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Picture a Colorado ski map in your head. It’s likely the image, featuring long, winding runs blanketed with white snow, marked by green, blue, or black lines, and surrounded by dark, shady trees below a pale blue sky, is a vague imitation of an illustration produced by the most prolific ski map artist, James Niehues.
“A lot of people use my maps as trail maps to get down the mountain and just don’t realize who painted them,” Niehues says. “I don’t know how many million maps have been printed up, but not many artists can claim that type of exposure.”
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Niehues began painting realistic yet sublime designs of expansive mountain passes by hand in 1987. His first ski trail project was of Boreal Mountain Ski Resort and Soda Springs Mountain Resort in Northern California. The resorts are still using his illustrations to this day.
In 1993, he painted his first map in his native state, illustrating trails on the front side of Vail Ski Resort. Niehues’ attention to detail caught the eye of other ski areas, and he soon began making maps for popular Colorado resorts, such as Aspen Highlands and Telluride Ski Resort. To date, he has mapped more than 200 resorts across the U.S.
In 2019, Niehues was inducted into U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame for his illustrations and subsequent effect on the culture of the sport. That same year, he released his first coffee table book, in partnership with Open Ski Company publishing, of trail maps for iconic resorts around the globe titled The Man Behind the Maps. It has sold more than 70,000 copies.
“After that, I realized I really did make a mark in the industry,” Niehues says. “And I’m just a farm-town boy. I mean, I grew up on a farm in Loma, Colorado, so it’s a little staggering to me to understand that I’m in a hall of fame.”
But his retirement doesn’t mark the end of his lifelong passion. Next up, Niehues will be illustrating 50 of America’s most iconic outdoor scenes. The project, titled “America’s Great Landscapes,” is slated to be published by Open Ski Company in the next few years.
As for who carries the torch next, Niehues took Rad Smith on as his protégé six years ago. The Montana illustrator and cartographer plans to continue creating trail maps for ski resorts by hand.
“Rad is very good with computers. He’s done maps with computers before but soon realized he couldn’t capture what I capture on a computer, so he is now doing his illustrations by hand,” Niehues says. “I hope the hand-painted map continues after me and into the future.”