Podcast #50: Caberfae Peaks, Michigan Co-Owner & GM Tim Meyer

How the Meyer family transformed a two-mile-wide sprawl of ropetows and T-bars into one of the Midwest's best ski areas

  
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Who

Tim Meyer, Co-Owner and General Manager of Mountain Operations at Caberfae Peaks, Michigan

Recorded on

July 21, 2021

Why I interviewed him

In the part of my brain warehousing ski memories there are days and places that live forever. Many of those days are at Caberfae. When I first pulled up to the base area as a novice skier trained poorly at the single-lift bumps downstate I stood in dumbstruck awe of the place, its teeming peaks and lift network sprawling off into the woods. A dozen tumbling freefalls did not discourage me from its charms. Caberfae stood just 90 minutes from my house and I became a regular, returning on swirling weekends and quiet spring weeknights when I lapped empty chairs in long March sunsets after school. I moved away from Michigan long ago, but if I’m there in the winter Caberfae is the first place I go.

It is a special place, quintessentially Midwestern and unusually aggressive in its deliberate decades-long evolution. Opened in the 1930s, the complex grew by the 1970s into what Chris Diamond described in his book Ski Inc. 2020 as “a sprawling series of hills served by 20-plus rope tows, five T-Bars and a chairlift, spanning some two miles from end-to-end.” A 1966 copy of America’s Ski Book describes Caberfae as being equipped with “six T-bars and sixteen rope tows on 270 vertical feet.” Here is the 1980 trailmap, which looks like it was spun out of the ditto machines that stamped out my early grade-school classwork sheets:

Today, nearly everything on that trailmap has been permanently abandoned. In what Diamond calls “the most successful ‘ski-resort contraction’ in history,” Caberfae moved tons of earth from the bottom of two peaks to the top, boosting its vertical drop from 270 to 485 feet. “Their vertical expansion of two central peaks was accompanied by a horizontal contraction from the far-flung borders and the closing of a dozen-plus lifts, which they could never adequately cover with snowmaking,” Diamond writes. By the early 2000s, when Tim Meyer and his cousin Pete inherited the operation from their fathers, who’d had the vision to transform it, Caberfae looked like this:

For context, the Shelter run far skier’s right on the 2004 map sits between the two chairlifts on the 1980 map. But they weren’t done yet. Today, Caberfae looks like this:

The backcountry terrain, which is ungroomed and open only when natural snow allows, brought some of the old Caberfae back into the active resort footprint. They’re far from done: in the podcast, we talk about a massive project that will add a new lift and a third peak for the 2022-23 season, future development of the Backcountry, and more. “We try to do a little bit each year,” Meyer tells me in the podcast.

I’ve been waiting 25 years to have this conversation. Caberfae may be the most constantly evolving ski resort in America. It’s like a mansion that the owners can’t stop renovating. How we went from a ropetow kingdom bereft of snowmaking to a modern resort forged out of vision, willpower, patience, grit, and determination that, four decades after the family acquired it, is still a work-in-progress, was a story I’d been waiting my entire skiing life to hear.

What we talked about

The glory of the wild ropetow-laced and low-rise Caberfae of the early 1980s; lift relics still in the woods; why that terrain was abandoned and why it’s likely gone forever; growing up on the slopes of Caberfae and why Meyer lit out for Winter Park, Colorado - and what finally drew him back; running a ski area as a multi-generational family business; the kind of place where you’ll find the owner roaming the grounds in snowboots and clutching a walkie-talkie; who had the vision to transform Caberfae from an antique into a modern ski area; the incredible engineering feat of building two artificial peaks from Michigan clay and sand; improvisational construction; how the mountain stabilized the peaks; how building South Peak in the 1980s stabilized the business; the nearly 40-year-old South Peak triple is here to stay; why the ski area has changed the grade of select runs over the years; developing North Peak; why the ski area added a new triple to North Peak in 2016 and why it left the adjacent quad in service; the virtues of triple chairs; whether the ski area ever considered a six-pack for North Peak; the quirky I-75 run; why the ski area put a fence up between Smiling Irishman and Canyon; why the mountain re-opened part of the old Caberfae as an ungroomed natural-snow area; the old T-bar line hidden like a secret videogame level in the woods; the potential for chairlifts or terrain expansion in the Backcountry; why the ski area leaves its woods intact; the two retired Hall chairlifts sitting at the base of the ski area and whether they could ever come back into service, possibly as a single lift; the timeline for the third peak, what it will be called, and what kind of lift it will have; which lift is coming down to accommodate the expansion; the return of Bo Buck; the sentimental anguish of tearing the last ropetow out of the former king of the ropetows; why it could return one day; renovations on the Skyview Day Lodge; crockpots in the day lodge: “if you live in Michigan, you should have the opportunity to ski”; why Caberfae has never focused on terrain parks; going from almost zero snowmaking in the early 1980s to a modern fleet; why the mountain doesn’t push for the late spring close; how Caberfae went from selling seven golf season passes to nearly 400 and how they applied the philosophy to the $99 discounted ski season weekend or weekday pass; how that turbocharged the business; why the mountain raised the pass price to $149 last year after more than a decade at $99; the Indy Pass; why season passholders have to pick up a new metal wicket ticket each time they arrive at the ski area; the ski area’s unique lift ticket designs; why metal wickets are probably part of Caberfae indefinitely; the ski area’s colorful trailmap and when they’ll introduce a new one; why the ski area continued its relationship with Liftopia/Catalate after its troubles last year; how the 2020-21 Covid season went at Caberfae; and Covid adaptations that may stick around for future seasons.

From the air, it’s easier to see how Caberfae has been scultped over the decades. Strategically placed trees make the place ski bigger than it looks. Photo courtesy of Indy Pass and Caberfae Peaks.

Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview

I actually thought February 2020 was a great time for this interview, and that’s when we initially recorded it. But the audio was compromised, filled with a conversation-from-space crackle that I couldn’t scrub out. The Storm Skiing Podcast was just four months old at the time, and I hadn’t perfected the harder-than-you’d-think art of recording a two-way conversation. I kept thinking I could resolve the issue and delayed posting. Then Covid hit. By the time I’d admitted defeat, skiing seemed small and ski area operators were preoccupied with survival. By the time the 2020-21 season came around, I was embarrassed to go back to Meyer to ask him to re-do a thing he had already done. Finally, a couple weeks ago, I fired off a bashful email asking if I could have another hour of his time. Tim graciously and immediately agreed. This has been an eternal to-do list item and it is liberating to cross it off.

Why you should ski Caberfae

Caberfae was an inaugural Indy Pass partner in the Midwest, a family-owned, family-centric Up North ski area where crockpots line the baselodge ledges and the lifties are not temp workers trucked in from the hinterlands but locals who return to their posts year after year. The place is absolute joy, no pretense, no arrogance, as down-home as Up North gets. As Meyer says in the podcast, their market is the recreational skier. That’s another way of saying it’s mostly absent of hotshots and speedsters and flippidy-doo parksters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is a crowd that just loves skiing for the motion and the thrill of it, for the sensation of downhill freefall. I’ve never been to a happier ski area.

The terrain is unique for the Midwest. The artificial hills create a sensation of above-treeline skiing that is otherwise absent between Sugarloaf and Loveland. At the same time, Caberfae has eschewed the Midwest urge to clear-cut its small hills to accommodate the downhill masses – trails thread through the forest on the lower mountain, especially on North Peak and off the Shelter Chair, and the wall of trees segregating the baselodge from the slopes create a sensation of rambling bigness unusual for the Lower Peninsula. Plus, wicket tickets:

There’s one more thing. Crossing into Michigan by land invariably takes you past signs welcoming you to “Pure Michigan.” The 13-year-old slogan extolls the state’s vast forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, but it has been commandeered by prideful Michiganders to evoke the tireless community DIY spirit of the people themselves. When I arrived in Manhattan nearly 20 years ago, the most difficult cultural adjustment was how reliant average New Yorkers were on paid labor for even mundane tasks. No one in Michigan – at least the community I grew up in in Michigan – pays anyone to do anything they can do themselves. Ever. The concept of hiring movers, for example, still confounds me, and I moved myself – at great hassle but little expense - at least 10 times within Manhattan before settling in Brooklyn five years ago.

My point here is that Meyer and his family are Pure Michigan in that sense. When I say they engineered the most dramatic transformation of a lift-served ski area in the history of U.S. skiing over the course of four decades, I mean they engineered it. They drove the heavy equipment and they transformed glacial bumps into above-treeline peaks one shovel-load at a time and they cut the trees and reshaped the land and made the improbable inevitable. When I met Meyer on the slopes of Caberfae, he was walking across the base area in a snowsuit, carrying a crackling walkie-talkie. And you can tell in this interview, by the way he describes his sense of duty to the ski area and to his family, and maintains a crockpot-friendly Caberfae with ticket prices almost anyone can afford, that this guy and the people around him are Pure Michigan in the most elemental way.

The Shelter Double is a 1967 Hall. Caberfae plans to replace the short lift with a brand-new Doppelmayr triple serving a new peak for the 2022-23 ski season, dramatically improving the experience of getting out of the base area. The old Hall will go into storage along with two others of the same vintage, possibly to be re-purposed at a later date.

Additional resources

This 1949 trailmap distills the zany rambling chaos that once defined Caberfae and continues to animate its spirit:

Even those intimately familiar with the modern Caberfae will have a hard time deciphering what they’re looking at in this 72-year-old depiction of the ski area.

A few more items of interest:

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of Caberfae lifts

  • More classic Caberfae trailmaps

  • Chris Diamond’s Ski Inc 2020 has a wonderful write-up of Caberfae (pgs. 128-132). The book is worth a full and repeated read for anyone interested in the modern lift-served skiing landscape.

  • I wrote this story about a 5-year-old who hitched a ride on the Shelter Double with me a couple years ago.

  • Another essay, this one documenting my inaugural ski season rambling over the Michigan flatlands as a teenager:

I have no photographs documenting that season. Not one. But I remember the sequence of days perfectly, the huge snowy canvas of Up North rolling out before me as I traversed the supergrid of state highways and interstates, one by one ticking off the lift-served areas that we all presumptuously called mountains but were barely hills, the largest of them 550 vertical feet from top to bottom.

To me they may as well have been Vail. After a return to single-chairlift Snow Snake, I stood in dumbfounded amazement at the base of Caberfae, four or five chairlifts sprawling across its two humped peaks poking like a giant snowy camel from the flatlands outside of Cadillac. I descended them like an inept paratrooper dropped at velocity over a decline, my gear twirling apart from me in acrobatic freefall with each concussive wipeout.