Podcast #52: Lutsen Mountains Co-President/Co-Owner & Granite Peak Owner Charles Skinner

These Midwest giants are nowhere near done growing

  
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Who

Charles Skinner, Co-President and co-owner of Lutsen Mountains, Minnesota; and President and owner of Granite Peak, Wisconsin

Recorded on

August 30, 2021

Why I interviewed him

Because my God, these mountains:

They are improbable enough in the Midwest that few have had the audacity to even imagine ski areas of this size and variety. Enormous and interesting places, cut with endless glades and high-speed lift systems sparkling like some Sim City fantasy of what a built-from-scratch ski area could be.

But Lutsen and Granite Peak are not what could be. They are what is: two of the best ski resorts in the Midwest. And there was nothing inevitable about that. This is what Granite Peak looked like in 1996, four years before Skinner took over:

The ski area was “tired and old,” Skinner told me in the podcast. “It was like starting a whole new ski area.” Indeed, driven by his willingness to invest and his commitment to crafting mountains that are actually interesting to ski, Granite Peak is now one of the most up-to-date ski areas in the country.

Skinner has vision. Many people do. But what makes him special is the tenacity, creativity, and organization to actually construct something tangible. Big, wild ski areas where they have no business being. I wanted to understand how he did it and what was happening next.

What we talked about

The legacy of Skinner’s late father, Charles Skinner III, the founder of Sugar Hills, Minnesota and onetime GM of Sugarloaf and owner of Lutsen; skiing Minnesota as a child in the ‘60s; Lutsen in 1980; why the ski area installed the Midwest’s only gondola and why it makes sense even though it only rises 300 vertical feet; where that original gondola came from; what happened to Sugar Hills; how Skinner acquired the ski area from his father in the early ‘90s; how glades finally landed in the Midwest and the importance of a balanced mountain; bringing Mystery Mountain back from the dead; why Lutsen expanded onto the North Face; why Lutsen advertises a 1,088-foot vertical drop but only an 825-foot lift-served vertical drop; the gondola and Moose Mountain six-pack upgrades; which Lutsen lifts may be next in line for upgrades and what kind of lifts we may see; Lutsen’s mammoth expansion plan; what to expect out of the mass of new trails, glades, and lifts on Moose Mountain; creating an expansive beginner pod off of Eagle Mountain; the virtues of green-circle glades; how new baselodges would fix the mountain’s remote-parking problem; the advantages of drawing your snowmaking water from the largest body of fresh water on planet Earth; a potential timeline for the expansion and which parts of the project they would build first; why Skinner passed on Granite Peak the first time it came up for sale and what finally sold him on it; the “tired” and run-down Granite Peak of 2000 and how the ski area evolved into one of the Midwest’s largest and best ski complexes; Granite Peak’s huge expansion ambitions, including visions for new trails, chairs, and lodges; what may replace the Blitzen lift; why the mountain may build a mountain bike-only pod; why this expansion proposal is different from the one that fizzled half a decade ago; a potential expansion timeline and what may come first; the joint Lutsen-Granite Peak pass; why the two mountains joined the Indy Pass and why they added so many blackouts this season; the M.A.X. Pass and why Granite Peak and Lutsen didn’t join the Ikon Pass; why no one understands the Midwest; why Skinner considers his true competition to be Western destination resorts; whether he would ever buy another ski area; and whether the mountains will continue to be family-owned.

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

Because as big and built-out as they are, neither ski area is even close to finished. Both Granite Peak and Lutsen are working on expansion plans that would essentially double their trail footprints. Granite Peak would add four new pods of much-needed beginner and intermediate terrain to the east and west sides of existing trails. Most of the new lifts, Skinner told me, would be detachables:

Three new pods would sit to the left of the existing trails in the image, and one would sit to the right. The dotted line off the backside of the mountain would be a mountain bike-only lift. View a larger version here.

Lutsen would cut trails and glades along the rest of Moose Mountain and drop a large beginner pod off the back of Eagle Mountain. Lutsen’s lift network isn’t the Jetsonian marvel that Granite Peak’s is, but it would see substantial upgrades:

The main part of the trail network expansion would be skier’s right of the existing runs on Moose Mountain. Lutsen plans to glade nearly everything between the marked trails.

These are two of the most transformative expansion projects underway in American skiing – and they are happening at what are already some of the most well-cared-for and thoughtfully developed and updated mountains in the Midwest. I wanted to see where Skinner was in these projects, when we could see the trails start to materialize out of the wilderness, and what it would take to nudge these plans into existence.

What I got wrong

In the intro, I identified Skinner as the chairman of the board of the Minnesota Ski Areas Association, a position he’s since resigned from. When we discussed Lutsen’s expansion, I was looking at an old version of the expansion plan – the current one, and the one Skinner refers to in the podcast, is embedded above. In prepping for this interview, I’d studied old trailmaps and concluded that Skinner had added Mystery Mountain shortly after taking ownership, but what he actually did was revive it from its grave – the pod had been taken off the trailmap for several years for the simple reason that the lift serving it was broken. A close inspection of archived maps reveals that Lutsen simple de-emphasized Mystery Mountain the 1993 trailmap (left), and, once they installed a new lift in 1994 (right), the peak reappeared:

Why you should ski there

Because these may be the best ski areas between Whiteface and Winter Park. Set the singular Mount Bohemia aside here – most people couldn’t ski that wild and remote slice of gladed freefall if they tried. Granite Peak and Lutsen are true everyone mountains. Families like them. Radbrahs like them. People who wish they were skiing out West like them. In a Midwest where half the ski areas are clear-cut hillsides with 18 lifts climbing 250 vertical feet on a 10-acre footprint, these feel like something transplanted from another region, sprawling and tree-lined, with lifts that (mostly) don’t feel like they were stapled together A-Team style from a World War II scrapyard. The Upper Midwest is one of the world’s great ski centers, cold and snowy and filled with the hearty and the adventurous. It deserves ski areas like Granite Peak and Lutsen, and if you’re anywhere near them, they need to be on your list.

Additional resources

Lutsen

Granite Peak

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