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Despite Deaths, The Snow Must Go On…


This has not been a good month for Hunter Mountain, the “Ski Bowl” where I spend every daylight hour of my winter weekends. (When I’m in the States, that is.) First off, it’s suffered the warmest January in years, with regular 50-degree temperatures melting, and then frequent rain storms washing away, what little snow has either fallen or been blasted by the snowguns. As a result, twice in the last three mid-winter weeks I found myself attempting to ski around grass, rocks, and even mud – the terrain that normally heralds springtime.

Secondly, the mountain’s co-founder Izzy Slutsky died on January 8, aged 92. Though he hadn’t been seen much in public the last few years (unlike his younger brother Orville, who at 88 remains the mountain’s alarmingly pro-active General Manager), Izzy was a local legend. Born on the family farm down the road, he started out as a civil engineer and construction contractor, and the company he founded with Orville built many hospitals, roads, drive-in theaters, and schools in the area. The Slutskys used that mechanical expertise to help turn Hunter Mountain into what they proudly called the “snowmaking capital of the world.” They then plowed much of that snow money back into the community. A list of Izzy and Orville’s philanthropic actions and board memberships would fill a page or two; the key fact is that Hunter remains a family-owned enterprise in an industry which, much like any other these days, is increasingly dominated by major corporations.

But deaths come in threes, so they say. Last Thursday, a well-known local skier was just a little too confident in choosing to take an unlikely turn at a very high speed, careened off the end of the trail and crashed into a tree. When you’re an unstoppable force traveling at 45mph and you hit an immovable object, even a helmet won’t save your neck. Izzy Slutsky may have ski’d daily until his late 80s and lived several years longer, but truth is, as the small print on the back of every lift ticket warns in no uncertain terms: You can get yourself killed on the ski slopes.

The view from The Cliff: “a precipitous black run,” says The Guardian

You don’t necessarily expect to get killed at the bottom of them. But last weekend ended with the news that a 45-year old father from Long Island died after being thrown out of the Hunter Village Inn, the party bar at the foot of the mountain; he had allegedly been involved in a fight. When autopsy results showed that Peter Shine, though thoroughly intoxicated, had died from asphyxiation, the police arrested 27-year old bouncer Thomas Sebald who, they said, “had so much pressure on (Shine) he was actually picking him up off the ground as he’s taking him outside and throwing him out the back door.” The bouncer, as befits this kind of tragic and dumb story, is a social studies teacher – and football coach – at a high school in Orange County. Read people vent, in increasingly appalling English, from either side at this page.

Oddly enough, just before word reached the mountain about this tragedy, members of my ski group were looking round at all the families making the most of the spring-like conditions last Sunday, and remarking that Hunter’s reputation as a troublesome party mountain was outdated and no longer deserved.

You won’t find any of these stories on the Hunter web site, which has rarely woken up to anything it can’t advertise as a perfect snow day. But I think as far as the mountain’s concerned, this winter won’t end quick enough. Then again, as it’s been back below freezing all week – with the guns pounding out the white stuff night and day – it’s obvious that the snow must go on.
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I’m feeling more at liberty to write freely about my ski addiction after spending time back in Britain, where I was reminded by all the travel sections and special publications of just how enthusiastically the sport is taken there. And though I started out on budget holidays in Europe like most other people in the 80s, it seems like more and more Brits head to the States for the slopes these days. I found this piece about Hunter Mountain in last year’s Guardian travel section; the author concluded that “the trails…, though short, were as challenging as any in the Alps.” We’ll take good press where we can get it up here, but if that quote is true, I’m already Bode Miller.

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On which note, don’t the Winter Olympics start today? Where’s a TV in our house when we need one?

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