SUN VALLEY, IDAHO -- Pause at the top of Bald Mountain on a brilliant day and it's clear how the Sawtooth Range got its name -- its silver peaks glistening in the sunlight high above the Ketchum Valley that spreads out below. It's just as easy to see why Averill Harriman chose this area for Sun Valley, America's first destination ski resort. In 1935, the Union Pacific chairman had commissioned a young Austrian, Felix Schaff-gotsch, to find a suitable location for a winter resort to draw rail passengers to the West. After months of searching and rejecting such spots as Aspen and Mount Rainier, he stopped in what would become Sun Valley.
The resort's Web site quotes Schaffgotsch as saying: "This combines more delightful features than any place I have ever seen in Switzerland, Austria or the U.S. for a winter resort."
At a time when alpine skiing was a sport for an elite few, Harriman purchased 4,300 acres of ranch land outside the mining town of Ketchum. He envisioned a resort with every possible amenity to complement the stunning setting. After seven months' work, the resort opened in 1936, and the rich and famous have flocked to Sun Valley ever since, making the resort legendary.
Errol Flynn and Clark Gable were guests at the opening gala. Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood helped celebrate the resort's 50th birthday. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis are among today's luminaries.
The history of Sun Valley adds texture to any visit here. In addition to the famous names, the world's first chairlifts were installed in 1936 on Dollar Mountain and Proctor Mountain. Dollar remains one of the great "learners' mountains" in the country, but Proctor is no longer used for skiing. The lift is still there -- but now it's between the 14th green and the 15th tee of the Sun Valley golf course.
While nostalgia and scenery may feed the artist in each of us, a skier's soul is nurtured by the quality of the mountain and its runs, and Sun Valley delivers. Bald Mountain -- nicknamed Baldy -- is the centerpiece of the resort today. It has long cruising runs, mogul fields and spectacular bowls. It is a mountain that rewards confident skiers; cautious skiers may be intimidated.
The mountain's 3,400-foot vertical drop is the third largest in the country (after Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Steamboat Springs, Colo.), but it has just 2,054 acres of skiable terrain (roughly two-thirds that of Steamboat). And it's almost all relatively steep.
The resort rates 22 percent of Baldy's 65 runs as most difficult (advanced), 42 percent as more difficult (intermediate) and 36 percent as easiest, but few of Baldy's runs that are designated as easiest would carry those round, green trail markers at a number of other resorts in the Rockies.
Last January, I spent four days at Sun Valley, and since this was my first ski day of the season, I started on the most forgiving part of Baldy. After a quick warm-up, I headed for Seattle Ridge, which I knew from my previous visits was mostly easy-cruising runs. Three lift rides, a slow run across an access trail and 25 minutes later I was at the top, looking down Christin's Silver.
Seattle Ridge proved to be a fine starting point, and cruising on runs groomed table-top smooth merely whetted my appetite for more challenge. After a break for lunch, I took the Mayday lift to a ridge above the resort's bowls. While not as famed or as huge as Vail's back bowls, they can be just as much fun to ski.
Unfortunately, the snow conditions didn't cooperate. Bare patches dotted most of the bowls, especially the expert (difficult / advanced) ones. Easter Bowl was closed, and Lookout Bowl probably should have been. Two intermediate bowls -- Farout and Sigi's -- were skiable, but without fresh snow they were just nice intermediate runs.
By the time I had tried those bowls, it was mid-afternoon and the sun had started to make the snow a bit mushy. I decided five hours was enough time to spend on the mountain on Day 1. Then I was reminded of one of the drawbacks of spending all day on this side of the mountain: I had to ski most of the way to the bottom, then take the Cold Springs lift back halfway up the mountain and then head down Canyon to the base to catch the shuttle -- so I ended up spending almost six hours on the mountain by the time I got back to the lodge.
Apres ski in Sun Valley tends toward the quiet side, especially if you stay at the resort village as I did. The resort makes it easy to get into Ketchum: Just let the Sun Valley Lodge front desk know, and the lodge's shuttle will take you into town -- and pick you up.
Ketchum has evolved into a rather typical ski town with lots of restaurants and ski shops, and a smattering of older establishments that pay homage to its past. Condos are springing up all around the town.
For a gourmet dining experience, I tried Felix's Restaurant, where the Muscovy duck with apples and port wine sauce was quite tasty.