They feel the pull. They love the surge. They dream of snow and hills and lifts and boards and the first run of the season. Five devotees divulge the passion they feel for winter and hitting the Northern Michigan slopes. Let their fresh spirit inspire yours.
For as long as Carlee McCardel can remember, she’s been obsessed with skiing. And more specifically, with ski racing. The two-time individual state high school champion for Giant Slalom (2013, 2014) who helped lead Elk Rapids/Traverse City St. Francis to the overall win at the Division II State Championship last season, swears the best seconds of her life have all happened while flying down snow-covered hills.
For the first time since elementary school, McCardel won’t pass this winter’s afternoons and evenings on skis. The freshman at Michigan State University will have to settle for some weekend ski club racing—and she’s already missing the snow.
“I thought when I went to college I would be giving up ski racing altogether, so I definitely feel like something is better than nothing,” McCardel says with a laugh. “But since second grade, my winter routine was school, practice at the ski hill, homework, dinner, bed. I practically lived in my ski boots growing up, and some of my best friends are people I trained with all the time. I love this sport. I can honestly say I looked forward to every night of training, and if I could relive any moment of my life, you’d find me on the ski hill.”
As a college student, McCardel will experience a “way more laid-back” version of competition—club racing, with a handful of weekend meets scheduled at Crystal Mountain and Marquette Mountain this season.
“I think my dad is excited to still get to go to my races,” McCardel says. “It’s a family thing for us. We moved from East Lansing to Traverse City when I was little, so I started learning to ski race at Hickory Hills. In sixth grade, I made the switch to racing CUSSA (Central United States Ski Association) and started training at Crystal Mountain. My high school team’s home hill was Schuss, which is also where we won the state championship last season. I’ve been lucky to experience a lot of different places, and you can’t go wrong skiing anywhere in Northern Michigan.”
McCardel says new opportunities—like coaching young racers over her holiday break—will keep her in the sport. Getting to help and inspire the next generation of racers is almost as good as getting to suit up for the start gate.
“Instead of being in that intense athlete mode, I now get to relate as a coach. It’s a whole new aspect of skiing for me, which makes this transition kind of exciting. As long as I get to remain a part of the ski community, I’ll be happy. Because that’s what it is in Michigan: it’s like a family. You get to know other skiers. You get to know chairlift operators. You get to watch people of all skill levels, who are 2 years old or 80 years old, getting out there to have fun while doing essentially the same thing. There’s something really special about that, and anytime I can make it happen this winter, you’ll still find me on the ski hill.”
Tony Sendlhofer didn’t have to fall in love with Northern Michigan. Hailing from real-deal glaciers in Austria, the merry-go-round of up and down Boyne Highlands’ hills are a far cry from skiing back home. And yet, for 40 winters now Sendlhofer has traveled back to Harbor Springs to run the resort’s Snowsports Academy.
All it takes is one conversation to know this industry guru doesn’t regret a single chairlift ride or run down one of Michigan’s slopes.
“Every new season is exciting. I love seeing familiar people and meeting new friends. I love getting to be a part of guests’ memorable experiences on the ski hill,” he says.
It’s true: his gap-tooth smile and warm welcomes are as famous as his programs. The guy lives for this sport. Instead of getting burned out, four decades of dedication to ski education have only made him more enthusiastic. The world of ski instruction, he says, is constantly shifting, blending new technology with age-old wisdom.
“Everyone wants to learn as quickly as possible, especially in the Midwest. Most people only come Up North on the weekends and want to pack everything into one day. The key ingredient to success hasn’t changed: it’s to make it fun for all ages. But how to do that has changed a lot over the years. We now have the most wonderful learning centers for skiers and riders. We have magic carpets instead of rope tows, which have made a huge difference in learning speed and progress. This year, we have some new seasonal programs for ages 3 and up happening on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings. We never get tired of finding opportunities to help people learn to ski and ride.”
In the years Sendlhofer has been shepherding skiers, the sport itself has become more “user friendly” with shaped skis, high-speed lifts, and high tech grooming.
“The biomechanics have remained the same—the skier or snowboarder still has to make it work—but the new equipment has made a big difference in the experience,” he says. “Skis and boards are shorter, lighter and much easier to work with.”
Sendlhofer says for those ready to invest in the sport, it’s important to get a good, professional boot fit … and professional ski lessons are essential.
“There’s a real family atmosphere here. The people I work with genuinely care about teaching and making sure their students have fun on the slopes. I’m lucky to get to come back and experience it year after year. Northern Michigan and Boyne Highlands have become such an integral part of my family’s life. We get to be part of different cultures and lifestyles, meet people from all over, and come together with this shared love for skiing. Arriving in Northern Michigan always feels like coming home.”
If Pat Holmes could change any misconception about skiing, it would be the notion adults are too old to learn (or fall in love with) this sport. She knows first hand that’s baloney: while Holmes has been skiing for more than two decades, she’s also 77 years old.
“I’m a late starter. I moved to Aspen when I was in my 50s and got a job as an instructor for 3-year-olds. I didn’t really know how to ski well at that time, but I figured I could handle toddlers, and I wanted to learn myself. So oddly enough, being a part of a ski school staff is how I really learned to ski.”
Holmes stayed in Colorado teaching for four years before moving to Sun Valley, where she taught for another five years. Moving back to Michigan to be closer to family, Holmes says she’d been bitten by the ski bug and knew she had to keep teaching.
“I went to Crystal Mountain and I just fell in love. I was hired to teach there and a year or so later, I joined an adult race league. Now that really challenged me, and I absolutely have a blast doing it.”
Some people enjoy the hills of Northern Michigan as training grounds for big mountain trips. For Holmes, however, the close-knit friendships and slopes of the Midwest are more than enough to keep her passion for the sport alive and growing.
“Just getting outside on a fresh snowfall day, it’s so beautiful. Skiing that kind of marshmallow snow … It’s just as great here in Michigan.
“I think for older people especially, it can be scary to try skiing or to get back on the hill after years of not skiing. There’s a lot of anxiety about getting hurt. I tell people I don’t teach skiing, I teach courage. It’s such a great way to stay active and healthy. At Crystal, we have a group called Retired, Not Tired that meets every week.”
Holmes says she loves her adult learners, and small class sizes, plus instructors who make sure people feel safe and comfortable equate to a lot of new (older) skiers. “When I first got my job at Crystal, I was living in Kalamazoo. All the snowbirds were driving south while I was driving north. I think I’m the one who has it figured out though; winter in Northern Michigan is so much fun. If you stay inside, you’re really missing out.”
Holmes recommends having a buddy to start skiing with if possible, to help get motivated and to share in the fun. But if no one else is up for the challenge, that’s OK, because skiers are a welcoming bunch.
It doesn’t take long at all to find like-minded people at the ski hills around here, and friendships form quickly and end up spilling over to the summer month activities like biking too. People who love to ski, who ski often, they’re so vibrant. So full of life. It’s because of this I look forward to winter every single season.”
First and last lifts of the day. These are the words Schuss and Summit Mountain ski patroller Ian Case lives by each winter. His passion for snowboarding is much bigger than a hobby-sport enthusiast. It’s Life Philosophy level.
“I log anywhere between 90 and 130 days a season, which isn’t always easy to do in the Midwest,” Case says. “It’s pretty much seven days a week for me as soon as the hill opens. I taught my son to snowboard when he was 3, and now, the minute the leaves start to change colors, our conversations go straight to snow and how excited we are to get back out there.”
Originally from Rochester, Michigan, Case moved north in 1991 and started working as a lift operator. He learned to snowboard after shifts and on his days off, and by 2005, he decided he needed a reason to be on the hill, on his board, as often as possible.
“Joining ski patrol changed my life. It gave me a new perspective and a new purpose. Eleven years later, it still feels fresh and fun. Being part of the patrol keeps skiing interesting. You have to be out there, no matter what the conditions are like. There are always new people to help. I also am a snowmaker, so I know the snow is always changing depending on weather and temperatures. The same run can feel totally different over the course of a day.”
Northern Michigan, Case added, also boasts such a cool group of diehard skiers and snowboarders.
“One of my favorite nights of the year is when the City Opera House shows a new Warren Miller (ski and snowboard) movie. So many people show up and everybody is just pumped for the season.”
As much as Case loves the crowds, this border says it’s the early morning, first track runs on his home hill he lives to ride. “When it’s still really quiet and you catch that first chairlift on an especially cold morning … It’s the best feeling in the world. The solitude, the fresh snow. Cruising down the hill on a day like that, I think it’s as close as man can get to flying without wings.”
With more than a decade of experience under his belt— as a seventh grader—Anders McCarthy is the poster boy for skiing’s next generation. Unwilling to choose between race courses and terrain parks, and unwavering in his raw love for ripping downhill, McCarthy all but counts the minutes until he’s back on the slopes for a new season. “It’s definitely one of my favorite moments of the year, when I see the snow start falling,” McCarthy says.
He has to pause as he talks because, as a super busy middle-schooler, he’s having this conversation via cell phone while he’s cheering on Petoskey’s varsity soccer team, and they just scored a goal. “There’s really nothing that makes me happier than getting the first chairlift of the season at Nub’s Nob, and getting to make some of the first tracks on the hill.” It’s funny to hear a just-barely teenager talking about winter traditions with such authentic enthusiasm. But McCarthy is the kind of kid who has engineered impressive backyard skateboard parks for summer practice, who spends every free moment at the hill all season long, it’s clear this isn’t some passing phase. “I honestly love everything about skiing,” he says. “Being in the terrain park helps me learn to be looser, and being in the racecourse helps me navigate turns. It’s awesome that I can be competitive in both sports at the same time.”
This season, McCarthy says he’s hoping to land more backflips—yes, backflips, on skis—and a few cork sevens. Plus he will continue working to earn spots on the alpine race circuit podiums as a member of Petoskey Middle School’s ski team and the Nub’s Nob Junior Alpine Race Team. As much as this young ripper likes the challenges and trophies, however, the real win is to simply show up and ski. “Being at the hill is like being home in the winter. I love everything from the race camps to the powder days in the glades. It’s just about being outside and having fun. It’s been a pretty great way to grow up so far.”
This article is featured in the November 2016 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy