Boyne Continues Investment Binge with Bubble Six-Pack at The Highlands
The Midwest’s fastest lift will replace three aging triple chairs when it opens in 2023
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It’s surreal, thinking back to 1990s Michigan, how few liftlines I remember waiting in. At either end of the U.S. ski universe, lifts crawl thousands of vertical feet up roaring pitches, but in the Midwest there’s none of this. Just lifts lined up one alongside the other like rockets tilted to launch. Often they all go to basically the same place so just jump on the closest and go.
The number of lifts at the average Michigan ski area is outlandish, considering the size of the joints: Alpine Valley and Mt. Holly, each 100 acres, have eight chairs apiece; 130-acre Mt. Brighton also had eight before Vail consolidated the lift fleet down to five in 2013. Moving north, the ski areas are a bigger, but the lift surplus continues: there are seven chairs at Shanty Creek, eight at Nub’s Nob, nine at Big Powderhorn. Up until last season, Boyne Mountain had 10. But this excess exists because the system works. Nevermind that most of these lifts are older than the internet, made by companies that no longer exist: Mueller and Riblet and Borvig and Hall. Even on the busiest days, liftlines have rarely been a feature of my Michigan ski experience.
But lifts don’t last forever, and they don’t cost what they used to. Replacing one lift made in the 1960s with one lift made in 2022 is not a sustainable business plan. So it makes sense that The Highlands is demolishing three antique Riblet triples and replacing them with a single super lift for the 2023-24 ski season: a six-person, Doppelmayr D-Line bubble chair with extra-wide heated seats and the first fully automatic safety bar system in the country.
“This will be the most kid-friendly and safest lift ever built,” said Highlands GM Mike Chumbler.
The lift, dubbed Camelot 6, will, according to Boyne, be the fastest in the Midwest, ascending the ski area’s 550 vertical feet in three minutes and landing at the top of Upper Camelot. This will be just the second six-person chairlift in Michigan – the state with the second-most ski areas in the country. The other is Boyne Mountain’s Mountain Express, which was the first six-pack in the U.S. when it opened in 1992.
Camelot 6 is the latest in a series of transformative projects underway at Boyne’s 10-resort portfolio, including a 450-acre expansion at Sugarloaf, eight-pack lift installations at Sunday River and Boyne Mountain, a new-used high-speed quad rising at Loon, a massive gondola-tram complex at Big Sky, a monster lift shuffle at Summit at Snoqualmie, and a new quad at Cypress.
Here’s a closer look at the Camelot 6 and what it means for The Highlands, local skiers, and the Midwest:
Untangling a mess
Here’s what The Highlands looks like today. Heather Express – Michigan’s first high-speed lift when it opened in 1990 – is the alpha, and is often the only lift running on the frontside during non-peak periods. There’s nothing off of Amy’s, Challenger, MacGully, Camelot, or Valley that you can’t access from Heather, but getting back to it can be a pain, especially if you want to lap the runs above Tournament Pass far looker’s left. Set the Interconnect and North Face lifts aside here, as this project only affects the frontside.
Camelot 6 will replace Valley, Camelot, and MacGully, terminating at the top of the Upper Camelot trail. This will be a huge improvement for many reasons:
The current Camelot lift, which is 56 years old, is short and pointless. Fixed-grip lifts stink for beginners, who are far more likely to ride the parallel Wonder Carpet. Clearing out Camelot will also allow Boyne to expand the adjacent snowtubing area or widen the beginner slope – both better uses for land than an obsolete lift.
The Valley lift is awkward on both ends. It doesn’t go high enough to access Sound of Skiing, and the bottom terminal is easy to miss by swinging too wide skier’s left on the descent – the pole back is a pain in the rear. Valley is nearly as old as Camelot – it ran from 1967 to 1990 as the Heather lift before moving to its current location.
No one wants to ride a fixed-grip lift exactly parallel to a high-speed lift, and MacGully, which has been rooted in the same line since 1963, has been useless since Heather went up 32 years ago. This lift also slices directly through a prime terrain park – downing those towers will unclutter this area and eliminate a significant number of hazards.
Camelot will likely instantly replace Heather as the default anytime lift. Since it is likely to load right outside the lodge, skiers will no longer have to pole over to Heather to start their ski day.
To summarize: The Highlands is clearing out three lifts that are a combined 170 years old and dramatically decluttering the south end of its resort to make way for a brand-new, superfast lift that will also take stress off of and extend the life of its aging high-speed quad. It’s a smart and simple fix for a ski area that has always been defined by awkward flow.
The Boyne Experience
It’s also going to be incredibly expensive. I don’t know exactly how much this lift will cost, but if you decided to live in it, it would probably be the most expensive house in Michigan by quite a bit. High-speed lifts are pricey. Six-packs are pricier still. D-line lifts are expensive enough that almost no one can afford them. According to Lift Blog, only five of the 61 new lifts rising in North America this summer are D-Lines: the eight-packs at Boyne-owned Sunday River and Boyne Mountain, Steamboat’s Wild Blue gondola, and the new sixers at Grand Targhee and Camelback. Of the 10 new high-speed lifts Vail Resorts is installing in 2022, none are D-Lines (Vail’s planned D-Line eight-pack at Park City is held up at least until next summer over permitting issues).
But the D-Line is Boyne’s thing – every such ski-specific lift on the continent built before this year is at one of their mountains: Loon’s Kanc 8; Big Sky’s Swift Current 6 and Ramcharger 8. They’re building two more in 2023 – a sixer at Brighton and a gondola at their Gatlinburg facility. Boyne is staking their brand on this. On big, ostentatious lifts that are as much statement as people-mover.
It works. These things are a joy to ride. Like being invited to a very high-end wedding or test-driving a Ferrari. Only you ride them as part of your normal ski day, for the price of a normal lift ticket (whatever that means anymore). It’s an experience within the experience of skiing. Yes I know Fixed-Grip Bro, you prefer old doubles that move at the rate of plate tectonics so you have more time to listen to Elvis on your Walkman. But some of us live in 2022, and the chance to sink into the work of some of the world’s smartest engineers is a pleasure. Like watching a movie with knockout special effects. It’s fun and maybe we don’t need to read so much meaning into it.
2030 and beyond
Boyne has a decades-long history as a leader in lift technology. The company built the world’s first triple and quad chairs in the 1960s. The Boyne Mountain sixer normalized what had formerly sounded absurd – half a dozen people on a chairlift. But the company lost momentum at one point. As I wrote in April:
Still, compared to its peers, Big Sky doddered along with a rattletrap lift fleet for decades. By the time Big Sky installed its fourth high-speed lift in 2004*, Vail Mountain already had 15 of them (and had since at least 2001).
But over the past half-dozen years, Boyne has gotten aggressive. By next season, four of its 10 ski areas will have the monster eight-packs already in place at Big Sky and Loon – 80 percent of all such lifts on the continent. A major promised component of the company’s 2030 plans is beefed-up lift infrastructure at Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Loon, Boyne Mountain, and The Highlands at Harbor Springs. But the most dramatic changes are coming to Big Sky, Boyne’s flagship.
*When the Six Shooter high-speed six-pack came online in 2003, Moonlight Basin was still a separate resort.
About five years ago, statement lifts started raining out of the Montana sky:
After rolling out four high-speed lifts in five years (the Powder Seeker six in 2016, Ramcharger 8 and the Shedhorn high-speed quad in 2018, and the Swift Current 6 in 2021), Big Sky recently unveiled a gargantuan base-to-summit lift network that will transform the mountain, (probably) eliminating Mountain Village liftlines and delivering skiers to the high alpine without the zigzagging adventure across the now-scattered lift network. Skiers will board a two-stage out-of-base gondola cresting near the base of Powder Seeker before transferring to a higher-capacity tram within the same building.
Impressive as the transformation of Big Sky has been, it represents a fraction of the megaprojects going on across Boyne’s 10-resort empire. Here’s a survey of what’s happening around Boyneworld this offseason alone:
As the centerpiece of their 450-acre West Mountain expansion, New England’s second-largest ski area is currently rebuilding and retrofitting the Swift Current high-speed quad from Big Sky. Installation is scheduled for next summer. I discussed this expansion and the rest of the mountain’s 2030 plan with GM Karl Strand two years ago:
Boyne’s third eight-pack is rising on Jordan Peak. It’s gonna be a bomber, an overbuilt look-ahead lift that will eventually serve an outpost called “Western Reserve,” which may double the 870-acre resort’s size. The mountain is also continuing work on the Merrill Hill expansion, a big piece of the mountain’s 2030 plan.
Last December, Boyne opened eight-pack number two at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire. The event was electric. Meanwhile, the quad that once served that side of the mountain sat in the rebuild barn, so it could replace and retire the Seven Brothers triple, work that has been ongoing all summer.
Pleasant Mountain (formerly Shawnee Peak)
Boyne bought Maine’s oldest ski area less than a year ago, so they’ve yet to announce any big-time lift projects. For now, the company did the impossible, winning social media for a day with their unanimously lauded decision to change the ski area’s name back to Pleasant Mountain, which it had carried from 1938 to 1988. While this doesn’t alter the ski experience in any way, it does show that Boyne is here to wow people. Just wait until they start talking lifts and expansion.
Eight-pack number four will be here, on Boyne’s shortest ski area, a 500-foot Michigan bump. The chair will replace a pair of ancient triples, dropping skiers atop one of the best pods of beginner skiing in the Midwest, a delightful jumble of long, looping greens threading through low-angle forest.
I mean what isn’t happening at Big Sky? This gondola-tram complex will instantly become one of the most iconic lift networks in North American skiing. I recapped the Montana flagship’s evolution from backwater to beefcake with mountain COO Taylor Middleton earlier this year:
Boyne’s snowiest mountain is also one of the few without a long-term 2030-type plan. This, Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher explained to me, is because the resort sits on Forest Service land, complicating the long-term planning process. No matter. The ski area recently began the permitting process for a D-Line (what else?) sixer to replace Crest Express, the ski area’s oldest high-speed quad.
Summit at Snoqualmie
The motley agglomeration of what was once four separate ski areas is about to Rip Van Winkle its way into modernity. The ski area’s 2030 plan, announced in April, sketches out eight new or upgraded lifts, including a trio of triples at freewheeling Alpental. The first lift is going in as I type this – a fixed-grip carpet-loaded triple to replace the old Hidden Valley Riblet double. GM Guy Lawrence and I went through these updates in a podcast recorded two days prior to the announcement:
Boyne’s only Canadian ski area is upgrading its Sky summit double with a carpet-loaded quad.
There is a lot more happening throughout Boyneland aside from new lifts, of course, but these massive projects are emblematic of Boyne’s ambitions to transform its resorts into the best in any given region. Boyne doesn’t really have much of a corporate brand, deferring instead to its individual resorts to tell their story. It’s too bad. These investments come from the top, and they distill an ethos that just about any skier can believe in: to prioritize the skiing by getting skiers to the top of the bump as fast and as comfortably as possible.
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