Passing Through: Sun Valley

The world's friendliest locals' ski town

“Bald Mountain, don’t go changin’!” That was Uncle Ned’s motto as we cruised laps in Sun Valley’s bowls, riding the fixed, three-seater Mayday chair. Me in my Spiderman jacket and bug-eyed Bollé goggles, him in his 80s, glitter-puke one piece and Oakley Eyeshaders. Guys with mohawks riding neon Rad Dogs would be whooping “Sick gnar, brah!” beneath us. Ski patrollers in red-and-black ski suits sitting astride snowmobiles, looking on in condescension…Alright, sometimes reality and idyllic pop-culture ski scenes blend when I’m dreaming. Sue me (but really…please don’t).

The reverie ends. I peel my eyes open and crab-crawl out of a tangle of sheets. Stumbling out into a narrow hallway decorated in soaring eagle paintings and tired winter jackets, tripping over haphazard ski boots, grabbing hold of freestanding skis for support. I brush my teeth, pee, and gear up. I need to get to town. Lucky me, there’s the Mountain Rides bus system. Free. Runs every half hour. Accesses both base lodges (River Run and Warm Springs), the beginner mountain lodge (Dollar Mountain), all of town, and stops within a five minute walk of every hotel/resort/condo complex. But all I need is a quality cup of coffee, so it’s off to Velocio before I hit the slopes…

For better and for worse, the resort has evolved from the 80s ski town of my dreams into a world-renowned destination resort. There are 15 lifts now, only 5 of which are two- or three-seater classics. Multimillion-dollar log cabin lodges spatter the mountains, offering world-class services with a distinct down-home-luxury atmosphere. Sun Valley Company has even evolved from its anti-snowboarder, anti-jibber traditionalism to offer a full terrain park complete with 22’ superpipe. Thankfully, the Mayday chair remains, basking in the sun and its isolated glory.

Sun Valley still aspires to be a locals’ ski town. God forbid we become the next Vail or Aspen. We abhor the whole “private Idaho” thing, but that’s because we live it and deign to share it. Which means I’m betraying my upbringing in sharing too many secrets about the valley…suffice it to say it doesn’t take a geology doctorate to find a turkey in Seattle Ridge, or a little heaven in the Warm Springs trees. But Baldy is like any ski mountain – she’s fickle and temperamental, and the best way to get to know her on any given day is to ask those who hear about her non-stop. So drop by PK’s Ski and Sports, get a fresh edge put on your lumber, and chat up the ski techs for the local chatter. You’ll be surprised at how much they’re willing to give up for a few Budweisers.

“But I want on-piste! I want groomers!” you say. Throw a rock. Sun Valley has the most extensive snowmaking system in North America with world-renowned grooming to boot. There’s a reason the resort has produced so many Olympic medalists. With over 2,000 acres of terrain, 30% of which is consistently groomed, variety abounds. Even Jackson Hole can’t brag the consistent pitch of Baldy (trust me, growing up I spent every winter racing in the Jackson Hole “Super G”. I never realized a race held on rolling hills could be considered a “speed event”…). The scarier part is half the town of Sun Valley is over 50 and can still whoop your ass on a “Warm-Springs-top-to-bottom” lap.

But the youth embrace the greying population. They’re the keepers of the Valley’s lore. The chutes. The stashes. The know-how. And there’s always the respite of the younger tourists who return to the valley out of tradition from visiting with the grandparents.

So, we’ll chase the hipster Seattleites and the bronzed Californians around the mountain, showing off our winter plumage like attention-starved mountain finches. And, if that plan doesn’t pan out, we’ll spend our days après-ing in the parking lot with some “polish” (frizknocker, throw-a-Frisbee-at-a-pole-with-a-bottle-on-it…whatever you want to call it) and move on to Lefty’s porch for the best burger and tastiest fresh-cut fries in town. We’ll meander the two blocks to the Cellar and everybody’s favorite Kitten. After a few Moscow Mules (or, let’s be honest, PBRs), friends will inevitably drag us to pay cover at Whiskey’s, the only bar in town where we can dance or see a show. But, the night won’t end until we find ourselves in the Casino where we can forget all about that Seattle/California minx. Hell, we’ll forget what drink is in our hands while we close down the old mining town dive bar with Uncle Ned’s glory days diatribe lulling us into a stupor. We’ll stumble back to bed (because it’s all of three blocks away) and drift off…

“Bald Mountain, don’t go changin’!” as a blur of Miami Vice ski suits swim through your head. You’ll peel your eyes open and crab-crawl out of a tangle of sheets. Stumbling out into a narrow hallway decorated in soaring eagle paintings and…damn! How’d you end up moving here?

Marquee image: Karl Fostvedt. Sun Valley, ID. PHOTO: Tal Roberts