Idaho is beautiful. From Couer d’Alene to Pocatello it’s one of the most spectacular States in America. Sun Valley is in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). The SRNA encompasses hundreds of mountain lakes; magnificent mountain ranges including the Sawtooths, Boulders, White Clouds, and Smokies; the headwaters of four of Idaho’s major rivers: the Salmon, South Fork of the Payette, the Boise, and the Big Wood; and supports recreational activities like hiking, backpacking, fishing, boating, rafting, observing nature, photography and bicycling.
It almost seems to make sense that the Grand Daddy of Them All, Sun Valley, would be within this spectacular beauty. The resort was created out of the imagination and money of one of America’s most influential businessman-politician, W. Averell Harriman. Harriman ran a Railroad (Union Pacific) and a Bank. He was also an avid skier. In the early 1930’s he dreamed of bringing a European-type destination resort like St. Anton or St. Moritz to the United States. It didn’t hurt if the resort drove passenger traffic on his railroad.
America developed the love and excitement you feel for skiing in the 1930’s. As the country emerged from the great depression, enthralled by the Golden Age of Baseball and the emergence of Hollywood: sports, excitement and romance were in the air. In winter, if you lived where it snowed, you were looking for things to do.
Harriman hired an Austrian Count to scout the West for the perfect location. Allegedly the Count was from the famed St. Anton, an expert skier, and a knowledgeable ski resort developer. It’s been argued by none other than St. Anton trained Friedl Pfeifer, who was running Sun Valley ski school in 1938, that Harriman confused Count Felix Schaffgotsch, with his brother Friedrich who was the expert skier. This is a pretty incredible detail because the Count passed on many of America’s greatest ski mountains.
Regardless, Harriman had given Count Felix marching orders for the perfect resort: lots of Sun; near a Union Pacific Railroad line; not too cold, windy or snowy; and not too close to a city (too many weekend drivers). Count Felix traveled over 7,000 miles in the West. He explored Washington (Mt. Rainier), Oregon (Mt. Hood), Central California (Western Sierras – Yosemite), Southern California (Lake Arrowhead – Big Bear), California-Nevada Border (Lake Tahoe), Colorado (Estes Park, Steamboat Springs and Aspen), Utah (Little & Big Cottonwood – Alta, Brighton and Ogden Canyon – Snowbasin), and Wyoming (Jackson Hole). The Count ruled these all out because of conditions, access, and proximity to a city. In what turned out to be a bit of a Hail Mary, a Union Pacific freight agent remembers forgetting to tell the Count about areas in Idaho that had some large mountains rising out of a valley, Hailey and Ketchum. He wired the Count, and eventually, they made it to Ketchum.
Harriman’s resort in Ketchum was named “Sun Valley” by a publicist famed for making Miami a national vacation destination. It opened with Harriman conspiring with his Hollywood friend David Selznick to bring movie stars to Sun Valley including Melvyn Douglas and Claudette Colbert. The opening night even featured a fight between David O. Selznick and a Chicago banker that made headlines in major cities across America. The starts kept coming and have never stopped. Sun Valley boasts residents and regular visitors included Lucille Ball, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sun Valley hosts the annual Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference: where the world of media companies, venture capitalists, bankers and entrepreneurs meet to discuss deals and the future of the World’s media landscape.
Today you take State Road 75 North toward Ketchum to reach Sun Valley. The road travels over flat terrain for miles. In the distance, you can see mountains jetting out of the plateau. As you leave the plateau behind the magic of the valleys and the surrounding mountains becomes clear. The Count had found Harriman the perfect location for Sun Valley. The history of Sun Valley can be found here (and its worth the read). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Valley,_Idaho
Sun Valley was super high on my GNASA plans. In fact, other than Canada’s Powder Highway, Sun Valley was the resort I was most looking forward to visit. The initial plan was to go with some good friends from Taos: one of whom had grown up in Sun Valley. She was on the alpine race team in high school. When she canceled, I have to say that my expectations went from very high to very low.
Note to adventurer: never ever get bummed about visiting a great resort. I was and because of my crappy attitude, I almost missed one the best days of skiing in my life.
My first day at Sun Valley was sunny, windless, and rerlatively warm. A few inches had fallen overnight blown around by gusty winds. The snow-covered trees glistened in the sun: this was the Sun Valley Harriman envisioned. I launched form the Warm Springs Day Lodge and took Challenger, Chair 10, up the mountain. Challenger climbs higher than most chairs in North America at 3,100 vertical feet and the ride reveals what makes Sun Valley famous, long continues slopes of consistent pitch. Few sights make you wish you had done more squats and burpees like seeing the runs accessible from Challenger.
I started in the Bowls (see below) and worked my way down. The bowls were skiing well. If you hit the ridgeline on the right aspect you easily found soft powder. Missed the right aspect, it was sun baked and windblown. was a bit bummed without my friends from Taos and had my music turned up, when I went for an empty chair on Lookout Express. Someone slid in and joined me on the chair. Privacy destroyed. But I had learned over the years to never pass up a conversation on a chairlift.
My chairmate turned out to be a technology thought leader and a Sun Valley local. We talked about tech, skiing, and local experiences. When I asked him where the locals ski, he said the two words every resort visitor wants to hear, “Follow me.”
We headed out beyond Seattle Ridge to the side country that is being developed as Cold Springs Canyon. We made a few runs, some in the bowls, others in the glades. All in fresh powder. Wow! I offered to take my new friend to lunch for sharing these amazing runs. We wen to Apples Bar and Grill, a local hang out that also sponsors the Sun Valleys alpine and free style teams. Here I met Joey Cordeau, a Sun Valley legend and 4 time World Pro Mogul Champion. He spent over a decade representing the United States in and World Mogul competitions. See our chat here.
Turns out Joey was buddies with my friends from Squaw and was even teaching his mogul techniques there.
Sun Valley Expert Skiing
Sun Valley is known for some of the longest, consistent pitch runs in North America. This makes for some of the best bump runs and fittest skiers in North America. Sun Valley has embraced mogul skiing to the point of having their own technique Sun Valley Mogul Method (SVMM). https://youtu.be/scLlZ5E-zCQ
Among the locals’ favorite bump runs are Limelight, Upper River Run, and Exhibition.
On top of Baldy are the Bowls, including Lefty, Mayday, Lookout, Easter, and Little Easter. On good snow days, people ski the bowls and ridges looking for the best lines with the fewest tracks. Aspects vary, so you can have great skiing on a Northern facing ridge and baked conditions of a more Southerly one.
and Exhibition (off Christmas Chair) is a favorite bump run.
Sun Valley is not known for its steeps. You’re at one of the best bump mountains in America. However, Inhibition and Fire Trail offer some adrenalin-boosting excitement for steep chasers.
There are two parking areas for Sun Valley: on the south end is River Run and to the north Warm Springs. Parking is pretty good at both spots and free. River Run lots are a bit of a walk but has a shuttle. Warm Springs is the side where you’ll find Apples Bar & Grill
At the time of my GNASA, Sun Valley was running its Ski Patrol 101 program. A chance to enter a lottery to get a chance to open up the mountain with a Sun Valley Patroller. It’s only for a lucky few, but it’s a once in a lifetime chance for Sun Valley aficionados. Ask for information at River Run Lodge. https://www.sunvalley.com/blog/skiing-riding/ski-patrol-101-ride-along-with-patrol-as-they-open-up-baldy (Program)