Piste map legend James Niehues sets sights on America's greatest landscapes

James Niehues is best-known for creating intricately detailed maps of ski resorts, but now he’s turning his attention to some of the most iconic views in America with spectacular results, writes Roger Cox

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area, British Columbia, 1998, by James Niehues PIC: Courtesy of James Niehues

It’s an age-old question but still a good one: your house is burning down, your family and pets are safe, and you just have time to salvage three things – what would you choose? Without a doubt, one of my top picks would have to be an old biscuit tin containing a stack of tatty old piste maps. Cash value? Zero. Sentimental value? Incalculable.

When you’re actually at a ski resort, piste maps feel like pretty disposable items – you can pick them up for free at every ticket office, gondola station and restaurant on the mountain, so while they’re useful tools for figuring out how to access that hard-to-reach powder stash you spied from the chairlift first thing in the morning, it’s no big deal if you lose one.

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Once you get home, though, those dog-eared pieces of paper start to take on a whole new significance. Looking at photos of a ski trip is one thing – they can remind you of a single moment – but looking at a piste map brings back memories of whole runs, even whole sequences of runs. And they’re great spurs to the imagination, too; often you’ll find yourself looking closely at a quiet, out-of-the-way corner of the mountain and thinking “if the snow was deep enough, you could leave the piste there, cut through the trees there, and then end up dropping out of the forest right above that little hutte in time for a quick schnapps break.”

Of course, not all piste maps are created equal. The map I have for the Chamonix Mont Blanc ski area (2008/09 edition), for example, makes the highest peaks in the Alps look suitably majestic, but it’s somewhat lacking in detail, particularly where hazards are concerned. The steep, unpisted ski route that runs from near the top of 3,462m Punta Helbronner all the way down to the village of La Palud in Italy (1,370m) is marked only with a snaking black-and-yellow dashed line; there’s nothing to suggest that the dramatic, crevasse-riven expanse of Glacier Toule at the top section of the run might present a problem or two for the unwary, except for a few ambiguous areas of dark blue shading.

By contrast, many of the North American maps I have are plastered with warning signs. On my 2005/06 edition of the Whistler-Blackcomb map, the Blackcomb Glacier has its very own break-out map, with multiple red-hatched areas marked “Permanently Closed” in amongst all the double-black diamond runs. In terms of utility, then, the Whistler map is a hundred times better than the Chamonix Mont Blanc one, but in terms of aesthetics, all the red danger areas and bright yellow “Slow Zones” don’t exactly make it easy on the eye.

If you strip all that away, though – the warning signs, the information on restaurants and tubing centres and terrain parks – then the underlying image of the twin peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb is revealed as a beautiful, painstakingly-detailed work of art. How do I know? Because recently (and very belatedly) I’ve discovered the wonderful world of the artist who painted it, James Niehues, and his website, where it’s possible to view and even buy many of his original ski resort maps with all the visual clutter edited out.

Born in 1946, Niehues was raised in Colorado and learned to paint while bedridden with nephritis for three months at the age of 15. Following military service, he got his first gig painting a ski resort in 1987 when he met Bill Brown, a painter of resort maps who was nearing retirement and asked if he’d like to have a go at doing Winter Park. Since then, Niehues has painted 255 maps for 175 ski resorts around the world, and going through my collection with fresh eyes, I’ve discovered that he’s responsible for several of my favourites.

His distinctive signature, with the “e” in James growing out of the “m”, crops up in my map of Heavenly, bobbing in the shallows of aquamarine Lake Tahoe, and (of course) it’s on my map of Winter Park. It’s there, too, on my map of Vancouver’s pocket-sized ski hill Grouse Mountain, half-hidden in the trees at the bottom of the Olympic Express chairlift, and it’s sitting in an unassuming spot on my map of Sun Peaks, just above a ho-hum cat track called the East Village Ski Way.

Also in British Columbia, Niehues created the map for Silver Star – the place where at the age of 11, on a week-long holiday from school in Vancouver, I first learned to ski. So in a way, Niehues has always been there in the background during my ski and snowboard journey, even though it’s taken me three decades to realise it.

As Niehues’ work for ski resorts “winds down,” as he puts it, he has recently moved on to something he calls The American Landscape Project, in which he aims to produce illustrations of 50 of the most iconic views in America. Already in the bag are stunning drawings of Niagara Falls, Mount Washington, the Grand Canyon and Acadia, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. And the thing he nails in all these images? Slopes, of course – hyperreal miracles of light and shade, every single one.

For more on James Niehues, visit www.jamesniehues.com For more on the American Landscape Project, visit https://jamesniehues.com/pages/the-american-landscape-project

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