November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
America’s very first alpine ski resort—they invented the chair lift there—is still as good as it gets
I was standing on top of a mountain with skis under my feet for the first time in thirty years. The instructor who had assured me I’d be able to make it back down off the mountain, Tom Neely, paused with me after I glided from the chair lift, and we gazed out at the wide Idaho view.
“This mountain we’re on, Dollar Mountain, had the second chair lift in the world,” Neely said. “The mountain right across the valley in front of us, Proctor, had the first. Off to the left on that hill over there,” he continued, “that nice house above the others is Ernest Hemingway’s house. And behind us, the other way, is the big ski mountain, Baldy. It didn’t open until 1939.”
Baldy towered like Everest on a near horizon, reminding me of the humbling fact that where I stood, though it had been the glamorous alpine top of the resort when Sun Valley began in 1936, was now just the beginners’ hill. My instructor and I had ski history in ourselves too—Tom Neely because he was a member of the U.S. luge team in the 1964 Olympics and has been with Sun Valley since 1965; I because I was a living time capsule, a Rip Van Winkle wakened after having not skied for three decades. But Sun Valley wrapped us all in bigger ski history amid the biting air and dazzling light. It is the original ski resort in America.
I gave up skiing in the 1960s after my leg was broken by, I like to think, inferior technology. My ski tip caught in a ridge of ice laid by primitive snowmaking machinery, and my primitive bindings failed to release when I somersaulted forward. The world has indeed changed greatly since then; with the patient help of Tom Neely I was, after fifteen minutes or so, not only skiing as well as ever but skiing far better, because today’s skis are so much more maneuverable and forgiving and today’s snow-making machinery means, at least at Sun Valley, near-perfect conditions all the time.
If things have come a long way since the 1960s, that’s nothing to how far they had already come by then since Sun Valley’s birth. In the early 1930s skiing was a little-known novelty from Europe. Then W. Averell Harriman came along. As the chairman of the board of Union Pacific Railroad, he realized that his company needed a top-line tourist draw. The Santa Fe had the Grand Canyon along its route; the Southern Pacific had Palm Springs; the Canadian Pacific had Banff. Harriman wanted something completely new in the United States, a Europeanstyle alpine ski resort.
In November 1935 he assigned an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, to scout out the West for the ideal place. Schaffgotsch spent six weeks going virtually everywhere a branch line could be laid, and everywhere he looked something was wrong. Mount Hood was too wet; Jackson Hole relied on roads that closed in winter; the Rockies were too high. He had actually given up when someone suggested Ketchum, Idaho, a sleepy mining and sheepherding town of 270 at the end, as it happened, of a Union Pacific spur.
When Schaffgotsch got there, he found, to his surprise, everything he had been looking for: a semi-arid climate with plenty of sun but snow in winter; treeless mountains for safety and simplicity; good views; no avalanche danger; no chance of weekend crowds; and not too high an altitude. He wired his boss, and Harriman came right out on his private railroad car.
It was now February 1936. Harriman resolved to open his resort in December. He bought an expanse of valley floor from a local rancher and by April had work under way on a concrete hotel building designed to look like a big wooden lodge. He hired a publicity man named Steve Hannagan who hated snow and winter. “This is one city in which roughing it must be a luxury,” Hannagan announced. When Harriman suggested naming the resort Ketchum, Hannagan came up with Sun Valley. He also came up with the classic poster of a glistening shirtless skier, which he had shot in a New York studio. Thinking of Miami Beach, Hannagan wrote, “Imagine swimming pictures—with snowcapped mountains in the background.”
In fact, even that seemed possible, for the valley was dotted with hot mineral pools. The railroad tried to buy the rights to the most convenient one, but the owner held out for too high a price, and Harriman decided to build his own where you could walk right out to it from the hotel.
I lolled in that pool the evening after my first foray onto the slopes, darting out into the subfreezing evening to ease myself down into water as hot as a bath. Clouds of steam floated above the surface. I looked up through them past the snow-covered pine trees circling the pool to the looming mountains beyond and the stars shining in the cobalt sky above, and I breathed in the bracing air. I felt I was in a perfect dream even before a uniformed waiter appeared and asked if he could get me a drink.
The Sun Valley Lodge opened right on schedule in December 1936, and Harriman filled it with Hollywood stars, among them Mr. and Mrs. David O. Selznick, Joan Bennett, and Claudette Colbert. Everything was in place except the snow, so Harriman promised to put everyone up free of charge until it came, which wasn’t until January 9. At the openingnight banquet a Chicago banker asked one of the movie stars to dance, and Selznick knocked the man to the floor. Hannagan made sure all the newspapers got the story.
The lodge has been much renovated since then, but it retains its original feeling of first-class comfort without flashiness. The walls of the corridors leading off the main lobby, which looks out on a year-round outdoor ice-skating rink, are lined with photographs of celebrities visiting Sun Valley over the years, from Ginger Rogers and Louis Armstrong and Ray Milland through Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Ford and on up to Michael Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The stars never stopped coming after the grand opening; Sun Valley was a new playground of the glamorous. The president of the Union Pacific remarked, “I’ve been with this railroad umpty-ump years and in that time the railroad has spent millions getting rid of snow; now we’re spending millions to play in the goddamned stuff.”
In 1939 Hannagan invited Ernest Hemingway for a visit. The writer, who despised skiing, arrived with his future wife Martha Gellhorn in time for hunting season, and while staying in room 206 of the lodge—still a choice corner suite—he finished For Whom the Bell Tolls . When he came back the next year, he was introduced to another guest, Gary Cooper, who would go on to star in the movie of the novel. Hemingway liked the area so much he eventually, in 1959, bought the house in which he ended his days.
Within the first couple of years it became clear that the little treeless mountains like Dollar on which Sun Valley had built its first ski slopes weren’t enough, so in 1939 Baldy opened. With a vertical rise of almost thirty-five hundred feet, it remains one of the best ski mountains in the nation. I went up it the day after my Dollar Mountain tryout, and again I felt the time-machine effect. Although Baldy is three chair-lift rides high, you can get all the way to the top in ten minutes because of high-speed lifts introduced in the 1980s; the chairs slow down at either end to let you gently on and off, and because of the efficiency of the system, you don’t even wait on a lift line. Once up top, in the thin air above the tree line, I looked down to Ketchum beneath my feet and momentarily envisioned walking down the mountain. Once I set off, though (there are trails marked “easy” all the way from the top), I found the skiing better than anything I remembered, partly because the trails are not only blanketed with fresh snow every night but also mechanically groomed for an ideal surface.
Back in my room later I was able to see what Baldy was like when it was new by turning on the television and watching Sun Valley Serenade , an amusing 1941 movie that shows nonstop. Its plot is based on the likely premise that the Glenn Miller Orchestra decides to adopt a child war refugee, and she turns out to be Sonja Henie, grown up, cute as a button, and just dying to be married; she lights on John Payne, the band’s pianist, who of course is already engaged. Each time I turned on the TV I’d see Sonja Henie spinning like a top on the ice-skating rink behind the lobby, or the Glenn Miller band introducing “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (the film’s one lasting mark), or passenger trains being met at the station by horse-drawn sleighs, or Henie chasing Payne on skis down Baldy. The movie was another early publicity coup for Sun Valley; among others drawn by it to the resort was Reza Pahlevi, Shah of Iran.
On my third and final day at Sun Valley, for a change of pace, I went cross-country skiing, on trails across the open meadows of what in the summer is an eighteen-hole Robert Trent Jones, Jr., golf course. The trail led out under Ruud Mountain, where the earliest surviving chair lift, the third in the world, still stands, long out of use and now a National Historic Landmark. With wooden towers about ten feet high and single chairs on short, dangling arms, it seemed tiny and primitive. A little way beyond, on another small hill, a partly overgrown swath through a glade of aspens marked the path of the very first chair lift.
Steve Hannagan had insisted on a comfortable way of getting skiers up a slope, and a Union Pacific engineer named James Curran devised the solution. Curran had previously worked with machinery used to move stalks of bananas off banana boats and onto trains, overhead cables with big hooks hanging down. He simply replaced the hook points with chairs. Not long after my visit to Sun Valley my work happened to bring me to a banana plantation in a Costa Rican jungle. There I saw snaking through the dense foliage an overhead cable whose hanging arms each held one big stalk of dozens of bunches of bananas. It looked exactly like the Ruud Mountain chair lift with one essential difference: Its train of twenty-four banana stalks was being pulled not by machinery but by a man in a harness.
After looking up at the site of the first chair lift, I glanced down and saw, just off the trail, a memorial to Ernest Hemingway, a stone engraved with words he had once written: “Best of all he loved the fall / The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods / Leaves floating on the trout streams / And above the hills / The high blue windless skies / Now he will be part of them forever.” Then I skied on to Trail Creek Cabin, a stone-and-log house built in 1938 with big fireplaces and a hot buffet lunch for skiers.
Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, and Hemingway used to have hunting parties in Trail Creek Cabin. Groucho Marx married his third wife there in 1954. Everywhere I turned—in a ski resort of all places—I kept running into history. Sun Valley has kept up in every way, though. It never actually made money for the Union Pacific, and the railroad sold it in 1964. In 1977 it was bought for twelve million dollars by R. Earl Holding, the lowprofile owner of Sinclair Oil. While maintaining the homey-deluxe feel of the place, he has expanded it considerably—now in addition to the lodge and the nearby Swiss-style Sun Valley Inn, which opened in 1937 as a less expensive complement, there are acres of condos. The busiest months today are actually July and August, when corporate and executive meetings swell the valley’s population.
I liked it just fine in January. I also don’t intend to wait another thirty years before I next ski.