The twin peaks of America’s first ski resort host a snowy playground for Olympians, celebrities and beginners alike.
Halfway down the toughest ‘intermediate’ trail I’ve ever skied, I stop to catch my breath. While most ski resorts roll from summit to base in steps, Sun Valley plunges – unrelenting constant pitch is its trademark.
It’s a big mountain, with more vertical than legends Alta or Breckenridge, but non-stop gravity makes it feel bigger. The blue trail I’m labouring down is Warm Springs, an unlikely signature run at a mountain famed for expert bumps and spawning decades of Olympians.
Dropping from the peak to base of Bald Mountain, or ‘Baldy’, it plummets more than 1,000 vertical metres without flattening, and only the fittest can ski it non-stop. That doesn't stop guests like me from trying, as Warm Springs is a pilgrimage experience at America’s first destination ski resort.
After skiing in the Swiss Alps, W. Averell Harriman, chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, decided America needed its own alpine playground. He hired Austrian skier Count Felix Schaffgotsch to scour America’s mountains, and after exploring California, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, the Count found paradise in Ketchum, Idaho.
The ski resort opened in 1936, with the luxurious Sun Valley Lodge to house visitors. The lodge and setting stunned skiers, but what really put Sun Valley on the map was its chairlifts.
Before 1936, every ski resort used the same technology: rope tows, J-bars or T-bars dragging standing skiers uphill. Harriman challenged railroad engineers to create a better people mover, and the resort opened with the world’s first two chairlifts, quickly adding a third.
Skiers ascended while leisurely seated, which along with the swanky lodge immediately attracted a celebrity clientele. And they never stopped coming. Early regulars included Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway, who finished For Whom the Bell Tolls in the lodge. Contemporary guests include Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Clint Eastwood, Justin Timberlake and Bill Gates.
The first chair up Dollar Mountain, one of two peaks in the resort, has been replaced by a high-speed quad, serving the same terrain – with one exception. Dollar now features a nearly seven-metre super pipe and a Terrain Park, popular with snowboarders, a sport that was quickly embraced here: Sun Valley has sent at least one resident to every Olympics since snowboarding was added.
Treeless, diminutive Dollar rises just 297 metres, but is regarded as the nation’s finest learning area. Intermediate Dollar Face is its steepest run, and when new skiers can navigate it, they graduate to Baldy. Today a gondola mirrors Bald Mountain’s first chair, accessing black diamond Christmas Bowl, the most popular spot in Idaho after a snowstorm. Thanks to the gondola, I enjoy more knee-deep powder laps than Hemingway could in his day.
After the endless Warm Springs descent, I’m ready for an apres-ski cocktail, but heading into the lodge I’m thrown off balance. To celebrate its 80th season, the resort did a huge expansion in 2015, adding 50 new acres of glade skiing, but the biggest change is the lodge, rebuilt with every modern luxury.
Formerly tucked away, the new Duchin Lounge is a vibrant gathering spot and a focal point of the art-appointed grand lobby. Guest rooms were so enlarged, with new spa-like bathrooms that capacity dropped by a third (94 rooms down from 148).
A 20,000-square-foot spa, fitness centre, yoga studio, and poolside café were added. I sip my drink, looking up at the sun setting over the slopes, and reflect on what has not changed: Dollar and Bald Mountains, with terrain for all abilities, and the constant pitch that puts the downhill in downhill skiing.
Words: Larry Olmsted