This I regret. Tumbling east in a U-Haul half-loaded with rickety cast-offs and boxed furniture I landed in Manhattan. Among these ragged possessions was a pair of Rossignol Pow Air Pros, sculpted like a weapon in the overzealous hourglass form of the early 2000s, twin-tipped and black with orange flames. Echoes of an ‘80s Trans Am in their paintjob and of the mighty Excalibur in the power of their wielding.
The first place I skied was Hunter. Then Windham. They were the smallest mountains I would ski for years. Soon Vermont: Stratton and Killington and Mount Snow and Okemo. In those first years in the city I had no car and so I went where the buses went and they went where you would expect them to go. But later I bought a car and I continued to go to these same places because I was in the East now, no longer sequestered to Midwest bumps too small to register on a topo map. I had graduated. To Mad River Glen and Stowe and Sugarbush and Cannon and Wildcat. Vail and Snowbird and Alta and Steamboat and Crested Butte. An arrogance too easy to name. Anything smaller forgotten.
Here is what it cost me. In those first years of my East Coast life these ski areas still operated. In New York: Hickory, Big Tupper, Bobcat, Tuxedo Ridge, Sawkill. In Pennsylvania: Mount Tone, Ski Denton, Tanglwood, Alpine Mountain, Split Rock, Kah Kout, Blue Marsh, Willowbrook. In Connecticut: Woodbury. in New Jersey: Hidden Valley. In Massachusetts: Ski Blandford. All now closed or closed to the public. Probably forever.
I don’t know when the shift happened. Maybe when I began skiing with my daughter. At first we took her to Hunter, Sugarbush, Killington, Gore. It was too much. Too many speedsters, too many radbrahs and gangelas. Too much traffic and confusion. Too much money. Thunder Ridge, seven hundred vertical feet poking above a neighborhood of single-story homes an hour north of the city, hit just right. Cheap. A simple all-in-one base-lodge-ticket-counter-rental-center-cafeteria. Three chairlifts older than the Alamo serving slopes with barely more pitch than a soccer field.
The comedown was slow. At first, even sprawling Belleayre seemed small. But the 7-year-old skied comfortably there. She liked the warm gondola and the long gentle runs and the lack of crowds. I took her to Plattekill, Catamount, Bousquet, Mohawk, Maple Ski Ridge, Royal Mountain, Willard. Still, yes, Sunday River and Copper and Steamboat. But in the great downshift to kids’ speed I remembered something.
The joy of it. Of skiing for the sake of it. Of dispatching with the hunt for bumps and glades. Of skiing regardless of conditions because these are the days available to ski. Trails through barely pitched woods, stretching forever, harmless, magnificent, a little kid’s version of exhilaration and adventure. And mine too once I let it be.
I arrive at broiling midday and park beside the chairlift. Bunched clouds hang over the empty mountain and the sonic buzzsaw of unseen insects cuts the silence and snowguns like cannons stand sentry over the incline. Ski areas in the summer are always melancholy, their machinery stilled and their vast spaces emptied and their artifice exposed, chair loading stations absurd with their snow ramps dissolved. But no one had skied here in years and the place felt not just abandoned but forgotten, left to a nature that would be happy to devour her.
In shorts and toting a backpack I climb. On skis, descending, almost nothing feels steep anymore. Walking up, the mildest green circle rises like Everest. At mid-mountain, a steel-sided garage yawns wide open in the afternoon, its insides unmolested by the scrawled graffiti that is the signature of American abandonment. A cardboard box, weather-warped and torn, holds a collection of beer cans and emptied oil quarts, a relic perhaps of a 7 a.m. comedown after a night in the Cats. Outside vast boneyards of tires and coiled snowhoses and discarded Cat engines and piled double chairs rusting into the earth. The A-Team, marooned on this mountainside, would cobble together a fantastic vehicle in which they would topple all foes. But even they could not save this place.
I climb to the summit. The alpha lift stands animalistic and enormous. It looks amazingly complex and expensive. Whoever erected such a machine on such a mountain must have been proud. It was just a Borvig double, antique and red, its footrests swung upward, modest in the high-speed ski world of the 2020s. But here it looks noble and Roman and magnificent, a monument to some extinct empire.
I eat lunch on a concrete platform in front of the counterweight and imagine skiers dumping off the ramp in a snowy January and skiing off and away and the shout-laughs and the moving lift and the soundtrack of a ski area alive.
But there is no one here now except the animals. This was a small ski area but on foot it feels enormous. At the bottom of a steep bowl I scare up a group of whitetails nested like birds in the high grass and instead of just bounding off toward the forest they turn and bark at me like feral dogs. Later a half-dozen pheasants explode from the brush. It is startling but they are more startled than I am. This is their home and people don’t belong here anymore.
There are four doubles altogether, Halls and Borvigs and Pomas, and I follow each one up and down the mountain. One has been stripped of its chairs and they sit stacked and leaning in eight-foot-tall grass near the base terminal. But most chairs dangle where they stopped five or six years before. Recently enough that trailsigns still hang clearly from trees. Between two lifts I find an amazing forest of generously spaced hardwoods and large boulders and while this ski area had no marked glades this would have been an amazing one when they’d gotten enough snow which they surely almost never did. One chair is parked where I can sit on it at the summit and so I do and I’m sweating from the heat and exertion and the flies are just amazing but it’s summertime and my mission is interesting and so I don’t care.
The base area buildings are a wreck, abandoned wholesale like the cabins of a sunken vessel. Everything that was there remains there. Computers and TVs and keyboards and telephones and bank safes and paystubs and desk lamps and office chairs and coffee cups and half-drunk Gatorades and posters announcing events long past and newspaper clippings and file drawers full of paperwork that no one will ever look at and no one probably ever did. And of course skis and ski boots, in every room, leaned against walls and scattered about and bunched in closets, mostly base rentals of all sizes, inert but restless, built to move and forgotten by those who would move them.
On the top floor above the lodge is a warren of offices and in one of them the ceiling has collapsed and everything below is ruined. On one desk tucked into an alcove sits a cardboard presenter stacked with pamphlets from the 2011-12 ski season, still glossy and sharp-edged and crisp. This is the only thing I take since it’s a thing the ski area would have given out for free to begin with. Inside is a map and driving directions and mountain stats and lift ticket rates. $42 for adults on weekends and holidays. $25 on weekdays. $10 Tuesdays. One hundred percent snowmaking and nightskiing on all trails. It’s the closest ski area to New York City, it says. It’s the Biggest Little Mountain East of the Rockies.
I never skied there. On the ground in the basement room splayed chaotically are lift tickets stamped Jan. 25, 2015. For at least 13 winters it was right there and I couldn’t be bothered and now it’s gone.
I was there once. On a clear and warm June day amid whoo-ha throngs of nouveau fitness warriors I muscled up and down those hills, climbing ropes and hauling 40-pound sandbags up the incline and clawing the mud beneath an endless field of coiled barbed wire. A New York stop on the national Spartan Race tour. In my photos of that day is a place vibrant, alive, hundreds of people thronging the base area, the trails scaling up in the background, the chairlifts dangling proudly and stepping showroom-red up the mountainside, the air rich with triumph and accomplishment and joy.
Why do some ski areas fail and others fade? Ten minutes away sits little Mount Peter, thriving, with its forest of snowguns and Middle America vert and chutes-and-ladders lift network and miniature Christmas town base village. It is unspectacular and modest and humble but in its understated wicket-ticket staunchness it endures.
There are plenty like it. Plenty that endure. No thanks to us. Or, at least, to me. I have never lived outside the Eastern time zone, but many years I skied more days in Colorado and Utah than in New York and Vermont. If you’ve skied West you get it. It’s better. Not better in a way subjective and preferential, like dogs are better than cats or pizza is better than tacos, but in a factual way like there are more living ostriches than saber-toothed tigers. It cannot be argued.
But the fact that a superior version of a thing exists does not mean the lesser version has no value. Belleayre is a better ski area than Mt. Peter and Stratton is a better ski area than Belleayre and Jay Peak is a better ski area than Stratton and Snowbird is a better ski area than Jay Peak. But they all hold value. They all give you skiing. A version of it.
Embracing this, I reoriented my ski calendar over several seasons in a way that emphasized frequency and proximity. The West was still there and I skied it just as often. But in between, the two dozen ski areas lurking within a two-hour drive that I’d dismissed as irrelevant instead became accessible adventures. Pieces of the understanding. Shawnee, Spring, Bear Creek, Montage, Campgaw, Holiday Mountain, Southington, Mohawk, Sundown, Victor Constant, Jack Frost, Big Boulder, Camelback, Blue. Sitting there the whole time.
Some day some of these will be gone. And when they are and when I pull up to the ratted buildings and forest of climbing vines and tilted rusty machinery and walk among the wreckage in the August afternoon at least I will be able to remember the place as it was in its snowy sculpted heyday, lifts turning and skiers streaming down. I’ll remember how that little cut skier’s left led to good trees in deepsnow and the double never had a line when the quad was busy and which side softened early in the sun on hard days. It will be a memory and not a fantasy. I’ll be able to say I skied it.
Note: an earlier version of this article referred to all of the ski area’s chairlifts as Halls. The article has been corrected to reflect that some were manufactured by Borvig and Poma.