Ever wondered who hand painted all those tiny trees on your favorite ski resort map? Meet Jim Niehues, the man behind most of the ski resort maps you've probably ever admired.
Jim Niehues laughs at the Alta Ski Area trail map sign for a moment before turning to snap a photo of one of Alta’s most prominent landmarks, Devil’s Castle. More than 25 years ago, Niehues painted this craggy landmark along with the rest of Alta’s terrain and 116 runs, capturing the Little Cottonwood Canyon resort in his distinctive style. He admits tackling Alta early on in his career was a challenge. But since doing so, he’s painted 194 more trail maps for ski areas both big and small, and his work has become as endemic to skiing as GORE-TEX and Stein Eriksen.
Niehues’s 30-year career as a trail map illustrator began partly by chance. While looking for work in the Denver area, he approached Bill Brown, a painter who worked on landscapes and trail maps. Hoping to be adopted as an apprentice, Niehues asked Brown if he had any extra work and Brown handed him a project to paint the Mary Jane Territory at Winter Park Resort in Colorado. To ensure the resort’s management was happy with the illustration, Brown asked Niehues to leave his work unsigned until Brown had a chance to confess to his employers that it had actually been painted by Niehues. Winter Park accepted the map and Niehues went on to paint revisions of Brown’s older trail maps, eventually striking out on his own.
Each trail map Niehues paints begins with him climbing into an airplane to take aerial photos of a resort, which he admits is his favorite part of the process. This step also helps him understand the features and terrain as he manipulates multiple aspects and cardinal directions to fit the mountain into one or two perspectives. “It’s very important to depict the mountain at a point when shadows are cast across the slopes,” he says. “I usually find that the best time of day is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.”
When asked about which resort he most enjoyed painting, Niehues relays, “I would say Snowbird because of the backdrop. It just has dynamism to it in terms of the composition. Alta is right in there, too.” He says he also enjoyed painting a regional map depicting all the Utah resorts, which presented the heady challenge of combining multiple mountain ranges, aspects, perspectives and resorts into one, digestible view.
Though Niehues, now 72, contemplates retiring, he's' apparently not done yet. At press time he was working on maps for Oregon's Mt. Bachelor, Cardrona in New Zealand, and a remake for Sun Peaks in British Columbia. "I announced several years ago that I was retired, and that sure didn't last long," he laughs. Maybe I'll retire next year. It's not really a job, it's a passion."
Jim Niehues's iconic body of work is now available in James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map. Containing nearly 200 maps, the book can be purchased here.
For more on Niehues's story, check out our Q&A with him last winter.
Originally written for Ski Utah magazine
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