IT’S 6 A.M. IN NEW YORK CITY AND I AM HUNGOVER. A giant billboard emblazoned with a half-naked Calvin Klein model towers over me as I awkwardly carry my skis, boots, and poles to the corner of Houston and Lafayette and blearily wait for a tour bus to emerge from the empty streets.
This corner bustles in the daytime, but I'm the only one here on this cold, dark March morning in SoHo, Manhattan's famously hip shopping and arts district. I'm on my way to Hunter Mountain, a small ski area in the Catskills about two and a half hours away. Tomorrow, I'll go to another hill--Windham. My mission is to make skiing a part of my city life--to see just what New York's weekend warriors are up against. The outlook is good, as three days ago a fierce storm, dubbed Stella, dumped three feet of snow on New York's ski areas, breathing life into a season dominated by rain and manmade snow.
Out of the darkness, a lone man in an obnoxiously patterned jacket wanders to the corner, snowboard bag in tow. The bus finally pulls up and a couple more skiers appear, including a onesie-wearing Aussie walking down the sidewalk in his ski boots. As soon as he slides into his seat, he pulls his gaiter up over his face and passes out. Our trip leaders today are Jonathan Huebsch and Omar Rodriguez, both of whom volunteer for OvRride, one of several tour bus companies offering city-locked skiers a chance at freedom for around $100 a day. Jonathan, a jovial, bearded accountant-by-day, is recounting last night's antics--from which, at this point, we're only a few hours removed. He giggles that he might still be a little drunk. Me too, Jonathan.
New York City offers thousands of other things we could be doing on this Saturday: drowning ourselves in phở, checking out galleries and museums, dry-heaving in the climbing gym or yoga studio. But for a handful of dedicated souls, winter weekends in New York are the same as weekends all across North America: made for sliding around on snow.
We drive through manmade canyons blocking out the dim purple dawn. Uptown, near a snowy Central Park, the bus picks up the rest of the day's skiers--a motley crew of young adults in varying degrees of dishevelment, one of whom is already wearing his helmet. Huebsch and Rodriguez hand out bagels to those of us who aren't already unconscious and put on Lords of the Chiken, a snowboard film whose soundtrack is a mercilessly bastardized version of the Lord of the Rings score. I pass out and wake up with the snowy Catskills blurring past my window.
LOW AND ROLLING, the Catskills top out at 4,180 feet. Hunter averages just 120 inches of snowfall a year and skiers often don't see snow until they pull into the parking lot. Not so today, thanks to Stella.
When we unload the bus, about half of the passengers head to the rental shop. I shoulder my skis and walk into the lodge, where families from Jersey who've been coming here every weekend for decades unload their boot bags at the same table at which they've sat for years. Crusty locals begin to populate the bar, and young professionals from the city fill out the lodge and the lift lines.
In 1980, Hunter--Huntah, if you're really local--became the first mountain to feature 100 percent snowmaking coverage. It hosts the annual FDNY and East Coast Firefighter Races, in which tandem teams ski a GS course carrying 50-foot fire hoses in full turn-out gear. There's a "hall of fame" in the dingy main lodge with giant photos of beloved Hunter locals, but none of the images date past the '90s. On the hill, nearly every slight change in pitch calls for a new trail name.
I shimmy my way into the massive lift line, keeping an eye out for a few friends who had booked a ride with a different company, and end up right behind Rodriguez. From the Bronx, Rodriguez learned to snowboard on these bus trips out of the city. He quickly became infatuated with the sport, and eventually became a trip leader for OvRride--an easy way to get free trips to the mountains.
We wait 15 minutes to load the six-pack, the Kaatskill Flyer. A stressed-out liftie yells at the men next to us in line, who, with toothpick-sized rental skis and ill-fitting helmets and sunglasses, are clearly new to the mechanics of getting on a chairlift. By the time we reach the top of the mountain, it's been nearly five and a half hours since I woke up. Rodriguez and I take a lazy lap down a wide, low-angle groomer with surprisingly pleasant, slushy snow.
We head to the backside, Hunter West, which offers the mountain's advertised 1,600 feet of vertical. The most technical terrain at Hunter includes bump runs with grass hazards and exposed streams, even after the heavy snowfall a few days ago. Where the slushy, soft snow has been scraped away by relentless skiers, large patches of cloudy blue ice await. We pick our way through the ill-formed moguls, pop into the trees to find an unforgiving rain crust, and immediately bail. We take a lap on each open run off the Hunter West chair, wrapping things up on Annapurna. The skinny, snaking bump run peppered with skiers is such a bizarre combination of ice, slush, rocks, and dirt, we head back to the frontside groomers and erratic crowds.
With short laps and long lines, the day concludes with far fewer runs than I'd anticipated. Huebsch, Rodriguez, and I ski our last run together, the two true New Yorkers making long, easy turns, unfazed by the unpredictable skiers and snowboarders surrounding us. Rodriguez records it all with a GoPro on a selfie stick.
"We ski the shit, right? The garbage. As big as Hunter is, as transient as it is, it's a family. Real Hunter skiers help other Hunter skiers out." --Jason Wadler
I wander into the bar in the lodge, where I strike up a conversation with two slender guys in their mid-50s who have known each other since childhood. Dressed head to ski boots in wool plaid, Jason Wadler says he used to cut class to ski Hunter and drink at this bar before anyone knew he was underage.
"We ski the shit, right? The garbage," he tells me, as he tries to explain what it is that brings Hunter locals together. "As big as Hunter is, as transient as it is, it's a family. Real Hunter skiers help other Hunter skiers out."
Eventually, we load back into the bus, beers in hand. Huebsch puts on Better Off Dead and we trace the morning's drive in a state of only slightly greater consciousness than the first time around. I'm feeling the giddiness and well-being of a hard-earned ski day in the books, and wonder if there's something of the ski town life to be had in New York, after all.
MY ALARM RINGS THE NEXT MORNING AT 4:30, and I realize I left my ski jacket on the bus. The new trip leaders--Marvin Williams and Stephanie Gallardo--aren't optimistic that I will find it. "Yeah, we're going skiing," says Williams, "but it's still New York." It was stolen. My sense of goodwill fades.
I go catatonic before we even get out of the city and wake up 10 minutes from Windham Mountain, another Catskill ski area. Compared to Hunter, Windham is sterile, a clean and family friendly place with a modern, characterless lodge, high-speed lifts, and tons of kids. Though there are plenty of wild looks and rental skis, much of the crowd looks slick--Arc'teryx outerwear, new goggles, a shiny silver onesie with a white fur hood.
An agitated liftie with a giant mustache and ponytail yells at the crowd as we load the chair, veins popping out of his neck, angrier than anyone I've ever seen at a ski hill, and I'm reminded about how necessary a sense of relaxation, freedom, and lawlessness is to good, fun skiing. Windham would benefit from a little bit of looseness. But, then again, I've never tried to sort out a crowd of weekenders in unironic one-pieces for eight hours straight.
The temperature--in the 50s by 10 o'clock--has left the entire mountain in spring conditions, no blue ice to be found. There are steep and narrow, Mad River Glen-esque bump runs, skiable trees, and more open terrain than Hunter. The weekend crowds only hit you in the main lift line.
My lift rides are almost exclusively with kids: a talkative 10-year-old racer from the Upper West Side who "is a big skier" but "can't see living up here" because "it's just so quiet;" three teenagers from Westchester who alternate berating each other for being "dumbasses" and who have never skied snow so good here; and park rats in oversized FDNY sweatshirts.
When the ski day wraps up, I head straight for the bus. We drink beers in the sunny parking lot before finding our seats. I sit up front with Williams and Gallardo, who tell me about the snow and skate scene in New York. OvRride's headquarters are in the backroom of a skate shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and when they got involved with the company they finally made friends who like to get after it--on the snow, on mountain bikes, on surfboards--during weekends. Some of the best parts of skiing--the open-mindedness, the freedom, the willful disregard for anything other than having fun--can be found in New York. They just look a little different than what I'm used to.
If you're looking for a social experience, book your trip with OvRride or NYC's LGBTQ ski club, Ski Bums. Both companies are known for their tendency to turn the trip home into a party. Urban Sherpas and NYC Snow Bus are two other popular options, as are ski buses organized by REI and Paragon Sports.
Ski buses will take you as far as Vermont, but the trips to farther-flung ski hills are best done as an overnight. OvRride offers full weekend packages to places like Jay Peak--including lodging, lift tickets, and a bus ride for $419.
Book your day trip when you know the snow will be halfway decent. You can afford to be a little last minute; the buses do sell out, but typically not until the final days before the trip.
At Hunter, head straight for Hunter West, the mountain's most difficult terrain. The chair--the Zephyr Express--stays uncrowded since there's no easy way down. With good snow, the steep bump runs tend to be the most interesting (and least crowded) skiing on the mountain.
At Windham, Wolf's Prey and Wildcat offer steep bumps in a secluded part of the mountain (when they haven't been groomed, that is). If you're lucky, you'll find natural hits along the wide-open groomers and mellow glades beneath the Whirlwind Express Quad.
Don't forget to bring your ski bag and a cooler with snacks and extra beers for the bus ride home.
This story originally published in POWDER’s October 2017 issue (Vol. 46 No. 2). To have award-winning journalism delivered straight to your door, subscribe now.