I Schralped Everest - Ski Mag

I Schralped Everest

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It's nearly dusk by the time the snowcat lurches to a stop atop Everest. The weather window has held all day—light winds, occasional flurries, and a steady barometer—but a mechanical issue kept us pinned down at Advance Base Camp until late this afternoon. This is my first time on Everest and the technical difficulties sent me into an emotional tailspin. I spent the bulk of my day fidgeting with gear, obsessing about the cat's repair, and worrying about the weather. But that's all behind us now.

Cat-skiing in the Death Zone! Unlike all the double amputees, geriatric Japanese dudes, and blind guys, I'm going to log a real accomplishment, a true mechanical first. Sure, a few years ago a French guy "landed a helicopter on the Roof of the World. But he did what's called a "hover landing, which means his rotors were continuously engaged for the three minutes and 50 seconds he alighted on the summit. Puh-leeze, he didn't even drop a load of skiers. French whirlybirds don't even compare to a snowcat full of rippers driving straight up the gut of the world's largest snow-covered chunk of rock.

It's eerily calm at the top as we disgorge from the cat, but we know we're in the right spot because a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree clearly reads EVEREST. The signage also features a cartoon drawing of a polar bear. Wait…polar bears don't live in the Himalayas. And what's with that ocean-size lake in front of us, and the red-and-white radio tower behind us? I'm also not the slightest bit winded. Nor are any of my catmates—one of whom is casually smoking a Marlboro Light.

Odd happenings indeed. But then, this Everest is a gently sloped ridge of hardwoods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and our snowcat departed from adjacent Porcupine Mountain Ski Area, known locally as the Porkies. OK, so this Everest is 27,485 feet lower than the real thing, and the entire seat-of-the-pants cat-skiing operation is the brainchild of Lonie Glieberman, the resort's impish and perpetually disheveled owner, who, despite being just 39, has already run three Canadian Football League teams into the ground. "So what? I ask you. Screw Kit DesLauriers and all those fancy-pants ski mountaineers. Bottled oxygen be damned. I intend to schralp Everest, ride the cat, and then schralp Everest some more.

If you drive far enough north in Wisconsin, you end up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This confuses most non-Midwesterners, who think of Michigan only as the oven mitt across from the Badger State, not above it. To further confuse things, Yoopers, from "U.P.-ers, have more in common with Wisconsinites (they're Packer fans) and Canadians (whom they sound like) than they do with "trolls, the 97 percent of Michigan's residents who live "under (or south of) the Mackinac Bridge in the Lower Peninsula.

Which isn't to say the U.P. doesn't have a strong regional identity. The majority of residents are of Finnish descent. Old-timers wear Kromers, woolen Elmer Fudd—style baseball caps with pull-down earflaps. Pasties (pronounced pass-tees, not pace-tees), the hearty, softball-size meat bombs filled with rutabaga, mystery meat, potatoes, and onions, are the home-cooked fast food of choice. And not what strippers put on their nipples.

In wintertime, snowmobilers and ice fishermen outnumber skiers 20 to 1 around here, which is why I'm not surprised to find the base lodge locked when I arrive at the resort at 9:30 in the morning. A few minutes later, the first customers of the day arrive when a beat-up minivan pulls up and unloads a skinny teenage boy in bright-red rear-entry ski boots. He trudges, half-asleep, across the parking lot carrying his ski poles and a Crock-Pot, the cord dragging in the dirty snow. A few minutes later, his ther walks up carrying a white insulated pot of coffee.

The plan is to get going around 11, but it's just a plan. The U.P. has been experiencing a low-snow year. It's the middle of February, but there wasn't enough coverage to fire up the cat until last week. And the cat's a beauty: a retro, royal-blue 18-seater with two fully articulated cabs, tan upholstery, and bench seats. "It's a Swedish military something, Lonie informed me earlier, "and supposedly amphibious.

After just a few hours of operation on opening day last Friday, the cat's transmission blew, a fact that Lonie, like a not-so-crafty used-car salesman, tried to downplay on the phone when I called to make sure we were still on. Meanwhile Nathan Maki, the Porkies' sensible and stocky 30-year-old mountain manager, furiously rebuilt the transmission with his dad. "It was a rush job, he tells me, "We pulled it out on Tuesday, rebuilt it on Wednesday, and slapped it back in yesterday.

Today, the transmission is apparently running fine, Lonie tells me as he glad-hands around the base lodge, looking for cat-skiing recruits. But as Nathan and the mechanic are on the way to Everest, the driveshaft seizes up and busts. "The mechanic should be able to fix it in a few hours, Nathan assures me, explaining how the front car's tracks are running fine, but the rear car isn't getting any power. And then, perhaps sensing my mechanically disinclined nature, he adds, "Right now, the rear car is like a broken dick on a dog. Useless. Got it.

"Cat-skiing…in the U.P.? Whenever I told friends what I was up to, the response was the same: mild disbelief and major amusement. Explaining the particulars grew wearisome rather quickly. But if you want to know how the Porkies, one of the Upper Midwest's lesser-known resorts, became home to the world's unlikeliest cat-skiing operation, all explanations start and end with Lonie Glieberman.

With financial backing from his dad, Bernie, a real estate and construction mogul from Detroit, Lonie opened Mount Bohemia in 2000, his first resort in the U.P. It was a bold move. Most of the ski areas in the economically depressed peninsula are struggling. But with no grooming, no snowmaking, and no beginner runs (the resort's de facto motto is NO BEGINNERS ALLOWED), Bohemia slowly carved out its own grassroots niche. Today, thanks to legitimately challenging terrain and a series of plucky marketing gimmicks, including dubbing moderately steep runs "triple black diamonds, a three-year-long women-ski-free-every-day promotion, and a controversial Mardi Gras—inspired, bare-your-breasts-for-some-cheap-beads spring break event, Bohemia is the region's most buzzed-about resort.

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Lonie's Mount Bohemia venture was also the first time the father-son partnership produced any positive business results, despite similar ploys with Mardi Gras beads. Beginning in 1991, when Lonie was just 23, he and his dad embarked on a string of short-lived and spectacularly unsuccessful attempts at owning and operating CFL football teams: the Ottawa Rough Riders (1991—93), the Shreveport Pirates (94—95), and then back to Ottawa with the Renegades (2005—06). Bernie provided the funding. Lonie oversaw the day-to-day operations. The results were always the same: the implosion of the franchise. A highlight reel of the Gliebermans' miscalculations and blunders includes Lonie's habitual courtship of cheerleaders, the recruitment of a linebacker with a nasty cocaine habit, and a comical attempt to hire Mike Ditka as coach. And beads for breasts—that's been a constant.

But unlike the football misadventures, Bohemia has been a hit, if not financially, since the resort didn't turn a profit last season, then with Midwestern expert skiers unsatisfied with the region's flatter, groomed terrain. Buoyed by this approximation of success, in 2003 Lonie leased the Porkies, a struggling, state-owned resort 100 miles west of Bohemia. The resort itself was the mellow yin to Bohemia's unruly yang. But it needed something to attract new skiers and distinguish it from all the other low-angle, family-friendly resorts in the area.

That's where the snowcat comes in. "We decided that because it's in a wilderness park, we'd promote wilderness skiing, Lonie tells me as we ride one of the Porkies' two double chairs, waiting for the cat to get fixed. In keeping with the wilderness motif, he promptly hired a local tree trimmer named Denny to clear out 150 acres of gently sloped hardwood forest and paid a company in Colorado $38,000 for the diesel-powered cat. Which was indeed designed for the Swedish military. And actually is waterproof. Thanks to its lightweight design and watertight undercarriage, the vehicle purportedly has a top water speed of 2.5 miles per hour.

To promote the Everest experience, Lonie slapped a snapshot his girlfriend took of Keystone, Colorado's resort-based cat-skiing operation on his website, hoping it would be enough to entice people to the Porkies for the first time—and pay an additional $15 a day for unlimited cat rides.

Although normally forthcoming and outspoken to a fault, Lonie squirms a bit when I chide him about the picture. And then I ask what inspired him to name his latest enterprise after the world's tallest peak. "I've learned that you don't want to be subtle. If you do something, you gotta go over the top. His Marketing 101 lecture continues the rest of the chairlift ride, and at one point he starts citing what to those of lesser wit would appear to be completely unrelated examples. "Take a company like FastSigns. What do you think the company FastSigns does? he asks me. They make signs quickly, I offer. "Exactly, they make signs fast. Got it.

Day two begins on a decidedly brighter note. It's Saturday. The parking lot is full, and a group of skiers partying in an RV have already broken out the Jà¤germeister. The driveshaft is fixed, and the cat is sold out. Wait a minute. "The cat is sold out?

"Yup, all thirty-five spots, gone in about an hour, Randy, the Porkies' roundish ticket seller tells me proudly. Maybe this thing's going to fly after all, I think. Maybe Lonie isn't nuts to think that cat-skiing will be the next big thing here in the Midwest. Maybe it's enough of an attraction to put the Porkies on the map.

We're a motley crew of cat-skiers: no women or core telemark types, mostly regular, down-to-earth guys from Wisconsin, including an electrician, a carpenter, and a couple of masons. A few gangly students from nearby Michigan Tech made it out, as did a group of goofy Russian-speaking men—a Latvian, a Ukrainian, and two brothers from Belarus (walk into a bar)—who live in Chicago. Lonie's marketing push has worked. Most of the clients read about Everest on the website and are here today specifically for the cat-skiing.

Encompassing about 100-plus acres just west of the resort, Everest is 787 vertical feet of undulating, 25-degree glades. The cat's uptrack—a jostling six-minute ride—is a green run that's roped off when the cat's running. Besides a large ravine and a few big rocks, there aren't too many distinguishing features. Officially, there are 13 named runs, but there are no obvious trail delineations or signs. You might be on Sir Edmund Hillary, Golden Monkey, or Yeti—or any of the other Everest-themed names that Lonie, being Lonie, randomly plucked from online articles about the Himalayan Everest. The handful of mostly freeheeled locals, who have been skiing back here for years, still refer to the area as The Radio Tower.

Almost everyone overshoots the unmarked traverse his first time, arriving back at the cat sweaty and pissed off after a 15-minute boot-pack/shuffle. But besides a few snowboarders and first-time powder skiers, who either flail in the untracked snow or can't keep enough speed through the flat section, everyone's spirits are high. Eric, a young mason froitself was the mellow yin to Bohemia's unruly yang. But it needed something to attract new skiers and distinguish it from all the other low-angle, family-friendly resorts in the area.

That's where the snowcat comes in. "We decided that because it's in a wilderness park, we'd promote wilderness skiing, Lonie tells me as we ride one of the Porkies' two double chairs, waiting for the cat to get fixed. In keeping with the wilderness motif, he promptly hired a local tree trimmer named Denny to clear out 150 acres of gently sloped hardwood forest and paid a company in Colorado $38,000 for the diesel-powered cat. Which was indeed designed for the Swedish military. And actually is waterproof. Thanks to its lightweight design and watertight undercarriage, the vehicle purportedly has a top water speed of 2.5 miles per hour.

To promote the Everest experience, Lonie slapped a snapshot his girlfriend took of Keystone, Colorado's resort-based cat-skiing operation on his website, hoping it would be enough to entice people to the Porkies for the first time—and pay an additional $15 a day for unlimited cat rides.

Although normally forthcoming and outspoken to a fault, Lonie squirms a bit when I chide him about the picture. And then I ask what inspired him to name his latest enterprise after the world's tallest peak. "I've learned that you don't want to be subtle. If you do something, you gotta go over the top. His Marketing 101 lecture continues the rest of the chairlift ride, and at one point he starts citing what to those of lesser wit would appear to be completely unrelated examples. "Take a company like FastSigns. What do you think the company FastSigns does? he asks me. They make signs quickly, I offer. "Exactly, they make signs fast. Got it.

Day two begins on a decidedly brighter note. It's Saturday. The parking lot is full, and a group of skiers partying in an RV have already broken out the Jà¤germeister. The driveshaft is fixed, and the cat is sold out. Wait a minute. "The cat is sold out?

"Yup, all thirty-five spots, gone in about an hour, Randy, the Porkies' roundish ticket seller tells me proudly. Maybe this thing's going to fly after all, I think. Maybe Lonie isn't nuts to think that cat-skiing will be the next big thing here in the Midwest. Maybe it's enough of an attraction to put the Porkies on the map.

We're a motley crew of cat-skiers: no women or core telemark types, mostly regular, down-to-earth guys from Wisconsin, including an electrician, a carpenter, and a couple of masons. A few gangly students from nearby Michigan Tech made it out, as did a group of goofy Russian-speaking men—a Latvian, a Ukrainian, and two brothers from Belarus (walk into a bar)—who live in Chicago. Lonie's marketing push has worked. Most of the clients read about Everest on the website and are here today specifically for the cat-skiing.

Encompassing about 100-plus acres just west of the resort, Everest is 787 vertical feet of undulating, 25-degree glades. The cat's uptrack—a jostling six-minute ride—is a green run that's roped off when the cat's running. Besides a large ravine and a few big rocks, there aren't too many distinguishing features. Officially, there are 13 named runs, but there are no obvious trail delineations or signs. You might be on Sir Edmund Hillary, Golden Monkey, or Yeti—or any of the other Everest-themed names that Lonie, being Lonie, randomly plucked from online articles about the Himalayan Everest. The handful of mostly freeheeled locals, who have been skiing back here for years, still refer to the area as The Radio Tower.

Almost everyone overshoots the unmarked traverse his first time, arriving back at the cat sweaty and pissed off after a 15-minute boot-pack/shuffle. But besides a few snowboarders and first-time powder skiers, who either flail in the untracked snow or can't keep enough speed through the flat section, everyone's spirits are high. Eric, a young mason from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, is so excited about the prospect of cat-skiing that he brings along a bag lunch. "I'm not leaving the cat all day, he tells me.

The enthusiasm is contagious. I straightline a run just to see if I can beat the cat back down. I do. And I ride up with a different crew of skiers. There's no ski rack on the vehicle, but we eventually wise up and start shoving our skis through the cat's moonroof, their tips peeking out of the top of the cat. As we unload I try to convince a few people to explore farther skier's left, but most everybody gets funneled into the ravine that spits you out right above the traverse.

Just as we fall into a rhythm, the cat overheats. To lessen the strain on the engine—a Chrysler 318, which one of the masons identifies just by listening to it idle—Nathan informs us that he'll take nine at a time for the rest of the afternoon. There are a dozen of us. Two Michigan Tech engineering students and I volunteer to hang back and catch the next one. As the cat roars off, we grimace as it drizzles a stream of neon-green coolant in its wake. My first instinct is to alert Nathan, and I get up to do so, but I hesitate—it doesn't look like that much fluid—and the cat's gone.

While we wait for our turn, the engineering students tell me they hope the kinks get worked out. "Michigan has never had any good tree skiing, says one, "and now we do. We keep waiting. Fifteen minutes pass with no sign of the cat…and no skiers. A snowmobile whizzes by. A little while later the cat limps down Everest with smoke pouring out. The day is over.

It's late April, and I'm following the blogs from Nepal as the real Everest Base Camp swells with high-profile funhogs and risk-dependent ego-trippers. As part of the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a Chinese team prepares to test-run the torch to the top, while over on the north side four Americans are arrested at Base Camp for staging (and filming) a Free Tibet protest that later appears on YouTube. There's the typical chaos, but it's not as impressive as last year, when Martyna Wojciechowska became the first Playboy playmate to hop to the summit, not long after Lakpa Tharke stood atop the summit for three minutes—naked—setting a Guinness World Record for "highest naked person. Still, the reports get me thinking about my Everest.

I call up Nathan, who informs me that by cutting out the belly pan, putting in an auxiliary fan, and installing a lower-temperature thermostat, they figured out how to keep the cat from overheating. I also catch up with Lonie, who is pleased with how the inaugural season ended up. "The last two weekends we didn't have any breakdowns or delays, he says. In total, he estimates that about 370 men, women, and children cat-skied Everest. Which, given all the mechanical issues and the crappy snow year, is pretty impressive—until you consider that 491 people summited the actual Everest last year. But that's not what this story is about. Sure, the cat may be on the fritz and Everest it's not, but don't overanalyze it. Cough up the extra 15 bucks, and you'll probably have some fun. Get it? Got it.

from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, is so excited about the prospect of cat-skiing that he brings along a bag lunch. "I'm not leaving the cat all day, he tells me.

The enthusiasm is contagious. I straightline a run just to see if I can beat the cat back down. I do. And I ride up with a different crew of skiers. There's no ski rack on the vehicle, but we eventually wise up and start shoving our skis through the cat's moonroof, their tips peeking out of the top of the cat. As we unload I try to convince a few people to explore farther skier's left, but most everybody gets funneled into the ravine that spits you out right above the traverse.

Just as we fall into a rhythm, the cat overheats. To lessen the strain on the engine—a Chrysler 318, which one of the masons identifies just by listening to it idle—Nathhan informs us that he'll take nine at a time for the rest of the afternoon. There are a dozen of us. Two Michigan Tech engineering students and I volunteer to hang back and catch the next one. As the cat roars off, we grimace as it drizzles a stream of neon-green coolant in its wake. My first instinct is to alert Nathan, and I get up to do so, but I hesitate—it doesn't look like that much fluid—and the cat's gone.

While we wait for our turn, the engineering students tell me they hope the kinks get worked out. "Michigan has never had any good tree skiing, says one, "and now we do. We keep waiting. Fifteen minutes pass with no sign of the cat…and no skiers. A snowmobile whizzes by. A little while later the cat limps down Everest with smoke pouring out. The day is over.

It's late April, and I'm following the blogs from Nepal as the real Everest Base Camp swells with high-profile funhogs and risk-dependent ego-trippers. As part of the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a Chinese team prepares to test-run the torch to the top, while over on the north side four Americans are arrested at Base Camp for staging (and filming) a Free Tibet protest that later appears on YouTube. There's the typical chaos, but it's not as impressive as last year, when Martyna Wojciechowska became the first Playboy playmate to hop to the summit, not long after Lakpa Tharke stood atop the summit for three minutes—naked—setting a Guinness World Record for "highest naked person. Still, the reports get me thinking about my Everest.

I call up Nathan, who informs me that by cutting out the belly pan, putting in an auxiliary fan, and installing a lower-temperature thermostat, they figured out how to keep the cat from overheating. I also catch up with Lonie, who is pleased with how the inaugural season ended up. "The last two weekends we didn't have any breakdowns or delays, he says. In total, he estimates that about 370 men, women, and children cat-skied Everest. Which, given all the mechanical issues and the crappy snow year, is pretty impressive—until you consider that 491 people summited the actual Everest last year. But that's not what this story is about. Sure, the cat may be on the fritz and Everest it's not, but don't overanalyze it. Cough up the extra 15 bucks, and you'll probably have some fun. Get it? Got it.

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