Podcast #93: Perfect North Slopes, Indiana General Manager Jonathan M. Davis (with a Timberline, WV Bonus)
“The people of the Midwest are fiercely loyal”
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Jonathan M. Davis, General Manager of Perfect North, Indiana
June 20, 2022
About Perfect North
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: The Perfect Family
Pass affiliations: None
Located in: Lawrenceburg, Indiana
Closest neighboring ski areas: Mad River, Ohio (2 hours, 18 minutes); Paoli Peaks, Indiana (2 hours, 39 minutes); Snow Trails (3 hours)
Base elevation: 400 feet
Summit elevation: 800 feet
Vertical drop: 400 feet
Skiable Acres: 100
Average annual snowfall: 24 inches
Trail count: 22 (1 double-black, 3 black, 3 blue-black, 10 intermediate, 5 beginner)
Lift count: 12 (2 quads, 3 triples, 5 carpets, 2 ropetows - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Perfect North’s lift fleet)
About Timberline, West Virginia
While this podcast is not explicitly about Timberline, Jonathan had an important role in the ski area’s acquisition in 2019. His enthusiasm for Timberline is clear, the opportunity and the investment are enormous, and this conversation acts as a primer for what I hope will be a full Timberline podcast at some future point.
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: The Perfect Family
Pass affiliations: None
Located in: Davis, West Virginia
Closest neighboring ski areas: Canaan Valley (8 minutes); White Grass XC touring/backcountry center (11 minutes); Wisp, Maryland (1 hour, 15 minutes); Snowshoe, West Virginia (1 hour, 50 minutes); Bryce, Virginia (2 hours); Homestead, Virginia (2 hours); Massanutten, Virginia (2 hours, 21 minutes)
Base elevation: 3,268 feet
Summit elevation: 4,268 feet
Vertical drop: 1,000 feet
Skiable Acres: 100
Average annual snowfall: 150 inches
Trail count: 20 (2 double-black, 3 black, 5 intermediate, 10 beginner)
Lift count: 3 (1 high-speed six-pack, 1 fixed-grip quad, 1 carpet - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Timberline’s lift fleet)
Why I interviewed him
There are two kinds of ski areas in the Midwest. The first are the big ones, out there somewhere in the woods. Where 10,000 years ago a glacier got ornery. Or, farther back in time, little mountains hove up out of the earth. They’re at least 400 feet tall and top out near 1,000. They’re not near anything and they don’t need to be. People will drive to get there. Often they sit in a snowbelt, with glades and bumps and hidden parts. Multiple peaks. A big lodge at the bottom. There are perhaps two dozen of these in the entire region, all of them in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Boyne, Nub’s Nob, Crystal, Caberfae, Bohemia, Powderhorn, Whitecap, Granite Peak, Spirit, Lutsen. This is not a complete list. I’m making a point here.
The second kind of Midwest ski area is usually smaller. It claims 200 vertical feet and actually has 27. It has four chairlifts for every run. It has a parking lot that could swallow Lake George. It’s affordable. And it’s close. To something. Metro Detroit has four ski areas. Milwaukee has eight. Minneapolis has six. But pretty much any Lower Midwestern city of any size has at least one ski area in its orbit: Cleveland (Alpine Valley, Boston Mills, Brandywine), Columbus (Snow Trails, Mad River), St. Louis (Hidden Valley), Kansas City (Snow Creek), Des Moines (Seven Oaks), Chicago (Four Lakes, Villa Olivia), Omaha (Mt. Crescent).
For Cincinnati, that ski area is Perfect North. It’s actually one of the larger city-adjacent ski areas in the region: 400 vertical feet on 100 acres (accurate numbers, as far as I can tell). Twelve lifts. Twenty-two trails. Indiana has 6.7 million residents and two ski areas. Some winter days, approximately half of them are skiing at Perfect North.
I’m just kidding around about the numbers. What I’m trying to say is that urban Midwestern ski areas are terrific businesses. They’re small but handle unimaginable volume in short, intense seasons of 12-hour-plus days. Davis tells me in the podcast that the ski area hires 1,200 seasonal employees for winter. That is an almost incomprehensible number. Killington, the largest ski area in the east, 20 times the size of Perfect North, has around 1,600 wintertime employees.
But that’s what it takes to keep the up-and-down moving. Perfect North was a sort of accidental ski area, born when a college student knocked on farmer Clyde Perfect’s door and said, “hey did you know your land is perfect for a ski area?” In almost snowless Indiana, this was quite a wild notion. Not that no one had tried. The state has nine lost ski areas. But Perfect North is one of only two that survived (the other is Vail-owned Paoli Peaks, which survives no thanks to the mothership). I don’t know enough about the ski areas that failed to say why they’re gone, but it’s obvious why Perfect North has succeeded: relentless investment by committed operators. Here’s an excerpt from a case study by SMI snowmakers:
[Perfect North] employs 245 snowmaking machines and an infrastructure that pumps about 120 million gallons of water annually, giving the resort a 3-4 foot snowpack throughout the season. The system is so efficient that operators can start as many as 200 snowmakers in about an hour.
At its modest start-up in 1980, Perfect North had only rope tows, T-bars and about a dozen snowmakers covering roughly seven acres. But the family-owned operation has expanded each year and now features five chair lifts and six surface lifts serving more than ten times the skiable terrain, as well as one of the largest tubing operations in the entire U.S. …
“We knew early on that snowmaking was critical to a great experience on the hills. The snow is the reason people come; everything else is secondary. So we really focused on it right from the beginning, and we’ve enhanced our snowmaking capability every year,” said [Perfect North President Chip] Perfect.
All of the snow guns now in use at Perfect North are manufactured by SMI, and every one is permanently mounted on a SnowTower™ (or pole-top unit). Most are the company’s signature PoleCat™ or Super PoleCat™ designs, with either hill air feed or onboard compressors. Unlike some resorts that boast 100% snowmaking on their trails, Perfect North runs enough machines to be able to make snow on virtually the entire skiing and tubing area at the same time.
This is not one model of how to make a ski area work in the Lower Midwest – this is the only way to make a ski area work in the Lower Midwest. The region was a bit late to skiing. Perfect North didn’t open until 1980. Snowmaking had to really advance before such a thing as consistent skiing in Indiana was even conceivable. But being possible is not the same thing as being easy. There are only two ski areas in Indiana for a reason: it’s hard. Perfect North has mastered it anyway. And you’ll understand about two minutes into this conversation why this place is special.
What we talked about
A couple kids watching for the lights to flip on across the valley, announcing the opening of the ski season; Perfect North in the ‘80s; a place where jeans and “layered hunting gear” are common; ski area as machine; from bumping chairs to general manager; the pioneer days of 90s tech; moving into the online future without going bust; RFID; the surprising reason why Perfect North switched from metal wicket tickets to the plastic ziptie version; taking over a ski area in the unique historical moment that was spring 2020; staff PTSD from the Covid season; the power of resolving disputes through one-on-one talks; “we lost something in those two years with how we interact with people”; 1,200 people to run a 400-vertical-foot ski area; how Perfect North fully staffed up and offered an 89-hour-per-week schedule as Vail retreated and severely cut hours at its Indiana and Ohio ski areas; Perfect North would have faced “an absolute mutiny” had they pulled the Vail bait-and-switch of cutting operating hours after pass sales ended; how aggressive you have to be with snowmaking in the Lower Midwest; “the people of the Midwest are fiercely loyal”; reaction to Vail buying Peak Resorts; “I want Midwest skiing to succeed broadly”; Cincinnati as a ski town; skiing’s identity crisis; the amazing story behind Perfect North’s founding; the Perfect family’s commitment to annual reinvestment; remembering ski area founder Clyde Perfect, who passed away in 2020; you best keep those web cams active Son; snowmaking and Indiana; the importance of valleys; the importance of a committed owner; potential expansion; where the ski area could add trails within the existing footprint; terrain park culture in the Lower Midwest; the management and evolution of parks at Perfect North; potential chairlift upgrades and a theoretical priority order; where the ski area could use an additional chairlift; the potential for terrain park ropetows; coming updates to Jam Session’s ropetows; Perfect North’s amazing network of carpet lifts; the ski area’s massive tubing operation; why Perfect North purchased Timberline and how the purchase came together; why creditors rejected the first winner’s bid; West Virginia as a ski state; the reception to Timberline’s comeback; “it didn’t take us long to realize that the three lifts on site were unworkable”; how well Perfect North and Timberline work as a ski area network; “Timberline Mountain has got to stand on its own financially”; whether Perfect North could ever purchase more ski areas; “I hate to see ski areas wither up and die”; Perfect North’s diverse season pass suite; “what drives our guest’s visits is their availability”; and whether Timberline or Perfect North could join the Indy Pass.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
You want to hear something funny? I often put out queries on Twitter or via email, asking people to tell me who they would most like to hear from on the podcast. Or sometimes people just write and say something like, “hey love the pod you should interview…” And the interview they’ve most often requested has been some combination of Timberline and Perfect North. I don’t really understand why. I mean, I think it’s an awesome story. I’ve yet to meet a ski area I wasn’t fascinated by, and this Midwest-buys-Mid-Atlantic storyline is especially compelling to me. But this one has, for whatever reason, resonated broadly. I’ve never once had someone ask me to track down the head of Telluride or Mammoth or Heavenly (I’d gladly talk to the leaders of any of the three), but the Perfect North/Timberline request has been hitting my inbox consistently for years.
Well, it’s done. I’d still like to do a Timberline-first pod, but the basic story of the acquisition is there, and we spend about 15 minutes on the West Virginia ski area. Still, I was not just listening to the request line. I tracked down Davis for the same reason that I tracked down Snow Trails, Ohio’s Scott Crislip last month: these are the only two ski areas in Indiana or Ohio that functioned normally last season. And they are the only two ski areas in those states that are not owned by Vail.
Paoli Peaks was open 28 hours per week, from Thursday through Sunday, with no night skiing on weekends. Perfect North was open 89 hours per week, with night skiing seven days per week. I found this fairly offensive, and WTIU Public TV in Indiana invited me on-air back in March to talk about it:
How, exactly, did Vail get owned by two independent operators with a fraction of the institutional resources? That is the question that these two podcasts attempt to answer. Vail clearly misread the market in Ohio and Indiana. They did not make enough snow or hire enough people. They cut night skiing. In the Midwest. That’s like opening a steakhouse and cutting steak off the menu. Sorry, Guys, budget cuts. You can’t find steak at this steakhouse, but we have beef broth soup and canned greenbeans. And by the way, we’re only open for lunch. Like, how did they not know that? It may be the worst series of ski area operating decisions I’ve ever seen.
I should probably just let this go. Now that I’ve said my piece via these two interviews, I probably will. I’ve made my point. But seriously Vail needs to look at what Perfect North and Snow Trails did this past season and do exactly that. And if they can’t, then, as Davis says in this interview, “if they don’t want Paoli and Mad River, we’ll take them.”
Questions I wish I’d asked
Perfect North has a really interesting pass perk for its highest-tiered pass: Perfect Season Pass holders can go direct to lift. That pass is $356. Gold passholders, who can ski up to eight hours per day, must pick up a lift ticket at the window each time they ski. That pass is $291. While the gold pass is not technically unlimited, eight hours per day seems more than sufficient. I’m ready to wrap it up after seven hours at Alta. I can’t imagine that eight hours wouldn’t be enough Indiana skiing. But I don’t think the ski area would bother with the two different passes if the market hadn’t told them there was a need, and I would have liked to have discussed the rationale behind this pass suite a bit more.
What I got wrong
I said on the podcast that Snow Trails was open “80-some hours per week.” The number was actually 79 hours. I also stated in the introduction that Perfect North was founded by “the Perfect family and a group of investors,” but it was the Perfect family alone.
Why you should ski Perfect North
We’ve been through this before, with Snow Trails, Mountain Creek, Paul Bunyan, Wachusett, and many more. If you live in Cincinnati and you are a skier, you have a choice to make: you can be the kind of skier who skis all the time, or you can be the kind of skier who skis five days per year at Whistler. I know dozens of people in New York like this. They ski at Breckenridge, they ski at Park City, they ski at Jackson Hole. But they don’t – they just couldn’t – ski Mountain Creek or Hunter or even Stowe. East Coast skiing is just so icy, they tell me. Well, sometimes. But it’s skiing. And whether you ski six days per year or 50 largely depends upon your approach to your local.
If I lived in Cincinnati, I’d have a pass to Perfect North and I’d go there all the time. I would not be there for eight hours at a time. Ten runs is a perfectly good day of skiing at a small ski area. More if conditions are good or I’m having fun. Anything to get outside and make a few turns. Go, ride the lifts, get out. No need to overthink this. Any skiing is better than none at all.
Most of Perfect North’s skiers, of course, are teenagers and families. And it’s perfect for both of these groups. But it doesn’t have to be for them alone. Ski areas are for everyone. Go visit.
As far as Timberline goes, well, that’s a whole different thing. A thousand feet of vert and 150 inches of average annual snowfall shouldn’t take a lot of convincing for anyone anywhere within striking distance.
Perfect North founder Clyde Perfect passed away in 2020. Here is his obituary.
I mentioned that Indiana had several lost ski areas. Here’s an inventory. My 1980 copy of The White Book of Ski Areas lists nine hills in Indiana. Perfect North isn’t one of them (Paoli Peaks, the state’s other extant ski area, is). Here’s a closer look at two of the more interesting ones (you can view more trailmaps on skimap.org):
Here’s the 2001 trailmap for Nashville Alps, which had a 240-foot vertical drop. The ski area closed around 2002, and the lifts appear to be gone.
If anyone knows why Nashville Alps failed, please let me know.
The White Book pegs this one with an amazing 554 vertical feet, which would make it taller than any ski area in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The map shows trails running along little ridgelines separated by valleys, which would have made this a really interesting spot on the rare occasions it snowed enough to ski the trees.
Google maps suggests that this trailmap more or less reflects geologic reality. Here’s a YouTube video from a few years back, when the ski area was apparently for sale. The lifts were still intact (though likely unusable):
The White Book says that this place had a double-double and two J-bars in 1980. Just 20 minutes from Louisville, this seems like the kind of little Midwestern spot that could boom with the right operators. The cost to bring it online would likely be prohibitive, however. As with most things in U.S. America, it would be the permitting that would likely kill it in the crib.
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