Environment

Snow Job: Climate Change is Making Skiing an Uphill Climb

Family-owned resorts north of NYC work on welcoming skiers despite scarcer snow and corporate intrusions

by

•• All photographs by Michael Schwarz ••

Eight inches of fresh powder blanketed Plattekill Mountain ski resort, in the Catskills, this past Presidents’ Day weekend. Less than two days prior, it had been 56 degrees at the summit. Trails were bare, skiers were sparse, and the winter had delivered just 41% of the expected annual snowfall. Since 1970, New York State has warmed at an average rate of 0.6 degrees (all temperatures are in Fahrenheit) per decade, with winters in the northeastern U.S. warming three times faster than summers, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). As of March 24, Plattekill has received 70 inches of recorded snow, or roughly 46% of the annual 150-inch average.

These volatile temperature fluctuations, diminishing snowfall rates, and earlier thaws are a reality that the staff at Plattekill, and the industry as a whole, must learn to adapt to. Pioneering as the only locally owned and operated resort in the Catskills, Plattekill boasts a devout community following. It is positioned in a narrow “box” canyon at the end of a mostly signless winding country road, and is known as the “powder capital of the Catskills.” With an average of 150 inches received annually, it receives some of the best snow in the region because of its 3,500-foot elevation and northward-facing slopes. It’s not uncommon to find small groups camping in Plattekill’s parking lot the night before a big storm. An “off-the-beaten-path” feel and familiar staff are a couple of the reasons skiers want to keep Plattekill a well-kept secret amid a wave of corporate small-resort takeovers. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and casual conversations with owners Laszlo and Danielle Vajtay are common. “We want skiing the way it used to be,” Laszlo tells the Voice in an on-site interview. “We limit our tickets each day because we’re more focused on the experience people have here than just packing them in and making money.”

Laszlo and Danielle grew up skiing on the mountain as children but met later as young adults. Laszlo was recruited as a ski instructor at 15, and promoted to Ski School director by 21; Danielle became an instructor soon after, and the two began dating. They continued to instruct on weekends while juggling full-time jobs in Manhattan, Danielle as a marketing manager and Laszlo as a packaging engineer. “We were living for the weekends,” Laszlo recalls. As winters continued to warm at lower elevations, nearly every ski resort in the Catskills was pushed to use artificial snow. Gary and Bonnie Hinkley, the previous owners of Plattekill, were unable to fund the infrastructure needed to cover the mountain and fell into bankruptcy in 1993, after 35 years of operation. Their son, Allen Hinkley, still comes to the mountain with his family, and often has drinks with Laszlo and the rest of the staff after the slopes close. “In the northeast, there’s no way you could be in the ski industry without as much snowmaking as possible,” he says. “Laszlo has done a great job of upgrading—and making some major investments in snowmaking and grooming, which has made the mountain a whole different mountain.”

Laszlo and Danielle jumped at the opportunity to purchase the resort from the Hinkleys, leaving their corporate work lives in New York City behind and piecing together just enough to make a down payment. “I sold everything I owned, and gave it a shot,” Laszlo recounts. Over the next 29 years, the Vajtays would turn Plattekill into an indie powerhouse. The resort now boasts the ability to cover 75% of its slopes in artificial snow, along with upgraded lifts and energy-efficient snow guns. To stay competitive, Laszlo changed the game in 2008 when he introduced private mountain rentals at an affordable price, a first for the ski industry. This service allows the public to rent out the entire mountain on a weekday for a flat fee.

But despite these upgrades and innovations, Plattekill continues to face ongoing operational issues due to climate changes: Warmer winters, fewer powder days, and earlier thaws threaten the mountain’s ability to operate for a full season, which used to last roughly from early December to early April. “I mean, I definitely can say that it’s a challenge. When I look back a long time ago, when they ran ski mountains without snowmaking and now we can’t operate without snowmaking, it’s kind of like, okay, what’s going on?” says Danielle.

A 1.7-degree increase in average winter air temperature in New York State from 1940 to 2014 has resulted in the timing of snowmelt-related streamflow (water volume in streams and rivers) beginning an average of 7.7 days earlier, according to the DEC. This winter was no exception. Temperatures were well above average during unexpected thaws in mid-January and late February 2022. The U.S. average maximum (daytime) temperature from December to February was 46.4 degrees, 3.7 degrees above the 20th-century average, ranking eighth-warmest in the historical record. This midseason melt illustrated just how crucial Plattekill’s intricate snowmaking system is for continued business. “What you’re looking at right now, the only thing that’s open is snowmaking terrain. So without snowmaking, we’d be dead,” Laszlo explains, pointing at nearby grass-covered slopes.

The DEC projects that “snowfall in New York is likely to become less frequent, and the combination of less early winter snowfall and earlier snowmelt will lead to a shorter snow season; fewer days with snow on the ground; decreased snow depth; and earlier snowmelt,” according to a report released in August 2021. Snowfall across North America has followed the same trend as in the Catskills: The annual average snow cover over the past decade was roughly 77,700 square miles smaller than when the study began, in 1972. That’s an area roughly the size of Nebraska.

Ken “Macker” Davie, head of Plattekill’s mountain operations, has been at the resort for over 25 years. In addition to overseeing any and all mountain repairs, snow-blowing, and snowmaking, he also manages the Plattekill weather station from his repair shop at the base of the mountain. “The jet stream is all screwed up. It just seems like it’s been totally wrong all winter,” Davie says. “If the jet stream [flows] in properly, the way it’s supposed to, it’ll pull those storms right up through us. That’s why the Northeast always gets a lot of snow. The last couple of years, that’s not happening.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, upstate New York received its second warm wet winter in a row because of a La Niña weather pattern developing in the eastern Pacific Ocean. A La Niña event originates in the Gulf of Mexico and can push the jet stream north of upstate New York, making the difference between rain and snow. This resulted in Syracuse having three months this past winter in which the average temperature was 2.4 degrees warmer and snowfall was three feet below average. Winters out West have also suffered. An Aspen spokeswoman reported that the resort has lost roughly 30 days of winter since 1980. This also comes with a roughly 20% decrease in western U.S. snowpack since 1980, according to the Washington Post. In mid-March, the 2022 U.S. Moguls Championship was moved from the Palisades Tahoe ski resort, in California, to Deer Valley, Utah, because of lack of snow. Research conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences observed the jet stream moving north over the past few decades, causing warmer winters in the Northeast. In scenarios projecting the highest greenhouse gas emissions, there could be a move outside the historical recorded zone by 2060.

Manufactured Future

Despite being raised on fresh powder, Laszlo realized, from as far back as his first year at  Plattekill, that the future of the resort depended on adequate snowmaking. He immediately began investing in snow-manufacturing infrastructure. Laszlo and Danielle understood that not making the full transition could cause Plattekill to suffer the same fate as the now-abandoned Catskill resort Ski Bobcat, which closed in 2005 because of lack of snow and snowmaking. Cutting-edge equipment at the time was simply unaffordable. That’s when the Vajtays started buying used equipment from defunct resorts: first, a batch of snow guns, then a new snow groomer, and finally, a more powerful air compressor. Since taking ownership, in 1993, the Vajtays have installed more than 28 miles of piping to pump water up the slopes for snowmaking. These upgrades proved a wise investment; over 90% of ski areas in the U.S. now have snowmaking capabilities. “When Mother Nature doesn’t step up, here’s our snowmakers hard at work,” Danielle says. “We’re making winter happen.”

Because of the high density of artificial snow, it takes much longer to melt, is resistant to rain, and makes the perfect packed base for natural snow to fall on. “You can rely on all your fresh snow, but fresh snow is easier to get rid of,” Plattekill snow-blowing manager Kevin Davie, Macker’s son, explains. “Man-made snow will hold about twice as long.” Natural snow is approximately 10% ice mixed with 90% air, while artificial snow is closer to 30% ice and 70% air. This results in natural snow having a pointy composition and fluffy air pockets dispersed throughout each flake; artificial snow has a round composition and significantly fewer air pockets because it’s shot out of the snow gun with such force. Kevin has been snow-blowing at Plattekill for the past six seasons, and learned the ropes from his father. Snow guns are checked 12 times a day—on each run, Kevin and his team take the lift to the top of the mountain, walking more than a mile back down and systematically checking each gun along the way. “Snowmaking is not really for the faint of heart. It’s hard labor. It takes grit,” Kevin says.

Plattekill recently received an 80% rebate on a batch of energy-efficient snow guns, to help modernize their fleet, from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The upgrade took them from 10,000 cubic feet of air per minute to 2,000 CFM, vastly decreasing the amount of energy each gun uses to cover the same square footage. “Any of these bigger mountains, they’re relying on snowmaking too. Like, it’s not just little mountains on the East Coast,” Kevin explains. “If you don’t have snowmaking, you’re not having a season anymore. Basically, everything you see here is man-made snow.” All the water utilized for snowmaking at Plattekill comes from two ponds at the base of the mountain, and every drop is sustainably sourced from melting snow and rain. “No water bill!” Plattekill mechanic Robbie Segalla exclaims. The water comes from the mountain and is returned to the mountain. This environmentally friendly method follows a similar trend among small resorts modernizing in the industry. Jiminy Peak, in western Massachusetts, installed a wind turbine that provides 4.6 million kilowatt-hours of energy—or one-third of the resort’s annual energy consumption. Plattekill followed suit with their own upgrade: an adaptive energy-efficient air compressor. The compressor is equipped with a variable speed drive, enabling it to output just the necessary amount of energy needed to power the snow guns.

As the Vajtays continued to upgrade over the past three decades, Macker and his team gradually learned to repair every equipment component needed in the ski industry. Plattekill has now developed a reputation, and other small resorts began using Laszlo and Danielle and the staff as an affordable resource for parts, advice, and repair services. “We always work together. We don’t hold secrets from each other. It’s such a small, unique industry, you know. There’s very few of us left anymore,” says Laszlo. The ability to help other local mountains succeed pushed Laszlo to expand the parts business, and in 2008 he decided to buy out the entire inventory of a snow-blowing company after it shuttered its U.S. facility. Over the next few years, he expanded the repair facility, and Plattekill now services local mountains across North America. Parts for the old and outdated equipment often used at small resorts are becoming increasingly difficult to find. “A lot of it doesn’t exist anymore,” says Segalla. “The only way to get some of that stuff is to buy a lot of it, or buy an old mountain or a lift in an auction.”

Laszlo and his team are ensuring that local ski areas can source those parts at an affordable price. “The fact is, all the smaller mountains kind of embrace the idea that we’re a family. You know, we have to help each other. This industry shouldn’t be cutthroat,” Segalla continues. This allows many local ski areas to stay in business when new equipment costs would have priced them out of the industry, and corporate giants such as Vail, Alterra, and Mountain Capital window-shop for bankruptcy-prone resorts. Each year, more family-owned mountains are purchased by corporate conglomerates, changing the economic landscape of the industry and making it increasingly difficult for smaller operations like Plattekill to keep up without corporate, state, or nonprofit intervention. Many smaller family-owned mountains receive funding from a variety of nonprofits and community organizations. Resorts such as Mount Ashland, in Oregon; Bridger Bowl, in Montana; Mount Ascutney, in Vermont; and Bogus Basin, in Idaho, all operate as nonprofits, supported by donations from their local communities to remain operational. Unlike corporate resorts, nonprofit ski areas can apply for grants, campaign for donations, and offer tax write-offs. With bigger resorts like Hunter being bankrolled by Vail, Belleayre being funded by New York State tax dollars, and Windham receiving a $4 million snowmaking facelift, in 2021, Plattekill faces some intimidating rivals just down the road. “We can’t fight off the big corporate guys, you know. Just like we can’t fight off the state of New York,” Laszlo says. “I hope they kind of leave us alone and let us do our thing. This is what we do.” In 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced $8 million in grant funding for Belleayre Mountain, including a high-speed gondola, trail improvements, and event spaces that will be open year-round. Belleayre is located just 20 minutes away from Plattekill, presenting significant competition for skiers looking for a larger mountain closer to the city.

In 2019, Vail Resorts purchased 17 ski mountains across North America in a landmark acquisition. In September 2021, it announced over $320 million in upgrades to its 37 properties, including Hunter Mountain, just 45 minutes from Plattekill. “It’s hard, because you have these poor weather spells, you know, and all these big mountains have bottomless pocketbooks. They could just turn all their snow equipment on, fire up, and have a ton of trails open,” says Danielle. According to the National Ski Area Association, 84 resorts closed between the 1991–’92 seasons and 2021. Most recently, Toggenburg Mountain ski resort was shuttered by owner Peter Harris, angering many skiers loyal to the small mountain. Harris also owns Song and Labrador mountains, giving him control over three of the four major ski mountains in central New York. Harris cited a lack of business in the area for three resorts (all within a 12-mile radius) and admitted to closing Toggenburg in an effort to lessen competition. He also mentioned labor shortages and Covid-19 as contributing factors in his decision, but many skiers are pointing to poor management after 100 skiers were stranded for more than two hours on a lift at Song Mountain, in early February 2022. Just northeast of Song, Killington’s employment was down 20% to 30% at the start of the 2021 season, Magic Mountain was unable to open for a day because of a lack of ski patrols, and Black Mountain was closed for five days after a Covid outbreak.

#FailVail—Corporate Failures

Corporate resorts out West have also faced backlash for out-of-control lift lines, surprise closings, and operational failures. Vail-owned Stephen’s Pass kicked off the season two weeks late, immensely short-staffed and with over 60% of the resort closed through the holiday season. The state attorney general’s office has received at least 53 consumer complaints against the ski area since the beginning of the 2021 season. In December 2020, two Beaver Creek ski instructors filed a class-action lawsuit against Vail Resorts. The 167-page document filed 22 complaints, including violations of labor laws in a total of nine states. In January 2022, 100 Breckenridge ski instructors signed a petition asking Vail to address safety issues and overcrowding. That same month, Vail released a $13.1 million offer to settle five California wage and labor lawsuits in one sweeping payout—this could mean payouts for roughly 100,000 Vail employees nationwide. The National Ski Areas Association estimated that 60% of U.S. ski areas were unable to fill all open jobs over the 2020–’21 season. Lack of housing, inflation, and a tight labor market are all being blamed for the labor shortage. With the cost of living on the rise, free season passes and time on the mountain aren’t enough to offset low hourly wages. This issue resulted in corporate conglomerates such as Vail and Boyne raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour; Vail also announced in January that all employees would receive a $2-an-hour bonus for every hour worked beginning on January 1.

Plattekill Ski School director Sean Zurn grew up skiing the Catskills, and returned from the West Coast to take a position on his hometown mountain. “I’ve worked for Vail. It’s kind of robotic—you show up—you do your thing,” Zurn says. “It’s made as efficient as possible, but they take the fun and the heart out of the mountain.” Plattekill was able to avoid recent labor shortages by having a small and dedicated staff. “I know if I need anything I can rely on numerous people up here to help pitch in,” Zurn says. “That’s how it is up here. We’ve always got each other’s backs. It’s pretty amazing.” The Vajtays were able to keep on their entire staff throughout the Covid-19 winter seasons, and used their PPP loan to pay employees for any lost wages during their brief closure from March 15 to May 1, 2020, before reopening their summer wedding venue. “Being not corporate here, it’s just a different kind of feeling, you know,” Plattekill rental shop manager Brian Whitman explains. “It does feel like ownership is trying to take care of us the best they can.” On busy weekends, you can often find Laszlo parking cars in the midst of a blizzard and Danielle managing tickets in the front office of the cozy wooden lodge. “We’re not absentee,” Laszlo says. “And we’re not running this from a central office that’s in Broomfield, Colorado.”

Plattekill has seen an increase in attendance and industry interest since the Covid-19 pandemic began subsiding. “It’s sustainable, and I think we proved something this year,” says Laszlo. “Because this year, with very little snow, we still saw an uptick in skier participation and attendance.” Plattekill was able to capitalize on reinvigorated public interest in outside activities after the restrictions of lockdown, this year’s Winter Olympics, and increased social media exposure for smaller mountains. Its private mountain rentals and attendance saw a roughly 20% increase since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020, according to Laszlo.

It’s going to take all of the above initiatives and upgrades, and more, to secure New York’s ski industry. Since 1901, the average surface temperature across the contiguous 48 states has risen at an average rate of 0.16 degrees per decade, with 2016 being the warmest year on record. Statistics like this are one of many reasons ski communities across the world are stepping up to combat climate change. Despite facing a wide spectrum of challenges—less snow, more rain, equipment upgrades, staff shortages, energy costs, and corporate resort buyouts, Plattekill is out to prove that indie mountains aren’t going anywhere soon. “The staff and people that ski here are really the heart and soul of this mountain,” Segalla concludes. “That’s what makes this place special.”   ❖

Michael Schwarz is a photojournalist, writer, and videographer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

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