When Loveland resident James Niehues created his first ski resort trail map 30 years ago, he wasn’t completely comfortable on skis. Turns out, it didn’t matter. His debut—an illustration of part of Winter Park’s Mary Jane—was so elegant and detailed, it led to a commission for a hand-painted map of California’s Boreal Mountain. Over the next three decades, Niehues went on to create maps for Vail, Aspen Highlands, and more than 196 other resorts around the globe, which is why, today, the 72-year-old is often referred to simply as “the ski map guy.”
Niehues began painting landscapes as a teenager near Fruita while bedridden with nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). After serving in the military in his early 20s, he returned to his native Colorado and pursued a career in graphic arts. In the ’80s, while working in a Denver print shop, Niehues discovered he had an eye for manipulating and distorting ski mountains so that every run would be easily viewable to skiers. He turned that knack into a career, eventually taking up map painting full time. At first, the work could be tedious, but he loved the challenges that came with each new mountain. “It’s like a puzzle to get all the slopes showing in a single view,” Niehues says.
To complete each puzzle, Niehues takes several approaches. If he has the time and resources, he hitches a ride in a plane or helicopter, flies about 500 to 2,000 feet above a ski resort, and snaps aerial shots. He then uses the photos to sketch the resort—runs, trees, parking lots, and all. If a plane ride isn’t in the budget, as was the case for a 2017 map of Gunstock Mountain Resort in New Hampshire, he compiles the map using satellite imagery via Google Earth along with shots provided by the ski resort. From there, he creates a thumbnail version of the map in pencil, projects the image onto an illustration board, traces it, and begins painting in watercolors. (Run names, icons, and chairlifts are typically added later by graphic artists.) Each map takes weeks to paint, and at his peak in the ’90s, Niehues was cranking out between 16 and 20 maps a year, including some of his favorites: Telluride (for its scenery) and Washington’s Crystal Mountain (“because it has an awesome backdrop of Mt. Rainier”).
Despite semi-retiring in 2015, Niehues still produces three or four resort maps a year. Within the next few months, Niehues will add two more to his body of work—a summer map for Taos Ski Valley and an updated ski map for Cardrona Alpine Resort in New Zealand—bringing his number of creations to somewhere north of 390. While Niehues is certainly pleased with his legacy as skiing’s most prolific painter, he’s also proud of another ability he picked up along the way: skiing intermediate runs with confidence.