This would be my second attempt at Kaaterskill High Peak and the abandoned Cortina Valley Ski Area. The first had to be aborted due to the high degree of danger found in bushwhacking up a mountain with a foot-and-a-half of snow cover.
The first hike was attempted solo on Feb. 14, (which is kinda sad, if you think about it), and the Catskills were clinging to their previous snowfall despite unseasonably balmy weather for the past couple weeks.
Two groups of people warned me about the trek to Hurricane Ledge, which I was attempting to reach via Kaaterskill High Peak, one of the 35 peaks in the Catskills over 3,500 feet. First, a man and his son I saw in the three-space parking area at the base of the climb both told me to NOT ATTEMPT the ascent in the winter. Dangerous even in the summer, they said. I had to reassure them I wasn’t actually attempting the final ascent before saying goodbye and doing just that.
The second was a group of multi-generational Chinese hikers I bumped into on the path towards the ascent. They were really decked out with gear, wearing proper non-cotton winter attire, pushing themselves along with hiking poles, and spearing the icy ground with crampons. I had none of these. One of the guys pointed his crampons out, asked if I was wearing any, then re-doubled his efforts to dissuade me from attempting the peak.
I had to turn around a few hundred vertical feet from the summit because the daylight was waning and I kept falling. It was the first time I turned back on a hike due (in part) to danger, but the image of me twisting an ankle and freezing to death alone on an obscure mountain on Valentine’s Day was dismal enough to get me to reverse course.
As I walked back, I raised my fist to the mountain, and, with a mix of reverence and rancor, promised her I’d be back.
On my second attempt a week later, it was a disconcertingly warm 64 degrees. I hiked in a t-shirt, and my trail-mate, Hollis, turned back to leave his jacket in the car after walking about five feet.
Now, there is not exactly a “trail” to either Cortina Valley or Kaaterskill High Peak, but I managed to cobble together a path from repeatedly getting lost.
After parking at the intersection of Gillespie Road and Cortina Lane in Hunter, take Cortina for a few minutes until it bends sharply to the right. Instead of turning, continue straight, where there will be a COMPLETELY washed-out and overgrown dirt road. Doesn’t really look like a road anymore. Following this path will take you to the top of the Cortina Valley Ski Area.
Mario Di Belardino started developing Cortina Valley in 1973, according to a March 1975 article from the Troy Times-Record, about ten years after his father purchased the land.
Di Belardino, who worked as an attorney and unsuccessfully ran for Congress a few years prior, was essentially a ski buff who wanted to turn his passion into a profession, according to the Times-Record.
Cortina was developed after Hunter Mountain, a larger ski mountain so close you can see the ski lifts from Cortina’s acme. Di Belardino admitted he was trying to draw off Hunter’s crowd with the more petite mountain, which cut off ticket sales at 1,000 to keep the lift lines short, according to the article.
A 1985 map of Cortina Valley shows it had four lifts, including the 3,300-foot “Alpha Lift,” and 11 trails.
The mountain advertised a 625-foot vertical drop and included a “discotheque” (it was the 70s), an “elegant Patrician Dining Room,” a café, and by 1989, snowmaking on 90 percent of the mountain, according to Terns-Thorpe.
Cortina Valley mostly catered to beginning and intermediate skiers, most of whom came from the New York City area, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, according to Terns-Thorpe.
The trails stretch down the north-west side of the mountain, the rusty benches of chair lifts hanging overhead like forgotten Christmas ornaments. I, of course, sat in one.
The mountain evidentially also had a snowmobile trail, which is what Hollis and I took towards Kaaterskill High Peak. It’s directly across the clearing one comes upon at the top of Cortina Valley, and is mostly marked.
The snowmobile trail loops around the sister summits of Round Top and Kaaterskill High Peak with little elevation gain.
The trail was completely flooded due to the melting snow, and Hollis and I had to keep veering off it, then squinting around for a trail marker to return to the path. Many of the trees hosting the markers had collapsed, and some markers had simply fallen off over the years.
The trail, when not flooded, was booby-trapped with a layer of leaf-infused ice covering thawed earth below, so we kept stepping on what looked like dirt and crunching into subterranean streams.
We got very wet.
About 1.6 miles down the snowmobile trail, a couple thousand feet before it splits, you will see (if you squint) a path veering to the right designated by a double bar of ivory spray paint. These unofficial trail markers continue up the ascent, but damned if I could find the path after the first few minutes.
The ascent took us up a series of four ridges, each of which involved using our hands a lot. Ice-melt streamed down cleaved rock covered with long, verdant moss, the setas waving with the water’s flow like seaweed.
Snow cover made a reappearance on the ascent due to the ridges’ shadows, and areas devoid of snow were interspaced with unexpected pits of the stuff.
We were at the base of the final ridge when I checked the time and realized I had been miscalculating the whole way. I had to be back by 5 p.m. for my non-journalism job, so, with a yawp of regret that reverberated across the mountainside, I turned back.
I would suggest only expert hikers attempt Hurricane Ledge via Kaaterskill High Peak in the winter. It’s most likely easier in the summer, when the ground is soft and the unofficial trial to Hurricane Ledge is bound to me more visible.
I’ll be back then, mountain. Third time’s the charm.