Feb 18 • 1HR 1M

Podcast #74: The Highlands at Harbor Springs (Formerly Boyne Highlands) President & GM Mike Chumbler

Behind this Northern Michigan resort's transformational 2030 journey

Stuart Winchester
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Everyone’s searching for skiing’s soul. I’m trying to find its brains.
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Who

Mike Chumbler, President and General Manager of The Highlands at Harbor Springs (formerly Boyne Highlands), Michigan

Chumbler. Photo courtesy of The Highlands at Harbor Springs.

Recorded on

January 24, 2022

Why I interviewed him

Despite the widespread skier habit of using “ski area,” “mountain,” and “ski resort” interchangeably, each of these descriptors has very distinct connotations. The Midwest has a lot of ski areas – 90 between Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin alone, according to the National Ski Areas Association. It has exactly one actual mountain – Mount Bohemia, 900 vertical feet of cliffs and glades spiraling off the northernmost tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But the region has very few true ski resorts – a place where one can expect lodging, dining, and an experience beyond lifts and turns. In fact, the Midwest’s one mountain is not even a resort – there’s not much at Bohemia beyond some yurts and a hot tub the size of Lake Michigan. And neither are most of the Midwest’s other ski areas. The average Midwest ski area has 10 chairlifts serving 10 runs on 200 vertical feet next to a K-Mart. If these are ski resorts, then the Playschool slide my 5-year-old keeps in our backyard is Disney World.

It’s all very confusing. Beaming in from east or west, it can be hard to discern the differences between 500-foot bumps. How could one be so much different from another? How could any actually rise to the status of ski resort?

Well, here’s Exhibit A of a true Midwestern ski resort, The Highlands at Harbor Springs:

You won’t probably understand it until you get on the ground and ski, but the place rambles. That Interconnect lift is far longer than it appears on the map – a trick of aspect employed to spare our eyes the dead space. Riding up and over the knolls between the North Face and the main ski area is a delightful journey, one that seems to transport you to a different ski area altogether. You can spend the afternoon there, amble back. The main face is all skiable from the Heather Express, but there are plenty of hidden nooks, little glades, trails snaking through the trees. Highlands skis like an easy videogame, one where you’re unlikely to get eaten by a dragon but will probably find a secret stash of gems or a fire shield hidden in a forest. The ski area maintains a strong variety of terrain parks, with plenty of just-boosty enough mini-features for the non-radsters that want to ride with me. Taken together, these characteristics mute the 550-foot vertical drop. It may not be what you expect out of a ski resort, but it’s enough, it turns out, to make one anyway.

And, this being Boyne, everything is well run. The grooming is unreasonably good, even following the nastiest refreezes. The lift fleet is older than color television, but they all seem to run fine – and most of them will be gone within the decade. Beyond the hill, there’s plenty of lodging and plenty to do. As you know, I care about nothing except the skiing, so I’ll let you explore that for yourself, but this is a true ski resort in a region of ski areas, and without the true, geographically defined mountain that typically acts as the foundation of the resort experience.

This is the largest ski area in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, a frozen-solid ski-mad region that will take what it can get. When I began skiing as a teenager, I worked my way up to The Highlands, wanting to save the biggest experience for last. I’m glad I did. Arriving on a sub-zero January day in 1996, the place felt like the Midwest bigtime, like something I was finally ready for. Twenty-five years later, The Highlands is about to join its sister resort, Boyne Mountain, in the statement-making business of showcasing for the ski world just how outsized a Midwest ski experience can be. I wanted to lock into the folks making this happen right from the outset, to grab us all a front-row seat to the coming transformation.

What we talked about

Chumbler’s evolution from golf intern to head of The Highlands whole ski and golf operation; the importance of golf to Boyne’s North American empire; The Highlands 2030 transformation plan; why the ski area changed its name from “Boyne Highlands” to “The Highlands at Harbor Springs”; the endless process of changing a ski-area name; the transition to RFID and whether we could ever see gates beyond the Heather Express; future snowmaking upgrades; Boyne’s VP of Snow surface and Design; which lifts the resort intends to upgrade first; how long it will take to upgrade or replace every lift on the mountain; whether the ski area will replace Heather, their newest lift; How The Highlands keeps its fleet of seven Riblets safe; which two Highlands lifts received new haulropes last summer; whether Highlands plans to replace Valley, the world’s first triple chair; where we could see potential trail expansions; why The Highlands began glading trails in the ‘90s and where we may see future tree runs; reflections on four years of the Ikon Pass; the popularity of Boyne’s gold pass sister resort benefits with season passholders; the relationship between Nub’s Nob and The Highlands and whether the two have ever discussed a joint ski pass; why Highlands typically wraps its season up several weeks prior to sister resort Boyne Mountain; thoughts on ski season number three of dealing with Covid; and why Highlands hasn’t struggled with the labor shortage striking the rest of the ski industry.     

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

When The Highlands 2030 transformational journey plan dropped in December, I was a little disappointed. The only concrete ski-related move was a questionable resort name change and a pre-announced move to RFID lift tickets. I was hoping for another eight-pack to follow similar recent announcements at Boyne’s Sunday River and Boyne Mountain. Or maybe a terrain expansion, or at least some concrete initial steps to begin upgrading The Highlands’ 900-year-old Riblet lift fleet.

The Highlands is a rare thing in the Midwest: a ski area that is also a ski resort. Photo courtesy of The Highlands at Harbor Springs.

Instead there was a string of photos of spas and golf courses and hotel rooms. I understand that people like these things, but since I’m rather adamant about not being vacuumed into ski areas’ ancillary business ventures, I figured the best way to dig into the skiing parts of the plan was to get Mike on the phone and talk through it. It was the right move, and Chumbler – a golf guy in his heart – did a nice job outlining the resort’s snow-season lifts-and-turns future.

Why you should ski The Highlands at Harbor Springs

The Highlands is tucked into one of the most interesting corners of Michigan skiing. It sits less than eight miles off Lake Michigan, a bullseye in the hundreds-of-miles-long north-south snowbelt that cranks out an average of 140 inches per season. It’s the rare Michigan ski area that sits right next door to another Michigan ski area – independent and beloved Nub’s Nob. The resorts are not connected, but their proximity creates the sense of being part of a vast Midwest ski circus, a combined 18 chairlifts and 106 runs sprawling over 683 acres. If you want to understand Michigan skiing, spent a long weekend bouncing between these two. You’ll have a hard time having a bad time, and you’ll understand how a region that would seem to be naturally unsuited to host something so grandiose as a ski resort can do a pretty good job with it after all.

Skiers ascending the Heather Express, The Highlands only high-speed lift. You can see Nub’s Nob rising across the road in the background. Photo courtesy of The Highlands at Harbor Springs.

Thoughts on the name change

As soon as I noticed the parallel, I was obsessed. As a pre-internet teenager attempting to paste together the world of lift-served skiing via 10-year-old library books and tourism pamphlets and ski magazines and the White Book of Ski Areas, I discovered Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands, a pair of 3,000-plus footers puncturing the Colorado sky over that rough-and-tumble mining town. The whole thing was so evocative, so burnished with the patina of high adventure and bottomless snow in the American West, that I was desperate for some mirror in my Midwest-bound existence. I found it with Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands, the two Michigan big-timers whose names rhymed, spiritually, with those Western titans. Boyne is our Aspen, I thought. As a trick to promote the world around me into something it could never be, it actually worked fairly well. I would ski the Michigan big-time. And for years, that’s exactly how I framed it.

Eventually I did ski Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands, and yeah those are not the same thing as Boyne’s Michigan bumps. But I continued to like the Boyne names anyway, as a subtle but ever-present reminder that the company had played the unlikely trick of turning small into big. Vail started with Vail and eventually bought its Midwest bumps. Boyne channeled the success of its Michigan mountains (and its scenic chairlift in Gatlinburg, Tennessee), into the purchase of flagship mountains all over the United States, most prominently Big Sky. Vail doesn’t own this. Neither does Alterra or Powdr Corp. Boyne, Michigan proud and the name still dripping from the masthead, is the steward of one of North America’s most audacious ski hills.

Well that’s gone now, at least from The Highlands. “You’re reaching, Bro,” a reader might say, and I don’t disagree. Still, I liked the old name: Boyne Highlands. Simple and direct, an indication that you could expect the same quality as you’d find at Boyne Mountain, but with some differences that make Highlands its own unique brand. It was implied rather than said overtly, but in today’s stimuli-riddled landscape, perhaps that wasn’t enough.

So it’s gone. More irksome, though, is the long addendum, “at Harbor Springs.” It’s just so much for a ski area name.

“Where are you going skiing this weekend, Bro?”

“The Highlands at Harbor Springs.”

“Whoa dude, I asked where you were skiing, not for your life’s story.”

There are plenty of terrible names in skiing. Many of them evolve from this urge to meet at the nexus of brand and geography. Pennsylvania’s Ski Big Bear at Masthope Mountain is among the worst of these. Sierra-at-Tahoe is another. The similarly named Northstar-at-Tahoe thankfully changed its name to simply “Northstar” (thank Vail for that one), 10 years back.

Ski areas should have simple, evocative names. Jackson Hole. Alta. Snowbird. Vail. Stowe. Sugarbush. Ragged. Black. Thunder Ridge. Plattekill. Bristol. Powderhorn. Sunlight. The only three-word ski name I’ll allow is Mad River Glen because, well, it’s the legend, and it’s a damn good name.

Boyne should have stopped the renaming project at “The Highlands.” That’s short. It’s cool. It evokes pastures and adventure and exploration. I still dislike that they ejected “Boyne” from the name, but I can live with it. The “at Harbor Springs” needs to go. It sounds like a parody-movie mega-project proposed by the evil developer, Ratkin VonSwellington IV, who is using eminent domain to level the Goonies neighborhood and built an exclusive country club for his Faberge-egg collecting pals. Or it sounds like a neighborhood of McMansions in exurban Atlanta. Or like a yacht club where the membership dues are paid in the form of ivory.

Well, too late for all that. Changing out the name is going to be an obscenely involved project, and one Boyne is unlikely to backtrack on. Oh well, at least they’ll still have this bomber grooming:

More Highlands at Harbor Springs

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of The Highlands at Harbor Springs lift fleet

  • Historic Highlands at Harbor Springs trailmaps on skimap.org - they go as far back as 1963:

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