It's a rainy mid-October day on the border between New York and western Massachusetts, and Bill Gilbert is sitting in his office at the foot of Catamount, about to cross a different kind of border.
On his desk, there's a contract for a new quad chair that will replace the hill's main lift for the 2006—07 season. He's about to sign it. But he's taken things slowly in the ski business for five decades now. He's got some time to talk before he gets out his pen.
Gilbert, who is in his 70s and has owned the hill with Don Edwards since 1972, knows that this is a capital improvement that's probably past due: Catamount's existing chairs, though well-maintained, could serve as a working museum of chairlift technology in the postwar era. When any piece of the hill's machinery suffers a mechanical hiccup, you're likely to see Gilbert striding out to supervise the repair, wearing the aggrieved expression of a man whose favorite hound suddenly refuses to fetch.
The other Berkshire hills close to Catamount's size—Butternut, just a few miles away on the far side of Great Barrington, Mass., and Jiminy Peak, a short drive north—replaced their workhorse lifts with high-speed quads years ago. Even so, Catamount's new chair "will definitely, absolutely, most emphatically not be high-speed, Gilbert says. The reason is simple: "I don't want to put too many people up on the hill at any one time.
[NEXT]There are, of course, clever MBAs who upon hearing this would shake their heads and argue that regardless of the implications for traffic snarls at the top of the hill, high-speed quads serve as flashy marketing tools in an age that tends to reward the new and the fast.Gilbert agrees, up to a point. "I think they're fantastic up on a mountain that's got the number of trails to support them, he says. "But I don't think it makes sense for a mountain our size.
Which is not to say that Catamount is some pipsqueak of a neighborhood hill. With 32 trails and 119 skiable acres making the most of its 1,000 feet of vertical, it's actually big enough to display a sort of geographically split personality. To skier's left, the New York side of the hill offers black-diamond runs that are as thrilling as anything you'll find in the Berkshires. The speediest, Alley Cat, forms a slinky backwards S that seems to drop almost directly down the hill's plumb line (and is Gilbert's favorite run). And the double-diamond Catapult isn't long, but its pitch and tendency to get bumped up make it a favorite of the rubber-knee set. Catamount's Massachusetts side, east of the outgoing No. 2 chair, is dominated by green-circle trails, making up 40 percent of its total acreage—enough to give it bragging rights as easiest in the region.As with every Berkshires resort, Catamount's identity is bound up in its ski school. The semi-enclosed beginners area, just east of the main lodge, is served by a conveyor lift—the resort's lone concession to modernity. When lessons are over, students can while away the rest of the day on the eastern slopes, tackling broad cruisers such as Esplanade or gentle switchbacks like Colonel's Caper.
And while we're on the subject of the resort's multi-state identity: The operation is formally incorporated in New York, but Catamount management flatly refuses to take a side on any question concerning baseball. "We talked about having a competitive Yankees—Red Sox fan day, but we never did it, says Gilbert, a New York native who now lives over the line in Massachusetts.
[NEXT]Catamount is one of the few resorts, East or West, that wants its visitors to think about the "ratio of lift unload per acre of skiable terrain—the number of people you can transport uphill in an hour measured against the amount of terrain available to bring them down again—in terms of negative capacity. While other hills boast about their ability to move crowds uphill, Catamount claims it has 61.4 skiers and riders per acre/hour against 96 for Jiminy Peak and 110 ffor Butternut.Like those resorts, Catamount can feel small-town during the week, when most of the people on the hill will only have to drive 10 miles or so to be home (or second-home) again. On weekends, you'll be able to detect the additional Manhattan presence echoing around the main lodge, and in the distinctly Brooklyn-esque shouts of encouragement that roll down the 400-foot-long halfpipe of the Megaplex terrain park. Above the wind-gnarled trees at the summit, you can glimpse the Catskills to the west. Over the hill to the east, the Berkshires become a maze of tiny towns clustered along the Route 7 corridor, a sacred pilgrimage for antique hunters.
Gilbert's desire to strike that balance between growth (call it the New York imperative) and the preservation of elbow room (a deeply ingrained aspect of the New England psyche; see "Frost, Robert on the value of fences) doesn't end at the bottom of the run. Last March, he watched a middle-aged woman carry a bowl of soup through the base lodge, searching in vain for a place to sit. "I went back to my office and I said, 'That's gonna change.' This year, Catamount opened an auxiliary lodge—more than a Quonset hut, less than a tricked-out lodge—with 150 more seats. And while the hill will likely never come close to the burgeoning development of Jiminy Peak, Catamount is moving forward with plans to build around its base. ("I always consider Jiminy to be our mentor. But we don't want to explode as much as they did, Gilbert says.)
[NEXT]Change at Catamount won't stop with the new quad, or the new dining hall or condos. Gilbert has watched the ski business grow increasingly corporate in the half-century since he began making snow further down the Hudson at Clarence Fahnestock State Park, where the clientele was made up of "a lot of guys who had been in the 10th Mountain Division, Austrians, and the landed aristocracy.But one thing endures, Gilbert says with a laugh: "It's one of the few things you can do in business where your kids can't wait to come see you.