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.