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Sun Valley Refrain

Sun Valley Refrain

Features
By Stu Campbell
posted: 09/19/2000

Growing up as an avid skier in Vermont, I always dreamed of going to Sun Valley—that legendary mountain out west where runs were long, snow was deep, the sun shone and movie stars vacationed. The vision tempted me, but I never made the trip.

Somehow I knew the history: W. Averill Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad and a lifelong skier, needed more wintertime passengers. He enlisted an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, to ride every western line and spur in search of the perfect spot for a winter resort, one that could rival the great ski centers of Europe.

Schaffgotsch ultimately made his way to a remote settlement called Ketchum, Idaho, and in the spring of 1936 wired Harriman to say he'd found it. "It contains more delightful features for a winter sports center than any other place I've seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria," the count wrote to Mr. Harriman. High but not too high, bathed in sunlight by day, cold at night, the Wood River Valley, he reported, sat beneath treeless billowy mountains. When Harriman saw it he agreed it was "the most beautiful place," and he moved fast. He built The Lodge and two original lifts in seven months. He imported decorators, chefs and ski instructors and a marketing whiz named Steve Hannagan, a non-skier with Hollywood contacts and the good sense to dub the place Sun Valley. It opened before Christmas that year to instant acclaim. The rich and chic from both coasts flocked in by train. Sun Valley had the cache to attract the finest skiers in the world. They came to race for the Harriman Cup. It produced Olympic gold medalist Gretchen Fraser almost immediately. Christin Cooper and Picabo Street followed suit years later. Sonja Henie, the most celebrated figure skater ever, starred in "Sun Valley Serenade" shot on location. Ernest Hemingway came to hunt, fish and write, and finally settled here to raise his family. I didn't make it.

In its glory days, before Aspen, Alta and Vail stole some of its glamour, Sun Valley was branded in the American psyche as the ultimate winter destination. "The most important influence on the development of American skiing," claims local historian Wendolyn Spence Holland, "may have been Sun Valley."

Sadly, "The Valley" closed during World War II and didn't reopen until Dec. 21, 1946. During the same era, the family car replaced rail travel as the favored mode of transportation. The resort's "alpine seclusion," which Harriman had banked on, became a negative, and he sold it to champion skier and California developer Bill Janss. Sun Valley's second owner worked hard to attract the skiing masses, but in the nascent years of the automobile era, central Idaho seemed too remote to drive to. That may have been my excuse.

Sun Valley's present owner, some would say "savior," R. Earl Holding, purchased the resort in 1977 for $12 million. What Holding—political wheeler-dealer, eccentric owner of Sinclair Oil; 2002 Olympic site Snowbasin, Utah; Little America and other hotel properties—lacks in personal star quality, he more than makes up for in hands-on decision making.

To restore its preeminence he capitalized the place heavily, with taste and style to match Harriman's, and by 1998 the resort's estimated worth was more than $300 million.

Today, say SKI's readers, Sun Valley again is near the top of the list of U.S. ski resorts. The most extravagant outings, the classiest conferences, the best turns and the most romantic encounters all happen here. In 1986, when SKI decided where best to hold its 50th Anniversary bash, we of course chose Sun Valley. For some reason, I was tied up and couldn't make it.

Many of my friends live in Sun Valley. Neighbors make annual pilgrimages. A former Sun Valley employee, Bill Shaw, who was raised here and went on to the U.S. Ski Team and pro tours, used to plead with me to visit. He said the morning light would make me cry. The invite was always there, I just never heeded it. Until last wier.

If the weather's clear, the flight out of Salt Lake takes about an hour. For a while you fly over high desert, and then suddenly round, white hills rise up to greet you on all sides. Light ricochets across the valley. Everywhere you look, the trees are sparse and untracked skiable lines abound. As you drive the 12 miles north from Hailey Airport to Ketchum, the hills just get bigger, the lines longer and the snowpack deeper.

"My first impression?" Terry Palmer, former USST member and longtime Sun Valley resident, told me later: "If only I had a jetpack. I could fly up and ski endless powder."

Count Schaffgotsch made fine choices in the sun-drenched peaks he selected in 1936, but he neglected the most stunning mountain of all, Bald Mountain, because it had trees. Today Baldy and Sun Valley are synonymous, and the current ski resort is located across the valley from the runs Harriman first cut, which have since been abandoned.

Sun Valley Village, down the lane past pristine white meadows, is a campus-like suburb of Ketchum. The legendary Lodge at Sun Valley, with its concrete exterior stained to look like wood, is the centerpiece. Height restrictions and building codes have limited hillside construction and kept the unspoiled space much as it was when it opened 64 years ago. At the Lodge entrance bellmen, in boiled wool jackets, scramble to unload your gear. A Brazilian woman in an Austrian dirndl checks you in. The Lodge is a living museum. A walk down the hallway to your suite—past the sunroom, glass trophy cases and hundreds of black-and-white wall photos—is a stroll through history.

Because Sun Valley sits on the western edge of the Mountain time zone, light lingers late. Long afternoons are for reflection, soaking, reading, snowshoeing, a sleigh ride, cross-country skiing, perhaps writing something like the final chapters of For Whom the Bells Tolls, as Hemingway did in suite 206.

Morning light comes late into the valley as well. Sunlight hits the top of Baldy first, near the ski-patrol shack. Bill Shaw, who has traveled from San Francisco to show me this place, has me on the Warm Springs lift at 7:30 am. It's still dark. We ride with the "rookie" of the ski patrol, a man with a mere 14 years experience. "To get a job on this patrol," he says, "somebody either has to die or retire after 35 years."

As day breaks we drink tea in the blackened log structure atop Baldy, awash in fluorescent light, and stuffed with lockers, cutting-edge communications and first-aid gear. The morning briefing is elaborate: trail closures, weather forecasts, accident reports, snow conditions, work assignments, policies and procedures are all covered. Shortly after 8 am, Bruce Malone, patrol director, drops his clipboard on the table between us. "OK boys," he says to Bill. "Have fun. Don't get hurt."

Bill's out the door, zipping his jacket, and I'm one step behind. For more than an hour we have Sun Valley all to ourselves, with 2 inches of fresh cream over seamless corduroy. The light is flat, and I have only Bill's tracks for reference. He knows the way; I have to trust him. Long, open trails with dished sides plunge relentlessly. We ravish five routes at warp speed.

When other skiers appear in the upper lift mazes at 9:15, we almost resent their presence. Not that it's ever crowded. An average day at Sun Valley sees 2,900 skiers, and the resort's record day back in 1983 was 8,200. (Vail does 25,000 on a big day.) Long liftlines almost never happen, even on Saturdays. Nineteen lifts, seven of them high-speed quads, provide an overkill uphill capacity of 28,180 an hour. With 3,400 feet of honest vertical and no liftlines for rest, it takes Ironman endurance to ski from opening bell to closing time.

Sun Valley's clientele is best described as "mature." The age of the average guest at The Lodge, for example, is 49. To accommodate, more than half of Ski School Director Hans Muehlegger's 240 instructors are over 50, and 40 percent of them have more than 20 years experience. Don't be misled by the apparent geriatric demographic. And don't try to out-ski Hans, his staff or many locals, for that matter—unless you're a well-waxed, trained professional wearing a speed suit. Sun Valley is a racy place, where great skiers demonstrate how to control long arcs and milk the mountain for speed.

No one has an exact count, but dozens of present and former world and national class skiers call Sun Valley home. Retirement does not seem to be an option. Athletes continue to train and race—for bragging rights and shots of Cuervo Gold. Weekly "ski bum" races, known as the Wednesday World Cup, bear startling resemblance to the real thing.

My friend Terry Palmer, now a local realtor, used to be a World Cup competitor and coach, as well as a successful pro racer. He grew up near Mt. Cranmore, N.H., but when he retired from competition in 1973, Terry wandered into Sun Valley.

"I stayed because of the community, the mountain and the climate—in that order," says Palmer, a father of three. "The town embraced me and my family. People act the same as they did 27 years ago, while facilities on the mountain just keep getting better."

Palmer, nearly 50, is still a factor in the Wednesday races. He instructs part-time, flits through bumps like a kid and skis Baldy's banked drainages like he's running super G. "New lifts and lodges are wonderful, but the mountain's what gets you," he says. "Baldy never gives up. No flats, no rolls; it's like this hill was designed for shaped skis. It forces you to become a better skier.

"Then there's the weather," he adds, as if a resort named "Sun Valley" needs explanation. "The sun shines 275 days a year, and it's almost never bitter cold."

"Sun Valley has been discovered," says Palmer, "but it doesn't get trampled. It's just too hard for lots of people to get here. That's a mixed blessing for the business community, but it's a wonderful place to live."

Charlie Webster coaches the season-long Mountain Masters Program, an older group that sports matching yellow uniforms. Some are in their 70s, and most never skied before age 50, and now they average at least 20,000 vertical feet a day. There is also a full-season Masters Race Clinic for Wednesday World Cup wannabes. "Sun Valley is one of the last bastions of pure alpine skiing," says Webster. "There aren't a lot of snowboarders here. Many who show up actually go back to skiing. The carving culture, the consistent pitch of the hill and the hard snow make people want to ski."

Hard snow is not uncommon at Sun Valley, which explains why it's sometimes called the most Eastern of Western mountains. Truth is, with only 200 annual inches of snow, it doesn't snow here as much as legend would have us believe. February and March see heavy dumps, but the early season can be dry.

Peter Stearns, who runs the high-powered, $20 million snowmaking system, arguably the most advanced anywhere, acknowledges that Sun Valley is aptly named. "We try to make as little snow as possible," says Stearns, "but sometimes we have to give Mother Nature a little help."

Fortunately the resort enjoys an abundance of water, compressed air and labor, while the region's populace has the political will to make as much snow as necessary. Local hotels and restaurants reported their best Christmas week ever in 1999. Not a single complaint about the quality of skiing was reported, though only a portion of Bald Mountain was open. Sun Valley is a good bet, even in a bad snow year.

Since its conception, Sun Valley has cultivated its image and been conscious of its architecture. Even the front of the vehicle maintenance garage at River Run looks like an upscale heath club. Gilbert Stanley Underwood of Los Angeles, renowned in the Thirties for the several national-park hotels he built in remote places throughout the West, designed The Lodge.

More recently, critical praise has been heaped on Sun Valley's "thr percent of them have more than 20 years experience. Don't be misled by the apparent geriatric demographic. And don't try to out-ski Hans, his staff or many locals, for that matter—unless you're a well-waxed, trained professional wearing a speed suit. Sun Valley is a racy place, where great skiers demonstrate how to control long arcs and milk the mountain for speed.

No one has an exact count, but dozens of present and former world and national class skiers call Sun Valley home. Retirement does not seem to be an option. Athletes continue to train and race—for bragging rights and shots of Cuervo Gold. Weekly "ski bum" races, known as the Wednesday World Cup, bear startling resemblance to the real thing.

My friend Terry Palmer, now a local realtor, used to be a World Cup competitor and coach, as well as a successful pro racer. He grew up near Mt. Cranmore, N.H., but when he retired from competition in 1973, Terry wandered into Sun Valley.

"I stayed because of the community, the mountain and the climate—in that order," says Palmer, a father of three. "The town embraced me and my family. People act the same as they did 27 years ago, while facilities on the mountain just keep getting better."

Palmer, nearly 50, is still a factor in the Wednesday races. He instructs part-time, flits through bumps like a kid and skis Baldy's banked drainages like he's running super G. "New lifts and lodges are wonderful, but the mountain's what gets you," he says. "Baldy never gives up. No flats, no rolls; it's like this hill was designed for shaped skis. It forces you to become a better skier.

"Then there's the weather," he adds, as if a resort named "Sun Valley" needs explanation. "The sun shines 275 days a year, and it's almost never bitter cold."

"Sun Valley has been discovered," says Palmer, "but it doesn't get trampled. It's just too hard for lots of people to get here. That's a mixed blessing for the business community, but it's a wonderful place to live."

Charlie Webster coaches the season-long Mountain Masters Program, an older group that sports matching yellow uniforms. Some are in their 70s, and most never skied before age 50, and now they average at least 20,000 vertical feet a day. There is also a full-season Masters Race Clinic for Wednesday World Cup wannabes. "Sun Valley is one of the last bastions of pure alpine skiing," says Webster. "There aren't a lot of snowboarders here. Many who show up actually go back to skiing. The carving culture, the consistent pitch of the hill and the hard snow make people want to ski."

Hard snow is not uncommon at Sun Valley, which explains why it's sometimes called the most Eastern of Western mountains. Truth is, with only 200 annual inches of snow, it doesn't snow here as much as legend would have us believe. February and March see heavy dumps, but the early season can be dry.

Peter Stearns, who runs the high-powered, $20 million snowmaking system, arguably the most advanced anywhere, acknowledges that Sun Valley is aptly named. "We try to make as little snow as possible," says Stearns, "but sometimes we have to give Mother Nature a little help."

Fortunately the resort enjoys an abundance of water, compressed air and labor, while the region's populace has the political will to make as much snow as necessary. Local hotels and restaurants reported their best Christmas week ever in 1999. Not a single complaint about the quality of skiing was reported, though only a portion of Bald Mountain was open. Sun Valley is a good bet, even in a bad snow year.

Since its conception, Sun Valley has cultivated its image and been conscious of its architecture. Even the front of the vehicle maintenance garage at River Run looks like an upscale heath club. Gilbert Stanley Underwood of Los Angeles, renowned in the Thirties for the several national-park hotels he built in remote places throughout the West, designed The Lodge.

More recently, critical praise has been heaped on Sun Valley's "three jewels," two new base lodges at Warm Springs and River Run, and the summit day lodge at Seattle Ridge. Each was designed by local architect and ski racer Jim Ruscitto. The soaring timber, glass and river-rock structures echo Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn and the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, and they add to Sun Valley's country-club feel. Here the tanned and coifed slip into their Bogner and Post Card suits in opulent locker rooms, nibble exquisite food in carpeted dining rooms, lounge on overstuffed sofas, check investments on nearby computers and freshen up in marble-floored restrooms. For the price of a $59 lift ticket, anyone can belong to the club.

For families with kids, logistics can get complicated. Greater Sun Valley is spread out. Sun Valley Village is a few miles from Warm Springs and River Run and some distance from the tranquility of Dollar Mountain, home of the Tiny Traks children's program and learning hill for new skiers and boarders. Yet there's no need for a car. Yellow, charmingly rickety buses connect all points, and blue Ketchum-run municipal buses supplement them. All are free and run so regularly you can set your watch by them.

Skiing rules absolutely at Sun Valley. Actor Robert Duval is there to ski. David Duval, golfer and no relation, is there to ride. Both are just part of the scene; nobody special. Celebrities, as they have throughout the resort's history, rub elbows with locals on the mountain, in the pubs and restaurants. Here rank is not measured in Oscars, ratings, wealth or house size. What counts is how well you can arc 'em.

Former Olympian Christin Cooper, who can out-arc the best of them, lives in Aspen, but frequently returns to her Sun Valley roots. A run off Seattle Ridge, Christin's Silver, is named for her. It is next to Gretchen's Gold. Two lifts away is Picabo's Street. We meet by accident and chat at the Lookout, above Warm Springs Run. It's chilly in the wind.

"Enough talk," says Coop. "Let's ski!"

In her tracks for the first 50 turns it's like following a great ski teacher. I'm into it, matching turn for turn. Then she accelerates, and after another 50 turns I've reached my speed limit. After another 50, she's out of view.

It's often said that Baldy has "perfect pitch." It's true. As locals say, "It's all downhill." Warm Springs Run, like so many at Sun Valley, draws you down and down and down. Cooper devours all 3,400 vertical feet in one gulp.

"Did you stop?" I ask, breathless, at the bottom. She'd obviously been waiting for some time.

"Did you?" she asks.

"No," I say. "The mountain won't let you."

She grins in agreement. Then like a conspirator: "Listen, tell everybody Sun Valley's hard to get to, the mountain sucks, the snow's lousy and the people are unfriendly. OK?"

I nod. She's right, but only on the first count. I can't wait to return.And yes, Billy, the morning light makes you cry."three jewels," two new base lodges at Warm Springs and River Run, and the summit day lodge at Seattle Ridge. Each was designed by local architect and ski racer Jim Ruscitto. The soaring timber, glass and river-rock structures echo Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn and the Ahwahnee in Yosemite, and they add to Sun Valley's country-club feel. Here the tanned and coifed slip into their Bogner and Post Card suits in opulent locker rooms, nibble exquisite food in carpeted dining rooms, lounge on overstuffed sofas, check investments on nearby computers and freshen up in marble-floored restrooms. For the price of a $59 lift ticket, anyone can belong to the club.

For families with kids, logistics can get complicated. Greater Sun Valley is spread out. Sun Valley Village is a few miles from Warm Springs and River Run and some distance from the tranquility of Dollar Mountain, home of the Tiny Traks children's program and learning hill for new skiers and boarders. Yet there's no need for a car. Yellow, charmingly rickety buses connect all points, and blue Ketchum-run municipal buses suppllement them. All are free and run so regularly you can set your watch by them.

Skiing rules absolutely at Sun Valley. Actor Robert Duval is there to ski. David Duval, golfer and no relation, is there to ride. Both are just part of the scene; nobody special. Celebrities, as they have throughout the resort's history, rub elbows with locals on the mountain, in the pubs and restaurants. Here rank is not measured in Oscars, ratings, wealth or house size. What counts is how well you can arc 'em.

Former Olympian Christin Cooper, who can out-arc the best of them, lives in Aspen, but frequently returns to her Sun Valley roots. A run off Seattle Ridge, Christin's Silver, is named for her. It is next to Gretchen's Gold. Two lifts away is Picabo's Street. We meet by accident and chat at the Lookout, above Warm Springs Run. It's chilly in the wind.

"Enough talk," says Coop. "Let's ski!"

In her tracks for the first 50 turns it's like following a great ski teacher. I'm into it, matching turn for turn. Then she accelerates, and after another 50 turns I've reached my speed limit. After another 50, she's out of view.

It's often said that Baldy has "perfect pitch." It's true. As locals say, "It's all downhill." Warm Springs Run, like so many at Sun Valley, draws you down and down and down. Cooper devours all 3,400 vertical feet in one gulp.

"Did you stop?" I ask, breathless, at the bottom. She'd obviously been waiting for some time.

"Did you?" she asks.

"No," I say. "The mountain won't let you."

She grins in agreement. Then like a conspirator: "Listen, tell everybody Sun Valley's hard to get to, the mountain sucks, the snow's lousy and the people are unfriendly. OK?"

I nod. She's right, but only on the first count. I can't wait to return.And yes, Billy, the morning light makes you cry.

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