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Why every ski trail map looks the same

Artist James Niehues has hand-painted nearly 200 ski maps in his 30-year career.

If you’ve been skiing, chances are you’re very familiar with the work of one particular artist. And no, this artist isn’t behind that tacky art you always see in ski cabins.

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Since 1988, James Niehues has hand-painted 255 trail maps for 175 ski mountains all over the world. His work is immediately recognizable–the watercolor paintings beautifully illustrate each run, with tiny snow-capped trees surrounding them. A grand, pastoral view of the mountain’s neighbors tops off each splendid landscape painting. Now, all of his work will be available in an Kickstarter-funded eponymous coffee-table book called The Man Behind the Map.

[Photo: Lindsay Pierce Martin]
You might think that creating a ski map is as simple as merging together some aerial shots of a mountain. But it’s a far more complicated process, one 72-year-old Niehues has perfected by painting between one and two dozen mountains every year for the past 30 years after he inherited the job from the previous master ski cartographer, Bill Brown. After all, no ski resort actually looks the way it does in a trail map. To make all the runs fit on one page–even runs on the backside of a mountain–Niehues has to subtly tweak the perspective of the map. It’s a hallmark of good information design, similar to subway maps: The designers opt for clarity over geographical accuracy.

“To get the runs that are forward and running down page, like you’d ski it, is very difficult,” Niehues says. “I’ve got to rearrange a lot of different things [to get] it in one view.”

[Photo: Lindsay Pierce Martin]

Niehues’s process starts up in the air. To capture all angles of a mountain, Niehues takes a small plane and photographs the mountain, starting thousands of feet above the summit and then slowly circling downward. (He’s only been caught in a serious snow storm once, when he had to use a credit card to chip all the frost away from the windows every two or three shots.) The aerial photos form the basis for his work, though he will also sometimes reference Google Earth, even though he says it’s not accurate enough to capture the topography, to get a sense of perspective. Surprisingly, making the map doesn’t require him to ski the mountain–in fact, when he started out in his career, he didn’t ski at all. Even today, he says he rarely skis the mountains he’s painting (though he says he’s an intermediate skier now).

Once he has the materials together, a first sketch takes about two days. Then he sends the sketch to his client, usually a ski resort, for feedback. Finally, the painting begins. A large mountain–like Breckenridge Resort in Colorado, which has a five peaks, 187 trails, and 34 lifts–usually takes him three weeks. After all, Niehues individually paints every single tree.

[Photo: Lindsay Pierce Martin]

Many of Niehues’s original maps are still in use, even if they’re several years old, including one of his first maps, of Winter Park Resort in Colorado. When ski mountains add new trails, sometimes they’ll have someone on staff tweak Niehues’s original map (usually, it’s fine with him, but sometimes so many poor alterations are made that Niehues asks the resort to take his name off the map). But when there are large-scale changes, like adding a backside to the mountain, Niehues sometimes comes back to do another map. Over the course of his career, he’s done a grand total of five different maps just for Heavenly, a resort in Lake Tahoe, California.

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When I asked if there’s some kind of science behind his process, Niehues exclaimed, “Absolutely there’s no science! You’d think you could have some formula, especially with today’s computers. But each piece has to be manipulated differently to make everything align and be relative so whenever you ski it, you feel like the map is correct. That’s the trick.”

[Photo: Lindsay Pierce Martin]

Niehues does have some competition from ski map makers who draw mountains on computers with programs like Illustrator or through 3D rendering. Some of these maps have replaced his own. Unsurprisingly, he’s disdainful of those artists’ work because they lack nuance. While you can see the individual branches on the trees of many of Niehues’s maps, computer generated trees look like uniform “triangles,” he says.

The map maker has been ready to retire for a few years, but he keeps getting phone calls from mountains like Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, which he’s long wanted to draw (he’s working on Mt. Bachelor right now). However, he is now training a protégé, who (to Niehues’s horror) originally drew ski maps on computers. But ultimately he asked Niehues to teach him the art form the old-fashioned way. And now, through Niehues’s coffee-table book, the hand-painted method is getting more attention as Niehues gains recognition in the mainstream.

In an age where everyone has a GPS in their pocket, these maps aren’t as necessary for getting around on the mountain anymore. But for ski resorts, the trail map image remains their most powerful branding tool, one that can capture the natural splendor of their mountain. “They use these images everywhere. They’re on the trail maps, they’re on the internet, they’re up on the mountain,” Niehues says. “That’s a lasting impression.”

You can pre-order James Niehues: The Man Behind the Map here.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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