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James Niehues paints a ski map.
James Niehues works on a ski map of the Wisp Resort in Maryland on Oct. 25, 2007, in Loveland, Colo.
Kirk Speer, The Gazette via AP

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If you made it to the bottom of a ski resort, chances are this artist showed you the way

James Niehues has painted trail maps for over 200 ski areas

If you’ve ever been skiing or snowboarding, you’ve probably seen James Niehues’ art.

Maybe it helped your family safely navigate down the mountain. Maybe you took it as a souvenir, thumb-tacking it to your bedroom wall, like many young skiers. Maybe you bought his book, “The Man Behind the Maps,” which was released in 2020 to showcase the artist’s illustrious, 35-year career painting the trail map for what seems like every ski resort in America.

Or, maybe you threw his art in the garbage. No worries if you did. It doesn’t bother the 75-year-old Colorado native when he sees a paper trail map donning his painting crumpled in the trash. He loves that his art has utility.

“That means it’s been used, and there couldn’t be a better compliment,” Niehues told the Deseret News.

In October, Niehues retired from painting trail maps. His career spans over 200 ski resorts and countless landscapes throughout four continents — the last job he turned down was for a ski area in New Zealand.

But an artist never really retires, and Niehues is no exception. His next endeavor, the Great American Landscape Project, will feature a broader scope of landscape paintings and sketches. Same style, fewer ski resorts.

James Niehues is pictured with a trail map of Heavenly Ski Resort, South Lake Tahoe, Calif., in his studio in Loveland, Colo., in October 2011.
Karen Schwartz, Associated Press

In November, the artist released the first of four sets of original paintings and sketches from Utah — including those of Alta, Sundance and the Utah Olympic Park, all available on his website. In the coming weeks, he will release paintings and sketches from Beaver Mountain, Brighton, Deer Valley, Eagle Point, Park City, Solitude, Snowbasin and Snowbird. The proceeds from a painting depicting both Park City and the Cottonwood canyons, one Niehues said was particularly special, will be donated to the National Ability Center.

His paintings go for thousands of dollars. Bids for his original work usually hover just below $5,000 on Ebay, and earlier this year, Niehues sold 10 original maps, a set of custom skis that featured his art and dove into the world of non-fungible tokens, raising over $70,000 for the Colorado Snowsports Museum.

Just a few years ago, if you were to ask Niehues if his paintings could be auctioned for that much, he probably wouldn’t believe you.

“I’ve known for a while that there’s a lot of people out there that do follow me, because I had a small (web) site, you know, and I would get feedback from that. But I never realized just how much until Todd came along,” he said.

In 2017, Todd Bennett, who co-founded the Open Road Ski Company, asked Niehues if he had compiled his art into a book — if he hadn’t, he volunteered to help publish one.

So they took to Kickstarter to crowdsource publishing funds. After one day they raised about $1,000, inching closer to their $8,000 goal. When the campaign was over, they had raised nearly $600,000. It’s still the largest Kickstarter campaign for an art illustration.

“It just blew me away,” Niehues said.

Born in Fruita, Colorado, Niehues doesn’t tout his ski career as anything special. One of the first times he hit the slopes was at southwestern Colorado’s Powder Horn. “I had a real tough time getting off that slope and in fact I took off my skis and walked down,” he said, laughing, from his home in Parker, Colorado.

In 1987, Niehues found a mentor — “the best that I could get” — in Bill Brown, who much like Niehues is today, was known as the go-to for ski resort trail maps. Niehues’ first job was a collaboration with Brown, commissioned by Winter Park, in which he was charged with detailing the recently expanded Mary Jane area. Niehues forgot to sign his painting, and Winter Park just assumed it was Brown’s work.

It was high praise. So high that Brown, seeing the talent he possessed, passed the torch to a then 41-year-old Niehues.

Starting with Boreal Mountain in California, Niehues went on to paint what seems like every ski resort in North America. He would approach resorts with a rough illustration and a letter of recommendation from Brown. Then, armed with a 35 mm camera, Niehues would arrange a flyover.

“I would get high above the mountain first and get some panoramic views and different perspectives as we moved across the face of it. And then we would drop the plane to about the level of the summit and fly another path around and take close-ups of all the slopes, to get the detail in. Then we would fly about mid-mountain, which in the case of Alta, would get pretty tight,” he said.

Tight is one word for it. Considering the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon is barely 2,000 feet wide at that elevation, some would probably have a different, not-fit-for-print way to describe it.

Niehues would step out of the plane with about 100 photos in his reel. Perhaps what cemented his legendary status is his ability to portray the different angles and slope aspects “on a flat sheet of paper, and showing multiple sides of a mountain.”

“I’m manipulating so many different perspectives to make it whenever it’s in front of the skier he can clearly see, in relativity, where he is on the mountain and how far he has to ski and how he’ll connect. And I think that’s the importance of a trail map,” he said.

Some resorts were more difficult than others, notably Utah’s Deer Valley and Vail-owned Park City Mountain Resort, which in 2015 absorbed Canyons Resort to become the largest in the country at the time.

“There’s so much to that mountain, and of course, the only way that I could really do that is what I call satellite images — looking out across to the horizon.”

Niehues would get snubbed a few times in his career. He never painted Aspen-Snowmass in Colorado, for one. And after being commissioned by Vail early in his career, the resort moved to a computer generated image — an approach he calls “so monotonous, so uncreative.” He would go on to paint every Vail-owned resort, but not the conglomerate’s namesake.

Niehues said it wasn’t easy to step away in October. And as resorts continue to grow, adding lifts, cutting new trails and absorbing one another, the artist is leaving large shoes that need to be filled. But he says the industry is in good hands with Bozeman-based artist Rad Smith, whom he has been deferring to since retiring.

To all the skiers and snowboarders, young and old, that have benefited from his art — whether that was hastily pulling it out of a jacket pocket in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the expert trails, or bringing it home after a ski vacation and hanging it on a bedroom wall — Niehues would like a word:

“Thank you for having my trail map in your pocket. I appreciate that.”

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