What exactly do you do when you get to help the Sun Valley Ski Patrol ready the mountain for skiers? You have the downhill time of your life in your own private Idaho.
Go ahead — ask me whatever questions you want,” says Dave, zipping his jacket, clipping his helmet, adjusting his goggles, and settling in for the brisk quad chair commute up to the office in the snowy predawn dark. “I just can’t vouch for the answers before my coffee.”
Dave Schames is a veteran Sun Valley ski patroller, sporting the requisite Rocky Mountain mustache, crow’s feet, and wry smile. I’m one of two non-mustached (but smiling) guests enrolled in today’s Ski Patrol 101 session. And the “office” this morning is the patrol shack at the top of Bald Mountain — aka “Baldy” — Sun Valley Resort’s showpiece ski hill, hulking over the sleepy town of Ketchum, Idaho, in the melting moments before sunrise.
The slopes are dark and pristine. Not a soul is on the mountain at this hour aside from the patrol crew, a perky trio of patroller dogs in red vests, and a lucky pair of tagalong 101ers gathered near the 9,150-foot rim of what is arguably the oldest destination ski resort in the country — currently draped in several inches of freshly fallen powder with zero tracks.
“So what led you to live in Sun Valley?” I ask my patrol host, realizing, the moment it’s out, that this may be the most self-evident, pre-caffeinated question in the history of alpine journalism given where we’re standing.
Schames flips me the speechless look I deserve: Really? It’s not obvious enough right now?
He then sweeps a gloved hand across a cloudless panorama of idyllic Idaho, fringed with rugged white ranges everywhere — the Sawtooths, the Boulders, the Pioneers — as the morning’s first pixel of sunlight pokes above a distant peak. Like clockwork, a small crowd of patrollers has gathered outside the shack in the snow alongside us, watching dawn silently unfold from this perfect perch like it’s the very first time.
And there, without a word, is my answer.
What leads anyone to Sun Valley?
That may be obvious enough for generations of discerning outdoor recreationists drawn to one of the continent’s most time-honored all-season mountain resorts. But more than 80 years ago, it all began rather serendipitously in an isolated Idaho valley occupied by lonely ranches, a small mining town, and a Union Pacific Railroad outpost in Ketchum seeing few visitors, let alone unexpected ski resort speculators.
In 1935, as the story goes, Union Pacific’s new railroad chairman, William Averell Harriman, commissioned an Austrian business associate to find the perfect site for the first destination ski resort in the West. A place with the optimal balance of snow, sun, European Alps-rivaling beauty, and (of course) lucrative western rail access for America’s nascent ski-vacation industry.
A painstaking search through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and California for just the right place proved long and fruitless. Then a random local tip led to a remarkable discovery in the back hills of south-central Idaho.
“I found just the place to put the lodge,” Harriman’s European location scout gushed from Ketchum, bewitched by a sun-dappled, snow-blanketed mountain Eden in the middle of nowhere. “This combines more delightful features than any place I have ever seen in Switzerland, Austria, or the U.S. for a winter resort.”
Cheap ranch land was purchased. Ground was broken. The world’s first chairlift was installed, implementing a basic design derived from (fun fact) banana transport machines in the Central American tropical fruit shipping industry. The name “Sun Valley” was aptly coined (for an area that gets about 300 annual days of sun) by the same New York City publicist behind the marketing of Miami Beach. Less than a year later, the iconic Sun Valley Lodge would open its doors; it would swiftly come to be associated with guest names like Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Lucille Ball, Errol Flynn, and, most markedly, Ernest Hemingway — whose life and times in Sun Valley (a favorite escape and final residence for the writer) are immortalized by a large bronze monument near the resort grounds as well as his headstone in Ketchum Cemetery.
The American West’s first destination ski resort continues to evolve as a premier four-season playground for skiers and golfers, anglers and mountain bikers, artists and music lovers — all now define Sun Valley as diversely as Dollar Mountain’s 22-foot superpipe, Trail Creek’s 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, and summertime’s free outdoor symphony series and popular writers’ conference. The A-list mystique of the place remains as intact as ever — with Olympians, world-class mountaineers, tech billionaires, and celebrities of all stripes happy to call Sun Valley home or second home.
Push the subject and any Ketchum local might casually mention recently standing behind Clint Eastwood at the grocery checkout (“He was in sweatpants”) or catching Bruce Springsteen belt out a few tunes at Grumpy’s, the local burger-and-beer joint (“He was just hanging out like a regular”). But the real star of the show here, most are quick to add, is the toned-down vibe of the place itself. On the slopes or the fairway, at the latest it bistro or hallowed saloon in Ketchum, and at the resort’s iconic namesake lodge, Sun Valley is resiliently laid-back. And still essentially out there.
“We’re not Aspen or Vail. We’re Idaho,” Schames sums up, ushering his pair of Ski Patrol 101 recruits back out onto the hill after a quick Styrofoam cup of joe and morning meeting with the whole crew in the patrol shack. “Sun Valley has always been its own thing. I mean, where else can you do something like this?”
True enough. Convening on the summit and running the slopes with ski patrollers at daybreak before the hill officially opens is a first for me. It’s not your typical offering at any big American ski resort. But out here in the fortuitous place that launched the whole ski-resort thing, atypical appears to still be the rule.
“We’re a resort town, but, at our core, we’re a community from all walks of life,” says another patroller on the team, clicking on her skis beside me. When I ask what she does here during the warmer months, I find I’m talking to an alfalfa farmer from the fertile valley sprawled below us. “Welcome to the family,” she hollers, gliding off to inspect the slopes before the day’s first skiers arrive. “Come back in the summer. It’s just as beautiful.”
Then it’s our turn to head out. Enough chitchat. Duty, and fresh snow, calls.
“OK, off to work,” Schames says, leading the way across a high ridge toward several empty upper-bowl runs still shaded from the barely risen sun.
The sky is cloudless. The air is comfortably cool and windless. The snow is feather-light and calf-deep. The work is, well ... here’s the thing: If you’re not actually logging long, tough, occasionally hazardous hours as a real ski patroller, but rather tagging along with one and sort of pretending for a couple of hours in these giddy conditions, work is a qualitative word. Combing through more than 2,000 acres and 3,400 vertical feet of untracked mountain on a Sun Valley powder day before everyone else arrives — I can safely report — resembles something more like play.
Officially, I’m supposed to be looking for possible trouble spots. Gates that need dropping. Signs that need fixing. Cornices that need pounding down after a good night of snow. Unofficially, I’m also busy savoring some of the most varied, untracked terrain I’ve ever skied in a single breathless early morning. From the deep steeps of Mayday Bowl to the long cruise of Christmas Ridge. From soft corduroyed groomers named after local Olympic medalists (Gretchen’s Gold, Kristin’s Silver) to a fun little bumpy run called Niagara (where local pranksters, I’m told, once altered the first letter of its sign with a capital V).
“Keep an eye out for practical jokes,” I’m warned. “They do turn up in these parts now and then.”
Threading between runs are portals into nameless glades that wind through some surprisingly woodsy patches for a mountain nicknamed “Baldy.” The moniker seems more fitting for nearby Dollar Mountain, one of the resort’s original ski hills — a solid ivory mound looming over neighboring Sun Valley Village that is now home to beginner runs and a big terrain park.
“When it starts snowing here, people catch powder fever really fast, and it can make our job especially interesting,” says Schames, who first encountered Sun Valley back in the 1970s, when lifts tickets were $12 and “there was a near-riot when they hiked them up to $16.” Sun Valley in the ’70s was its own thing, recalls Schames, who would eventually head back east “to live a couple of lives” before being wooed back to Sun Valley eight years ago. Thankfully, he still recognized the place. “It’s changed here in various ways, obviously,” he says. “But it’s still very much Sun Valley, which is a good thing, too.”
Over decades of expansions, renovations, high-speed lift installations, and lift-ticket inflation, Baldy still retains many of its deep-rooted charms. Entering the summit’s periodesque Lookout Day Lodge with its vintage swing-stool seating, decorative glass panels, and first-generation Sun Valley promo posters is like entering the Eisenhower era. Feasting on fondue by the fire at the Roundhouse Restaurant — the midmountain’s flagship dining destination perched at the top of its new namesake gondola lift — has been a savory rite of passage since the late ’30s, when folks were hiking up here for dinner, which some still do.
“There was picketing when they took the fondue off the menu here a couple years ago,” a Sun Valley local will tell me (with a straight face) over lunch while dunking a forkful of heirloom potato into a pot of steaming cheese. “And then they put it right back on the menu again. You don’t mess with tradition around here.”
Back out on the slopes, it seems the nicest tradition of all here is the utter lack of lift lines and ski traffic. Another Sun Valley hallmark, I’m told.
“Even during peak times when the mountain is presumably full, it still never really feels like it here,” Schames says as he hands me a silver dollar-size Sun Valley Ski Patrol commemorative coin (“Haulin’ the Fallin’ — In Appreciation of Your Interest and Support — SVSP”) at the end of our Ski Patrol 101 session. “If you want, you can usually get in the equivalent of a full day’s skiing here by noon. Or,” he adds like a dare, “two days by close.”
On a perfect day like today, I shoot for the latter. And by 4 p.m., my toasted legs have squeezed more runs into a single ski day than they can ever remember.
If tradition reigns supreme at Sun Valley, its heart and soul reside at Sun Valley Lodge, which remains the storied centerpiece for a resort that has grown considerably around it.
Originally designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood — the prominent rustic-style architect behind national park classics like Yosemite’s Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel) and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Lodge — Sun Valley’s landmark 1936 lodge earns its rightful place among legacy properties that have long defined Western “casual elegance.”
Re-opened in 2015 after an extensive remodel that took its interior down to the 13-inch exterior concrete walls and support pillars, the reimagined yet thoughtfully preserved building is a seamless blend of classic and new.
Pull into the lodge’s circular drive, and there they are — those white swans gliding around the property’s signature front pond (now bigger and deeper if you look close). Enter the timeless lobby (larger and brighter) with its new adjacent Terrace Room and gaze out at the outdoor skating rink that’s as tied to this address’ history as the bowling alley downstairs — still nicely retro, but expanded to six regulation lanes.
Updated and enlarged guest rooms and suites include a revamped Hemingway Suite (the author completed For Whom the Bell Tolls in this building), where an antique Underwood typewriter now sits on the shelf by a large wood writing desk (no, not Papa’s) and flickering fireplace. Gracing the property is a new 20,000-square-foot luxury spa beside a remodeled heated outdoor saltwater pool, where concrete columns have been stained to precisely match the original lodge.
For me — and noticeably many guests — one of the property’s most eye-catching features has been literally hanging around the lodge forever: Hundreds of archival Sun Valley photographs lining the hallways.
“It was the most frequent question we got when we were closed for nearly a year during the [renovation],” says Jack Sibbach, the property’s director of marketing and public relations. “Everyone kept asking us, ‘Are you keeping the pictures?’ ”
Of course they kept the pictures. There would’ve been picketing otherwise.
More than 80 years of Sun Valley lore are chronicled in these warmly haunting photos — a tapestry of familiar faces over the eras who’ve come here to ski, hike, bike, fish, frolic, hobnob, pheasant hunt, or otherwise seize the day.
I find myself stopping to stare at them over and over again.
A sturdy John Wayne on Dollar Mountain. A young, beaming Ingrid Bergman on the Baldy slopes with jovial ski friends Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. A boyishly grinning Clint Eastwood from 1981 — and, down the hall, an older, gently smiling Clint holding a 2015 Sun Valley Film Festival Lifetime Vision Award. An animated Ernest Hemingway gazing skyward in the tall grass with Jane Russell, hunting rifles in hand. And another Hemingway hanging nearby, among several more, with young son Patrick (now 88 years old) and a felled buck. If there’s any lasting proof that there’s no place the roving, restless writer loved more than Sun Valley, it’s fixed on these halls.
Soon, I’m scoping out longer hallway routes back to my suite just to photo-hop past more Sun Valley faces. Charles Kuralt. Warren Miller. Arturo Toscanini. Tom Selleck. Harry Truman. Jane and Peter Fonda. Barbara Streisand. James Earl Jones. Leonard Bernstein. Sandra Day O’Connor. Schwarzenegger on the hill, proudly posing beside an “Arnold’s Run” sign. Averell Harriman inspecting the lodge construction site in 1936 — making mountain history out of an old, reborn Idaho valley.
You get the picture. This place has had some serious lives and times. Carpe diem.
“Sun Valley is just one of those really special places, and it’s the people here who make it especially so,” says Sibbach, a native Pennsylvanian who visited Sun Valley nearly 40 years ago and then promptly called it home.
This seems to be a recurring theme for a lot of longtime Sun Valley residents. Discovering the place by chance years ago — much like the resort itself was first discovered — and then deciding that there was simply no going back.
“I came out here sight unseen in 1978, just knowing that I loved skiing and the mountains and the whole idea of being out west more than the whole idea of joining my dad’s car dealership after college,” says Steve Haims, a buoyant local guide, part-time chef, and full-fledged outdoorsman. He hands me a pair of rental snowshoes at the Sun Valley Nordic Center the following morning — and a business card that reads “Hard Working Ski Bum.” In case the card doesn’t indicate as much, he tells me, “I could’ve made more money selling cars in Connecticut — and been a lot less happy.”
Tromping with me on snowshoes on cross-country trails that loop around the resort’s snow-blanketed golf course — past a picturesque creek flanked in giant spruce trees, bare aspens, and squawky blue jays — Haims appears to be plenty happy here, and well-versed on the rich history of his adopted home.
“Most people think that’s the first chairlift ever built,” says Haims, pointing across the creek at an antiquated single chair sitting dormant on a lone mountainface like a thinly disguised banana transporter. “It’s actually the second chairlift ever built. The first one is now gone. They managed to preserve this one, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
As well it should be. So long as no one has to brave a ride on it anymore.
That evening, I’ll retrace my snowshoeing steps along these same lovely creek-side trails aboard a horse-drawn sleigh transporting lodge guests to a memorable dinner at nearby Trail Creek Cabin. The former 1930s private hunting lodge is now a fine-dining destination for Idaho-style surf and turf (think bison short ribs, Rocky Mountain elk, Northwest steelhead) in yet another timeless Sun Valley setting (a favorite of Hemingway, it turns out).
“I’m happy to answer any questions,” says our friendly sleigh driver, a large cowboy-hatted silhouette, doling out heavy blankets for the brisk moonlit ride through the snow to the cabin. “And if I don’t know the right answer,” he adds, with a just-perceptible twinkle, “I’ll be happy to tell you a good story anyway.”
But there’s no need. A true tale’s unfolding right now, drawing everyone in to its alpine atmosphere.
A light snow is falling as a pair of giant draft horses kick into gear. A sleigh glides through a quiet Idaho valley in an ageless canvas of mountains, moon, and stars. Somewhere out there in the silent wintry night, a cozy old cabin with a roaring fire and a long, laden table awaits.
From the January 2017 issue.