Why Plattekill Could Become King of The Catskills in a Socially Distant 2020-21 Ski Season

Plus Bolton Valley, Pats Peak, Ragged, Mount Peter, and Blue Mountain introduce pass deferral or refund options

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Social distance requirements favor the lowest-volume and least-developed ski areas

When California’s Mt. Baldy shocked the ski world by cracking the presumed-dead 2019-20 ski season back open this past Wednesday with a metered-access social distancing plan that seemingly reduced the possibility of coronavirus contamination to negligible levels, it made a couple of things clear. First, that the 2020-21 ski season was likely to happen, though it may be in a constrained form that little resembles the resort experience that most of us know. And that limited form will only be sustainable for the smallest and least-developed ski areas.

On the first point: as difficult as it is to imagine in this moment, as we document more than 30,000 new daily coronavirus cases in the United States and approach the incomprehensible milestone of a million total confirmed cases, states will eventually permit businesses to re-open. Not all of them and not all at once, but businesses that can re-imagine themselves for a socially distant world should step haltingly and carefully back to life as the infection curve slowly tilts downward. If we successfully ramp up testing to confirm both the presence of the virus and antibodies against it, and if recovery ends up acting as a shield against reinfection, then we could enter the fall with both a better understanding of the virus and some herd immunity against it, meaning we will have learned, to some extent, to live with Covid-19 until we can figure out how to eliminate it. That doesn't mean we’ll be cramming 65,000 Patriots fans into Gillette Stadium by September, but unless the virus doubles back and intensifies this fall, we should be able to at a minimum operate some form of skiing similar to what Mt. Baldy rolled out on Wednesday.

That form, briefly: The mountain is operating at 10 percent of capacity. All lift tickets must be purchased in advance and only four are sold for each 10-minute time slot between 7:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Staff greet and check in vehicles as they enter the parking lot. Guests must park three car widths apart. Lodges are closed. Skiers should allow 10 feet of distance in lift lines (which don’t exist), and only ride the lifts with people they are quarantining with. You can hear a whole lot more about the whole operation in my podcast interview with Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson.

Aside from the prospect of booting up at the car during a January deep freeze, this is a template for lift-served skiing that is more rational and enjoyable than our normal state, as it eliminates crowds, lift lines, and quests to track down the ticket booth within the sprawl of base area buildings. But all those great-for-skiers features of containment recreation mean far less volume and far less income for ski areas. And the modern ski resort is built on assumptions of volume.

Take, for example, Stratton, which is laced with a high-speed lift system capable of hauling nearly 34,000 mostly terrible skiers up the mountain per hour. They groom nearly every trail every single night. The only way Stratton can support the snowcat army necessary for this over-grooming pogrom and the installation, operation, and maintenance of four high-speed six-packs, a gondola, and a high-speed quad is by drawing thousands of such people every weekend from November to April, many of whom spend large sums on lodging, rentals, lessons, lift tickets, food, and alcohol. Without slopes that resembled Times Square on New Year’s Eve – and the hotel and food and beverage receipts that accompany them – the mountain would likely lose more money staying open at 10 percent capacity than it would by staying closed.

Such a limited approach to skiing naturally favors the kind of ski area that already operates on some version of Mt. Baldy’s low-volume, day-trip-mostly-required experiment. Places with little lodging and limited-capacity, fixed-grip lifts. Places that the Escalade set dismisses or, more likely, has never heard of. Places like Magic or Middlebury Snow Bowl in Vermont, McCauley and Snow Ridge in Upstate New York, or dozens more dotted across the Northeast.

Take, for example, Plattekill, New York, which may counterintuitively be the best positioned of the four Catskills ski areas to thrive in a constricted 2020-21 season. Hunter, with its dual six-packs and condo-lined slopes and acres of downstate and Jersey bus skiers, is one of the most congested ski areas in the country and leans on that volume to thrive. Windham also relies on volume and has an inconvenient parking layout that requires a shuttle ride to access the slopes from most lots – an extra liability in a social distancing age. Belleayre, whose $8 million gondola now looks less like the best lift in New York State and more like a floating germ factory, may have the biggest problem of all, as much of the mountain is difficult (though not impossible), to access without it.

Plattekill has none of these problems. It has two reliable fixed-grip chairlifts, a double and a triple. It is rarely busy. There are no condos. It is family-owned and, according to owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay, debt-free. It has modernized to the extent, however, that it offers a robust online ticket-buying experience. All of this means that the mountain could easily pivot to a Baldy-style ski-by-appointment system without necessarily buckling beneath its own maintenance costs.

This is not to say that the four-skiers-every-10-minutes Baldy system could or should be applied verbatim to Plattekill. Like any experiment, it should be refined and adapted to varying circumstances. Plattekill has three parking lots stacked along the ridge beside its lodge – it could allow four cars (or two cars, or three, or whatever), per 10 minutes. It could meter access by carload, rather than skier number – if a family of six who all live together roll up in their minivan, they ought to be able to all walk to the lift and ride it together. To further spread skiers out, the mountain could direct parties to alternating chairlifts, as both sit very close to the base lodge. These modifications crank the skier number up from Baldy’s probably-not-sustainable 24 skiers per hour to perhaps 100 while still enforcing social distancing. Once on the mountain, Plattekill is large enough to spread them out.

Plattekill with no lift lines and plenty of empty chairs on the President’s Day holiday in 2019.

I’m not saying this is a circumstance in which the mountain would have its best year ever. Such social distancing protocols would likely hinder or eliminate the large-group mountain rentals that are an important component of Platty’s business. There is probably not a social distancing plan robust enough to replace all of its skier visits - on its busiest days, the mountain can certainly feel full even if it never approaches Hunter levels of World War Z-zombies-climbing-the-walls-of-Jerusalem intensity. Switching to online-only ticket sales means paying hefty commissions to Liftopia, which runs those platforms. But Plattekill could likely weather this if the total volume reduction turned out to be modest, especially if it found a way to maintain at least limited food and beverage service, and, perhaps more importantly, a ski school – the area around its magic carpet is often the busiest on the mountain.

This is not ideal for skiers, either. It makes something that’s whimsical and free-flowing into a bureaucratic process of reservation and check-in. And it would be more expensive. Baldy is charging $99 for a lift ticket right now. This is not your high-dollar Western resort. It’s a funky no-frills throwback with four antique fixed-grip double chairs and little grooming. But fewer skiers means higher prices, because insurance, tax, labor, snowmaking, and other costs would be relatively fixed, regardless of volume. Magic Mountain, which became the first in the Northeast to guarantee a 2021-22 credit should ski areas get forcibly shut down next winter, said as much in its latest Alpine Update, stating bluntly that while season passes would be honored, reservations may be required and all discount products could be eliminated. And day tickets would likely be sold at full price.

But what would Hunter do? It does have two parking lot areas and redundant lifts to the top of its main summit, but the mountain rarely runs these now and would likely be reluctant to do so to accommodate a drastically smaller number of skiers. How many skiers could realistically safely fit on the mountain? Would two singles on opposite ends of the six-person Kaatskill Flyer or Northern Express be enough room to be considered safe social distancing? And considering the enormous number of Epic Passes now floating through the ecosystem, day ticket sales could be more or less eliminated. How Hunter downshifts from a high-volume, frenetic model of bus- and condo-skiers to a lazy hey-is-it-1958 model is hard to imagine.

But skiing, in particular Northeast skiing, is a sport built on imagination trumping the unlikely, and a workable model may exist. But the leap across that canyon is wider for Hunter or Windham or Killington or Sunday River or Stowe than it is for Plattekill, which has been hacking out an improbable existence in the remotest corner of the Catskills for nearly three decades under current ownership.

When I last skied there, in January, I split the day, starting with first chair at Hunter and then moving over to Platty as the crowds moved in at 11. The difference between the two was stark, from rocketship lifts and elbowing throngs to workhorse fixed-grips with six or eight empty chairs between occupied ones. Hunter had been nearly 100 percent open. Plattekill had eight or nine of its 38 marked trails open and one peak was closed altogether (though you could hike over to it, and I did). It was like going back in time. It may also, as it turns out, have been like traveling into the future.

This week’s Northeast season pass updates - See all Northeast season pass info here.

New deferrals and refunds:
  • Bolton Valley introduced a deferral program that accommodates three scenarios: full 2020-21 season pass deferral to 2021-22 if the mountain is closed all season; 10 percent off a 2021-22 season pass for each week that the mountain is open fewer than 11 weeks; and 80 percent off a 2021-22 pass if the mountain is open but you are uncomfortable skiing and have not used your pass.

  • Pats Peak introduced the option to defer 2020-21 passes to the 2021-22 season between Sept. 10 and Dec. 10 “for any reason”

  • Ragged introduced a one-time deferral for 2020-21 passes to the 2021-22 season between Oct. 1 and Nov. 25. Keep an eye on Ragged – they have one of the most progressive season pass setups in the Northeast. What they are doing now is what the rest of the small-mountain landscape could look like in the region in five years.

  • Mount Peter, New York is allowing deferrals of 2020-21 passes to the 2021-22 season by Dec. 10.

  • Blue Mountain, Pennsylvania will refund passes purchased with a payment plan through Oct. 1. It is unclear why this refund policy does not apply to passes purchased in full.

Running list of mountains with deferral or refund options (different conditions apply to each pass): Multi-pass: Ikon; New Hampshire: Pats Peak, Ragged; New York: Windham, Mount Peter; Pennsylvania: Blue Mountain; Vermont: Jay Peak, Magic, Bolton Valley

Extensions and incentives:
  • Labrador/Song extended their pass deadline to May 1 and added a three-part payment plan, but with a lame $25 charge for tapping it. There are still NO REFUNDS FOR ANY REASON.

  • Bromley extended its early-bird deadline from May 15 to June 15. Gee, I wonder why it’s $925 single-mountain season passes aren’t flying off the shelves when skiers can pick up a full Ikon Pass with no blackouts at neighboring Stratton plus access at a zillion other mountains for $799 if they’re renewing.

  • Cranmore extended its season pass deadline from May 31 to June 30.

  • West Mountain extended its season pass deadline from April 30 to May 30.

  • Pennsylvania’s Hidden Valley, Laurel, and Seven Springs are now offering $50 gift cards to renewing passholders until June 15, and everyone can save five percent on the price of a pass if they pay by cash or check. These offers are also presumably good for the Highlands Pass, which is good for unlimited access to all three mountains.

Additional notes:
  • Mad River Glen has pulled pass rates for 2020-21 (the last listed price was $749). The next listed deadline is Oct. 15.

  • Bristol, New York’s April 22 early-bird deadline passed, and they put the gun to their head by bumping prices to $845 (from an already sky-high $785), if you purchase by Sept. 15. I realize Bristol is rather isolated and caters to a specific market, but explain to me how this one mid-sized mountain’s pass worth $146 more than a $699 ($599 with renewal discount) Ikon Base Pass?

  • The link to buy Pennsylvania’s Montage’s season pass is still broken. Come on, Guys.

  • Oops – I had previously misrepresented Elk’s listed season pass prices as applicable for the 2020-21 season, but the Pennsylvania mountain still only has 2019-20 rates posted.

This week’s Northeast season pass deadlines

April 30: Pennsylvania: Blue Knob, Blue Mountain; New York: Cazenovia Ski Club, Greek Peak, Holiday Valley, Mount Peter, Plattekill, Snow Ridge, Windham, Toggenburg

May 1: New York: Song/Labrador; Rhode Island: Yawgoo; New Hampshire: McIntyre

May 3: New Hampshire: Pats Peak, Ragged

Shawnee Peak, Maine’s April 21 deadline has passed, but they are still advertising their early-bird $695 pass price.

Elsewhere

I wonder how much it costs in legal fees to sue Alterra and Vail for jipping you out of the full value of your $699 Ikon or Epik pass? Vermont Ski + Ride breaks down those lawsuits. Vail might be in deep shit (though probably not from the lawsuit). Other mountains are still hoping to follow Mt. Baldy in re-opening, including Aspen Highlands. New York Ski Blog helps out with delivery for the Northeast Face Shield Project.

This week in not skiing

When you’re learning how to become a writer you get all kinds of advice like write a lot and don’t use clichés and read everything you can, but one of the most common things any journalism or writing teacher will tell you is to go out and live in the world because that’s where all the stories are.

Well I have to admit I’m not immersing myself in a great variety of experiences right now. Rather, I am ensconced in an endless loop of routines that I will vary slightly, like some Saturdays I vacuum the basement first and the next I might clean the bathroom first.

This would seem problematic for someone who normally can’t go 10 consecutive winter days without bugging out to Vermont if it snows three inches, but in a weird way I’m enjoying the simplification of life and the elimination of the logistical acrobatics necessary to commute/work/ski/write/spend time with my kids/keep my finances and apartment from disintegrating/run and otherwise work out/have some sort of social life/travel/spend time with my wife/hustle around the city in endless errand loops. Now life is just wake up-make food-pick up and drop off the babysitter-take out the trash once in a while-retrieve packages from the building lobby-clean-write/work and that’s pretty much it.

Not rich ground for drawing from life’s vastness, and since I anticipate several million My Quarantined Life memoirs stuffed into Amazon’s self-published site in the coming years, I’ve yet to outline such a project.

One thing I have been doing a lot of which I guess everyone has been doing a lot of is meetings on Zoom or House Party or Facetime, both for work and in my real life. On the work side it’s nice to see people and it helps sustain a connection, but the real impact has been on my personal life, where texts suddenly seem cheap and lazy and the phone call has blasted forth from its pre-2006 exile to once more become a central component of life. Only now we live in the future and in true holy craparoli Jetsons style we all have TV phones and isn’t it awesome?

So one of the things that I have done every April for the past 22 years is travel by a combination of plane and car to a remote and primitive campground in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is five miles back in the woods and accessed by an unmaintained road that is sometimes firm-packed mud but more often buried in several feet of snow or deteriorated into some miasma of mud and snow and ice, and once we fight our way back there the 20 or 25 of us depending on the year build an enormous fire and set up tents and campers and pull kegs of beer from our vehicles and blast music and it’s supposed to be a fishing trip but really we don’t do anything much for four or five days but drink and laugh and yell at each other, and there are no showers and the closest store is six miles away and we leave filthy and exhausted and it’s really the greatest goddamn thing in the world.

Well this year of course we couldn’t do it. And we are hoping to push it to late summer maybe but with this world we’re in who the hell knows. And so we did a virtual event, not as intensive of course and not as visceral or satisfying, but in those erratic conversations as we all Zoomed in because that’s a verb now from our balconies and living rooms and woodshops spread across half a dozen states we recreated in some cyber-virtual way that feeling of sitting around the fire on fold-out camping chairs that we would invariably by the end of the weekend launch into said fire. And last night after my family was all asleep I took the iPad out onto my patio and sat there in a North Face midlayer that I bought for skiing but wear to do all kinds of other things and I had a couple beers and there were 10 windows there porting these 10 worlds into some kind of Matrix world and merging them into one. And I was up until 2:30 in the morning ranting about bald eagles and putting into faux exile those who had not attended our internet roundtable and the belly laughs and sense of spending time with friends was as real as a thing that actually happened could be, even if the sense of journey and destination and arrival had been reduced to inputting a meeting ID into a tablet app. And in the morning I woke up happy. And it’s things like that that are going to have to keep me going for now.


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COVID-19 & Skiing Podcasts: Author and Industry Veteran Chris Diamond | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak| Berkshire East/Catamount Owner & Goggles for Docs founder Jon Schaefer | Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis Cofounder Jeff Thompson | Doppelmayr USA President Katharina Schmitz | Mt. Baldy GM Robby Ellingson |

The Storm Skiing Podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer | Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith | Loon President & GM Jay Scambio | Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen| Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds |