A crowd of 100 or so began to amass before dawn last Christmas Eve, eager to claim first tracks down Hunter North, the largest ski resort expansion on the East Coast in 15 years. Despite flurries and a dreary fog, the air was festive. Hunter staff doled out coffee, cookies, hot chocolate, and noisemakers. Led Zeppelin blared from loudspeakers. Around 8:30 am., a ribbon was cut, and the restive horde clambered across a new pedestrian bridge to queue up at the Northern Express Lift. The race was on.
Peak Resorts, which operated 17 U.S. ski resorts, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, until its sale to Vail Resorts earlier this year, purchased Hunter Mountain in 2015 from its original owners, the Slutzky Family. Since opening in 1959, the Slutzkys turned Hunter (or “Huntah”) into the Catskills’ premier ski area. The resort, two hours north of New York City, still retains its unpretentious air—cafeteria staff might address you as “hon”—and a ski-hard, party-harder culture reminiscent of an ’80s ski movie. “I always say what we lack in presentation, we make up for in volume,” says Johnny “Las Vegas” Hagopian, a veteran bartender at the base lodge.
Peak Resorts sank $9 million into developing the lower slope on Hunter’s north side, cutting five new trails last year—four intermediate and one beginner—and four new gladed areas. The new six-passenger Northern Express rises 1,000 vertical feet. The additional 80 acres expands the resort by 30 percent and fulfills a crucial need at Hunter for greater intermediate and advanced terrain.
Hunter North was met with some controversy from the start. On the day it opened in late December, two skiers broke their legs. (“There were people sprawled out everywhere,” one person who skied that day told me.) A month later, a 27-year-old skier from New Jersey skidded off the trail, struck a boulder, and died. In February and March, two more men in their 20s died on the new slopes after losing control. The accidents raised unavoidable questions: Is Hunter North unsafe? The resort maintained that it was not, and found no evidence that trail configurations or features were a factor in the incidents.
I skied Hunter North a few times last winter. My last visit is on a gray and drizzly Friday in late March. Attempting to reach Hunter North’s base lot, Google Maps routes me through a neighborhood of slopeside homes right to the snowline midway up one of the new trails: too new for the algorithm, apparently.
(The resort had yet to install direction signs.) I backtrack to the main road through the town of Hunter, a Catskills hamlet still awaiting its renaissance, and find an access road leading up to an empty lot along with a ticket booth, portable toilets, a bright orange food truck, and a set of Adirondack chairs around a fire pit.
I’d arranged to meet up with Jay Frischman, a Hunter die-hard for 35 years and former freestyle coach who owns a classic ’60s A-frame near the base. As we ride the Northern Express, Frischman peers down at the bare woods and late-season coverage. “I’d call it ‘variable’ today,” he jokes. While the West rejoiced all winter in snowfall records, the Catskills dealt with a series of melt-freeze cycles and below average totals. Hunter, which was the world’s first ski area to feature top-to-bottom snowmaking as well as the first to install an automated snowmaking system, made do with its seasonal 71 annual inches of natural snow by blanketing the mountain in artificial flakes.
The top of Northern Express is one way to access the new trails on Hunter North. Belt Parkway, an infamous run that winds off the summit above and passes the entrances to Way Out, Overlook, and Sleepy Hollow—three of the new runs—is another. Named after a traffic-choked New York City thoroughfare, Belt Parkway is the rare ski slope that actually takes after its namesake: collisions are common. The skiers on it can resemble urban drivers, too. A longtime race coach whom Frischman and I meet as we get off the lift describes how one of the most import- ant lessons he imparts to his students is how to avoid getting hit.
On this rainy Friday, however, the slopes are safely empty. Weekends offer a different picture, when Hunter draws thousands of downstaters from the New York City area. “Hunter has a rep as a challenging place with lots of ‘Joeys,’ ” explains Frischman. “It’s kind of the melting pot of skiers.” Shuttle buses deposit day trippers—“citiots,” some Greene County locals sneer—at the base in droves, who often emerge two beers in and stoked. (Indeed, the unsightly collection of empty Bud Lights that litter the snow underneath the summit Kaatskill Flyer lift might offend Western sensibilities.) “It’s always been known as a heathen’s mountain,” Frischman says. “But it has a spirit to it, you know?”
Check out: Ode to Hunter Mountain
As Frischman and I make laps on Hunter North, I think about the incidents that occurred earlier in the season. The runs are generally all wide, easy-going, advanced-intermediate slopes, with long run-outs and lovely views down the valley of gently rolling forest. A few have steep, off-camber, or narrow entrances into them—pretty typical for Hunter—and given the north- facing aspect, are also prone to shade and patches of ice. At most resorts, this wouldn’t necessarily invite tragedy. At Hunter, where your average weekend warrior is young, aggressive, and perhaps a little heedless, it very possibly could.
“There’s a lot of ego that comes up and puts it out onto the mountain,” Frischman says. “But I think Hunter makes people good skiers because it’s so variable. It kind of throws you to the wolves.” The 3,200-foot peak has a scarred front face, owing to dynamite used in the resort’s construction; high, jagged rock walls border a few trails; some feature sharp, blind turns. To the faithful, this is Hunter’s trademark. Frischman never tires of it.
For our final run of the day, he takes me down “Hunter’s signature run”—a top-to-bottom tear that links Hellgate to Broad- way and Kennedy Drive. It’s 1:15 p.m. and the base bar is already populated. It’s also raining pretty hard. Pushing off the Kaatskill Flyer, we descend underneath the lift, dogleg right, and turn for the base—not a Joey in sight. Frischman holds both poles aloft, like a downhiller crossing the line. “Never gets old,” he calls out. “Big little mountain!”
With its whiskey lounge, curated library, and handcrafted furniture, Scribner's Catskill Lodge is a modernist refuge for urbanites, with straight-on views of Hunter’s trails. The rustic Deer Mountain Inn has six uniquely appointed rooms in a historic Arts and Crafts–style cottage.
Jägerberg Beer Hall & Alpine Tavern is the best option in Hunter, serving locally-sourced alpine classics like Schnitzels and Sauerbraten along with local German-style brews. Head to Jessie's Harvest House, a homey spot in nearby Tannersville, for Catskills farm-to-table comfort fare.
The Main Bar in Hunter’s base lodge is the scene for après- ski, which commences at roughly 1 p.m. From there, head to Jägerberg for craft cocktails or Ronni MacGregor's Pub, where everyone ends up.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great storytelling about the greatest places to ski on earth, SUBSCRIBE NOW.