‘No Beginners Allowed’: A Midwestern Paradise for Skiers Who Dare​

An ungroomed landscape of snow and more snow.​

Original article from NYTimes

Seven hours from the closest major airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Mount Bohemia ski area in Michigan attracts skiers and snowboarders looking for challenges.Chris Guibert

Before you board the chairlift at one of the continent’s most unusual ski areas, a sign tells you exactly what’s in store: “Steep Slopes. Cliff Bands. Exposed Rock Formations.”
The slopes are not groomed. The trail map is a study in black: black diamonds, double black diamonds or even triple black diamonds. Of the 107 named runs here, 104 are for experts only. You cannot take a lesson. You cannot rent skis.
“NO BEGINNERS ALLOWED,” the sign blares.

Of the 107 named runs in the Mount Bohemia area, 104 are for expert skiers only.Tim Neville

On a brittle day last January, six of my friends and family and I got off a chairlift and disappeared down a double-black diamond slope called Tommyknocker’s Plunge. It was minus 3 degrees. I wore two down jackets and a beanie under my helmet, which was entombed under two hoods.

But what a day this cruelty brought. Feathery flakes had fallen the last 16 hours, luring every powderhound in a 100-mile radius. Given how remote this place is, that means maybe 300 skiers and snowboarders.

The forest echoed with the hoots and hollers of my people as they bounced through some of the best snow we had experienced in our collective 150 years of skiing. With no wind the snow crystals had stacked up along the spindly hardwood limbs in lines as delicate as a haiku. Indeed, Hokkaido, Japan, might be the only other place I’ve ever skied that could match these conditions.
But this was not Japan. This was Mount Bohemia, in Michigan.

To those in the know, this ski area, seven-hours from the closest major airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul, is legendary.
I first heard of it 23 years ago, when a friend mentioned a ski area with only expert runs that had just opened up on Michigan’s remote Keweenaw Peninsula on the already remote Upper Peninsula, 600 miles northwest of Detroit. In 2016, Mount Bohemia popped up again when it opened the first and only U.S.-based cat-skiing operation east of the Rockies.
“Does the Midwest even have mountains?” I wondered at the time.

Last fall, I Googled it again and learned that Michigan’s highest mountain, Mount Arvon, is only 1,979 feet. Still, Michigan has 40 ski areas, the second most of any state in the country after New York’s 43. Online, Midwesterners swore Mount Bohemia was the place for serious skiers and snowboarders.

On a YouTube channel called Mount Bohemia TV, clip after clip showed fast turns in bottomless powder and storybook glades. No condos, no big buildings. You could ski through areas serviced by no chairlift, down to a lonely road, where a ski bus would take you back to base.

Clearly, something great was going on in those woods.
Equally great was the cost: Day tickets sold for $92, but for $99 I could get a season pass. If I bought three, I could get a fourth one free. Mount Bohemia has a few ski-in, ski-out bunkhouses that sleep four, but the best place to stay is about a mile away, where, for about $260 a night, we could rent a lakeside cabin. If we booked three nights midweek, we’d get a fourth night free with dinner included every night.

‘We’re all ruined now.’​

We touched down in the early afternoon at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, fetched our skis from baggage claim, and soon we were zipping past forests and farms toward Duluth, 160 miles north. The car’s thermometer read 10 degrees. Snowmobile tracks ran across the fields. Soon, the land bulged with low, rolling hills.

Mount Bohemia season passes are honored at a few resorts in Minnesota and Wisconsin along our route, and we spent the first 36 hours sampling those. We crossed into Michigan late in the afternoon on Day 2. Snow was piled up in such massive quantities that people built garages right next to the road — less driveway to shovel. Our speed dropped to 15 miles per hour as a fierce snowstorm turned the windshield into a hypnotic tunnel. A truck sat disturbingly off-axis in a ditch.

Inside the complex of yurts at Mount Bohemia is a retail store that doubles as a ticket office, bar, dining area and kitchen. Chris Guibert

At first it was hard to tell we had arrived at Mount Bohemia until we saw the beige, interconnected yurts with snow marching up their polycotton walls. Inside this complex we found a small retail store that doubled as a ticket office, bar, dining area and kitchen, where you could sign up for a meal time, served chuck-wagon style. Outside, steam curled out of the “Nordic Spa,” a heated pool with a small waterfall and saunas nearby. Every lift ticket comes with unlimited soaking. My Midwest tryst was becoming real love.

Guests relax to live music inside one of Mount Bohemia’s yurts.Chris Guibert

Every lift ticket at Mount Bohemia comes with unlimited use of the resort’s “Nordic Spa.”Chris Guibert
Our rock-and-wood cabin sat on the shores of the frozen Lac la Belle. Five of us slept there, while two others stayed a few steps away at the “inn,” which was more like a house, with a kitchen and living room.

We awoke to a 0-degree dream. The storm had produced nearly two feet overnight. The Keweenaw Peninsula gets walloped by lake-effect snow, where moisture from the relatively warmer Lake Superior gets sucked into the dry, arctic air, condenses and falls. The flakes were so light and fluffy I could have unearthed the car by blowing on it.

The ski area’s parking lot was buzzing at 9:30 a.m. That was still early. Unlike most ski areas south of Alaska, Mount Bohemia’s lifts don’t open until 10 a.m. “Dude, did you call in sick today, too?” a guy getting ready asked a friend parked nearby.
“I’m feeling horrible,” came the reply. “Chills all over.”

We cruised past the sign and its warnings and hopped on a triple chair. Only two people are allowed on each three-person seat. Lonie Glieberman, a stocky, colorful skier in his 50s who owns the resort, said most of the skiers who come here are men who weigh more than women and children and that extra weight can stress the aging motors. “Look, the lifts run fine 90 percent of the time fully loaded, but why risk it?”

Snowboarding scene on Mount Bohemia on Michigan’s remote Keweenaw Peninsula.

Mr. Glieberman pretty much built Mount Bohemia from scratch after he co-owned and ran the Ottawa Rough Riders, a beloved but beleaguered Canadian Football League team, in the early 1990s.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Glieberman learned that Vail had been studying Mount Bohemia, a former logging area, as the site for a new resort, but ultimately found the area to be too steep and remote, he said.

For Mr. Glieberman, it was perfect. “No one else in the Midwest targets experts,” he said. “They go for beginners and families and your everyday skier. In terms of branding, we’re like Ferrari to their Chevrolet.”

The main lift whisked us up the front of the mountain and an area called Bohemia Bluffs. Rocky outcroppings rise from the snow here — the result of a massive rift where the continent was ripped apart — but mostly everything was entombed in snow.

The seven of us dropped into a black diamond called Copper Plunge. Snow welled up around my waist and curled over my head. I slipped into the trees and made fast, tight turns before the forest spat me out onto the slope. It didn’t feel short at all with something like 100 or more powder turns per run.
“What a day,” said a guy in the lift line when we slid up, beaming. “We’re all ruined now.”

Ice, powder, crust​

By midafternoon we were, as my friend put it, “Boho’d,” exhausted, and so a long soak in the spa had us in bed after a lasagna dinner.
The next morning we awoke to eight new inches of snow. We dropped into an area called Outer Limits, skiing Milky Way, Mercury, Venus and Mars, all double-black tree runs. I whipped around the trunks and rocketed along small depressions. I stopped to look up at my tracks and noticed how the crystals I’d displaced hung in the air like smoke. We reached the road and climbed into the bus that brings skiers back to the lift since there are none that service this part of the mountain.

Mount Bohemia’s runs aren’t groomed.You can have ice, powder and crust, adding a level of difficulty that has nothing to do with steepness.

No doubt the skiing we experienced was the best of the year, but the double black diamond ratings still felt generous. Anyone who’s ever peered into Corbet’s Couloir at Jackson Hole, in Wyoming — a true double-black with a mandatory 90-degree drop into a 50-degree chute — knows none of these runs are in the same league as that.

But Mount Bohemia’s runs aren’t groomed, either — you can have ice, powder, crust, moguls, all in the same run — and that adds a level of difficulty that has nothing to do with steepness. Even with so much fresh snow, I could still feel the bump-ridden base far below that could buck a skier off balance.

I found that out later in the day when I dropped off a small rollover into the trees near Claim Jumper. I attacked a tight line between some oaks when my skis hit something — a rock, a root?— and sent me flying Superman-style through the trees. My back exploded into a trunk. A trail of shattered twigs and branches stretched uphill like wreckage.

I could move. Nothing broken, nothing torn, but it was the worst fall I’d had in years.
I took a moment to extract myself, but my skis were gone. Ski brakes are less effective in powder this light. I found them 10 feet away where they’d torpedoed under the surface.

I was lucky. Dan Hill, a volunteer ski patroller, told me later that night his first call of the day was for a broken leg. Miraculously, no one has ever died here.

Secret stashes​

Our third and final day opened with a foot of new snow at 11 degrees. It felt balmy. By now we had our routine down. My daughter and her friend loved an area called Bear Den for its steep, open runs, while the adults hunted for paths through the woods that often led to secret stashes. After an hour or so, we would retreat briefly to the bar to warm up.

We spent our last few hours skiing with the ski patrol to a hidden point locals call Beer Tree with sweeping views over the copper-rich peninsula. I did what I typically do on the last day of a ski trip and lingered.

The lake, cold and gray, sat sandwiched between layers of white. Winters here aren’t always this bountiful, but this one had been perfect.
We took the long way back to Minneapolis, all of us happily ruined.


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