Trash or Treasure

Trash or Treasure

The Unique Art of Ski Map Maker James Niehues

Words by Christine VanDyk

I first noticed the art of James Niehues while headed up the Six Shooter lift in Big Sky, Montana. Gloves and poles balanced on my lap, I searched my pockets for a trail map to guide me down the last run of the day. Watching my clumsy struggle, the 20-something snowboarder next to me took pity and shared a glimpse of his own map. 

After showing me the fastest way to the village, he pointed out the tiny signature hidden in the bottom corner of the map.

“If you start looking,” he said, “you’ll notice that guy’s name on just about every ski map in the country.”

And so I did. What I discovered was that James Niehues’ signature appeared virtually every place I bought a lift ticket. In total, there are more than 300 ski maps across five continents created by this “Michelangelo of snow.” Each one is photographed, mapped, and painstakingly hand-painted—and at the end of each day, most end up in the trash.

 Despite their throw-away nature, creating a trail map is a laborious process. That’s because a ski resort is typically spread across multiple mountain faces, and a two-dimensional map has to accurately reflect them all.

“I want the viewer to easily recognize where they are, what the terrain is like, and where they want to go,” Niehues said. “I use many different perspectives and connect the trails to turn all sides into a view on a single printed image.”

In addition to making sure every trail is marked, it’s important their difficulty is easy to spot. If you’ve ever hopped off the lift hoping for a blue trail, only to find yourself peering over a double black diamond, you’ll understand why such visual accuracy is important. 

Niehues begins with aerial photography, topographical maps, site plans, and Google Earth, to determine the best views. Next, he moves from cartography to the paintbrush, gradually shading the way the sun crests the slopes and using hard shading to show how it casts shadows in the depressions. Afterward, he sketches the mountain onto the backdrop and adds in the trees.

“Trees, trees, trees,” Niehues laughs. “There are uncountable trees to be painted on ski maps. They are the biggest time consumer, since each tree has to have a base color, a highlight, and a shadow. That’s a lot of brushstrokes!”

So, why bother doing it by hand?

“During the early 2000’s, many resorts were intrigued by the new computer programs,” Niehues says. “There was, and remains, a real lack of realism of the great outdoors that skiers experience when on the slopes.”

And so resorts turn to a small handful of specialized artists.

“There are very few people around the globe creating hand-painted ski maps for a living,” he says. “Today there may be five.”

As one of the elite, Niehues found his own love of landscape art by accident. When an unexpected illness at 15 had him bedridden for months, his mother bought him a set of oil paints. The surrounding Colorado mountains, high desert, and canyonlands were the inspiration for what became his life’s work.

The first ski map he would design and paint himself was Boreal Mountain California, which is still in use nearly 30 years later. To date, the 73-year-old has created maps for resorts across North America, in the Andes, in Europe, in Asia, in New Zealand, and even in Serbia. And while scores of people around the world rely on his maps, few notice the name hidden among the trees.

When he’s on assignment, Niehues skis alone, sticking mostly to the corduroy of blue groomers, but on the lift the conversation often turns to what he does.

“They’re intrigued by the fact that they have used my maps at many other resorts and are now meeting the guy that paints them,” he said. “Most had not even noticed the name of the artist on the map.”

But the skiing community has undoubtedly felt his impact. Niehues was recently inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and is now the subject of a coffee-table book that showcases nearly 200 maps.

“At the end of the day, skiers will pull out their maps and reflect on the day’s adventure down each trail,” Niehues says. “This extends the pleasure—or the pain—and galvanizes the experience they’ve had this special day in the great outdoors.”

There are some who may not appreciate all that goes into the small map. They’ll toss it away or find it folded inside last year’s ski jacket. But for those who get it, they’ll tack it up in college dorms, ski bum rentals, and million dollar chalets. What may be considered trash by some will become a treasure that helps others trace hidden tree runs and secret powder stashes, relive the memory of a child’s first turns, or take them back to those early morning tracks on that perfect bluebird day.