Lightning Strike Destroys Plattekill Double Chair Controls
"We need an entire drive system,” says owner Laszlo Vajtay
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Nature trains sites on locals’ Catskills favorite
Hall lifts are famously reliable – Smugglers’ Notch, the Vermont giant towering off the backside of Stowe, runs on a fleet of seven of them, a few of which date to the early ‘60s. Many ski areas’ fleets still consist entirely of Halls, even though no chairlifts have been produced under the brand name in decades – Titus runs entirely on Halls, as does Snow Ridge and Lost Trail, Montana. According to Lift Blog’s Peter Landsman, there are 267 Hall lifts still in service across North America.
Doppelmayr now services Halls, but parts can be hard to source. So when a lightning strike destroyed Plattekill’s double-chair bottom control shack on Tuesday, it created a problem disproportionate to the size of the structure.
A neighbor spotted smoke within minutes of ignition, and the local volunteer fire department responded immediately, likely saving the 3,000-foot-long, 1,100-vertical-foot lift from total destruction. Plattekill uses the lift for summer weddings, and was able to quickly build a new platform off the top of their adjacent triple chair.
That gives them about five months to fix the lift before ski season. On Twitter, Plattekill at first identified their primary need as a 200-horsepower DC drive, noting that the part was difficult to source because “the related components inside the drive are in the same supply chain hangups as the automotive and manufacturing sectors are suffering from.” In text messages earlier today, however, Plattekill owner Laszlo Vajtay told me that “The more I’m researching this, the challenge has been that it’s not just a drive we need, we need an entire drive system engineered for a people mover with all the ANSI B77 safety’s built in. There are many drives available but not with the low voltage control system.”
The lift is insured, but Vajtay can’t commit to purchasing parts until an adjuster assesses the damage. “We have received one quote from a lift drive manufacturer in California with a delivery day of late October,” Vajtay said via text. As of now, a new build seems like the only option. Vajtay is well connected, and “the response from the industry, mostly Indies, has been overwhelming,” he said, but no one has the exact parts he needs.
Meanwhile, Plattekill is retrenching. The ski area had recently purchased 87 chairs from Windham’s Whiteway triple (which Windham removed this summer to make way for a D-line detachable quad), with the intent of upgrading Plattekill’s double to a triple. Vajtay now says he will likely sell the chairs to help cover the cost of the lift repairs. This may work out for the best. “The sentiment among the loyal Plattekill fans is they love their double.” The mountain teased another major project on Instagram earlier this week, but Vajtay declined to make details public as to what Plattekill is doing or whether the project will continue.
It’s crucial that Plattekill repair this lift by December. It is one of the great lifts of New York State, an iconic machine that served Belleayre for 22 years before moving 20 miles up the road to Plattekill in 1999. It took three years for family-owned Platty to erect the lift, replacing an unfathomably steep T-bar that was so old it was powered by donkeys walking in a circle at the bottom. It serves a sprawling, lights-out pod of narrow twisters and glades, a brutal and snowy chunk of earth seated regally over the narrow valley below. The view down the line is glorious:
A lift disaster of this scale may crush any other ski area. A surprising number of ski hills have ceased operations at the exact historical moment that a lodge fire leveled their base of operations. But improbable Plattekill is no typical operation. There is no reason, in a Catskills otherwise wiped of independent operators, that the ski area should still exist. But the place persists because of its remarkable owners.
The second Storm Skiing Podcast I ever published was with Laszlo and his wife, Danielle. When they bought the ski area in the early ‘90s, it had almost no snowmaking and just one chairlift – the triple that is still in service. As every other independent ski area around them – Bobcat, Cortina, Scotch Valley – folded, the Vajtays staged a methodical modernization of Plattekill, adding snowmaking to usually one trail per year and self-installing the double. They are smart and conservative, allergic to debt and intensely attuned to their customers, who have deeply personal reasons for buying Plattekill’s $739 season pass, even though the ski area is open only three days per week and an Epic Local Pass can get them into nearby Hunter - a much bigger mountain - and dozens of other resorts for more than $100 less.
It would be easier to do almost anything other than to run a ski area. But there is no better job for someone determined and defiant, crafty and implacable. “Ski resort operators have to be wily and few are more wily than independent owners,” Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory told the Colorado Sun’s Jason Blevins a few weeks ago. “They have learned survival techniques that make them experts at adapting and that is why I think, for individual resorts, the future is bright for those in the right locations. I think there will always be vibrant independent resorts in this industry.”
I doubt Gregory had Plattekill in mind, specifically, when he said that. But you could find few modern ski area operators who better fit that description. Plattekill will be fine. Even if the double remains shuttered for all of next season. Last April – 2021 – I swung through Platty on closing day. Only the triple was spinning, but Laszlo was shuttling skiers across the saddle in an ATV so they could drop down Plunge. Others hiked. I was happy on the triple-side corn, but Laz must have asked me half a dozen times that day if I’d gone over to the other side yet. When I left at mid-day he was standing on the sundeck in his helmet laughing with the crowds (he’s in flannel below).
This is not a man who will let his mountain fail. At this point, 30 years in, he is the mountain. And as long as his name is attached to Plattekill, the place will persist.
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