Podcast #68: Inter-Mtn. Enterprises President and CEO Leah Muirhead MacDonald
Company behind Berkshire East and Bousquet trailmaps builds all the ski-area stuff you never think about
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Leah Muirhead MacDonald, CEO of Inter-Mtn. Enterprises Inc.
December 20, 2021
Why I interviewed her
We take it all for granted: the enormous volume of fixtures, signage, and furniture that attends our lift-served ski day. Everyone notices the lifts, of course, the lodges and the various buildings dotting the landscape. Those are the hero items, the sorts of things that become part of a ski area’s identity and mythology. No one writes a press release announcing their purchase of new ski racks or lift-tower padding or trailsigns. But we need these things and in some cases governments require them. Enter Inter-Mtn. and its kin, skiing’s equivalent of Staples, churning out all the stuff everyone needs but no one thinks about. It’s a sprawling, interesting world, and one I’d always been mildly curious about.
But there is one extra dimension to Inter Mtn. that made it a particularly captivating subject: the company has been hand-painting ski-area trailmaps for the past two decades, an intricate and elaborate undertaking that has few true masters. It was this element that drew me to the company, especially once I learned they were the outfit behind this gorgeous trailmap for Berkshire East:
From the moment this map by Inter-Mtn. artist Eric Oyen debuted in 2018, I was captivated by it. It’s modern and familiar, yet distinct in style from the prolific James Niehues. I like the detail, the geography, the way it captures and distills the rambling essence of Berkshire’s gladed incline. This is a beloved mountain, a long-time locals’ favorite, a Vermont-ish slice of terrain with an unlikely Massachusetts address. It’s often very good and often empty, with more snow and more atmosphere than you’d expect. The map packages that for us, with the half-empty lot and the snowy landscape tapering down into the river and the humble lodge buildings peaking up the steep front slopes. Squeezing all that into a painting that also has to act as a practical guide is unlikely and unexpected, (and maybe I’m projecting a bit here), but Oyen crushed it. I wanted to find out how the company pulled this off, and find out which other ski areas they’d profiled in paint.
What we talked about
Inter-Mtn.’s origin story; the difference between destructive and non-destructive testing; how ski area’s find damage in chairlift haul ropes; where all those chairlift safety signs come from; how Covid re-arranged the sign game; deciding to join the family business and eventually buying it; the internet is a fad; how a BC native stays humble cold-calling Ontario bumps; “you don’t need vertical to make money”; helping the ski industry improve its opportunities for women; the company’s Creator of Stupid Ideas; what Inter Mtn. makes besides trailmaps; [burbling from my 5-year-old playing with a cat in the background]; the company’s territory; how a day skiing at Whistler birthed Inter-Mtn.’s Rake Advisory Committee; how the company creates new products; how ski-resort signs are like fast fashion and how to avoid that; selling quality and durability in a disposable world; passing the high-heel test; the company’s most-popular products; attempted product lines that didn’t work out; the size and scope of Inter-Mtn.’s industry; where the company makes its products; how the company organizes a factory that makes wildly diverse products; the most labor-intensive products; how natural disasters and general supply-chain issues have disrupted the company’s business; how the company broke into the trailmap game, with a design for Apex Mountain; the art and intricacy of creating a trailmap; why Berkshire East was a perfect philosophical fit for an Inter-Mtn. trailmap; the process of creating a trailmap, and how long it takes and how much it will cost you; capturing a ski-area’s essence in a painting; the visual tricks that bend a mountain so that it still resembles reality while being comprehensible to skiers; creating maps with future expansions in mind; thoughts of the slow decline of paper trailmaps; and thoughts on James Niehues stepping back from trailmap creation.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
As soon as I saw Bousquet’s new trailmap, I posted it to Twitter and Instagram:
Inter-Mtn. took notice of one of these posts and reached out to see if I’d be interested in interviewing Leah. And yes, I was – this is the best trailmap the Massachusetts bump has ever had – and it’s been in business since 1932 (it’s the eighth-oldest ski area in the country).
This is how the podcast often works – I do take pitches. I can’t interview everyone, but if it’s a good fit for my audience – meaning the subject matter is primarily about the world of lift-served skiing – I’ll gladly set up the conversation. If you’re reading this and you run a ski area of any size, anywhere, and you’d like to join me on the podcast, please reach out and we’ll make it happen.
What I got wrong
Well I started by mispronouncing my guest’s first and last names. I also said “paint of coat” instead of “coat of paint,” which is not important for any reason but is kind of hilarious.
During the interview, I referenced a Lift Blog story about a (possible) bullet striking a haul rope on a Vail Mountain lift. You can see the photos here.
I also promised listeners that I would post Inter-Mtn.’s old and new logos, so that they could help me search for them on the mountain: