Hickory’s Bright Past, Present, and Future Four Seasons
By Alan Wechsler
We stop at the Hickory Ski Center in early February. Snow had dumped a few days earlier and several feet of powder covered the mountain and the immobilized T-bar.
This is not a problem. We would get to the top on our own.
In the winter of 2021-2022, Hickory became one of the few ski resorts in the country to operate as a skin-up/ski-down destination. Users slip $10 into an honor box and sign a waiver (if they can get the frozen pen to work).
For Hickory, a 1,200-foot resort town outside of Warrensburg, it’s the latest incarnation of a history that dates back to the end of World War II.
It can become a year-round destination. Perhaps as early as the end of the year, this could include mountain biking, hiking and access to the nearby Hudson River, followed by winter snow sports. Other ideas include a weekend of four-wheeling, sponsored by Jeep, and a brewery.
But for now, Hickory is in the hands of people who don’t mind winning their ride.
Joining two friends on this cold Saturday morning, I put on skins and strapped them to my skis so that I could slide forward without sliding backward. My cross-country gear is lighter than the gear used at downhill resorts, with bindings that allow cross-country-style glide for climbing, but heel-lock for downhills. Thus encumbered, we don backpacks and head up.
When I lived in Saratoga Springs in the early 1990s, I came here almost every Saturday. With a “buy one, get one free” coupon, a pass costs $16. A typical weekend can see a few hundred skiers. The little lodge had cheap burgers and a 1960s-style circular chimney. it engaged with the spinning cable. Facial plants for beginners were common and I was no exception.
The mountain only has a handful of trails that descend in a braid. With no preparation on the upper slopes, the bumps formed quickly. Even with a deep snow base, rocks were everywhere – you wouldn’t want to come here with new skis. But after a fresh dump, there was no better place in New York to shred in the morning.
Hickory dates back to 1946 when a group of World War II veterans from the 10th Mountain Division started talking about opening a ski resort. Some moved to Colorado to found a small place known as Vail. Another, a Queensbury draftsman named Hans Winbauer, his wife Fran and friends Ken and Flo Bates, reviewed snowfall patterns, sun direction and topographic maps.
They found Pine Mountain, towering above an old farmhouse 10 minutes south of Warrensburg. After a summer of work, Hickory opened a trail in 1946 and expanded as Winbauer and his friends cleared the land and built more lifts.
“It was so popular that they incorporated to raise funds and installed the first Poma elevator in 1955,” said Sue Catana, the Winbauers’ daughter. The shareholders volunteered to run the operation for decades with a few paid employees.
“We started struggling in the 1980s, with the economic downturn and insurance and taxes starting to rise precipitously,” Catana said. “We didn’t have enough ski capacity to pay basic overhead.”
The warm winters didn’t help, but years ago there were enough heavy snow years to offset the bad ones. More recently, climate change may have added to the difficulties, and there have been years when Hickory hasn’t opened at all. The mountain lacks artificial snow and the cost of installation is prohibitive. The mountain’s four drag lifts ceased operation in 2015.
A key investor has arrived. William Van Pelt, a Texas-based businessman from Saratoga Springs, heard about Hickory while on a skiing trip to Utah with friends from New York, and became the controlling shareholder. He also purchased land adjacent to the ski hill, which will allow for the expansion of hiking trails and other uses.
But Van Pelt left the operation to the locals.
“I thought it would be good for the community to reopen it,” he said. “If Hickory can be reopened and get kids into the sport, it would be good for the town and good for skiing.”
Arrange a return
Today, Ski Hickory Hill Inc. has approximately 300 shareholders. Its revival is managed by the Hickory Legacy Foundation, a non-profit organization currently seeking to raise $20,000 for mobile light towers to open the lower mountain to night skiing.
Members include Joq Quintal of Oscar’s Adirondack Smokehouse in Warrensburg; Matt Maciariello of Warren Ford, who learned to ski there; Tony Stein of Camp Echo Lake (the camp used the property last summer as a hangout for the instructors); Glens Falls attorney Stefanie DiLallo Bitter, whose family has been involved in Hickory since the 1980s; and Clint Braidwood of Saratoga Olive Oil, whose late father, John, was a key force behind the foundation.
Under the new model, skiers using the lifts on weekends will pay $300 per season plus $50 per day. Lower mountain access, Hickory’s Beginner’s Area, with its short T-bar, will be as cheap as $7 for after-school skiing. Backcountry skiers can continue to pay a daily fee (or $100 per season) for uphill access.
Catana, 73, general manager of the mountain, knows the challenges. As a management consultant, she once coached (over the phone) UN soldiers working with Afghan warlords during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s.
“My heart has always been here at Hickory,” she said. “I couldn’t see him going down the tubes without a fight.”
The operations will cost $90,000 per year. On the plus side, the old elevators are still working well, Catana said. However, the lodge has been vandalized and the well pump is rusty.
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Across the country, dozens of ski resorts have closed. The National Association of Ski Areas reports a reduction in membership from a peak of 732 resorts in 1982 to 462 in 2020.
Adrienne Saia Isaac, spokeswoman for the NSAA, said it was rare for a closed station to reopen. She knows seven nationally back in business.
“It’s not cheap to run a ski area,” she said. “You need to know your customer base and your community.”
Off-piste skiing could prove to be a route to reopening. Like other outdoor activities, Nordic skiing and horseback riding have exploded in recent years. According to market research firm NPD Group, sales of off-trail ski and snowboard equipment in America have grown from $39 million in 2016-17 to $147 million five years later.
In Vermont, the once-closed Ascutney ski area has been taken over by the town of West Windsor, with a tow rope built on the lower mountain and the upper two-thirds open for self-propelled use only. Also in Vermont, organizations like the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance have cultivated backcountry ski routes on national forest lands, with government permission. On snowy weekends, the trails are so popular that parking is often difficult to find.
In the Adirondacks, cross-country routes are limited. Adventurous skiers attempt the steep slides of the High Peaks, snow conditions permitting, as well as runs such as Wright Peak and Mount Marcy. The Adirondack Powder Skiers Association has worked with the state for 10 years, seeking more dedicated trails. Founder Ron Konowitz said the group is currently building a demonstration trail on private land.
At the summit ridge of Hickory, which takes us 45 minutes to reach, we are rewarded with views of the nearby Hudson River, the mountains of the central Adirondacks, and the distant High Peaks. Wind blows snow from evergreen trees. It shines in the morning light.
And we are not alone in enjoying the place. This weekend, 92 people will visit Hickory, Catana tells me later. It’s not a huge crowd, but it’s a start.
We take off our skins, lock our heels and plunge the skis first into the powder.
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