Snowriver to Build Six-Pack, Upper Peninsula’s First High-Speed Lift
New lift will wipe out up to three fixed-grip lifts at old Indianhead ski area for 2023-24 ski season
To support independent ski journalism, please join The Storm’s roster of thousands of free and paid subscribers. Paid subscribers receive thousands of extra words of content each month, plus all podcasts three days before free subscribers.
Fixed-Grip Bro Gets Something Else to Complain About
Charles Skinner does not mess around. He’s the guy who buys the trailer home next door, hauls it away, punches a hole in the ground, and builds a four-story, 10-family condo complex in its place. He shows up to your party with his own party that’s better than your party. In a race around the world, he rolls up in a drillmobile and just goes straight through the center of the Earth to the other side.
This is pretty much what Skinner is doing with his Midwest ski areas. No one else is operating on his level. Except for Boyne, which would be locked in a sort of ski area operator dance-off with Skinner were they not serving completely different markets, separated by the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake. Skinner operates the only high-speed six-packs in Minnesota and Wisconsin – the Caribou Express at Lutsen and the Comet Express at Granite Peak. He has plans to double the size of both ski areas. When he bought Granite Peak in 2000, it was a garage-sale throwaway, derelict and underbuilt, with an A-Team lift fleet cobbled together from junkyard parts:
Here it is today:
Now, Skinner, to no one’s surprise, is orchestrating the same sort of renovation with Snowriver né Big Snow né Indianhead/Blackjack. Next summer, the entity now known as Midwest Family Ski Resorts will clear three 1960s Riblets off the Jackson Creek side of the resort (formerly Indianhead), and replace them with a single high-speed six-pack called Voyageur Express. The new lift will start at the bottom of the Leelinaw triple and terminate at the top of the Chippewa double. Both lifts are coming out. The parallel Voyager quad may remain, for now, as a backup (Snowriver representatives were not entirely sure as of Monday afternoon). Here’s the new line, which rises 538 vertical feet in three-and-a-half minutes (this image shows the Voyager quad as staying, but it may or may not be coming out):
The removal of two (possibly three) lifts should considerably declutter this side of Snowriver, reducing the number of main-face lifts from five to four, or perhaps just three. While the new Voyageur Express line cuts across the intermediate Old Flambeau and Sundance trails, it also crosses several forested areas, and it’s unclear whether lift towers will sit on the runs themselves.
This is just the beginning. Snowriver’s lift fleet is older than organized agriculture. The Chippewa double (installed in 1961), the Leelinaw triple (1964), and the Voyager quad (1969) are a combined 172 years old. Adios. The next obvious candidates for consolidation are the Winnebago double and Tomahawk T-bar, which could be collapsed into a single fixed-grip triple or quad; and the A/B and C/D doubles on the Black River Basin Side (formerly Blackjack), which can each make way for one fixed-grip quad.
That would just leave the Hiawatha T-bar and Bear Creek double pods to upgrade, and, of course, the long-discussed interconnect lift between the two resorts. Midwest Family Resorts Chief Marketing Officer Greg Fisher confirmed last month that the company did intend to connect the two sides of Snowriver with a lift:
The most likely line, according to Fisher, would be from the bottom of Blackjack/Black River to the top of Indianhead/Jackson Creek. That’s a linear distance of 1.21 miles, according to Google Maps (Blackjack/Black River is on the left in this image; I drew a white line along the approximate line that Fisher suggests):
Fisher could not comment on the sort of lift the company was considering, or a timeline for when they would be looking to install it, but he did confirm that it would be a two-way lift. It’s unlikely, however, that it would be a high-speed lift. “It doesn't have to be a high-speed, high-capacity lift, and also it doesn't have to have a ton of people on it,” he said. “It won't be one of those lifts where it's gonna be packed all the time.”
The company already runs a similar lift at Lutsen – the Midwest’s only gondola, a 4,900-foot-long monster that moves skiers between Moose and Eagle mountains but only rises 308 vertical feet. It’s not the sort of lift skiers lap, but it’s vital to making the sprawling Lutsen ski like one coherent resort.
Don’t expect anything else soon. “I’m sure that there will be more lift updates in the future but not next summer,” Fisher wrote via text message on Monday.
This will be the sixth high-speed chairlift at Midwest Family Ski Resorts’ three properties: Lutsen is installing its second six-pack next summer, giving it two high-speed lifts, while Granite Peak already has a six-pack and a pair of high-speed quads.
Lately, the strange debate between Fixed-Grip Bro and Detach Bro has intensified in the Midwest. In September, The Highlands – owned by Boyne Resorts – announced that it would replace three Riblet triples with a D-Line six-pack. Within days, Nub’s Nob, right across the street, announced that it would replace its 44-year-old Green lift – a fixed-grip quad – with a new fixed-grip quad. For whatever reason, Boyne’s announcement triggered some feral reflex in Fixed-Grip Bro, igniting furious name-calling rants across the human shitpile known as Facebook.
Perhaps aware of this cadre of insecure Bros, Skinner stapled this quote onto the press release announcing the new lifts: “High-speed lifts are a perfect fit for our Midwest ski areas,” said Skinner.. “Most skiers need to stop and rest every 500-700 vertical feet, about two-thirds of a mile, which happens to be the length of our runs. So, rather than stopping to rest on the side of the trail as is the case for most skiers on a longer Western slope, skiers at our resorts simply rest on the three-minute ride back up the mountain. High-speed lifts transform the ski experience at our resorts from spending most of the ski day riding the chairlift or waiting in line to enjoying most of the day skiing down the hill.”
Snowriver will be the first ski area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to install a high-speed lift, and just the sixth ski area in the state to do so (the others are The Highlands, which has a quad and is installing a sixer; Boyne Mountain, which has a six and is installing an eight; Bittersweet, which has two quads; Mt. Holly, which has one quad and is installing another next year; and Crystal, which has one quad). Most of the high-speed lifts in the region belong to one of three conglomerates based there: Midwest Family Ski Resorts, Boyne Resorts, and Wisconsin Resorts, which owns a half-dozen ski areas across Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Vail Resorts, notably, has yet to install a high-speed lift at any of its Midwest ski areas, and the quads rising at its Ohio ski areas this summer are both fixed-grip Skytrac quads. Even with a few companies installing detachable lifts on a regular basis, it seems unlikely that high-speed lifts will become automatic at Midwest ski areas as they have in the big-mountain regions of the East and West. To understand why, give my recent conversation with Nub’s Nob General Manager Benn Doornbos a listen - he lays out the absurd installation and maintenance costs of detachable lifts:
Another staple of Skinner’s mountains is aggressive thinning of glades between nearly all marked trails and a willingness to leave large swaths of terrain ungroomed. Snowriver’s new general manager, Benjamin Bartz, signaled last week that Midwest Family Ski Resorts will continue this tradition of providing an interesting, balanced mountain at its Michigan property. “On the mountains, we are excited to offer many new experiences to our guests through a variety of terrain enhancements including new mogul runs, additional tree terrain and glades, a family terrain park and border cross-style rollers,” he said.
“There will be a number of cleared tree terrain areas for skiers and boarders to explore. Half a dozen new mogul fields will provide options for mogul enthusiasts across both mountains, including two top-to-bottom mogul runs that will test the legs of the fittest skiers. Other upgrades include a new family terrain park on Voyageur’s Highway, park additions at Black River Basin, and crowd-pleasing rollers on select runs. We will also continue the tradition of preserving powder for our guests by leaving dozens of areas ungroomed whenever we receive significant overnight snowfall.”
Snowriver also launched an upgraded website last week, which included lift ticket and season pass prices. Lift tickets will range between $69 and $89 adult and $55 to $75 for kids ages 6 to 15 (children under 6 ski free). The resort also joined the Indy Pass in September. Season passes go for $599 for Snowriver only, and $899 for the Legendary Pass, which also grants unlimited access to Granite Peak and Lutsen. The mountain also pushed out a new logo, which is just terrific:
Below the paid subscriber jump: a new lift at a major Western resort, Angry Ski Bro gets $10, a beloved ski resort brings back a hated idea, and more.