Inside the World of Legendary Ski Map Illustrator James Niehues

Ever look at a ski map to see where you are on the slopes? If you should take that black diamond as a shortcut to meet your friends at the lodge, or schuss that blue square to save your knees? The man to thank is James Niehues, one of cartography’s last great analog mapmakers. Niehues has built a career hand-painting ski trail maps, down to the last tree, and his maps are now collated in his new coffee-table compilation Man behind the Maps.Men’s Journal caught up with him for the complete rap on his maps.

James Niehues Man Behind the Maps
courtesy James Niehues

MJ: What’s your favorite ski area?

JAMES NIEHUES: I’m always asked this and it’s difficult to answer. Honestly, when I get out on the mountain, it’s just the exhilaration of experiencing the great outdoors and taking in the scenery that I love—which can be experienced on most every ski slope in America and around the world. Each new resort or slope is an expedition and accomplishment. For me, learning how to ski was on-the-job training. Before becoming a ski map illustrator I could count the number of times I had been on skis with one hand. I did become an intermediate skier, but skied with some fear on many slopes. Perhaps that’s why I feel a sense of accomplishment whenever I glide into the lift line. If I have to choose one particular resort it would be Perisher, Australia. You park your car in the green lush valley, get on a train that enters a tunnel in the side of a mountain and when you emerge, you are at the ski slopes. It’s not a dynamic vertical (under 1,000 feet) but spread out for you to explore various summits and the Snow Gum forest. It was there that I found the perfect slope for my ability and finally understood how it felt to be in complete control.

Australia ski resort map courtesy Perisher James Niehues
courtesy James Niehues

What’s your favorite map?

I’ve painted 200 resorts, with many favorites for different reasons. I am a landscape painter, which means my favorite would have to have a visual dynamic. I approach a project by looking at all the angles, and making the trail system as clear as possible, accurate and enticing. A trail map isn’t only the resort’s tool to get you around the mountain, but their visual fingerprint; each image portrays the mountain’s individual potential that invites further exploration to reveal its intricacies. Some of my favorites include Alta; Big Sky; Blackcomb; Breckenridge; Crested Butte; Crystal Mountain; Jackson; Killington; Lake Louise; Mammoth; Mount Baker; Perisher; Portillo; Saddleback; Ski Apache; Snowbird; Smuggler’s Notch; Telluride; Treble Cone; Valley Nevado; or Wildcat. If these were all framed up on a wall I would pick out different effects, colors or composition in each that would outshine the others.

James Niehues Alta ski are map
Niehues’ 1991 painting of Utah’s Alta Ski Area.courtesy James Niehues

What’s the trickiest part about making them?

The trail system. Some are easy with a single face but most resorts have multiple faces that can span 360 degrees. I have a flat, blank piece of paper in front of me and I must manipulate, or artistically interpret, three dimensions into one—and make it understandable and accurate. If you took a satellite photo of the resort, the trails are uninviting, appearing narrow. My job is to show them as they appear when you’re on the mountain. It’s all relative. My first step is to lay out all the lifts and make sure they’re relative to each other and that their base is down-page and vertical to represent the difficulty of the terrain it serves in relation to the others. Then I’ll review the aerials and fill in each lift area with slope shading, trees with shadows, rocks and other features.

What was your first ski area map?

The first ski resort I painted was the backside of Mary Jane at Winter Park. I had just approached Bill Brown and he had the project which he turned over to me. He had another interest he wanted to pursue: filming narrow gauge railroad documentaries. The first project contracted by me was for Boreal and Soda Springs in California.

What’s the last map you painted?

I’m finishing up Mad River Glen right now. I flew over it early in my career while gathering aerials for the Sugarbush map. I enjoy the flights and often took advantage of photographing other resorts. During our climb the pilot looped over this smaller ski area to the north. In 1990 I wasn’t that familiar with all the ski areas and didn’t know this one. I took only one photo and later located it on the map, tagged and filed it away. Just last year I got a call from Brad Noble, who wanted me to paint their mountain. It would be very fitting if this was my last ski map. Mad River has such a great history and maintains its tradition in this time of mega resorts.

Why do you like painting ski area maps?

I was raised on a farm in western Colorado. Our family frequently enjoyed the surrounding terrain with trips and picnics. At 10,000 feet, Grand Mesa was just two hours away with great fishing, and the red sandstone canyons of Colorado National Monument were within an hour. Also close by was the Book Cliffs and the Colorado River. From early childhood I’ve had a passion for landscapes. I also love a good puzzle. This is the combination that has kept me enthralled throughout the years; each new project is a challenge to portray the resort’s slopes effectively.

How many have you made over your career?

I’ve created around 430 paintings, which includes 200 ski resorts. Others include regional views of national parks, wilderness areas and visitor bureaus, as well as golf course and island resort maps.

James Niehues ski map painter
courtesy James Niehues

What’s changed in the technique over the years?

My career has spanned 35 years. In 1988 my process included my wife Dora sending a mailing to about 400 resorts for potential jobs, which included a sample of my latest finished map. Then I’d visit and fly the area, taking about 10 rolls of 36 exposure film. Then I’d review the photos with the client and discuss the best way to display the mountain. In the studio, I’d draw the sketch, have it blue printed and mail it to the client. It would take weeks before I’d proceed to the painting. Once painted I’d take a photo of it and mail it back; the earliest I could expect an would be about a week. Then I’d take the final approved painting to a photo lab for an 8 by 10 transparency, which would be sent out for a four-color separation. All the layers of type and symbols were either pasted or hand drawn on layout boards.

Today, all the process is streamlined with digital cameras. I just attach a photo of the sketch and email it out. The client can edit it and return it in a matter of hours. I also scan the final painting and upload it for the client to access. It saves an enormous amount of time. Today’s process also allows much more control of color and makes it easier to update later.

What resort was the hardest?

Two come to mind: Mount Bachelor for its 360 degrees of skiing off the summit; and Sun Peaks for the opposite, 360 degrees of skiing out of a tight valley. Both are shown in one view. For Mount Bachelor, I took what I call a “satellite perspective” because its south slopes have no distinct cuts. Although those slopes are running up-page they appear to be running downhill from the overhead view and color shading. Being on the far side, they’re foreshortened but viewers can translate by the relative visual surroundings. Sun Peaks was harder, having to stretch lifts to get proper distances between the bases and keep it all relative. My earlier maps showed Morrisey as an inset, as it’s its own mountain across from the main slopes. Later I added it into one view, but also had to include the new slopes of the Orient lift, which created a huge problem. If added into the existing layout, the Orient summit would have been down-page, which wasn’t acceptable. Through many thumbnail sketches I finally came up with a layout that was effective and credible.

James Niehues ski area painting Mount Bachelor
Mount Bachelorcourtesy James Niehues

Are modern resorts harder to map than older ones?

I am more concerned of the slopes themselves, so it isn’t a matter of how modern they are, it’s a matter of now big they are. For instance, modern Heavenly Valley’s slopes are the same today as in earlier days, but there are more base facilities. Although there may be more buildings to paint you don’t have to change perspectives to get them in. But it could be argued that today’s terrain expansions make them harder.

Have you ever gotten lost and needed a map?

Hell yes! At least to know what run or area I want to go to. Otherwise, nothing too serious. Just point it downhill and you’ll get to the base eventually.

Tell us about the book

I believed that someday I’d compile enough ski map paintings to make an interesting coffee table book. I envisioned it more of an art book than a book of maps naming all the runs—a book to dream by. I wanted to have a section on the history of trail maps to pay homage to my mentors Bill Brown and Hal Sheldon, and I wanted a ‘how to’ section to show what it takes to paint a ski map. A long time passed, and by the time I was 70, it became apparent that it had better happen soon.

Out of the blue, I got an email in 2017 from a fan wanting to know if I had a book, and if not he wanted to help me put one out. I knew it would be an enormous task. Months passed and then we got to know Todd Bennett and Ben Farrow, who presented a package to promote, produce, warehouse, sell and distribute the book. We signed a deal on April 15, 2018.

By the end of our Kickstarter campaign the book had amassed 5,156 backers putting up over $590,000—the all-time highest-backed project in its category. Then we added such partners as writer Jason Blevins; Cory Grosser & Associates for design; and Lindsay Pierce Martin for video and photography.

But I really want to thank all the skiers and riders out there. The resorts recognized that they needed a map to help you get around the mountain safely, but it’s because of you that I had a dream job made up of travel, seeing and skiing great places, flying over some of the most dynamic spots on Earth, and photographing and painting for an industry that relies on recreation. Today, the book continues to do well and I think I know why: We all need to hope and dream of better times ahead. They will come. The book is a dream book in which skiers can envision the slopes this coming season.

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