A column of wooden poles climbs a hillside at the edge of town. Cables hang below the cross beams, and from the braided wires dangle what look like a series of legless lawn chairs. Rusting slats form backrests and splintering planks serve as seat bottoms.
This abandoned relic from the past represents the last standing example of world’s first chairlift. Appropriately it has been painted the color of green bananas. After all, it was designed by an engineer who figured out how Panamanian banana hoisters could be adapted to haul skiers up slopes at Sun Valley.
Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort stands as the birthplace of Western skiing. Not only was the chairlift invented here, but it became America’s first winter destination resort and predated Aspen as the mountainous magnet for moviedom’s mega-stars.
Where many modern resorts resemble snow-slope realty developments, Sun Valley’s owner prizes open space and refuses to clutter base areas with cookie-cutter condos. As a result, Sun Valley and neighboring Ketchum offer little ski-in/ski-out lodging. Even from the signature Sun Valley Lodge, a bus is needed to reach the slopes. In spite of the inconvenience, Sun Valley remains a longtime favorite.
“We have one of the highest repeat visitation rates of any ski area in the country,” brags Carol Waller of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau.
The original skiing was on Dollar Mountain, one of two divergent ski hills separated by the town of Ketchum. Given the ladder-long planks of the ‘30s, it was probably quite an achievement to negotiate its slopes. With today’s modern equipment, Dollar serves as the beginners’ hill with seven lifts, 10 runs and a vertical drop of 628 feet. Here, never-evers can learn without the fear of becoming a slalom gate for some black-diamond kamikaze.
Dollar Mountain is home to the Sun Valley Ski and Snowboard School, a tubing hill, a low-level terrain park and a log-walled day lodge that looks like something the Ritz-Carlton would build. Glass stretches to the ceiling, hand-woven English carpeting covers floors, brass banisters line staircases and bathrooms feature marble surfaces and gold fixtures. The place cost nearly $10 million.
“Not too many owners would put that much money into a lodge at the bottom of a teaching hill,” laughs Jack Sibbach, resort sales manager.
Sun Valley has a history of deep-pocketed ownership, beginning in 1936 with Union Pacific chairman W. Averell Harriman. An avid skier, Harriman wanted to build a European-style resort in the West. To house visitors, he built a four-story lodge that featured gourmet restaurants, a glass-enclosed pool and a basement bowling alley. Sun Valley quickly made the cover of Life, and early guests included Olympic skiers, European nobility and Hollywood stars. Lodge hallways display photo galleries of the famous visitors.
Today, the Sun Valley Lodge and neighboring Inn remain the resort’s premier properties. Guests can feast in the lodge’s Dining Room, the community’s only restaurant that suggests men dress in jackets, and they can skate on the same rink used for summer ice shows by professionals such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Scott Hamilton.
In 1964 the railroad sold the resort to developer Bill Janss. Thirteen years later, Earl Holding, owner of Sinclair Oil and Little America, bought Sun Valley. Holding began extensive renovations, which included the glitzy day lodges. Three more of them can be found around Bald Mountain, Sun Valley’s main ski hill.
While Dollar Mountain is as bare as Howie Mandel’s naked noggin, “Baldy” looks like it was doused with arboreal Rogaine. Its 2,054 skiable acres offer a vertical drop of 3,400 feet and sports 65 runs served by 14 lifts.
The terrain is about half intermediate with thigh-burning groomers like Warm Springs, Greyhawk, Hemingway and Cozy. Advanced skiers and boarders can enjoy the bumps in Exhibition and the glades of Central Park. Those primed for powder plunges will find the going blue in Sigi’s, Farout, Lefty and Mayday Bowls while folks bent on black will find diamond drops in Lookout, Easter and Little Easter Bowls. Even though the map shows a few “easy” trails, true beginners may find runs like Muffy’s Medals, Christin’s Silver and Gretchen’s Gold to be more turquoise than green.
“Bald Mountain is for intermediate and above skiers,” admits Sibbach. “If you’re a beginner, it’s tough for you to enjoy Baldy.”
Most recreational skiers, however, will find Sun Valley skiing ideal. Grooming is rampant, the chairs fast and efficient and lift lines are seldom seen. The biggest problem most will experience is recovering between runs.
Of course, the best way to quiet quivering quads is with a leisurely lunch, and there’s no better place for that than the Roundhouse. Built in 1939, this Alps-in-Idaho restaurant sits atop a promontory partway down the mountain. The female waitstaff dress in dirndls and a strolling accordion player plays oompah music. The lunch-only restaurant features white-tablecloth dining with an epicurean menu and extensive wine list. Non-skiers can buy a “foot-traffic” pass and ride up to share chardonnay with snow-riding friends.
“The hardest part is walking up the damn stairs because it’s on a little knob,” says Sibbach.
While skiing is the primary winter draw to Sun Valley, those who choose not to downhill daily will find many other activity options including fly fishing, dog sledding, skijoring, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross country skiing. And then there’s town exploration. A favorite Sun Valley activity is to poke around Ketchum.
In this century-old mining town, renovated brick and wooden structures now house an array of shops, galleries, java bars and eateries. Just don’t look for too many chain enterprises.
“The businesses are truly owned and operated by people who live and work here. It’s our sole means of income,” says art gallery owner Gail Severn.
Known as a mecca for the rich and famous, the area does not show the gaudy glitz found in some upscale resort communities. Away from Main Street, Ketchum feels like Mayberry in the mountains with Opie riding his bicycle, Aunt Bea seldom locking her house and Andy and Barney listening to NPR on the radio. From movie moguls to mogul mashers, residents clad in Levi’s and T-shirts share space egalitarianly.
“You can order a cup of coffee and have Bruce Willis sit right next to you and find Clint Eastwood sitting on the other side,” says Severn. “You don’t feel uncomfortable asking them to pass the cream.”
Rich or poor, it has been the mountains that have lured folks to Sun Valley, and two museums tell the history of the area. The community’s origins can be seen at the Ore Wagon Museum, which holds wagons once filled by dirt-digging miners. Across town, the Ketchum/Sun Valley Heritage and Ski Museum displays the evolution of local skiing from the time skis were ladder-long planks and visitors rode lifts adapted from Panamanian banana hoisters.