Extreme Skiing at the U.P.’s Mt. Bohemia

At night, Mt. Bohemia wears nothing but a crystal-flecked onyx Keweenaw Peninsula sky. Unlike its more civilized ski resort sibs that are robed in a glow of lights so that snowmakers and groomers can work their soothing magic, this 900-foot-vertical behemoth at the Lake Superior end of a peninsula’s peninsula sleeps alone and au naturel—the better to bare itself raw to skiers in the morning.

And so a midnight in January 2008 finds my husband and me navigating blindly around the cluster of seven mushroomlike yurts that squat at the base of the dark slopes—Mt. Bohemia’s excuse for a base complex. Several are used to house private groups, and another is a microwave- and Ramen noodles–style cafeteria. We’re looking for the yurt with a sign in the window that reads: “Hostel.” A sign I’d been assured on the phone earlier in the day would be here, as would be three empty bunks for my husband, son (asleep in the backseat) and me.

Lured by a faint beam on the other side of a yurt window, we push open the door and our eyes strain to make sense of the scene. Think a 1970’s grade-school social studies flick about Upper Mongolia—only substitute human-made water-repellant fabrics for animal skins. Coats and long underwear stretch across every available surface. Bodies cocooned to the nose in Marmot bags stretch on bunks lining the yurt walls. The sole order in the jumble of slumbering snow sliders and their paraphernalia is a circle of snowboards leaned against the yurt’s center pole in a ritualistic-like display of steel edges, fiberglass and P-tex. The three empty bunks especially are layered with drying socks and underwear—an exhibition that stinks of territorial implications. “Do you know who is in those bunks?” I ask a guy reading with a headlamp.

“Dudes up partying at the lodge,” says a voice from a Marmot bag. The lodge, I know, is no well-staffed roaring fireplace–type establishment. It’s a barebones common building with a stove and sink and a couple of bedrooms.

“I think the bunks are supposed to be ours,” I say.

“They said something about overbooking,” the talking Marmot bag answers.

My husband and I wordlessly tick down our options: try to figure out who “they” are; risk a tussle with partied-out riders. Worse? Win the fight and sleep where they dried their socks and underwear.

We back out of the yurt, close the door and agree to head for a hotel room in Copper Harbor 15 miles away. Before we get back in the car my husband turns and waters a snow bank. I cop a squat in the snow-packed parking lot. It just feels okay somehow.

Ten years ago, when news filtered down below the Big Mac Bridge that the gnarliest ski area the Midwest had ever seen was being planned for this Lake Superior outpost, folks scoffed at the idea. The closest metropolitan area to the Keweenaw is Green Bay, Wisconsin, five hours away—and that’s when you’re not driving with a Lake Superior–powered storm plastering your windshield. Detroit is double the distance.

Remoteness aside, doubters belittled developer and owner Lonie Glieberman’s business model: cater to an exclusive group of balls-out advanced and expert Midwest skiers, otherwise deprived of double and triple black diamond–style steeps, virgin powder, cornices, chutes, cliff drops and glades, unless they headed east or west. Glieberman likens his niche concept to the Ferrari brand. “Ferrari does very well with the two-seater sports car,” he says. “Customers that want a four-seater car—that’s a different customer. Why can’t a ski resort have a narrow focus?” Besides, Glieberman reasons, why would downstate skiers want to bypass resorts like Nub’s Nob or Crystal Mountain on the Lower Peninsula if they were looking for beginner terrain? “Even if we had that kind of terrain, it would be a losing battle,” Glieberman says.

This serve-it-up-naked model’s golden underside is its rock-bottom cost of operation—no snowmaking expenses (270 average inches a year of the natural stuff whites out that cost), no grooming and no anything else but skiing and boarding. A staff of 14 oversees the mountain’s 400 skiable acres, as compared to say, Boyne Highlands, which cranks its staff up to a small army during peak season in order to offer amenities such as ski school, spa treatments and fine dining.

That first winter, 2000, Mt. Bohemia chalked up 9,000 skier visits. Eight seasons later that number has more than tripled. Eighty-two percent of those skiers are male, and 80 percent are under the age of 35. Arguably the most effective tool in Glieberman’s low-budget marketing arsenal is a red-lettered sign in the parking lot that reads: NO BEGINNERS ALLOWED.

I never doubted that if Glieberman built it, they would come. I knew because I am married to one of those hardcore snowmen that can’t resist the lure of a Bohemia-type experience—though at 49, Peter is admittedly at the slim end of the mountain’s demographic. The first snows bring on his ski obsession. The real problem with this obsession is not that I mind it, but that he insists on taking me everywhere he skis. Twenty-five years ago, when we were 25-year-old newlyweds, this mania stranded me on a nasty mogul run in Steamboat, Colorado. Fear and a certain young buck-irritated look on my husband’s face nearly ended the marriage there.

Let me also share this: if this man, bound by DNA to the conservative, New England work ethic of his forefathers, dared to dream of trading places with anyone else in the world, it would be Glen Plake, the Mohawk do’ed skier who defined the word extreme in the 1990’s, then spent the ensuing years traveling the ski world in his colorful bus, cheerleading for K-2 skis, before switching to Elan two years ago. And call it woman’s intuition (or just a no-brainer), but I suspect that if my husband could design his ultimate woman, she’d be a lot like Plake’s hot blonde, awesome skier wife, Kimberly.

And what total joke are the ski gods playing on me? Glen and Kimberly Plake’s bus, in all its wild and crazy glory, is parked at the base of the mountain as we pull up for our first Bohemia experience, the morning after our yurt affair. Out of all the resorts in the world Plake could turn up in today—a day on which I am nervously hoping Peter does not forget that we are 49-year-olds whose jobs entail spending an awful lot of time sitting in chairs—he’s here? The reason, it turns out, is to film a segment for RSN cable network on Bohemia. As we’re trucking our gear to the base lodge we pass fit Kimberly clad in a smashing white ski suit. She’s not wearing a helmet. I, however, am wearing a Sponge Bob helmet I bought (it fits and was cheaper than an adult helmet) in Houghton.

The gods are at play, but at least Mt. Bohemia is on my side. If there ever was a time when I could conquer this mountain, it would be this pale-blue, wispy-cloud day after just enough snowfall to cover most of the natural roughage, but not enough to create moguls I can’t see over. Meeting Glieberman at the ticket counter also helps lift my spirits. He’s affable, easygoing and very apologetic about our lost bunks. “Yurt poachers,” he says, turning to his soon-to-be wife, Lindsay, who is working the cash register. Then the guy goes on to explain that usually he has a yurt master (equivalent to a campground host) to troubleshoot poaching, but he had to be away last night.

Glieberman tells me not to be afraid of the mountain and opens a trail map—a maze of 71 runs—and points to the Bear Den, an area on the east side. Amid the web of black, I spot blue, an intermediate run called Brown Bear (one of the mountain’s three intermediate runs), and breathe a sigh of relief. Peter says I’m an advanced skier. I’ve never believed him.

We say good-bye to Glieberman, and my husband, son and I board the lift to face off against this pile of volcanic uplift, ancient trees, cliffs, frozen waterfalls, gargantuan boulders and craggy edges—all of which appear sweet as a vanilla ice cream cone from above. Below us, a few skiers and boarders cut long, leisurely s-turns, absorbed in a snow slider’s state of grace. The atmosphere is pleasantly absent of the hubbub of beginner skiers. We slide off the lift to a view of four lakes—Superior, Lac LaBelle, Deer and Gratiot—take in the blues, breathe the fresh air and head through boot-top powder to the Bear Den. But we don’t stay there long. The conditions are fabulous, so Peter leads us through the labyrinth of glades and runs of Bohemia’s niches—areas named Haunted Valley, Bohemia Mining Co. and Bohemia Bluffs. He does it all on his telemark skis, descending like Zeus from Mt. Olympus. Our son, already a solid skier, watches in awe and improves just skiing in Peter’s shadow. I follow them and find a confidence I’ve never had. The glades are thinned nicely, close enough to know you are in a forest but not too tight. The conditions call for agility, but the snow is light and easy to turn in. In the Haunted Valley I catch a branch across my face and go down, but I’m up in seconds. No blood.

Lift lines are scant. There is an abundance of quiet. Kimberly flits by occasionally, but there’s no sign of her husband. We presume he is in the Extreme Backcountry, the mountain’s suicide (and most popular) terrain that includes the 40-foot drop from a cliff on the Horseshoe Chute. Bohemia legend has it that an April 2007 storm dumped so much fresh pow on the Extreme Back Country that skiers were, happily, buried to their necks. We have skied black diamonds and double black diamonds all day, but Peter has steered us away from this badass side of the mountain.

At lunch we take our microwaved Ramen noodles and Dinty Moore beef stew out to picnic tables and relax in an unusually warm January sun. Several knots of skiers are also lounging outside the yurt, but it feels more like a wilderness outing than a day at a ski resort. We get to dreaming of future trips to Mt. Bohemia. Filling a yurt with our family and friends. Taking several days to bask in this backwoods heaven.

Peter, like all hardcore skiers and boarders, carefully plans the day so that he is as far away as possible from base when the lifts close—the better to milk every last skiable moment. At Bohemia, that farthest point is the Extreme Back Country, where a bus transports skiers back to the main lift. He’s pored over the trail map all day and finally shows me that we can avoid the inner Extreme Back Country horrors—Horseshoe, Apex Chute and Slide Path—by staying on Wacky Jackrabbit and Sleepy Hollow to the east. The runs are designated triple black diamond, but he assures me that they are just steep, not cliffs. He says our son and I can do it. Filled with a new lust to vanquish, I follow my men.

The Extreme Back Country begins in a nicely pitched glade, marked by thick old hardwoods. I’m turning okay, despite the fact that my legs are starting to feel like Play-Doh. Then the friendly angle morphs to an evil near 90 degrees. I try to traverse, and my legs won’t cooperate. I side-slide to a stop to try to figure a way out that does not involve bodily injury. Suddenly (is she an angel?) a fresh-faced ski patroller appears at my side. “Just go down on your butt,” she says, with an encouraging smile.

I know from experience, and Peter has cautioned me about the dangers of the butt escape. Flying over icy moguls on slick ski pants equals kamikaze physics. “Always, always traverse your way out of a bad situation,” he has drilled into me. But this is powder, and I’m pretty sure if I squiggle very, very slowly I can take enough off the top pitch to be able to ski down the rest. Besides, the ski patroller told me to.

And so, down I go, inch by inch, with slow but steady success, leaving a worm trail through the trees behind me. I am getting up, Sponge Bob Square Pants slightly askew, when I catch sight of Peter through the trees—he’s close enough that I can make out the Steamboat-look crossing his face. It’s been decades, but yes, there it is, the fight-igniter expression that makes me feel like a loser and him look like an irritated 25-year-old again. Then I turn my head up and see what else he’s spied: Kimberly, cresting the edge of the cliff, nimble and svelte as a she-wolf.

The moment could be nasty. Bad punctuation on an amazing day. But I’m too proud of myself for handling most of a triple D on my feet to be daunted, so I shoot my husband a saucy smile and remind myself to tell him later: Dude, if this mountain made you 25 again, it did me, too.

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Traverse.