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Sun Valley, Still the One - Ski Mag

Still the One

The original winter playground of the rich and famous just got a whole lot fancier. But as anyone who lives there knows, Sun Valley was already perfect.
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Genius that I am, I could plainly see, on two previous visits to Sun Valley, that it would be a hell of a mountain to ski on a powder day. No run-outs, no time-wasting traverses; just lots of steep, deeply scenic, delightfully charismatic terrain—3,400 vertical feet of it spilling off the tabletop summit of Bald Mountain. Cover it with, say, 15 inches of powder, and it’d be paradise.

That’s the tricky part. Snowfall is something less than reliable in this part of Idaho. The guy who picked Ketchum as the perfect place for a world-class ski area explored and dismissed much snowier locales—the Wasatch, Mt. Hood, Jackson Hole, and others. This was 1936, half a century before fat skis, and he was under explicit orders from his boss: The perfect place would have “a dry climate with not too much snow, and yet enough for skiing.”

Photo: Keri Bascetta

Photo: Keri Bascetta

It’s not really a problem. Sun Valley’s massive state-of-the-art snowmaking system blankets its long, steeply pitched runs with reliable snow, more often than not perfectly groomed. And the resort generally lets people haul ass, which actually works just fine at a mountain with so many good skiers. Anyway, we must be living well, because as luck has it, Keri (photographer), John (trip poacher), and I (genius) have arrived on the eve of the season’s biggest snowfall.

In fact, it has just started pounding again. We’re parked on Main Street, across from the Pioneer, having spent the evening at Grumpy’s and Whiskey Jacques. We want to get home to our lavish rooms at the historic, recently renovated Sun Valley Lodge so we can rest for more powder tomorrow. The car starts, but then stalls. I try again. Nothing. Genius that I am, I’ve run out of gas.

Keri and John groan. In my defense, it’s a rental, and we’ve all been driving it. Whatever. We call AAA: 90 minutes. Another chorus of groans. But then I’m struck with a much better idea. Call Nestor. Genius. We roust him from his warm home, he stops at Jackson’s for a can of gas, and 20 minutes later we’re on our way. It’s still dumping hard. He doesn’t seem to mind that his best work gloves now reek of petroleum.

Photo: Keri Bascetta

Photo: Keri Bascetta

That’s Ketchum. People so psyched to live where they do, they’re happy to help out.

Nestor is Peter Nestor, and though he hasn’t lived here long, he stands in as the typical Ketchumite about as well as anyone. Affable, funny, humble, he’s like everyone’s favorite ski-industry guy. (He used to own a couple shops back East.) Now he and his beautiful wife, Karen, are semi-retired. Having skied everywhere—and I mean everywhere—they chose Sun Valley. They work part-time at Sturtevant’s, mostly for the social aspect—the industry’s most overqualified shop employees.

You’ve heard a hundred stories about ski towns that cast spells over adventuresome souls who visit for a season and never leave. Well, hate clichés all you want, but in Sun Valley it happens. The skiing, of course, is the primary attraction—again, we’re talking about exceptional, even pantheon-worthy terrain. And the weather’s nice, of course. In summer, the fishing here is as good as it gets, I’m told. And Ketchum is surrounded by uncommonly beautiful mountains and near-wilderness teeming with wildlife, including all the charismatic megafauna—bear, elk, wolves, coyotes, and even, as we shall learn, wildcats.

But for me, and probably a lot of people who live here, there’s a sense of place and community in Ketchum that most ski towns lack, plus a richness of arts and cultural opportunities that gives the place bustle year-round and makes it an unusually stimulating ski-vacation destination. Among the souls it has enthralled are many, many rich and glamorous people—movies stars, Hemingway, the owners of all those G5s at the Hailey airport. They’re part of the attraction—Arnold, Bruce and Demi, Oprah—but also just part of the furniture.

While we’re in town, what everyone’s really fired up about is the hockey game—the Sun Valley Suns are playing the archrival Jackson Hole Moose for the BDHL championship. (Go, Suns! They win, 4-2, before 900 boisterous fans at Campion Ice House.)

Even if you don’t normally get all worked up about the Rich History of every resort you ski, in the case of Sun Valley you need to sit still and pay attention. You’ll learn how Union Pacific Railway boss Averell Harriman, eager to drum up passenger business, hired a charming and handsome Austrian nobleman, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, to scout his Western rail lines in search of the perfect place for the nation’s (arguably) first destination ski resort. And how marketing genius Steve Hannagan understood the power of celebrity marketing and enticed Hollywood’s biggest names to visit, knowing the merely rich would follow. How Hemingway finished his greatest work and ended his life here. How Sun Valley gave the world the amazing Gretchen Fraser, the “pretty housewife” who won America’s first Olympic skiing medals (gold and silver, 1948, St. Moritz), then settled in Sun Valley to nurture war-wrecked sailors, inspire future Olympians, and race airplanes.

My favorite part is this: The Count was a real live Nazi. A likeable, gracious guy, everyone agreed, fun to be around. Just don’t get him going about Hitler. When war broke out, he signed up to fight for the Fatherland, received an officer’s commission in the infamous Waffen-SS, and was killed on the Eastern Front a few months before the retreating Russians turned the tide at Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Harriman was a key cog in the Allied effort, an early and energetic proponent of U.S. involvement in the war—“the one most responsible,” Winston Churchill would say, “for getting the Americans to support us.” As wartime ambassador to Stalin’s Russia, Harriman worked to equip the Soviets with U.S. arms and materiel. The very bullet or shell that felled the Count, as one Idaho journalist has pointed out, may have been supplied by his friend and former employer. Poor Count. He should have stayed in Sun Valley.

Photo: Keri Bascetta

Photo: Keri Bascetta

My other favorite part of Sun Valley lore is The Punch-Out. In 1936, when the spectacular Sun Valley Lodge opened for its first winter, there was a lavish grand-opening party—tuxedos, movie stars, the works. David O. Selznick, future producer of Gone with the Wind, was there with his wife, Claudette Colbert. Perhaps tempers were short—there was no snow—but when a Chicago banker asked for a dance with Colbert, Selznick decked the guy. Hannagan, who understood that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, made sure the story of the black-tie brawl went national.

Fistfights seem rare at the Lodge these days. We didn’t see any (though one broke out at the famously rowdy Casino downtown, exactly as Nestor predicted, during our brief visit one night; good old Ketchum, keeping it real). What we did see was an already luxurious resort that just got immensely more luxurious.

The truth is, the old Lodge, for all its glamorous history, wasn’t up to snuff anymore. Today’s luxury traveler expects increasingly lavish lodging and amenities—bigger rooms than were the norm in 1936, fancier spas, etc. Despite updates over the decades, the Lodge was in danger of falling out of favor with the richest of the rich, its target clientele, and Earl Holding wasn’t going to stand for that.

Keri Bascetta

Sun Valley's iconic red barn has been standing since the late 1880s. Photo : Keri Bascetta

Holding, of course, was, before his death in 2013, the owner of Sinclair Oil and, with his wife, Carol, of Sun Valley Resort (as well as Snowbasin, Utah). Holding had a motto: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” And the new Lodge is testament to that.

The budget was said to be unlimited, and the makeover was wholesale. The Lodge closed in September of 2014, and for eight months workers swarmed inside and out, day and night. Carol Holding, who oversaw the project, wished to preserve the warmth and intimacy of the old Lodge, and she succeeded. The common areas feel uncannily familiar, just airier, with windows at the back letting in the light and the views. The guest rooms and suites are much larger—the Lodge went from 148 rooms to 108. The sleek new spa occupies a 20,000-square-foot wing added to the west side. (Spas scare me, but John and I got a tour, and it sure looks nice, though I passed on the remineralizing gel wrap.)

The massive renovation respects the history of the place. The outer walls were left intact, so the Lodge looks the same from the outside as it did in 1936. And the photographs of illustrious guests still line the hallways. But luxury trumped heritage whenever necessary. Even the famous Suite 206, where Hemingway finished For Whom the Bell Tolls, was gutted, enlarged, and renamed the Hemingway Suite. You don’t get chills anymore, a sense of the presence of a literary giant, but the pool-and-mountain views are grand, and the luxury is unsurpassed.

Keri Bascetta

Photo: Keri Bascetta

If you go to Sun Valley in search of exceptional groomed runs, you’ll be psyched. If you hit it like we did, during the biggest storm of the season, your head might explode. For three days and four nights we immerse ourselves in the Sun Valley lifestyle. Everyone in town is excited by the snow, so there’s an extra buzz. 

Keri Bascetta

The Burn (fire's god for forests, even better for skiers) Photo: Keri Bascetta

Keri wanders downtown with her camera, still in ski clothes long after the lifts have closed. She can’t stop shooting—the light’s too golden, Ketchum’s historic facades too photogenic, and the trails tumbling off steep Baldy too perfect a backdrop. John, a veteran ski-industry guy, catches up with old friends from Scott and Smith, two iconic pole and goggle brands that are missed in Sun Valley. (Like seemingly everyone else in the business, they moved to Utah.)

We have steaks and prime rib at the Pio. Another night we ride the gondie up to dinner at the Roundhouse, a Sun Valley signature experience. (We would have dined by candlelight with views of Ketchum’s sparkling lights all Whoville down below if it weren’t nuking out.) We bar hop from Grumpy’s to Apples to Whiskey Jacques and (briefly) the Casino. I’d planned to dine one night at Christiania, owned by Michel Rudigoz, the authentic French bon vivant who coached Tamara McKinney to greatness during a stint with the U.S. Ski Team. But instead Grumpy’s—ski country’s most sincere beer-and-burgers joint—requires a repeat visit.

I have my Sun Valley Moments, the small-world encounters that happen every time I go there. Like, I run into my long-lost buddy Lance on the bridge at River Run. And he’s with Bernie Weichsel, the ski-show impresario, who is wearing a Feel the Bern button in honor of my Burlington homie, Bernie Sanders. At the Pio we meet a guy who went to college where my father taught and skied the same now-overgrown Vermont slopes I did as a kid. It’s his first day in Sun Valley. He and his wife, freshly retired, looking tan and stylish, have come to check a prime destination off their bucket list.

Keri Bascetta

Main Street, Ketchum (if you lived here, you'd be blissed out too). Photo: Keri Bascetta

And on the last day I see the dog in the street. In the weeks before our visit I’d been reading one of those “Why We Love Ketchum” things on the local paper’s website. Readers kept talking about the dog lying in the middle of the street, traffic just going around it. Their point: That’s what a chill place Sun Valley is. And there he is, huge and shaggy, such a good boy, sprawled languorously in the middle of the street in front of the Warm Springs Lodge, soaking up the sun. Sure enough, nobody disturbs his nap. The bus just wheels around him.

Which reminds me of the cat. At Grumpy’s one night, over beers and chipotle burgers around the big table in back, Kreitler tells his mountain-lion story. Skiing alone in the Warm Springs drainage one day, he was charging through trees at his usual clip when a mountain lion crossed his line. Kreitler’s not sure who was more startled, him or the cat. That particular line was thenceforth known as Hello Kitty.

Yes, I remember to fill the tank. After three days of chasing Kreitler, Mike, and Dave I’m pretty whipped as we point the car back south toward Salt Lake. And wow, did I need that. Before Sun Valley, I was mired in a two-year powder slump. The winter John and I are escaping back East is the worst ever. I’d begun to wonder if there was something wrong with my powder karma. But now I’m sated and exhausted and deeply blissed out—even after the third time John asks if I want him to drive.

Keri Bascetta

Local rippers feast daily on Sun Valley's steep and charismatic terrain. Skier: Banks Gilberti Photo: Keri Bascetta

Sun Valley would have been great without the 15 inches. The Lodge is a truly special place, the town of Ketchum is endlessly charming and entertaining, the scenery is unmatched. High-speed laps on the resort’s famously well-groomed trails would have been plenty good enough.

But Sun Valley with powder? A singular experience. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

Officially  Octogenarian

Sun Valley has always known how to party, and it’s planning a blowout for its 80th birthday, Dec. 21. It’ll have fewer movie stars than the 1936 grand opening, but hopefully fewer fistfights as well. The resort has already treated itself and its skiers to early birthday presents:

More Trees: In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and the Healthy Forests Initiative, the resort thinned 21 new acres for tree skiing.

More Flights: The number of cities with direct flights to Sun Valley increases to six: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City—and now Portland, Ore.

Earlier Steeps: New winch mowers were hard at work on steeper terrain preseason, so less snow will be needed to open them early.    

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Sun Valley has a wealth of restaurants, both fine dining for a romantic date and casual family-friendly hotspots.  To play it fancy, visit the Lodge Dining Room.  For a hearty prime rib, go to the Pioneer Saloon.  Look no further than Il Naso for an urban Italian experience.  To spend quality time with your family overlooking the ice rink, head to Gretchen's.

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Sun Valley oozes history. In 1936, it debuted the world’s first chairlift and became a full-fledged destination resort, drawing visitors like Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, and Louis Armstrong. And in 1946, Warren Miller started making ski movies there. Today, Sun Valley’s the home of ski-film stars Zach and Reggie Crist and the premier heli-ski outfitter in Idaho. But the real reason it’s a resort for the ages: Sun Valley’s terrain—ranging from high-speed rippers to wide-open bowls—never gets old.

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