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Three Perfect Days: Sun Valley, Idaho

THE FIRST MODERN SKIER TO SPEND three perfect days in Sun Valley, Idaho, was Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch. In 1936, diplomatically destined Averell Harriman, the president of Union Pacific Railroad, commissioned Schaffgotsch to search for what could become the American West’s version of the popular Swiss winter sports center St. Moritz. Schaffgotsch hoped to discover a meteorological Rubik’s Cube: a perfect mix of freezing but not frigid temperatures and deep but not impassable or unskiable snow. He was looking for a place where indigo skies framed each day and powerful storms ruled the night. And he wanted it all surrounded by towering mountains. Last, this perfectly powdery place should have an authentic Western town.

Author Andrew Slough Photography Sally Gall


DAY ONE / Seventy years later, it’s time to check into your own room at the Sun Valley Lodge. Oak-paneled halls display black-and-white photos of Hemingway, Gary Cooper, Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx, the Kennedys, and Clark Gable, as well as skiers who were born and raised in Ketchum, learned to ski here, and went on to win Olympic medals in Sarajevo, Nagano, and Lillihammer. To see how the lodge looked in the late ’30s, before marble bathrooms and plasma TVs, drift off to sleep watching John Payne and Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade on the lodge’s resort channel.

Don’t miss breakfast at Gretchen’s, on the lodge’s first floor. Try the signature lox and bagels, the latter fresh-baked every day. The restaurant is named after Gretchen Fraser, the first American skier to win an Olympic gold medal. (She won gold in slalom and silver in alpine combined in 1948 at St. Moritz.) Fraser stunt-doubled for Henie in Sun Valley Serenade with technique that was nothing short of Olympic.

Schaffgotsch’s leather boots and wooden skis were better suited to Dollar Mountain’s deep snow and gentle pitches than to Bald Mountain. He would have dismissed Baldy as too high, too wooded, and too steep—all reasons why this broad, forested pyramid ranks among North America’s finest ski mountains today. Baldy’s beauty can be summed up in the math: 3,400 vertical feet, 2,054 acres, 14 lifts, and 65 runs.

On powder days, you definitely want to be near the front of the line when the first River Run or Warm Springs chair loads at 9 a.m. Sun Valley’s yellow school buses (circa late 1960s) depart for Bald Mountain’s base entrances every 15 minutes at the roundabout just 50 yards south of Sun Valley Lodge.

Three days is too little time for you to discover all of Baldy’s secret glades, steeps, and hidden pockets of powder on your own; you need a guide. Cultivate a local on a chairlift or book a half-day lesson with the Sun Valley Ski & Snowboard School. Harriman hired Austrian ski instructors in 1937, and today Adi Erber, Hans Muehlegger, Waldi Hirner, Hans Tum, and a dozen other Austrians provide the international backbone of the school. (If lessons seem too much like work, the ski school offers a free 11/2-hour tour of Bald Mountain that departs the River Run Lodge on Sundays at 9:30 a.m.) Starting on Baldy’s 9,300-foot summit, warm up on Warm Springs, College, Ridge Run, or Blue Grouse to the Round House. Then go exploring offpiste in the Bowls, Frenchman’s, or River Run—all areas marked on the trail maps.

When your thighs start to burn from Baldy’s steep grades, climb the steel stairs to the Round House Restaurant for a sit-down, white-tablecloth gourmet lunch garnished with views of Ketchum, Sun Valley, and the distant Pioneer Mountains. Order the croque monsieur sandwich with alumette fries and a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc.

Following lunch, experts should attack the huge moguls on Upper River Run, Picabo Street, or Mayday Bowl, while intermediates will prefer Ridge Run, College, Flying Squirrel, and Warm Springs. Keep in mind the last lifts close at 3:45 p.m. On the way back to the lodge, stop by Grumpy’s Burgers and Beer on Warm Springs Road for a quick cold one. Don’t worry about calling first; they don’t even have a phone.

If your skis were skidding instead of carving, trust Mark Deffe or Greg Smith at Sun Summit Ski and Cycle to reclaim their sparkle. The men will gladly tune them overnight; just remember to pick them up before the shop closes at 10 a.m. (yep, skier’s hours).

Back at the lodge, you’ve got time to wade into the steaming circular pool before dinner. Then slip into Levis, a Western shirt with mother of pearl snaps, and a Carhart jacket and climb into the horse-drawn sleigh outside the Sun Valley Inn for a brisk ride out to Trail Creek Cabin. More than a half-century ago, while the wind pushed snow drifts against the log walls, the stone fireplaces sent showers of sparks into the night, and the horses dozed beneath felt blankets, Hemingway, Cooper, and their wives laughed, dined, drank, and danced here until early morning. Tonight, you’ll savor a meal of Papa Hemingway’s: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and seasonal vegetables. Afterward, slip beneath the sleigh’s blankets and gaze at the winter sky’s blue diamonds while you return to the lodge.

Save your final energy and passion for a last tango above the ice rink at Edie Duchin’s Lounge on the lodge’s first floor.

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