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Belleayre Bliss

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 
Here's a little piece I wrote last year about Belleayre. Hope you enjoy...

A couple hundred years ago, the Mohawks had a simple way of keeping developers out of the
Catskills – they took your scalp. The tomahawk may not be an option open to the many
protectors of Belleayre Mountain these days (though, ironically, there’s a new quad here by that
name), but it wouldn’t be through lack of desire. Battle lines are forming as the long underrated,
and blissfully under-exploited, Belleayre Ski Center attracts more and more notice.

Of course, at the moment, I couldn’t care less about such rigamarole. I’m staring at an Allegheny
dreamland. A newly acquired piste companion named John and I have stopped halfway down the
long, gentle Roaring Brook run (which barely manages a warble, much less a roar). We’re
soaking up pure wonder -- it lies precisely in the same direction that Belleayre faces, slightly
north-by-northeast, and distinctly away from Manhattan. We’re enjoying the kind of view that, in
the 19th century, made the local Hudson River School painters weak in the knees: thousands upon
thousands of acres of rolling hardwood forests scored by steep, cloven glens and topped with
milky-blue skies. Yellow birch, sugar maple and American beech rule the lowlands, but green
balsam fir, red spruce and, yes, snow, tons of it, mottle the higher peaks. No wonder legend has
Rip van Winkle taking his big sleep not far from here. It’s Shangri-la, and just 100 miles north of
Gotham. It offers a far more fragile beauty than Vermont, and makes the West look positively
burly. This is a place of lyrical poetry, great folk music, watercolors and the occasional ashram. If
he’d had the cash, Walt Whitman would have surely bought a condo here.

“Too bad it’s overcast today,” says John, an aged, persnickety regular of Belleayre. We’ve only
just met on the politically incorrect named “Superchief” quad, but I’ve learned about his family’s
ups and down over the years, and I’ve gathered that he values solitude. “On a clear day you can
see fifty miles,” he boasts. John’s what I imagine as Old Skool Belleayre: tall, smart, East Coast
cosmopolitan, and ridiculously committed to the place. As a septuagenarian, he skis for free here.
He’s as straight-laced as his old pair of K2s, and naturally he can’t stand nearby Hunter -- the
loud music, the booze, the kids from Westchester, they can keep it. As far as I can tell, John and I
have nothing in common. But that’s fine. On a late January Thursday, with hardly a soul in sight,
we come together out of sheer need for human contact. That’s Belleayre for you. It ain’t
Kitzbuhel, but all 1,404 feet of its vertical feel like yours, all yours.

So I ask John why he comes here. I feel especially comfortable in the grandfatherly glaze coming
through his Smiths, and I admit something that sounds stupid as soon as I say it: “I’m here for the
soul of the mountain.” What does John say? “Yes, me, too.”

I bid my friend adieu, and take off for the base’s “Discovery” lodge. I still need to catch up with
Belleayre’s aggressive supe, Tony Lanza. When he was appointed, in 2001, Lanza had already
presided over a leap in annual skier visits from 84,000 in 1999 to nearly 141,000. Some 200,000
visitor are expected this season.

But Lanza, like the mountain itself, is not an easy man to corner. I’ve already missed our earlier
appointment because of Connecticut traffic. And the fact is, the 56-year-old Lanza is getting all
the media attention he probably wants at the moment. Belleayre set a new record in attendance
two weekends before, but the same week, a 17-year-old girl from Long Island lost control on an
intermediate slope, crashed into a stand of hemlocks, and was fatally injured.

With some 80 percent of the trails either beginner or intermediate, it’s easy to forget that
Belleayre is the real thing -- a mountain: the summit of 3,429 feet struggles a full thousand feet below Vermont’s
highest peak, Mt Mansfield (indeed, the Catskill’s Mt. Slide is only a couple hundred feet shorter
than Mansfield). Nonetheless, the matrix of double black diamond running immediately below the summit’s
Sunset Lodge offer truly scary terrain. Tongora, for example, is like a great, rope-muscled arm
reaching down the valley, sleeves rolled up, and waiting for mosquitoes to bite. And riding the
quad beside it on the way up, you see many of those mosquitoes get slapped hard.

Truth be told, the consensus among steeps-freaks (at Belleayre, at least) is that its double black diamonds are “almost
but not quite” as tough as runs such as Stowe’s Goat or Killington’s Ovation. That may be pushing it, but the an expert can pick some of the low-hanging fruit here and sup well. As one young
boarder said of the runs, “they’re all pretty short.” Which is true. You don’t come to Belleayre for extended
terrors, but for long, sweet jaunts (one cobbled-together trail extends 2.27 miles).

I think of my wife, Annmarie, down on one of the many long, green circles served by a slow but
well-maintained triple. She’s a brand new, 2004-model skier, and after a terrible, tense attempt
on my part to “teach her the basics,” she’s taking full advantage of Belleayre’s superb teaching
facilities. And we’re still married. Belleayre offers a free private beginner’s lesson with a lift
ticket purchase, yet the upbeat instructors can be superbly laid back about allotted class times. If
business is slow, it’s entirely possible to get a series of private lessons that last half the day. Try
that at Aspen.

I zoom down towards the mid-mountain’s Overlook Lodge, looking for my man. Belleayre likes
to drop you into distinct “districts” as you criss-cross up the mountain, but going down, you can
literally ski for miles without stopping. The area has claimed on today’s snow report that rarest of
rare New York commodities: powder. It’s weird stuff – Allegheny powder – a fine, noisy sand-
like substance, yet quick to compact. Although the bar at Overlook seems to ply a steady trade,
the mountain still feels deserted. Only when I enter the lodge, where Maxwell House is giving
out free cups of gourmet java, do I feel the faintest sense of being crowded. A huge crackling fire
glows from a stony fireplace. No beautiful people here, but dozens of families, old-timers like
John, and snow bums. The atmosphere is humble and orderly, reminiscent of certain backwaters
in Austria.

Since Belleayre is located on constitutionally protected land in the Catskill Forest Preserve, it has
always been operated by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and its
predecessor agencies. Development required an amendment to the state constitution, which was
approved by voters in 1947. Construction of the ski center began in 1949 and it opened in
January 1950. It’s never been a huge money-maker for government coffers, and there have been
steady calls Belleayre to be privatized. But that’s just one pressure. According to the Albany
Times-Union, the colorful Catskill ex-hippie entrepreneur Dean Gitter now wants to build a $250
million “upscale hospitality complex on the nearly 2,000 acres of private land along both sides of
the public Belleayre.” Gitter claims it will “save” the Catskills. Many locals say they don’t want
saving. As I write this, public hearings on the matter continue. The combat is already shaping up
to be brutal, long and necessary. One hard look at the forest preserve and anyone, regardless of
your politics on the matter, must agree that much is at stake.

As it turns out, this time Lanza can’t make our new appointment. I eat a Powerbar and drink
some of that free coffee. I later learn, when we finally do catch up, that the harried man had
simply had to stop working today, out of utter exhaustion. He is deeply contrite, charming and
guarded. I ask him how he intends to keep Belleayre so quietly lovely and at the same time keep
his budget from hemorrhaging ski dollars. Strange to consider that the same entity which runs
Sing-Sing and the Tappan Zee bridge operates this gentle giant of a hill, and under the same
(supposedly) stringent auditing oversight.

“My dream for Belleayre is really my dream for New York and Catskills,” says Lanza, with more
than a hint of the politician at work. “Good responsible building and growth.” He wants, he says,
Belleayre as well as all skiing in the Catskills to be recognized as “legitimate,” right up their with
the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks.

Lanza is surprisingly defensive about his two bigger Catskill competitors, glitzy Windham and
party-hardy Hunter. As he sees it, they’re all in the same business: supporting a resurgence of the
350 million-year-old clump of hills in their midst. “Please don’t say anything negative about
Hunter Mountain,” he tells me. Of course, I don’t need to – dozens of others do, on a regular
basis. A quick scan of online ski resort reviews leads to quick consensus: Hunter is young, fun,
ugly and loud. Windham is swish, grown-up but sometimes icy. On all the ski bulletin boards,
Belleayre consistently bests its local brethren.

And it’s getting better, by the day. A new, open year-round 3,000-foot-long “interpretive trail” is
one of the latest and most interesting in a series of enhancements which formed part of a capital
improvement program initiated by Gov. George Pataki in 1997. Between then and 2002, more
than $8 million was invested in major improvements, including construction of two new super-
quad chair lifts and the addition of more than three miles of new trails and terrain, a new
Longhouse Lodge, additional parking, and $1.5 million in upgrades to the water and septic
system. By state budget standards, the money is a drop in the bucket, but then again, most ski
areas don’t have a notoriously raucous state legislature and their auditors breathing down their
necks. But will Belleayre become a victim of its own success? For now, the people of New York
(who also own Gore and Whiteface), along with tireless boosters such as Lanza, seemed to have
struck a great balance between conservation and financial credibility. Lanza is convinced that
Belleayre’s enormously spread-out design, with 38 trails across almost 2,200 square acres and
distinct, semi-discrete “zones,” will be able to absorb the larger number of visitors.

I’m not so sure, myself. I take the circuitous route up to the top of the Deer Run, a 7,000 feet-
long arboreal soar that’s so empty, so green and so silent that you can legitimately fear the
appearance of a black bear. I’m ready. I point my Fischers downward and wonder what Walt
Whitman, who used to hike in these mountains, would say about the new “upscale hospitality
complex” idea. As the sky turns a wintry blue-pink and the scent of conifers and aromatic
woodsmoke floats upwind, I think I get my answer.
post #2 of 9
Nice piece. It was a tough call for me whether to get a midweek pass at Belleayre or Hunter this year. I love the atmosphere at Belleayre, but, ultimately, I decided that their slow lifts would drive me progressively insane. Next year, when they get their high-speed lift, I'll be back.
post #3 of 9
Sounds nice , we havn't tried it but my manhattanite son skis there , Huntah , Plattkill and Windham and is tell us to get there and try it --so why not ??
post #4 of 9
You're forgetting Plattekill & Bobcat! Nice description though I wouldn't consider any of the terrain to be close to a true DD. I finally tried Belleayre last year. People told me it was never crowded but it seemed fairly crowded. The "long" lift is slooooooowwwwwwwww. Good mountain for cruising.
post #5 of 9
Great article, thanks! I cherish Belleayre.
post #6 of 9
Great write up! We always try to hit Belleayre at least once per season. They have consistently good conditions, and some fun trails. When it's open, Cathedral Brook isn't to be missed. You have a bit of a hike to get there, but usually get the slope to yourself.

For some reason, my brain always renames the "Deer Run" trail to "Beer Run".
post #7 of 9
Originally Posted by goldsbar
I wouldn't consider any of the terrain to be close to a true DD.
There is at least one -- by NY standards -- which may not have been open when you were there. If you take the lift that starts above the upper lodge, the very top part of the run underneath the lift is pretty challenging. I think it may be called Onteora. Usually real icy and full of moguls. It's short, but tough. Anyone who can ski it flawlessly is a true expert.
post #8 of 9
Nice, though I'm not sure if the Mohawks hadn't already been driven out of the area by 1806, much less hanging around scalping folks. It's true that the place has a cozy, empty feel which I'm sure will stay unless Belleayre starts breaking natural snowfall records and drawing in the hordes that head elsewhere.
post #9 of 9
I'd say it has the least challenge of any of the Catskill areas and the slow lifts could drive you insane. The latter helps reduce crowds on the trails and they have done a much better job of snowmaking early and late in recent years, so it is a worthwhile place to hit.
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