Two weekends ago, we had just endured a two-day blizzard that left the freeways of the New York area buried under three inches of compacted, unplowed snow, and the surrounding flat surfaces accumulating as much as eighteen inches.
Up at Hunter Mountain, in the Catskills about 90 minutes' drive from me, they'd had seven feet.
This takes some getting used to. I'm accustomed to West Coast ski conditions that depend on the temperatures in the high Sierras being a good twenty or thirty degrees cooler during a given Pacific storm than what falls in the Bay Area, so that what San Jose gets as a sullen and month-long interrupted January rain falls in Tahoe as a hundred inches of constantly-accumulating snow. But here in New York, the mountains are at sea level, and offer maybe 2,000 feet of elevation. There's no temperature difference to speak of. Which I guess explains why there's not much in the way of Appalachian ski resorts south of the latitudes where there's general winter snow cover. But apparently what there is up here is a mountain-effect weather pattern that traps moisture, so that a storm at the coast that causes apocalyptic effects at a foot and a half can dump four times that amount just a couple hours upstate and not cause any problems other than a little overcrowding in the lift lines the following Saturday.
That weekend, from what I gathered from patrons, Hunter Mountain had had great snow conditions but terrible crowds—not because of greater than usual attendance, but because the whole eastern half of the resort had been laid low by a power failure, and the western/back portion couldn't be opened because they couldn't get the grooming machines up the hill. So everyone was crowded into a single set of lifts front and center.
But one weekend after that was when I picked for my winter indulgence. And apparently my timing was exemplary.
Hunter Mountain takes great pride in its automated snowmaking capability: it was apparently a pioneer in the technology, which is a necessity in a land where ground-cover snow can disappear as quickly as it accumulates thanks to winter temperatures that can veer well above freezing for long periods between substantial snowfalls. But under these conditions, it wasn't necessary: they were able to rely on the remaining natural snow from the previous weekend, which made for a rare treat for these attendees: snow-covered ground not only on the runs, but in the wooded areas between them. There was even a place where the main central lift goes up over a rocky lip, normally eight feet below your dangling feet; but the snow was so thick that the ledge was divoted with the ski marks of dozens of people who'd not been quick enough at raising their tips out of the way when their chairs flew past.
Now, I'm not sure what I was expecting from East Coast skiing conditions, but... I was really pleasantly surprised. It was actually very good.
Can't complain about the views, that's for sure. Nor, indeed, about the quality of the snow, or of the slopes. There's plenty of terrain at this park—not like Heavenly or even Sierra-at-Tahoe, certainly, but plenty to keep one occupied for the day. And the weather was spotless and unbeatable.
I will note that there seems to be a bit of a difficulty-level inflation issue. The vast majority of the runs at Hunter seem to be signed as Advanced or even Double Advanced; there's only a handful of Intermediate slopes on the whole mountain, and the main quad chair that goes to the top of the mountain provides access to only one, Belt Parkway (the runs at Hunter are all drolly named after routes in Manhattan); the rest are all black-diamonds at the least. If you head down the backside, it's an entire mountain of double-black-diamonds, and the uninitiated would recoil at the thought of inevitable moguls and icy vertical drops. But the reality is quite different; this is what amounts to a double-black-diamond here:
That'd barely rate a high Intermediate at a place like Sierra-at-Tahoe. That's pure point-your-skis-straight downhill-and make-woooo-noises material right there.
But that's fine with me; I like a good variety. I like speed. I'm not a big fan of moguls or washboard snow surfaces. I'm not out to destroy my knees or torment myself. I just want a surface I can trust and a lot of room between human obstacles. And Hunter provides both of those in ample measure.
One thing I noticed that sets East Coast skiing apart from the West is that here, it's just a pastime, a given: if you live in the city or Albany or anywhere nearby, skiing is just what you do all winter long—every weekend. It's not a holy pilgrimage, like it is back West, something you plan for for weeks and savor with friends; it's a way to pass the time, to get some fresh air, to socialize, like golf. Families were out there recounting decades past of skiing on the same mountain, parents passing on the tradition to their kids. Veterans on lifts argued with each other about when the conditions are best, which runs are most desirable, the reasons why the quad chair keeps shutting down and what the resort should do about it, what the best four-star restaurants were for the evening's entertainment. The one thing nobody seemed to be talking about was technique. (And whether this is apropos anything or not, the occasional practicing racer or boot-flipping telemarker aside, the bulk of the time I was the fastest person on the slope.) People seemed simultaneously to be taking skiing far less seriously out here than out West, and holding louder opinions about it. Compared to the Hunter Mountain mentality, Tahoe skiers seem in retrospect to be all business: they're there this one time all winter, dammit, and they're going to squeeze every molecule of fun out of it if it kills them. I admit I felt a bit silly after a few hours of flinging myself headlong down the mountain with this mentality, barreling through lunchtime while the happy loud arguers all disappeared indoors for burgers and steam while I shouted NEVER STOP FOR LUNCH into the wind, and hurling myself downhill at five minutes until the main lift's closing time so I could leap onto it once more as one of the last chairs allowed back up the mountain before the final cutoff. I felt a little bit out of place, shepherding my energy for skiing rather than opining about skiing.
But that's part of the learning experience, I guess. All in all it was a grand day, and I got a much-needed day of bracing speed in the midst of an expectedly uninspiring winter. East Coast skiing looks like a winner; there's plenty to enjoy, from the well-developed, fully-computerized rental system where they take your typed application and call out your name with your pre-fitted and barcoded skis (they're years ahead of us!—though they could stand to get those Smarte Carte guys in there to replace their token-driven key-lockers with some proper programmable PIN-based ones) to the well-groomed, if narrow, black-diamond slopes that make you feel like you're a much better skier than you'd thought you were simply because you can suddenly conquer pretty much any slope on the mountain. The bottom line is that I can assuage my cravings this way, which is a huge mental relief. I'll still welcome the opportunity to ski at Tahoe whenever I possibly can, but this will keep me going quite nicely.