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Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay, Owners of Plattekill Mountain, New York
July 14, 2023
About Plattekill Mountain
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay
Located in: Roxbury, New York
Year founded: 1958
Pass affiliations: None
3 days each at Snow Ridge, Swain, Mont du Lac, Ski Cooper
2 days at Homewood
Closest neighboring ski areas: Belleayre (28 minutes), Windham (41 minutes), Hunter (46 minutes)
Base elevation: 2,400 feet
Summit elevation: 3,500 feet
Vertical drop: 1,100 feet
Skiable Acres: 75 acres
Average annual snowfall: 175 inches
Trail count: 40 (20% expert, 20% most difficult, 40% more difficult, 20% easiest)
Lift count: 3 (1 triple, 1 double, 1 carpet)
Why I interviewed them
Think about every ski area in the country that almost everyone knows. Almost every one of them has a smaller, less-well-known, slightly badass neighbor lurking nearby. In LA, it’s Baldy, forgotten in the shadow of Big Bear and Mountain High. In Tahoe, it’s Homewood, lost in the Palisades Tahoe circus. We can just keep going: Hoodoo/Bachelor; White Pass/Crystal; Mt. Spokane/Schweitzer; Soldier/Sun Valley; Snow King/Jackson; Sunlight/Aspen; Red River/Taos.
In New York, we have a few versions of this: West and (currently closed) Hickory, adjacent to Gore Mountain; Titus, intercepted by Whiteface as cars wind north. But the most dramatic contrast lies in the Catskills. There, you find four ski areas: Hunter, recently expanded, owned by Vail Resorts and flying two six-packs; Windham, two new investors on its masthead, an Ikon Pass partner that runs three high-speed lifts out of its base; Belleayre, owned by the state and run by the Olympic Regional Development Authority, or ORDA, with a shimmering gondola that no other ski area of its size could afford; and Plattekill.
Plattekill is owned by Laszlo and Danielle Vajtay, former ski instructors who purchased the bump in 1993. They have added snowmaking to one of their 40 trails each year that they could afford to. Their lift fleet is a 1974 Hall triple and a 1977 Hall double, moved from Belleayre in 1999. It took the Vajtays three years to install the lift. The parking lots cling layer-cake-style to the mountainside. Plattekill is open Friday through Sunday, plus Christmas and Presidents’ Weeks and MLK Day. Access is down poorly marked backroads, half an hour past Belleayre, which sits directly off state route 28.
It’s fair to ask how such a place endures. New York is filled with family-owned ski areas running vintage lifts. But only Plattekill must compete directly with so many monsters. How?
There is no one answer. There’s the scrap and hustle, the constant scouring of the countryside for the new-to-Platty machines to rebuild to glory. There’s the deliberate, no-debt, steady-steady better-better philosophy that keeps the banks away. There’s the 1,100 feet of pure fall-line skiing. The vast kingdom of glades. The special geography that seems to squeeze just a bit extra out of every storm. There’s the lodge, rustic but clean, cozy, and spacious. And there’s the liftlines, or miraculous lack of them, for such a ski area just three hours from the nation’s largest city. And there are the midweek private-mountain rentals – Platty’s secret weapon, a $8,500 guarantee on even the feistiest weather days.
That algorithm, or some version of it, has equaled survival for Plattekill. When the Vajtays bought “Ski Plattekill” in 1993, the Catskills were crowded. But Bobcat, Scotch Valley, Cortina, Highmount, and Sawkill all vanished over the decades. Plattekill could have died too. Instead, it is beloved. Enough so that it can charge more for its season pass - $779 early-bird, $799 right now – than Vail charges for the Epic Local Pass ($676 early-bird, $689 today), which includes unlimited access to Hunter and most of the company’s 40 other resorts. When a harder-to-reach, smaller mountain running 50-year-old lifts can charge more for a single-mountain season pass than its larger, more up-to-date, easier-to-access neighbor whose season pass also gets skiers in the front door at Whistler and Breckenridge, it’s doing something mighty right.
What we talked about
Plattekill’s “surprisingly good” 2022-23 ski season; building a snowmaking system gun-by-gun; 2023 offseason improvements; how the Vajtays have grown Plattekill without taking on traditional debt; what killed independent skiing in the Catskills; private mid-week mountain rentals; a growing wedding business; why Plattekill was an early adopter of lift-served mountain-biking, why the mountain abandoned the project, and whether they would ever bring it back; assessing Platty’s newest trail; potential terrain expansion within the existing footprint; plans to moderate the steep section at the end of the Overlook trail; the potential lift and terrain expansion that could make Plattekill “a big, big player in the world of ski areas”; considering outside investment to turbocharge growth - “the possibilities for the mountain are that it could be a lot more”; “I don’t have an interest in selling Plattekill”; Snow Operating; assessing Plattekill’s Hall chairlifts; “anybody taking out a lift, please don’t cut it up and throw it in the Dumpster before contacting” small ski areas; the lightning strike that changed Plattekill’s summer; helping save Holiday Mountain; competing against the Epic and Ikon passes; competing against state-owned and taxpayer-funded ski areas; how New York State could help independent ski areas compete against its owned ski areas; Liftopia’s collapse; the Ski Cooper season pass; and reconsidering the Indy Pass.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
The Vajtays have appeared on The Storm Skiing Podcast before, in episode two, which I released on Oct. 25, 2019. They’d agreed to do the interview without knowing who I was, and before I’d published a single episode. I will always be grateful to them (and the other seven folks* who recorded an episode when The Storm was still gathering in my brain), for that. The conversation turned out great, I thought, and fused the podcast to the world of scrappy independents from its earliest days.
But in the intervening years, I’ve gotten to know the Vajtays much better. Laz and I, especially, communicate a lot. Mostly via text, but occasionally email, or when I’m up there skiing. In May, he joined a panel I hosted at the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) convention in Savannah, Georgia. Alongside the general managers of Mt. Rose, Mt. Baker, and Cascade, Wisconsin, Laz articulated why the Vajtays had so far elected to keep Plattekill off of any multi-mountain pass.
The NSAA’s convention rules forbade me from recording that panel, but the conversation so closely aligned with my daily pass-world coverage that I knew I had to bring some version of it to you. This is installment one. Cascade GM Matt Vohs is scheduled to join me on the pod in October, followed by Mt. Rose GM Greg Gavrilets in November (you can always view the upcoming podcast schedule here). I’ve yet to schedule Mt. Baker CEO Gwyn Howat, but I’m hopeful that we can lock in a future date.
So that is part of it: why has Plattekill held firm against the pass craze as all of its better-capitalized competitors have joined one coalition or the other? But that is only part of the larger Platty story. Vail was supposed to ruin everything. Then Alterra was supposed to ruin it more. Family-owned ski areas would be crushed beneath these nukes launched from a Colorado silo. But this narrative has been disproven across the country. Because of a lot of things – the Covid-driven outdoor boom, the indie cool factor, the big boys overselling their passes – small ski areas are having a moment. No one, arguably, has a tougher hill to defend than Platty, and no one’s proven themselves more.
*Those six people were: New England Lost Ski Areas Project founder Jeremy Davis, Lift Blog founder Peter Landsman, Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher, Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway, Killington President Mike Solimano, and Burke GM Kevin Mack.
What I got wrong
I said that The New York Times profile on Plattekill’s private-rentals business ran in 2018. It actually ran Jan. 4, 2019.
Why you should ski Plattekill
I can endorse all four large Catskills ski areas. Hunter holds a crazy, possessed energy. Impenetrable on weekends, you can roll 1,600-vertical-foot fastlaps off the sixer on spring weekdays. Belleayre throws past-era vibes with its funky-weird trail network while delivering rides on a top-to-bottom gondola that is the nicest lift in New York State. Windham’s high-speed lift fleet hides a narrow and fantastically interesting trail network that, when wide open with new snow in the woods, feels enormous.
So Plattekill is not, for me, a family-diner-versus-McDonald’s kind of fight. I probably ski all four of those mountains about the same amount. But I will make an appeal here to those New York-based Epic and Ikon passholders who are scanning their mountain menus and deciding where to ski this winter: take one day and go to Plattekill. Make it a day that you know will be miserable at Hunter or Windham. A day when the lift queues can be seen from space. A holiday, a Saturday, a powder day. I know you already invested in your pass. But suck up one more lift ticket, and check out Plattekill.
Here’s what you will find: no liftlines, ever. The parking lots simply aren’t large enough to accommodate enough skiers to form them. A double chair with this view:
At the top, three choices: loop green-circle Overlook all the way around, thread your way down through the tight and narrow blues, or ride one of four double-blacks all the way back to the valley. I prefer the blues because they lead to the glades, unmarked but maintained, funky, interesting, tap-shoes required.
The triple side is more traditional, more wide runs, especially Upper Face. Powder Puff is fabulous for kids. The snow doesn’t stick to the triple side like it does to the double side, but when it’s deep enough, wild lines through the trees lie everywhere.
Plattekill is littered with curiosities. A rock quarry. An old T-bar terminal. An overgrown halfpipe in the trees. Abandoned MTB trails still signed and useable for skiing. More than any ski area in New York, Plattekill rewards exploration and creativity, enables and encourages it with a permissive Patrol and line-less lifts. Twenty or 25 runs are possible here, even on a big day. Just keep ripping.
In some ways, Plattekill is a time machine, a snapshot of a Catskills otherwise lost. In others, it is exactly of this moment, stripped of the pretense and the crowds that can seem like skiing’s inevitable trajectory. The bozos who can’t stand a fixed-grip lift ride longer than three minutes don’t come here. They would rather stand in a long line for a fast lift. But you don’t have to. You can come to Plattekill.
On Platty’s singular atmosphere
No one has written more on Plattekill than Harvey Road, founder of the fantastic New York Ski Blog. I asked him to share links to his five favorite Platty write-ups:
Return to Plattekill Mountain – Jan. 8, 2013
“Those intangible forces pull me inexorably to Plattekill. Don’t get me wrong, Plattekill has some solid tangibles too: lake effect powder and steeps and trees and beautiful views are important to people who love to ski. But there’s also something more. A simplicity of purpose that fills my soul with an exuberance I have a hard time capturing in my nine-to-five life.”
Plattekill: The Life of Riley – March 5, 2018
“Later in the morning the snow and the wind really picked up. It must have snowed two or three inches an hour well into the afternoon. By noon all traces of the bottom were gone and Plattekill was 100% open for business. Twist and Ridge were deserted and any tracks you left on that side of the mountain were gone by the time you returned.”
I’m Done Skiing Alone – March 20, 2018
“When I was a little kid living on a farm, I’d play by myself in a big tractor tire that served as a sandbox. I developed a reputation for playing alone. ‘Harvey doesn’t need playmates, he’s happy all by himself!’ It wasn’t true, down inside I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know myself well enough to push back.”
Chasing Plake – Feb. 4, 2019
“Around 10:00 am we headed into the lodge to give our legs a break, hydrate and warm up a little (it was maybe -1 F at this point). As we got to the door, we saw the man himself. ‘I was wondering when you’d show up.’
“’Hi, my name is Glen!’ he said, offering his hand. I introduced myself and my son and asked if he’d been skiing yet.
“’No, we kind of take our time on Saturdays. I love to watch a mountain wake up and come alive.’ We chatted about Tahoe and the weather for a couple minutes. I asked if we could take some pics. Of course we could.”
Plattekill: Five Days Later – March 11, 2019
“We skied down to the double and Sam the Smiling Liftie let us step around the rope and head up early with Patrol. At the top, a new character was introduced. Maybe he’d seen my custom skis, as he said ‘Road? I’m Soule. Jeff Soule.’
“I use the word character in it’s broadest sense. Gregarious and engaging, with homemade poles he’d carved from tree branches, Jeff had switched to tele this season and was absolutely ripping, hucking everything in sight.”
On the lost ski areas of the Catskills
When the Vajtays purchased Plattekill in 1993, the mountain was one of six family-owned ski areas in the Catskills. One by one, the other five failed. Here’s an overview of each:
Highmount, circa 1985
Bobcat circa 1996
Cortina, circa 1995
Scotch Valley, circa 2004
I don’t think a trailmap exists of Sawkill, which was basically one or two runs and a ropetow on 70 vertical feet.
On that ominous New York Times article from the ‘90s
Laszlo referred to a New York Times article covering the Vajtays’ disastrous second season as owners – that article ran on Jan. 21, 1995. An excerpt:
A sign posted at the Ski Plattekill resort here warns against packing the cozy, wood-paneled cafeteria beyond its capacity of 242 people. That has hardly been a problem this winter.
With a third of the ski season already over, this resort in the central Catskills has yet to open a single one of its 27 trails. The reason is plain: it has barely snowed this winter, and whatever snow has fallen has been washed away by driving rains and unseasonably warm temperatures. When Laszlo Vajtay, the owner of Ski Plattekill, looks out at his mountain, all he sees is brown grass.
"It is depressing," he said, as he trudged through the mud blanketing his steepest trail, Blockbuster, on this 52-degree afternoon. "Look at how warm it is. It's like summer. Winter's just not here yet."
Mr. Vajtay's experience is the starkest example of what has been a disastrous season for skiers and ski areas across the Northeast. Of the 50 ski areas in New York State, all but nine closed down late this week, hoping to preserve their remaining snow cover for the weekend, according to Ski Areas of New York, a trade group. Things were not much better in New England, where nearly 60 percent of ski resorts reported being closed.
On The New York Times article on private mountain rentals
Plattekill has offered private mountain rentals for 15 years. That part of the business really took off, however, after The New York Times profiled the ski area in 2019:
Plattekill, in turn, has branded itself as an intimate, old-fashioned resort for expert skiers and families alike. Most important, however, it has been able to guarantee income on the slower weekdays, by becoming a private mountain of sorts. Four days a week, it puts itself up for rent. Any group can have exclusive access to it for just a few thousand dollars a day.
In their early years as owners, the Vajtays were obsessed with two things that were not always compatible: making snow and avoiding debt. In the summer, they opened up the mountain for camping, music festivals and mountain biking. They took what they earned and invested it into snow-making equipment.
Eventually, a new business idea came from Plattekill’s regular skiers, who visited the mountain every time it snowed, even when it wasn’t open. (The mountain was and is only open to the public Fridays through Sundays.) This became so common that the Vajtays decided to open the mountain, regardless of the day, following a major snowfall. Typically, about 500 paying customers would show up for the event, called Powderdaize.
Powderdaize led to another idea: renting out the entire mountain to groups. Some Plattekill regulars so enjoyed the quiet setting of the last-minute weekday openings that they intimated to Ms. Vajtay how great it would be to have a “power day” to themselves, she recalled. The couple knew of a few members-only mountains in the United States but these were fancy, expensive resorts like the Yellowstone Club in Montana and the Hermitage Club in Vermont. Why not rent out their humble little mountain?
In 2008, they started to do just that, charging $2,500 a day for exclusive use of Plattekill Monday through Thursday. (The price has since increased to $4,500.) Clients have ranged from corporations, like Citigroup, to religious organizations. Every year since 2010, Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations from New Jersey and New York have met there once a year.
On being “The Alta of The Catskills”
Laz referred to an old Powder article that glossed Plattekill “the Alta of the Catskills.” The author, Porter Fox, also visited Hunter and Belleayre, but here’s the Platty section:
Two lifts rose 1,100 vertical feet from the base of Plattekill Ski Resort to the 3,500-foot summit. Between them were a few lift enclosures—designed to mimic gambrel barn roofs in the valley—an oversized base lodge, dirt parking lots, a dirt driveway, and about 200 skiers lapping trails as fast as they could.
Plattekill is the Alta of the Catskills. The Little Ski Area That Could has fewer trails but gets more snow than most resorts in the range, averaging 150 inches annually. It is easy to forget that New York State borders two Great Lakes (Ontario and Erie), and that lake-effect storms often carry all the way to the Catskills. Sitting on the northwestern fringe of the range, Plattekill rings out most of the moisture before storms warm up and dry out.
The mountain’s 38 trails are only open Friday through Sunday. (You can rent the whole place for $3,500/day midweek.) If it snows 12 inches or more, the staff will get the chairs spinning midweek as well. Last year, “Platty” opened on a Monday after receiving four feet of snow in one dump. It wasn’t a fluke, resort owner Laszlo Vajtay told me as he pulled up National Weather Service radar images of the storm. Precipitation spanned all the way from Manhattan to Albany in the image. The red dot in the center of the maelstrom was positioned precisely over his mountain.
Vajtay, 56, started skiing at Plattekill when he was 7 and never left. He taught skiing, met his wife, Danielle (also an instructor), proposed and got married there. In 1993, he bought the place. The Vajtays didn’t have deep pockets, so when their ancient DMC 3700 groomer broke down, they hired a nearby mechanic, named “Macker,” who learned how to fix it. He fixed all of the groomers on the hill, then refurbished an older model that Vajtay bought for a song. In 2014, Plattekill became the only authorized Bombardier service center in New York and Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, one of their snowcat clients asked them to work on their snow guns as well. There was no snowmaking at Plattekill when Vajtay bought it; the Platty crew cobbled one together from used guns and pumps they salvaged from old fire trucks. They took the job on and now part of Plattekill’s business is also repairing snow-making equipment and lifts throughout the Northeast. “We run this place like they run farms in the valley—no debt,” Vajtay said. “The one time we had to borrow, we asked our skiers to chip in for a new lift. We paid them back on time, with interest.”
Vajtay’s standard look is one of excitement, or shock. His clear blue eyes are penetrating, and his gray hair is usually messed up by a ski hat or helmet. The “shock” part is real. He is genuinely amazed at how well he and his crew have done with a small ski area in an era when many others have gone belly up. Sixty-five resorts in New York have closed in the last 40 years, according to the New England Lost Ski Areas Project.
In the new world of mega resorts, Plattekill is a time capsule of the way things used to be—steep runs, wild-eyed locals, friendly staff, boot cubbies, $2 frozen pizza slices, and an oversized base lodge bar, where auburn alpenglow settles on the last skiers of the day cruising down. The hand-hewn rafters, deer antler chandeliers, stained pine paneling, antique snowshoes and skis hanging on the wall reel the clock back to the 1980s, ’70s, ’60s —when televisions received three channels, every car had 300 horsepower under the hood, politicians were accountable for their actions, and all anyone in the Northeast wanted to do in the winter was sleep and ski.
Laszlo Vajtay is not just the owner of Plattekill, he grew up skiing there. He and his wife, Danielle, run the ski area like a farm--debt free. They also run it as a family. Above,
It’s easy to fall into that world at Platty. The day we arrived was the Friday before the annual “Beach Party.” The ticket-seller-bartender-receptionist-office-manager-landscaper gal took a break from blowing up balloons and unfolding last year’s tiki decorations to give us tickets before Vajtay took us on a tour of the grounds. Here was the PR-mountain-ops-ticket-sales-manager’s office; there were the ski lockers; there was the cafe and the cabinet-sized ski shop run by George Quinn—who wrote two books about ski history in the Catskills and knows the range better than anyone since Rip Van Winkle. Lastly, Vajtay showed us the main eating hall, where a circular fireplace flickered in the middle of the room, itself an actual invention of the 1960s that now absolutely vibes the place with a ’60s aura.
Out the double picture windows at the northern end of the Blockbuster Lounge was a quiver of double-diamond runs Platty is known for: Blockbuster, Freefall, Plunge, Northface, all of which are pitched straight down. At the top, a long, wooded ridge hems in the resort.
Vajtay had rounded up a scrappy crew of locals who were anxious to go, including Scott Ketchum, a longtime local who moved to Phoenicia the same week that Jimmy Hendrix played at Woodstock a few miles away and grew up skiing Simpson’s rope tow. After a quick introduction, Ketchum offered to show Reddick some leftover powder in the trees while Vajtay and I talked.
Turned out that, at Platty, “leftover powder in the trees” was code for: traverse 45 minutes east across the ridge; find a foot of fresh a week after the last storm; plenty steep and plenty of vertical; bad route-finding at the top; a thicket of trees so dense it became impossible to simply get down; multiple over-the-handlebar moments; broken pole; run-in with an ornery neighbor who had fired a shotgun over someone’s head the week before; a few laughs; and, finally, a smelly pig-pile ride in a pickup truck back to the resort.
On Snow Operating
Laszlo referenced a podcast episode that I recorded with Snow Operating CEO Joe Hession. Listen here.
Laz also talks about Hugh Reynolds, who joined me on a different podcast episode. Listen here.
On the Olympic Regional Development Authority
We talked extensively about the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), which manages three ski areas owned by New York State: Belleayre (which is right down the road from Plattekill), Gore, and Whiteface. Recent NPR reports detailed the stunning level of taxpayer funding channeled into ORDA’s coffers over the past six years:
Standing in the boardroom of New York's state-run Olympic Regional Development Authority in Lake Placid, CEO Mike Pratt spread out photographs of Olympic sports venues in Beijing, Berlin and Sarajevo that lie abandoned and in ruins.
His message was plain: This almost happened here.
Pratt convinced New York state to bet on a different future, investing huge amounts of taxpayer cash rebuilding and modernizing the sports authority's venues, most dating back to the 1980 Winter Olympics.
"The last six years, the total capital investment in the Olympic authority was $552 million," Pratt said. "These are unprecedented investments in our facilities, no question about it. But the return on investment is immediate."
NPR found New York state has actually pumped far more dollars into the organization since Pratt took the helm, with government documents showing the total outlay closer to $620 million.
You can read more here. It’s an incredible story.
On Ski Cooper’s controversial season pass
On Mount Bohemia’s $99 season pass
I’ve covered this extensively in the past, but my podcast with Boho owner Lonie Glieberman goes into the whole backstory and strategy behind the mega-bargain pass at this ungroomed glade kingdom in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula. This year’s season pass sale is set for Nov. 22 to Dec. 2. The $99 pass no longer includes Saturdays – skiers have to level up to the $109 version for that. Bohemia also sells a $172 two-year pass and a $1,299 lifetime pass.
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