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Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

- Maha Upanishad

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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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Travel

Sep 25, 2019

Hiking in the Tetons: When a Teenager Discovered the Power of Nature

On a family camping trip in Wyoming, a future environmental journalist writer witnessed nature’s raw power.

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WRITTEN BY

Millie Kerr

As soon as we began ascending Wyoming’s Hoback Peak, black clouds appeared on the horizon. My family had only been camping for several days, but I’d come to expect the sky’s mid-afternoon mutation. The problem was, our guide had us climbing the region’s highest ridge, not traversing lower ground as we had on prior days when thunderstorms were a near-certainty. Every step up the mountain amplified our distance from clusters of trees, whose towering crowns and fallen trunks offered protection from direct and ground lightning.

“Should we turn back?” I asked my father. My lone ally on this treacherous vacation (our first and last llama trek) shrugged, “Not unless Loren pipes up.”

From the moment I met him, our guide Loren reminded me of a juvenile golden retriever refusing to be trained. His boundless energy betrayed naïveté, or was it something else?

We continued hiking upward. The higher we climbed, the closer we came to those ominous clouds, now enveloping the sky.

I was only fourteen—and a wispy sliver of a girl—but I never let age nor size get in my way. “Loren,” I shouted, “The storm’s coming. Shouldn’t we go back now?”

He paused for a moment, sniffing the charged air, and responded, “We’ll be fine. It’s not heading our way. Onward and upward!”

Within minutes rain began to fall, morphing into hail as lightning struck the apex of a nearby mountain, an alarming reminder that we trekked vulnerable terrain. Entirely exposed and the tallest objects in sight, we’d become mobile lightning rods.

To find cover, we needed to make our way to higher or lower ground, and I ascended more slowly than the others. In a pinch, they might be able to scramble to safe cover, but what if I couldn’t keep up?

The storm quickly escalated, and I knew that I had to descend even if it meant traveling alone.

“Loren,” I yelled into the wind, “Can we please turn around now?” to which he answered, “We have to get to higher ground to find cover. Follow me, everyone, and hurry!”

My mother and brother rushed after him. I tugged at my father’s shirt, begging him to retreat with me, and he acquiesced.

Without discussing the consequences, he relayed our decision to the rest of the group, urging everyone to join us, but Loren insisted that anyone able to continue to follow him to elevated turf, to more expansive tree cover than what we’d find below.

I’d already lowered myself to the ground, preparing to inch downhill like a crab. My dad rebuked then joined me. Two slithering bodies covered in mud, we ignored the painstaking switchbacks plodded the previous hour, reaching a nest of trees within minutes. We removed our packs and perched atop hefty logs; thunder, lightning, and behemoth hailstones raging all around us.

Then we held hands and prayed and waited for the storm to pass.

When it did, my father and I emerged to altered terrain. Tromping across icy slush, we spent a seeming eternity looking for camp. The llamas, our packhorses for the week, had scattered, and our tents were blown over, their contents dispersed like bits of city garbage.

We located the jittery animals and tied them to nearby trees before setting to work on our tents. These tasks afforded a momentary distraction from nagging questions: Were the others safe? Had we made the right decision? When would they come back, and what if they didn’t?

Suddenly, movement on the horizon. My Dad and I jogged up the banks of a mild ridge, peering into a vast post-storm haze. “Mom! Jeff!” I shrieked.

They shouted back, but with their calls came the distinct sound of laughter.

“It was no big deal,” Loren bragged minutes later as he wrenched off his jacket and mud-soaked boots, “We found cover in no time. You should’ve stuck with us.”

At the time, he seemed to be posturing—saving face—but over the years, my perception shifted: I no longer see doubt on Loren’s face. The man wasn’t merely a risk-taker—he was arrogant. He stared directly into the eye of a storm as though he were its equal match, as though his survival that day made him stronger than nature itself.

You can follow Millie on Twitter and Instagram.

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