Return of the Sun

America’s first winter resort built its reputation on unsurpassed opulence. Nearly three quarters of a century later, visitors still indulge in Sun Valley’s luxuries, but now it’s the area’s peaceful simplicity that locals and a shrewd owner are so keen to protect.
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Our rented Suburban rumbles over the blacktop. We’re chasing the yellow line that splits the Idaho plain—a succession of lifeless lava flats—and pulls us toward the snarled Sawtooths looming in the distance. My family flew from New Jersey to Seattle and then to Boise, where we piled into this SUV for the 170-mile drive to Sun Valley. The sun is setting, and I can see a look of awe and concern on my kids’ faces. For the first time ever, they gaze upon an austere expanse, void of life or civilization—save the car, the road and us. A broken fan belt compounded by a bad decision or two and we’d become a cautionary tale the locals—if there were any around here—would tell.

The fan belt holds. We continue down this lonesome stretch of asphalt, and all we’re left with is an appreciation of a land without subdivisions, strip malls or traffic. If geography is destiny, this desolate prairie—a layer of insulation from the rampant growth and quick money that engulf other resorts—has determined Sun Valley’s fate. But as I’ll learn in the coming days, destiny’s had many co-writers.

Not least among them was Ernest Hemingway. Papa could have made his home anywhere in the world, but he chose Sun Valley. He was so enamored of the region and the resort, in fact, that he modeled his home on the Sun Valley Lodge, where he penned his greatest work. His coming here, as history tells, was mostly happenstance. His staying? Anything but.

And that’s what we’ve come to find out. I want to know what it is about this place that seduced and inspired not only my favorite American novelist but so many others. More important, perhaps, is whether the magic remains a half-
century later.

As we pull into Ketchum, it looks as I imagine it did in its early wagon days, the main drag lined with one- and two-story storefronts standing shoulder to shoulder. I can picture a grizzled rancher leaning wearily against a post in front of the Pioneer Saloon. We turn onto Sun Valley Road and, before leaving town, pass Christiania, a French restaurant owned by former U.S. Ski Team head women’s coach Michel Rudigoz. Hemingway dined and drank here so often he had his own table. I imagine it was the refined rustic ambience and simplicity of the place that attracted him.

We leave downtown Ketchum behind for now and continue up Sun Valley Road to the Sun Valley Lodge, the centerpiece of the resort. Out front, the glowing resort logo comes to life: a giant smiling sun. Sun Valley visionary and founder Averell Harriman commissioned a public relations expert to name his resort in 1936, and the moniker is pure truth in advertising.

The next morning, we venture over to Dollar Mountain, abutting the southeast  side of the resort. Back in the 1930s, before Bald Mountain opened, Dollar was Sun Valley’s ski hill. It was gentle enough to hike up and glide down in
the days when ski boots were made of leather and laces. But Dollar is far from
a relic.

It’s often called the best teaching mountain in America, though that’s to damn it with faint praise. It’s really the smart, pretty sister of a supermodel. Because of its treeless bowls and broad shoulders, it skis much bigger than we expected of its thousand-foot vertical. It’s a place where skiers of all ability levels can find something to like. But most of all, it’s a tabula rasa of a mountain, a place where you can express yourself. So that’s what we do. My son, Ethan, who usually seems happiest when he’s hanging out with me, follows his mother. He sticks to the fall line, taking the shortest distance between two points, and blasts down the hill full-bore as if a high score on his favorite video game were at stake.

His sister, Emma, on the other hand, has been a mama’s girl from the day she was born. But today, she lags behind with me, choosing the road less traveled. She plows through the crud and bounces off the bumplets, reveling in the fact that she, and not a rock, or a stand of trees or another skier, will determine just when and where she’ll point her skis back down the fall line. We make big lazy arcs and soak up the midwinter sunshine, laughing as we amble toward the lifts. This hill reminds us that skiing is simply about turning winter on its head, a concept Sun Valley just about invented.

Skiing as we know it started in Sun Valley in 1936. Harriman built the resort to increase passenger travel on his Union Pacific railroad. It worked. Countless visitors came; many stayed. The resort’s early days were immortalized in that campy classic film with its swinging Glenn Miller soundtrack, Sun Valley Serenade. Stories of the resort’s glamorous visitors, its champion racers and its historic first chairlift paint a romantic and timeless picture. By virtue of its place on America’s skiing timeline, Sun Valley is a legend.

In its first half-decade, the resort expanded quickly, and the locals celebrated the newfound commerce and spotlight it brought to the region. The advent of the chairlift opened Bald Mountain, the bigger of Sun Valley’s two ski hills, and introduced the sport of skiing and the magic of winter to the masses.

But the resort’s novelty began to fade as other winter resorts—most of which are easier to access and boast more desirable terrain and snow—appeared. Even Harriman grew weary of the place. When he discontinued rail service to Ketchum and sold the resort to former Olympic ski team member and Snowmass, Colo., founder Bill Janss in 1964, the reality of Ketchum’s remoteness set in.

Tonight, we’re enjoying that remoteness. After a leisurely dip in the Lodge’s enormous hot tub, we bundle up and head off for a true, old-fashioned sleigh ride. As the horses gallop through the night, we sing. “Jingle Bells.” No verse, just the chorus, off key in a grammar-school-play kind of way. And when we run out of songs, we begin telling jokes, the sort of jokes that are only funny if you’ve had enough wine. And we’ve had enough wine. Our destination is the Trail Creek Cabin, another Hemingway haunt and Sun Valley standard. On the way, we pass a small memorial plaque inscribed with an epitaph he wrote for a hunting buddy.

Hemingway didn’t spend much time, if any, on the slopes, and it seems the winters here weren’t what charmed him.

Best of all he loved the fall. 
The trout streams.
The high blue windless skies.

Hemingway’s Sun Valley story, as I learned from local historian Jim Jaquet, was simple. “He was broke,” explained Jaquet. Harriman offered him room and board in the lodge’s best suite in exchange for letting the guests bask in his reflected glow while he finished For Whome the Bell Tolls. But this marriage of convenience quickly became something more. In Room 206 of the Sun Valley Lodge, Hemingway wrote his novel in the mornings, and in the afternoons he hunted and shot skeet in the pristine Wood River Valley that encircles the resort. Afterward, he’d come to the Trail Creek Cabin to eat and drink and tell lies with the likes of Gary Cooper.

His life in Paris and Key West was riddled with bar fights and broken friendships, but in Sun Valley he found his peaceful side. For him, this place was much more than a winter retreat. In this small mountain town, Hemingway had made friends and made a home. Guests at the hotel were impressed by his star power; the locals saw things differently. They saw his writing—understated but elegant like the valley itself—and they saw a man who could handle a gun and hold his liquor. And perhaps Hemingway, with his simple prose, helped the locals see the valley they’d been missing for the mountain.

Despite Janss’s commitment—he installed lifts and snowmaking systems and developed real estate throughout the resort—Sun Valley and Ketchum began to lose money in the mid-’70s. He had no choice but to sell the resort in 1977 to Earl Holding, the Sinclair Oil magnate. Soon after that, bumper stickers that read “Earl Is a Four-Letter Word” adorned cars all over town. The locals were rightfully concerned that their precious valley would be overdeveloped—by an oilman who didn’t ski, to boot.

Those fears turned out to be largely unfounded. Holding’s passion is building things, to be sure, and at Sun Valley the billionaire has spared no expense. Take the Warm Springs Lodge at the base of Bald Mountain, which was built in the early ’90s and features native stone, cherry wood and polished brass in quantities that would make it the crown jewel of most ski resorts. But it is just one of four equally appointed daylodges Holding built around the resort. When he announced that he was going to build an amphitheater, even insiders expected a modest band shell—the kind you might find in a public park. What Holding built was a state-of-the-art performance facility made of travertine marble from the same quarry that produced stone for the Roman Coliseum. World-class sound system, moveable mahogany baffles to tune the acoustics for different types of musical groups and an automated snow-melt system make it one of the premier music pavilions in the country.

What’s more impressive—and important to locals—is what Holding won’t build. The resort’s 50-year master plan, unveiled in 2005, takes a very conservative approach to future development, restricting it to less than half the build-out permissible under local zoning regulations. This is tied into Holding’s business philosophy: Buy and hold. Confidantes explain that he still grumbles about selling a small lot he owned in Salt Lake City more than 50 years ago. Holding, who’s on Forbes’s list of richest Americans, with $3.3 billion in assets, has hardly sold a thing since. As such, Sun Valley’s business model is much different than most ski resorts, which are driven primarily by real estate development.

But the question now is whether the Holding legacy will survive the man, who is 82 years old and in fragile health since suffering a serious stroke in 2002. He hasn’t named a successor, and even if he does, people around here are reticent. After all, “heir” is a four-letter word, too.

The Holding family insists that business will continue as usual. The devotion to Holding’s strategy has never been more apparent than this season, in fact. While other resorts have sidelined improvement projects, Sun Valley forged ahead with a huge capital project, a new $12 million gondola that will access the newly remodeled Roundhouse Restaurant on Bald Mountain.

“Hey, that’s not bald,” says Ethan as we pull into the parking lot at Baldy.
Compared to the wide-open spaces of Dollar, Baldy’s anything but bald, its lush evergreen cover interrupted only by the network of trails that swoop from the top.

Outside the Warm Springs Lodge, we meet up with a couple of locals from the ski school. Ralph Harris, a fine-art illustrator by trade, matter-of-factly tells us that his uncle was on the crew that installed the storied first chairlift, and one or another member of his family has worked at the mountain since the day it opened. Mark Mutz tells tall tales about powder days and the time he taught John McEnroe’s girlfriend to ski. Hemingway would have liked Mutz, I think.

As we head out, we agree there’s no need for a family meeting to plot strategy. Baldy’s layout is refreshingly straightforward. There’s one mountain, one main lodge and one chair to the top. Baldy is so decision-free that a trail map is almost optional. Still, the kids ski it tentatively at first, daunted by the sheer scale of the mountain. “I like to know where I’m going,” Ethan confides when he stops well within view on a trail called Broadway. He and his sister have grown up skiing in the East, and in their view, the mass of a mountain is proportional to its ability to deal out unpleasant surprises—steeps, bumps, ice or catwalks. But soon they discover a surprise of a different kind—that Bald Mountain has no surprises.

What you see here is what you get. From top to bottom, side to side, the fall line is as consistent as Derek Jeter. They soon realize they can make a couple of turns, set the mental cruise control and just keep going. And keep going we do. Ethan follows Mutz; Emma trails Harris, and they devour one run after another, each faster and freer than the last.

With the kids in good hands, my wife, Sally, and I sneak off for a while to sample the bowls off the Mayday chair. We pause at the ridgeline and look out over the Sawtooths glistening against another blue, if not windless, sky. We’ve skied other big mountains with bigger reputations—based on clips from ski movies and the sheer quantity of you-fall-you-die terrain. Huckable cornices are in short supply here, but as our edges bite the chalky snow and we arc effortlessly from one GS turn to the next, street cred doesn’t matter. While Sun Valley might not sport the snowfall of other Western resorts, the combination of man-made and natural snow and thorough but not excessive grooming make it perfect for big-turn skiing. It’s easy to see why this mountain has been home to some of America’s best racers. I ski fast; Sally skis faster, each turn reflecting our mood rather than any need to scrub or gain speed. Or wait for the kids.

When we return to the pack, we’ve all come to see this mountain for what it is. “We’re not skiing trails,” says Ethan. “We’re really skiing the mountain.” And I understand just what he means.

Most other mountains reveal themselves in pieces. A cruiser here, a chute there, a catwalk in between—a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled piece by piece to form the big picture. But not Baldy. And certainly not Sun Valley. This archetypal mountain offers snow sliding at its most basic: a single mountain you can ski from top to bottom in roughly a straight line. And its classic ski town offers mountain living that’s still unadulterated. Rugged? Yes. Elegant? Yes. But most of all, this place is honest and enduring. More than a little, I think, like Hemingway’s timeless prose. ●

Related

Windless skies above Seattle Ridge

The Return of Sun Valley

America’s first winter resort built its reputation on unsurpassed opulence. Nearly three quarters of a century later, visitors still indulge in Sun Valley’s luxuries, but now it’s the area’s peaceful simplicity that locals and a shrewd owner are so keen to protect. By Allen St. John (This story is featured in our January 2010 issue.)