Sun Valley Idaho

Mountain Life
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Mountain Life 1104

This ought to put things in

perspective: I've never regretted moving from Lahaina, Maui, to Sun Valley, Idaho. While I was captivated by Hawaii's sunsets, scuba diving and lovely young women, I intended to spend one-and only one-winter in the Wood River Valley. My plan was simple: Rent an apartment, find a job, ski 120 days on Bald Mountain and fly back to Lahaina. Sun Valley, however, quietly cast a spell on me. At about the time I should have been moving out of my River Run apartment, I was casting a dry fly to the Big Wood River's rainbow trout. When I should have been writing a check for first and last month's rent on Maui, I was pitching a tent in the Sawtooths. And at the point I should have been tendering job applications to Hawaiian dive shops, I was hunting blue grouse in the Boulder Mountains. And I'm still here today, 30 years later. Why? Forget Hawaii.This place is paradise.

Sun Valley (which, really, is inextricable from the much larger town of Ketchum, Idaho, that surrounds it) is at once wild and sophisticated. Set in a narrow alpine river valley and hedged by sage-covered mountains, Sun Valley and Ketchum make up an authentic Western community with economic roots in both thick veins of galena ore (a component of lead) and massive herds of sheep. Local-and visitor-life is distinctly bipolar. Sun Valley, the resort itself, comprises a number of classic shops and restaurants, as well as the iconic Sun Valley Lodge, where Ernest Hemingway famously toiled away on For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 206. Ketchum, on the other hand, is a kicked-back town of 3,100 people that forms the social and commercial heart of the community. Downtown Ketchum sits a mile west of Sun Valley, which was built by Averell Harriman and the Union Pacific Railway in 1936 to drive business on its Western rail lines. Of course, faded Levis and $5 work shirts have long since given way to khaki slacks, polo shirts and Italian loafers, while local sports attire has expanded from Gore-Tex and goggles to include Lycra shorts and U.S. Postal Service bicycle jerseys. Ancient pickup trucks have been supplanted by shiny new SUVs-rigs that rarely get dusted up or snowed in on Idaho's backcountry roads. Along with sipping lattes at Tully's and sampling aged cabernets at the Sun Valley Wine Festival, the prevailing local culture now embraces-even venerates-seven-figure diversified investment portfolios.

Skiers have been falling in love with Sun Valley since Harriman first commissioned Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch to search for the St. Moritz of the American West. The Count found Sun Valley, and famously wired his boss that the area combined "more delightful features than any place I have ever seen in Switzerland, Austria or the U.S. for a winter resort." Jackson Hole may boast better extreme terrain, Whistler/Blackcomb bigger vertical and Snowbird deeper snow, but very few, if any, can challenge Bald Mountain's incredible diversity-sunlit bowls, dark glades and 360-degree exposures-all defined by an unrelenting pitch. Nor can many A-list resorts compete with the area's halcyon mining history, powerful sense of community or vast expanses of roadless, unlogged, unmined wilderness.

It's no surprise, then, that over the past 14 years, Blaine County has witnessed roughly a 50-percent population increase, with year-round residents now numbering somewhere north of 20,000. If it seems the majority of these new migrants are white-collar businessmen, actors or heirs, perhaps they're just more visible than the cooks, mechanics, housekeepers and landscapers whose numbers have grown from 397 in 1990 to 2,030 in 2000-a 400-percent increase. In 2003, the average cost of a single-family home was $633,389, compared to a statewide average of $106,000. This figure includes both ends of the spectrum: the aging mobile homes in The Meadows as well as Sun Valley's vast mansions. Then, too, these figures were recorded before interest rates dropp, spurring property values to previously unimaginable heights. Today, an acre that once went begging for $6,000 is appraised at close to $500,000. Local real estate agents point to fires in Los Angeles, crime in San Francisco and threats of terrorism on the East Coast as factors. Newcomers, after all, can telecommute from the undeniable safety of an office boasting spectacular mountain views.

But if Sun Valley is expanding, it's expanding wisely. In April, Sun Valley's general manager presented the resort's50-year master plan to the Ketchum and Sun Valley City Councils. The presentation contained a number of surprises, among them a disclosure that the SunValley Company's owner, Earl Holding, controls approximately 2,800 acres around Bald Mountain's Warm Springs and River Run entrances, as well as in Sun Valley proper. The master plan proposed 2,200 units, 1,100 fewer than legally allowable, the majority of which would be contained in a new hotel in Sun Valley and development at River Run. A new lodge at Dollar Mountain is scheduled to open in the fall of 2004, and an additional nine holes of golf surrounded by private homes will be built where the Gun Club now stands. Holding also plans to erect a gondola from Sun Valley to River Run anda new lift off Baldy's northwest face.

Sun Valley made the papers last season as the site of John Kerry's much-discussed snowboard outing. As is common with respect to Sun Valley's oft-sighted celebrities-Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore among them-locals left Kerry, whose wife owns a house near town, alone to explore the area, both inbounds and out. The community is also home to investment banker Herbert Allen's annual summit of media and tech moguls-a gathering that routinely attracts the likes of Bill Gates, Michael Eisner, Warren Buffett and Michael Dell.

But you'll meet plenty of ordinary folks in town as well. Ski bums of all ages and persuasions have long been drawn to Sun Valley. It's not always easy to support yourself but, says full-time adventurer, occasional house painter and 120-day-a-season skier Sam Greenwood, it's worth the effort. "Forget the cost," he says. "If you love skiing and life in the mountains, there's always a way to make a living." Of course, it's easier to swing a move to Sun Valley if you can bring money-or at least the means to earn it-with you. Dentist Jim Hodge sold a successful practice in Irvine, Calif., to move his family to Sun Valley in 1990. Fifteen years later he has no regrets. "It was a risk to give up financial stability," admits Hodge, who has since established a local practice. "But the skiing, hiking, fishing and unique atmosphere of Sun Valley is paradise. Moving to the Wood River Valley was the best thing I ever did."

And why not? Besides the high mountains, cold snow and surrounding wilderness, the area also offers a wealth of creature comforts, après-ski and otherwise. Duffy Witmer's Pioneer Saloon-its walls adorned with Western art and rolling-block rifles-serves incredible beef. Locals haunt the Christiania for continental cuisine, while the Sawtooth Club attracts Saturday night crowds for Western staples. The Sun Valley Lodge Dining Room is steeped in tradition, crystal stemware and white-glove service, while Tapestry Gallery and Wine succeeds on live music and incredible vintages. You can rub shoulders with the college class of 2001 at Whiskey Jacques, The Cellar and Casino. Or shop for designer dresses and jeans at North and Company, a leather couch at Stuhlberg's or Western art at the Kneeland Gallery. The town also enthusiastically supports the Magic LanternCinema (which, it should be noted, serves beer) and nexStage Theater.

On the hill, local skiers such as Tommy Moe, Reggie Crist and Picabo Street still cause a stir, but the rank-and-file firemen, ski tuners and welders who traded their youth for the muscle memory of bent knees, straight backs and strong hands earn respect as well. As in any ski town worth the name, locals tend to be generous to a fault, consistently organizing benefits for sick strangers. They have a clear view of why they live and, in all likelihood, will die in this remote Idaho valley. Indeed, you're unlikely to find a single local who regrets settling in Sun Valley. Even if he turned his back on Hawaii to do it.


orth the name, locals tend to be generous to a fault, consistently organizing benefits for sick strangers. They have a clear view of why they live and, in all likelihood, will die in this remote Idaho valley. Indeed, you're unlikely to find a single local who regrets settling in Sun Valley. Even if he turned his back on Hawaii to do it.