manufacturers here are ski racers. Last year, 11 kids in the Brantling race program went on to train at the nation's elite ski academies, the proving grounds for the U.S. Ski Team. Michelle herself was a five-time U.S. Collegiate Ski Racing All-American at Babson College in Maine.

But once they truly caught lightning in a bottle here. Olympic and World Championship gold medalist Diann Roffe-Steinrotter got her start at this tow-only area that doesn't even open until 4 pm on weekdays, when the kids are let loose from school. "You've got to go to Brantling," Diann implored when I saw her a few weeks before setting out on my odyssey. "It is so cool."

Retired now but still travelling the world to promote skiing, Diann continues to call Brantling her home area. You might think it mandatory, given that she's married to Steinrotter son Willi. But like all Brantling race rats, she became a de facto member of the extended Steinrotter clan when she joined the race program as a youngster. You can't help but feel that the Brantling shrines to Diann, including her namesake run and the big welcome sign that touts her accomplishments, would be there even if she wasn't an in-law.

After traveling the length and width of the state-which is shaped like a T-bone steak with its point facing west-I feel qualified to be the geographical arbiter of the New York debate on where "downstate" ends and "upstate" begins. For all intents, upstate is everything north and west of Albany, the state capital. Which means Hunter (or as the regulars call it, "Hun-tah") and Windham are downstate, both in terms of geography and attitude. These are the areas where NYC folk ski, and their rivalry is every bit as intense and real as the one between the city's two professional baseball teams, with Hunter playing the role of the brash and boisterous Yankees, Windham the genteel and polite Mets. New York City's Finest (the police) and Bravest (firefighters) ski Hunter; Wall Street brokers ski Windham.

Everything you may have heard about Hunter is true. It is raw, brash and totally New Yawk. The mountain is steep, the trails mostly winding ridge cuts carved from its rocky face: Sheer cliffs loom above on one side, fence-lined drop-offs on the other. This makes most skiers migrate to the middle of the trails all too often, carving and sliding the terrain into a merciless field of giant moguls.

As I stand outside the lift maze and click into my bindings, a portly skier in his late 20s pulls up, a glowing cigar plugged in his kisser, one of his poles bent at a 60-degree angle from what appears to be a recent fall. Sweating profusely, the man begins to straighten the crooked pole over his knee, as his buddy warns, "Don't do dat. It's gonna break. I'm tellin' ya, don't do dat." Like most New Yorkers, the man ignores his friend's advice and continues his bending until, inevitably, the pole snaps. Assessing his predicament, the man calmly tosses the bottom section of the pole to the ground and skis onto the chair with his jagged pole stump in hand-never once removing his cigar from his mouth. This is pretty much all you need to know about Hunter. Guests come to ski hard, if not pretty.

If Hunter is bumps, Windham is buffed. It is a polished place, the trails decidedly blue, even when marked black. Unlike Hunter, there is little here that frightens. Windham customers certainly come to ski, but also to leisurely sip a Brooklyn Beer in the Legends bar while Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen wail on the stereo, and perhaps check their stock portfolio in the TotalTel business center using its high-speed T-1 line.

The contrast between the areas is evident from the moment I pull up to Windham. As I drag my gear from the far reaches of the parking lot, an obviously well-heeled Windham skier drops $13 to valet park, saving him a few steps before he spends the rest of the day trying to work up a sweat.

While New York owns and operates the state's only pair of 2,000-foot mountains, it hasn't done so very successfully in the past. Both Gore and Whiteface draw a fraction of the skiers that similar sized resorts do in neighboring Vermont.

That may be changing. With the backing of Gov. George Pataki, New York's skiingest chief executive since Averill Harriman, both Whiteface and Gore installed new high-speed lifts last summer. The twin eight-passenger, heated gondolas now whisk skiers from bottom to summit in just minutes and are transporting the ski areas from the early Eighties into the new millennium.

Gore also seems to have found a patron saint in Elliot Monter, a wealthy 47-year-old Long Island real estate developer whose first visit to the resort in 1961 spurred a lifelong love affair with the Adirondacks. "Some people call it insanity," admits Monter, who has turned the nearby town of North Creek into his personal urban redevelopment project.

Monter has restored North Creek's Copperfield Inn to four-star status and created perhaps the most entertaining ski shop in the country. His Mountain & Boardertown in North Creek is a mini-retail Disney World with 13 video screens playing non-stop loops of adventure sports films, a half-dozen virtual reality ski, snowboard and whitewater paddling video games, a three-times-an-hour indoor lightning-and-rain show and a climbing wall that soars above its cash registers. "Gore is moving in the right direction," he says. "The expansion will bring lots of people back." And hopefully a bunch of new ones to try what many judge to be the state's best all-around skiing mountain.

I came a sk

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