Most of the Buffalo area's major snowstorms are eerily calm. Ski through one, inside a dense fog of snowflakes, trailside maples fading to white, and the world slows down. Quiets down. It's hypnotic. But be forewarned: Although placid, western New York's lake-effect blizzards are not for the meek. Buffalo was buried by seven feet of quiet snow in a five-day storm last January. The snow didn't come down hard-no more than four inches per hour. It didn't howl. It wasn't even very cold. It just didn't take many breaks.
An unfrozen Great Lake is essential for these storms-that and an arctic wind that runs through Buffalo as if it were on railroad tracks. The gusts tongue up the warm water and roll it into huge gray cumulus clouds, which cool as they rise, warm water and cold air mating turbulently. And when they let loose, it's Weather Channel-highlight time. And ski time: Because the catalyst for these storms is wind, the snow that lands on the local ski country is exceptionally dry.
Predicting favorable conditions for a lake-effect storm can be done two to four days out. Predicting where all that snow will fall, however, is a bit tougher. Just remember, you've been warned. If you see a massive gray warhead in the sky, swallow hard, have a nervous laugh, and say, "I hear that seven-footer missed the mountains." Most of it did. But the lake was only warming up, and one resort sits square in its crosshairs.
Welcome to Holiday Valley, all 750 vertical feet of it, the buckle of Buffalo's snowbelt. What Holiday Valley lacks in height, it makes up in width (13 lifts service 266 skiable acres and 52 trails, 20 of which are black diamond) and snowfall (a consistent 180 inches a year). Just don't waste too much time on a powder day exploring all that girth. When the mountain is untracked, bypass everything in favor of the Eagle lift. Start the morning skiing fluffy bumps on Falcon before heading to The Wall, Holiday Valley's only double-black run. Sure, it's short (everything is), but at 37 degrees, the headwall has the steepest pitch around. Get to it quick before all the powder is at the bottom, and then move to Mardi Gras while the crowds are eating lunch.
Holiday Valley is in Ellicottville (population 1,800), and we're not talking tacky blow-up ski village here: Logging trucks clump into town, Louisville Sluggers roll out. Compact and easy to dope out on foot, downtown E-ville has everything from upscale restaurants to laid-back taverns. Stop into D.J.'s for breakfast and earn yourself a sleepy smile from the genial waitress Tamara as you share counter space with the Carhartt and Dickies crew on their way to the lumber mills. You might even get a chance to spill coffee on Olympic mogulists Jillian Vogtli and Travis Mayer.
That's right, Holiday Valley sent two graduates of its freestyle school to the 2002 Games, and Mayer came home with a silver medal. The slopes get a good deal of traffic, not much rain, and plenty of snow, all of which adds up to bumps, a lot of them. So be prepared: On busy days, if you're going to ski, you're going to ski moguls. Mayer and Vogtli trained on The Chute, a quad-killing 1,800-foot-long zipper-line with a 24-degree pitch and prototypical Olympic lumps. Run it to see if you're ready for 2006.
Vertical Drop: 750 feet Average Snowfall: 180 inches Lift Tickets: $22-$41 First Chair: 8:30 a.m.Snow Phone: 800-367-9691 Website: holidayvalley.com
Getting There: Holiday Valley is 50 miles south of Buffalo. From the north, take 219 South. From the south, take 219 North. From the east and west, take NYS 86 (Southern Tier Expressway) to exit 21, then it's 219 North to the hill.
Eating There: Breakfast: D.J.'s (716-699-8966) is a no-frills, squeaky-clean, bacon-and-eggs diner. The western omelet will set you back $3.50. Ordering crepes or a latte gets you banned for life. Lunch: McCarty Café (716-699-2345) at Holiday Valley features homemade bread, thick sandwiches, and hearty soup. It's a small place, however, so eat early or eat late on busy days. Dinner: Although you wouldn't guess it from the name, The Barn (716-699-4600) serves very good Italian food. Order the chicken parm with a side of spaghetti, all of it covered in homemade red sauce.
Boozing There: The Gin Mill (716-699-2530) has 15 beers on tap-domestic, import, and micro. More to the point, though, the place serves Buffalo wings. Order them hot, not suicidal. Suicidal does not equal macho; it equals chicken-wing rube.
More Beer & Wings: Ellicottville Brewing Company (716-699-2537) brews 15 to 20 beers on a rotating basis, with seven or eight online at any time. Winter Warmer is its ski-season specialty, but the Two Brothers Pale Ale is its worthy flagship-that, and wings, of course.
PSSST, HOLIMONT'S OPEN
As you approach downtown Ellicottville from the north, obey the sign: Look Up. Those runs staring you down? Even at a glance, you know they're not green boulevards. Nope. You're looking at the cantankerous side of Holimont,a private ski area next to Holiday Valley that's now open to the public on weekdays (a fact even a lot of local skiers are unaware of). If you go, head to Greer, Holimont's historic first run, cut in 1939, and still one of its best.