In Sun Valley, Idaho, light crowds and glorious skiing

The hum at the Cornerstone Bar and Grill is reaching a fevered pitch. Bernie the bartender is sliding iridescent cocktails across the bar — a backlit slab of opaque plastic that gives both drink and drinker an added glow. I don’t even know what I ordered, but it’s green, contains gin and goes well with my sesame-ginger ahi tuna appetizer. It may not go well with skiing tomorrow, but that’s fast becoming tomorrow’s problem.

It’s mid-February, and my friend Bill and I are in Ketchum, Idaho, in the shadow of the Sun Valley ski mountain, to finally experience a fabled resort that has thus far been glaringly absent from my Western ski résumé.

My long delay in getting here — I’ve been skiing the West since 1985, when I was “studying” at the University of Colorado — is due in part to Sun Valley’s fade from national prominence. Back in the days of shameless neon ski wear, noodle-kneed mogul maniacs and see-and-be-seen winter vacations, Sun Valley ranked right up there with Aspen and Tahoe as a near-mythical place where the snow fell in blankets, the runs stretched for miles and everyone was happy.

But when I was succumbing to the grip of my steep-and-deep addiction, the pushers steered me to Utah, Wyoming and British Columbia. Legions of others, it appears, got the same advice, fed by a ski media that shifted its emphasis from cozy, scenic resorts to ultra-radical terrain and flying-monkey athletes for whom no cliff was too high to try.

The next morning, with the echoes of the previous night still rattling my ski helmet, I skate off a lift at the top of Bald Mountain, Sun Valley’s main mountain, and have that odd feeling that I’ve come to the party on the wrong day: There’s almost nobody here.

It also occurs to me that someone needs to invent a registry for ridiculously beautiful places. The view in every direction features snow-cloaked mountains piercing the stark blue sky and testifying to Idaho’s bragging rights as the state with the largest area of unbroken wilderness in the Lower 48 — the 2.3 million acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The snowpack is thin, and we’re content to cruise Sun Valley’s wide, quiet and well-groomed slopes and not explore the gladed terrain between runs. The thin crowd encourages faaaaaast giant-slalom turns across the hill, my skis knifing through the tight lanes of corduroy left by the grooming machines. Baldy doesn’t harbor the most daunting terrain in the West, but it does maintain a nice pitch for most of its 3,400-foot vertical drop (from 9,150 to 5,750 feet).

It wasn’t always so uncrowded here. Sun Valley enjoyed a long heyday as one of America’s marquee resorts, thanks to an amalgam of vision, marketing and serious mountaineers. In 1935, W. Averell Harriman, then chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, wanted to open a European-style winter resort where people could, in his words, “rough it in style.” He sent an Austrian count on a tour of the American West in search of a location. After exhaustive scouting, the count found the mining-turned-ranching town of Ketchum and the Alps-like terrain unfurling from its edges and wired an enthusiastic endorsement to his boss.

Harriman knew that he’d need help to jump-start a destination resort so far from a major city, so he tapped Steve Hannagan, whose marketing genius had transformed Miami Beach into the winter destination for New Yorkers. Hannagan proposed the name Sun Valley and suggested recruiting Hollywood stars, including Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, to attend the grand opening. Thus began Sun Valley’s ongoing tradition as a getaway to the stars. Today, Bruce Springsteen and Arnold Schwarzenegger are regulars in town, and the reclusive Tom Hanks is among the many Hollywood elite who own homes in SV.

Harriman insisted that the resort’s centerpiece, the Sun Valley Lodge, leave visitors wanting for nothing. The property opened in 1936 with a heated outdoor pool, an ice rink, a swanky restaurant, a bar and an elegantly appointed lobby — all still features of the refurbished lodge today. He persuaded eight Austrian ski guides to ditch their home mountain of St. Anton for Sun Valley, bringing an alpine ethos to the United States that few Americans had ever seen: men who seemed spawned from mountains, moving deftly on skis through daunting terrain and guiding others into these environs with stoic confidence.

Things took an abrupt turn when one of Harriman’s engineers offered a radical suggestion: moving skiers uphill with a modified version of the automated banana haulers that Union Pacific was using in Central America.

The world’s first chairlift debuted on Proctor Mountain, adjacent to the Sun Valley Lodge, in December 1936. So far so good, but things got complicated when the resort owners moved the main skiing area to Bald Mountain.

What locals now refer to as the resort is not the ski mountain but the village of Sun Valley, a pedestrian area of shops, hotels and condos where many guests stay. They call the main ski mountain Baldy, and between Baldy and Sun Valley Resort is Ketchum, the heart of the off-slope action.

Further confounding matters are Baldy’s dueling base areas — the main River Run lodge on one side and the Warm Springs lodge on the other — and the location of the beginner’s area and the terrain park on Dollar Mountain, on the edge of Sun Valley Resort, a not-walkable-in-ski-boots distance of more than a mile from Baldy. Locals call that hill Dollar.

But the whole enterprise is efficiently linked by a free bus system, and within a day of arriving, we find ourselves moving between skiing, lodging, dining and partying with little effort or forethought.

With the advent of the chairlift, the Austrian guides didn’t have to worry about taking guests on adventures anymore, so they turned their attention to starting a top-notch ski school, and in their free time, they pioneered backcountry ski routes that are still the local gold standard, even among the town’s top extreme skiers.

Among that select group is Zach Crist, a Sun Valley native who guides Bill and me on a two-day ski tour in the Sawtooth National Recreational Area, 30 miles outside Ketchum. Although I’m often delusional about my skiing abilities, it doesn’t take much time in the backcountry with a sponsored extreme skier to concede the point: I’m merely great and will never be phenomenal.

Crist whistles up our six-mile ascent through a heavily wooded trail that emerges onto a ridge 1,400 feet above the frozen Redfish Lake. Above us rises 10,635-foot Williams Peak, the tallest of a line of serrated amber peaks of the Sawtooths, the most aptly named mountains in the country.

We drop our packs in the Williams yurt, a Mongolian-style hut of waterproof canvas secured to a self-supporting system of wooden posts, and head out for a run. After a plodding hike up and a pillowy descent through shin-deep powder, we fire up the yurt’s wood stove and crack open cans of Tecate beer as night, and the temperature, falls.

As much as he loves this backcountry, Crist’s loyalties lie with his home town. So he is leading an effort to restore Sun Valley’s panache through a multipronged campaign that merges the charms of the resort with the vast potential of the backcountry.

“Go to any mountain village in Europe,” he says, “and the most prominent building in town, aside from the church, is the guiding office.” He wants guests to have access to guides for everything from a family day at the resort to multi-day backcountry expeditions — in winter and summer. “I mean, we’ve got the terrain,” he says.

“And,” I add, “you have Ketchum.”

Small ski towns are often one-dimensional, heavy on gear shops and rootless seasonal workers. But Ketchum, in large part because it was a town before skiing arrived, has developed a palpable sense of community along with an inviting variety of retail and dining packed into a walkable downtown.

Old-style Western saloons abut hip cocktail bars, cozy bakeries, high-end organic restaurants, coffeehouses — one of which is also a bookstore (a fave Springsteen hangout, I’m told) — and shops for the rich and the fairly rich alike.

The Pioneer Saloon sits just across the street from the Cornerstone, but leaving the latter for the former is like beaming from Manhattan to Anchorage. Adorning the Pioneer’s walls and hanging from its wood-truss ceiling are various game, including rare 43-point and 29-point mule deer, and the seventh-largest deer ever harvested in Idaho; antique guns from the 19th and early 20th centuries; a late-1800s birch-bark canoe made by the Penobscot Indians of Maine; and other Western memorabilia.

The draught beer selection is more 21st century, and as we sip our Stella Artois and Guinness, Chris Burget, an outdoorsman and blogger who moved to Sun Valley in 1994 from Southern California, waxes on about the town’s allure.

“Where else can you hunt, fish, ski or white-water raft in the morning, have a Starbucks coffee in the afternoon, and in the evening listen to Itzhak Perlman at the Sun Valley Pavilion?” Burget asks, referring to the 1,500-seat amphitheater — and architectural gem — that hosts the Sun Valley Summer Symphony and myriad other acts in summer (only).

That Sun Valley invested $30 million in a pavilion that’s closed nine months a year might seem odd, but it’s no surprise to people who know Robert Earl Holding, the Sinclair Oil owner who bought Sun Valley in 1977 for the now-quaint price of $12 million.

On a sunny morning on one of Baldy’s 12 chairlifts, I meet a guy in a yellow and red powder suit capped by a purple velvet cowboy hat. He looks vaguely familiar, but I assume that he’s an out-of-context doppelganger for a friend back home. Or maybe not: He identifies himself as Paul Tillotson, the drummer and leader of his eponymous trio, which was kicking out jazz standards at the Sun Valley Lodge the night before.

“Holding is huge on live music,” Tillotson says. “He’s really supportive. There’s quality live music all over this resort.”

His report bears out in the River Run base lodge at apres time, where an acoustic quartet peels off bluegrass tunes and folk-rock covers, filling the high-ceilinged lodge with the warm, woody strains. And back at the Sun Valley Lodge later, a trio plays soulful slow jazz in the dusky candlelit bar.

The crowd is mostly older, a common condition around the resort and a frequent knock on Sun Valley: that the people who made this place famous decades ago are the only ones still showing up. The lodge in particular has a country club aura, with Oriental print drapes and carpet, oversize floral displays, a massive fireplace and stately furniture, that leaves me fidgety about my just-here-to-ski wardrobe.

But as I wander the “Wall of Fame” photo gallery in the lodge, stacked with images of folks who put their stamp on Sun Valley — Oksana Baiul, Peggy Fleming, Jean-Claude Killy, Christin Cooper, Picabo Street and dozens more — I wonder whether tomorrow’s superstar is here right now, twirling around on the ice rink or waxing her skis for an upcoming junior race.

On my last morning in town, I bolt over to the resort to squeeze in one more run before heading home. The first snow in weeks is falling, and clouds swallow the gondola cars as they ascend Mount Baldy.

Later, the weather will force the cancellation of our flight out of the Hailey airport, 14 miles away. So we’ll board a bus and drive to the Twin Falls airport, another 70 miles south, crossing Harriman’s Union Pacific railroad tracks en route and leaving his dream behind, in the wild white mountains of Idaho.

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