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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien

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Travel

Jan 22, 2019

Painting On-Piste: James Niehues is Skiing’s Cartographer

Illustrator James Niehues has produced exquisite, hand-painted trail maps for ski resorts as far afield as Portillo, Chile, and Vail, Colorado since the late 1980s. His crowdfunded coffee table book just became Kickstarter’s most successful art-illustration project ever.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

If you’ve ever unfolded a ski resort trail map and plotted your day on the mountain, you’ve probably got James Niehues (pronounced “Nee-hews”) to thank. He doesn’t throw backflips and won’t feature in the next Warren Miller film, but he’s arguably the most ubiquitous name in skiing.

James Niehues in his home studio in Parker, Colorado. Photo by Lindsay Pierce Martin.

The map-maker/artist extraordinaire goes by Jim, and he’s illustrated almost 200 ski resorts worldwide in resplendent detail. Equal parts art and atlas, his work suffuses a passion and idiosyncrasy undeniably compatible with the world of snowsports. Every meticulously painted evergreen and the careful shading of cliffs and gullies are evidence of Niehues’s commitment to verisimilitude. In April of 2018, Jim and a team of innovators got the idea to curate a hardcover coffee table book to showcase his life’s work of ski cartography. The campaign hit Kickstarter in November 2018 with a goal of raising $8,000. As of the project’s January 2019 deadline, 5,196 backers had pledged $590,088, making Jim’s magnum opus Kickstarter’s highest-funded illustration project ever.

Niehues did not anticipate the overwhelming response. “That last day, we were going absolutely crazy. Half a million! I couldn’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “I knew there were some real trail map nuts out there, but I was surprised by the amount of people.” The enormous success of the Kickstarter campaign may have stunned Niehues, but the adulation is overdue for the undersung king of ski cartography.

First, Jim takes aerial photographs of the resort from a small plane or helicopter. Then he sketches their likeness with pencil, down to every tree’s shadow and slope’s grade change.

In the late 1980s, at age 40, Niehues began his prolific career under the tutelage of reigning ski resort illustrator Bill Brown. “I got lucky in the beginning, had good exposure, and my career blossomed—no, exploded,” he described. Though Jim had skied briefly in the Alps in the 60s on duty in the Army, he was not a snowsports fanatic when he began painting maps for the industry. Over time, he became a self-described “intermediate skier” via “on-the-job training”. His hometown hill is Powderhorn Mountain Resort, outside of Grand Junction, Colorado, and he frequented mom-and-pop Sunlight Mountain Resort in nearby Glenwood Springs with his kids. But he’s set skis down on only a handful of the nearly 200 world-class locales he’s painted, preferring to pay homage to the mountains through art rather than athletics. At age 72, Niehues has captured a global array of resorts, showcasing the splendour of the slopes in two dimensions on a 4”x9” folded map. Play ‘I Spy’ with your next trail map—you might find Niehues’s signature hidden in a copse of trees.

Next, Jim animates the landscape with colorful paint.

Maybe there’s something in Niehues’s work that can’t be captured in pixels.

It’s the Digital Age and mega ski resorts are implementing high-tech upgrades: RFID (radio-frequency identification) gates, all-mountain WiFi, and navigation apps like Vail’s EpicMix. One might fear that Niehues’s hand-drawn creations will be rendered obsolete by computer-generated designs. But he’s stayed in-demand at resorts large and small around the world. Niehues thinks that until technology improves, computers can’t compete with the accuracy afforded by the artist’s imagination. “So far, digital maps are just an artist using Photoshop. They don’t offer anything that a hand-painted map can’t.” And maybe there’s something in Niehues’s work that can’t be captured in pixels. “These maps represent the Great Outdoors. Users are there to ski and appreciate the surroundings, and I don’t think a computer-generated image offers the same connection,” he opines. Certainly, the pastel peaks of the Elk Range backgrounding Aspen Highlands or the creamy contours of New Zealand’s Whakapapa effuse a je ne se quois inconceivable of a CGI. Like Bill Brown before him, Niehues wants to preserve the tradition of homespun ski maps. His own protégé, illustrator Rad Smith, is a CGI guyNiehues is mentoring him in hand illustration. In an increasingly digitized world, Niehues’s maps epitomize the indispensability of handicraft.

Jim in his studio.

“It doesn’t feel like a job—it’s like a hobby on steroids”

Though he’s been thinking about retirement for the past several years, Niehues just can’t bring himself to put the paintbrush down. “A ski resort will call me up, and I just can’t resist the offer. I enjoy doing it; it’s a challenge and it’s very rewarding. It doesn’t feel like a job—it’s like a hobby on steroids,” he explains. In fact, one of Niehues’s current projects, Mt. Bachelor ski resort in Oregon, is a fresh challenge. “It’s got skiing on a volcano at all 360 degrees and I’ve got to get it all in one view,” he says. He’s also occupied with the post-production of his Kickstarter book. Todd Bennett, a member of the creative team behind the campaign, says the project is in its concept design and layout phase. The finished product will include a story component orchestrated by writer Jason Blevins of the Colorado Sun. “Working with Jim has been a really fun fanboy experience,” Bennett laughs. He too was blown away by the massive success of the Kickstarter campaign. “We had a very humble goal of $8,000, and day one, we hit $60,000. It was awesome to see so many people interested in Jim’s story,” he says. Jim’s biographic exhibition is Open Road Ski Company’s first commercial venture, and backers can expect their hardcover editions in June of 2019. With the enormous success of his Kickstarter campaign as rocket fuel, the reigning king of ski cartography paints on.

The result is a highly accurate rendering of a world-class resort. Pictured: Telluride Ski Resort in Telluride, CO, USA. Copyright James Niehues.

For a full selection of Jim’s art, visit his website here.

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Why We Do This

Apr 22, 2019

Earth Day and Earth Week: What Can you Expect From The Outdoor Journal?

Why the world's biggest environmental movement is important to us, an introduction to the Outdoor Voyage, and a sneak peek of The Outdoor Journal's Earth Week content to come.

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

“To educate and inspire all people to experience, enjoy and protect wilderness.”

This is The Outdoor Journal’s mission statement, and during Earth Day and Earth week, when appropriate levels of attention are being paid to the state of our world, and its plight, we will do everything that can to harness that momentum.

The Outdoor Journal is a call to action. We believe in clean air and blue skies. We believe in unpolluted rivers and plastic-free oceans, in pristine rainforests, clean beaches, green hills and open grasslands. We believe in living sustainably, ethical lives, in respect of the planet that has always provided for us. We believe in one Earth, with no nationalities and invented borders. We believe in saving whales and sharks, tigers and orangutans, bears, bees, baobabs and blackwoods. We believe in saving forests and wilderness areas now whilst we still can.

Australian ultra-runner Samantha Gash ran across India to raise money for education in India. The Outdoor Journal partnered with her and asked our ambassador Jonty Rhodes, former South African cricketer and coach, to help highlight her cause.

As you are here, reading this, we hope that you believe in the same thing.

Over the course of the next week, we are going to publish great content so that we play our part in raising awareness. The below will turn to links when each article is published:

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

Whilst you’re here, given you believe in our mission, we would love to introduce you to The Outdoor Voyage – our booking platform and online marketplace which only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

Cover Photo: A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed ‘Suomi NPP’ on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.
Image Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring

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