Podcast #100: Nub’s Nob General Manager Ben Doornbos
"There is absolutely no tech out there that is ever going to beat an educated, caring snowmaker who's going gun to gun, checking what's going on with the snow."
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Ben Doornbos, General Manager at Nub’s Nob, Michigan
October 10, 2022
About Nub’s Nob
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: The Fisher family
Pass affiliations: Indy Pass
Reciprocal pass partners: None
Located in: Harbor Springs, Michigan
Closest neighboring ski areas: The Highlands (4 minutes), Mt. McSauba (35 minutes), Boyne Mountain (37 minutes), Otsego (55 minutes), Treetops (1 hour), Shanty Creek (1 hour, 9 minutes), Hanson Hills (1 hour, 22 minutes), Mt. Holiday (1 hour, 26 minutes), Hickory Hills (1 hour, 41 minutes), Missaukee Mountain (1 hour, 41 minutes), Snow Snake (1 hour, 58 minutes), The Homestead (2 hours, 11 minutes), Crystal (2 hours, 14 minutes), Caberfae (2 hours, 14 minutes)
Base elevation: 911 feet
Summit elevation: 1,338 feet
Vertical drop: 427 feet
Skiable Acres: 248
Average annual snowfall: 123 inches
Trail count: 53 (24% double-black, 49% black, 20% intermediate, 7% beginner)
Lift count: 10 (3 fixed-grip quads, 4 triples, 1 double, 1 carpet, 1 ropetow - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Nub’s Nob’s lift fleet)
Uphill capacity: 17,075 skiers per hour
Why I interviewed him
We all have those places that made us skiers, that wrecked us or rescued us, that in our private worlds are synonymous with skiing itself. For me those places are Mott Mountain, Apple Mountain, Snow Snake, Caberfae, Boyne Mountain, and Searchmont. Without those places I am not a skier, or at least I am not the particular version of a skier that’s writing this newsletter. These are, in order, the first, second, third, and fourth places I skied; the place I learned to thread bumps; and the place I learned to navigate little drops and off-piste terrain. The first two are dead, the others survive in various states of modernized. In my head they all stand available at any moment for viewing, a tattered Stu-flix, a vault of skinny-ski adventures crashing through 1990s stop-animation reels.
But there’s a seventh ski area in my mental vault: Nub’s Nob. It’s a funny name, perhaps jarring if this is your first time seeing it. I happen to think it’s the best ski area name in America. It’s simple, memorable, intriguing, evocative of what it is: a 427-foot locals’ bump with an Alta-grade following of devoted locals.
That’s not the same thing as having Alta-grade skiing (who does besides Snowbird)? But consider this: across the street lies The Highlands, the Boyne-owned runner formerly known as Boyne Highlands. The Highlands is larger than Nub’s. It has one high-speed lift and is dropping in another next year – a six-pack so fancy that it makes the iPhone 14 look like a block of aged Roquefort. Highlands’ season pass costs a bit more than Nub’s, but it comes with days at Big Sky, which is like buying a microwave and getting a free car as a thank-you gift.
None of it matters. Well, it probably matters to some people. But Nub’s is the opposite of the endangered indie. It may be the best ski area under 500 vertical feet in the country: a big, sprawling trail layout; numerous and redundant lifts; grooming that makes an Olympic skating rink look like a Tough Mudder course; glades everywhere; and, like any Midwest ski area with a stocked trophy cabinet, an absolute flamethrower of a terrain park. Nub’s is that lost treasure of Midwest skiing, rare as a 200-grade Boone-and-Crockett trophy buck: the balanced mountain. Grooming, yes, of all kinds, but bumps always on Twilight Zone, and maybe also on Chute (like many Michigan ski areas, the runs stack side by side on the trailmap, creating half a dozen that you could tuck into Park City’s pumphouse). Several times per decade the ski area punches new glades into the forest. And since Nub’s has one of the world’s best snowmaking systems, supplemented with a reliable train of lake-effect and an ability to ninja-dodge freeze-thaw cycles, the whole mountain opens in the early season and often stays filled to the edges into April.
Bad people can ruin a great ski area, of course. I can stay salty for decades over unprovoked attitude from a liftie. But I’ve been skiing Nub’s Nob for as long as I’ve been skiing and I’ve never encountered anything other than an Extreme Welcome. The lifties chitter-chatter as you load and Patrol lets you ski where you please and the bartenders are tolerant of pitchers ordered in bulk at 11 a.m.
My first day at Nub’s was one of the weirdest ski days of my life. It was my sixth day ever on skis and I was geared up in sweatpants and a discount-superstore winter coat of the sort that rips when you yank the zipper open too sternly. We arrived in the snowslammed evening with tennis ball-sized flakes drifting in the wind. I did not have goggles of course and scoffed at the notion. At age 17 I had lived all my life in snowy climes and had never once needed such decorative nonsense. In a catastrophic freefall down Valley or perhaps it was Scarface I understood at last that storm-skiing sans goggles was like swimming without water: painful and really quite impossible. In the baselodge I purchased the least-expensive pair of goggles I could find, which I believe cost $25, an astonishing sum for a bagboy earning $4.50 an hour at the local Meijer superstore.
Nub’s excused the error. The upside of place-based defeat is the clear path to redemption. In all phases of my ski life I have returned to Nub’s and it has always had something useful to say, something I couldn’t exactly find anywhere else. I still can’t, and I needed to poke around in the machine a bit to try and decode the trance.
What we talked about
When snowmaking starts at Nub’s Nob; the mountain’s earliest and latest openings ever; “bottom line, the ski industry in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan doesn’t exist without snowmaking”; why freeze-thaw isn’t really a thing for Nub’s; “if you can open, you should open”; the path from $8.25-an-hour rental tech to general manager; Marquette Mountain; Nub’s incredible seasonal employee retention rate; Jim Bartlett, the ski area’s legendary general manager; not breaking a good thing; becoming the boss of the people who taught you everything you know; how Nub’s Nob got its name; whether Nub’s will stay independent over the long term; “where skiers go”; going deep on the Green lift upgrade: why it won’t be a high-speed lift, when it’s coming, and whether it will be green; whether the ski area considered wiping out the front-side lifts in favor of a six-pack; the tug-of-war between Fixed-Grip Bro and Detach Bro; why Orange won’t be a high-speed lift either; comparing a modern fixed-grip Skytrac chair to a 1978 Riblet lift; why the new lift won’t have a carpet load; why lifties need to talk to skiers; the installation and maintenance cost of a fixed-grip versus a high-speed lift; why the new lift will be the same length but occupy a smaller footprint; whether the new lift will load and unload at the same spots as the current Green lift; whether Nub’s will sell the chairs; the Blue chair Killer; why the Blue lift isn’t coming back; the power of the ropetow and where we could see more on Nub’s; long-term plans for the Purple and Orange lifts; “there’s something special about riding a double chairlift”; regional differences in safety-bar culture; “I’d like to have a super-modern lift fleet”; whether a lift from the bottom of Pintail Peak to the top of Nub’s Nob South would make sense; how Nub’s continues to develop new terrain on essentially the same footprint; how to access Nub’s endless glade stash; why Arena and Tower glades don’t continue farther skier’s left along their respective ridges; the glades always open in Northern Michigan; Nub’s last big expansion opportunity and what kind of terrain sits in there; keeping the parks rad Brah; the return of the halfpipe; why Nub’s doesn’t build earthwork features; the importance of night-skiing; considering lights on Pintail Peak; the history and secrets behind the Nub’s Nob snowgun; “you can fix everything with a pipe wrench” and why the ski area is happy with a low-tech snowgun arsenal; long-live the metal wicket ticket; “we always think of technology as making our lives better, but sometimes, it’s making our lives worse”; the competitive and cooperative dynamic between Nub’s Nob and The Highlands, which sit across the street from one another; why Nub’s finally joined the Indy Pass; the ski-industry problem that Indy Pass is solving; why Nub’s is rolling with 32 Indy Base Pass blackouts; looking out for the little ski areas down the street; and how much it hurt to finally push Nub’s peak-day lift-ticket prices over $100.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
A lot of pretty obvious reasons: the new Green Chair, the resort’s decision to at last join the Indy Pass, the obvious example of another thriving indie belying the whole Megapass-Killbot theory. But we booked this pod in May, weeks before the Indy announcement (which I knew was coming), and the chairlift upgrade (which I didn’t). The simple fact is that I’d had Nub’s Nob on my interview-the-GM list since Storm day one, and I finally reached out and we set everything up pretty quickly.
This is a good time, however, to restate something that’s core to this whole operation: this podcast is for everyone. And by “everyone,” I mean every ski area of any size. If it has a lift, I’m interested. For now, that means the United States, but I will fold Canada in soon enough. That will probably remain the focus over the long-term, but if you are running a ski area of any size anywhere on Planet Earth*, consider yourself relevant to The Storm Skiing Podcast.
But from a practical, logistical point of view, I have tried very hard to balance the podcast across regions. This does not mean that I will guarantee an equal ratio of Western, Midwestern, and Northeast interviews (I haven’t quite gotten to the Southeast yet; I will soon, but there are only a couple dozen ski areas down there, so pods focused in the southern states will likely always be infrequent). But I will promise a consistent flow of Midwest pods. It’s where I came from, where I learned to ski, and it’s one of the world’s greatest and most vital ski regions.
When the season’s ski mags would drop each August in my early ski years, I would flip through slowly, hopefully, for any nugget of writing on Midwest ski areas. It was like searching for ice cream at a hardware store. No one cared. If a ski magazine was 200 pages, the West got 195, the East got five, and the Midwest got mentioned whenever a writer noted that Big Sky was owned by the same outfit that owned Boyne Mountain. It was a different, internet-less world, of course, but I am now in a position to create the sort of immersive ski area profiles that Teen Stu longed to see about my local bumps. These will keep landing in your inbox as long as The Storm does.
You can view all past and future Storm Skiing Podcasts by clicking through below:
*I will also consider ski areas on other planets.
What I got wrong
The opening day of Michigan’s deer-hunting season is a big deal. Like day-off-from-school big deal. And I don’t mean parents pull their kids out while the non-hunters press on. I mean every Nov. 15 is a school holiday like Thanksgiving or Labor Day or Christmas. Our morning announcements each fall would warn us to watch out for sugarbeets – an enormous root crop stacked in clearings to bait deer – that had bounced off transport trucks on M-30. No one is ever walking around Northern Michigan like, “Hey does anyone know when deer-hunting season fires up around here?”
So, during a discussion about Nub’s previous years’ opening dates, I told Doornbos that it was pretty bold of him to open on the first day of deer-hunting season, after I thought he’d referenced a recent Nov. 15 opening. Doornbos rolled with it, but I realized while editing the pod that he had actually said Nov. 16. Oops.
Why you should ski Nub’s Nob
Michigan has 39 active ski areas, according to the National Ski Areas Association. This is the second-most of any state, behind New York, which sports 52. About two-thirds of Michigan’s ski areas sit in the Lower Peninsula. This is a useful distinction: Lower Peninsula skiers rarely hit the Upper Peninsula (UP), and UP skiers rarely ski below the Mackinaw Bridge. Geography explains this disconnect: the UP’s ski areas are mostly bunched in its western portion, far closer to Wisconsin than the population centers of Michigan. Marquette Mountain, the closest non-ropetow bump, is seven hours from Detroit airport, but fewer than five hours from Milwaukee. In that time, Southeast Michigan skiers can be at Keystone (with help from an airplane).
That’s all background. What I’m getting to is that the Lower Peninsula only has a half dozen or so well-equipped, substantially built-out ski areas with respectable vertical drops (relative to their neigboring hills): Nub’s Nob, Caberfae, Crystal, Shanty Creek, Boyne Mountain, and The Highlands. Otsego Club, a longtime private joint, recently opened to the public, but its infrastructure is a bit creaky. So if you’re planning a best-of-Michigan tour, these are the six to hit.
But if you only have one day to ski Michigan before an asteroid crashes into the planet and wipes out life as we know it, pick Nub’s. I’m not sure that it has the best terrain of those six – Highlands, I think, is equal in its sprawling videogame-ish dimensions. Nub’s isn’t the steepest – Boyne Mountain has the most consistent pitch along its extended main ridge. Nub’s is probably also the least-resort-ish of the six, with little onsite lodging. But, like Caberfae, another family-owned bump that is on a constant crusade to enhance the skiing, Nub’s is defined less by what I can easily point to and more by what’s hard to describe. By that thing called atmosphere, a sort of sense of place that collectively descends upon all who ski there. It’s not a thing you can order, like a lift, or something you can streamline, like parking. It’s just something that is. You’ll have to go and see for yourself.
I make the point several times that Nub’s Nob is constantly upgrading. The ski area has collated an excellent timeline, starting with the ski area’s 1957 founding. Skim this page and Nub’s decades-long commitment to constant, mostly subtle but always impactful improvement is obvious. I wish all ski areas would create something like this.
A 2016 obituary for longtime owner Walter Fisher, who bought Nub’s Nob from founder Dorie Sarnes in 1977 and owned it until he passed away (his family continues to own the ski area). An excerpt:
Jim Bartlett — who joined Nub's that same year and now serves as its general manager — noted that the ski area has added significantly to its amenities since then, expanding from about a dozen runs to 53.
“The business has grown almost continuously since Walter bought it in 1977,” said Bartlett, who described Fisher as “absolutely one of the most sincere, thoughtful, kind, classy men I've ever met.” …
With neighboring Boyne Highlands Resort establishing itself as a ski area with extensive on-site lodging, Bartlett said Walter Fisher decided early in his Nub's involvement to pursue another niche — wanting the property to become "the best day ski area in the Midwest."
Nub's would phase out its own limited lodging options so it could channel resources toward skiing amenities, grooming and snowmaking operations and food and beverage options. The ski area's offerings have since achieved regional and national recognition on numerous occasions.
Doornbos and I also talked extensively about Bartlett, who served as general manager from 1987 until handing the job off to Doornbos in 2017. An excerpt from this excellent profile by Kate Bassett:
General Manager of Nub’s Nob, Jim Bartlett, is a guy who has earned a nationwide reputation as a leader and champion of the old-school-cool Harbor Springs ski resort. But that’s not the reason Jim Bartlett is a person whose story is worth telling.
He’s on top of the hill. He’s at the bottom of the hill. He’s in the maintenance garage. He’s in the cafeteria. He’s at a chairlift on-ramp. He’s in the rental area. He’s in the parking lot. He’s everywhere. He’s Nub’s Nob’s JB. …
In his tenure at Nub’s Nob, first as area manager and then as general manager, following the death of his mentor, legendary snow maker Jim Dilworth, Bartlett has turned 14 runs into 53, four chairlifts into nine, 15 patented snowmaking guns into 292, plus added a Pintail Peak Lodge, new locker room and so much more. The most impressive part? He’s done it without sacrificing Nub’s signature vibe, best described as a home away from home.
Bartlett’s an expert in snow making techniques. A public relations superstar. A guy who understands the importance of blending tradition with new technology. He’s even learned how to make peace with the Midwest’s occasionally uncooperative winter weather. In short, he’s like a walking, talking master’s class of how to run a resort that’s focused 100 percent on skiing and riding.
We go deep on the Green lift upgrade, which Doornbos announced in an excellent video last month:
Nub’s Nob is The Storm’s fourth podcast focused explicitly on a Michigan ski area - I’ve also featured The Highlands, Boyne Mountain, and Caberfae:
I should have another Michigan episode coming next week - and it’s a good one. Listen to the end of the pod to find out who.
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