This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
As improved technology transforms the ski industry and artificial intelligence promises even more computerized influence in daily lives, Aspen Skiing Co. is holding firm to nostalgia and its artistic inclinations with a new hand-drawn map of its flagship Aspen Mountain.
“The ski industry should work to keep those roots intact and protect the vibe that the things that happened before you are important and preserving that history is worthwhile,” said Lauren Myatt, the brand manager for Aspen Snowmass.
This winter Aspen Mountain will unveil 153 acres of new terrain, with a collection of chutes and glades offering more than 1,200 vertical feet of skiing served by a high-speed quad chairlift. The resort operator initially called the zone Pandora’s but renamed “Hero’s” in September, with run names honoring Aspen Skiing’s late co-owner Jim Crown and a host of Aspen luminaries and ski patrollers.
The original Aspen ski map was hand-drawn by ski map pioneer Bill Brown. Brown, in the 1980s, handed the ski map crown to his protege, Jim Niehues, who spent more than 30 years meticulously sketching and painting nearly 300 maps of resorts across the world. Niehues retired in 2021 and Montana artist Rad Smith has taken up the task of illustrating resort maps.
Like Brown and Niehues, Smith spent many hours at Aspen Mountain, taking photos and visiting the northeast-facing slopes where the ski area planned its first significant expansion since the opening of the Silver Queen Gondola in 1985. Aspen Skiing officials carefully reviewed each pencil sketch by Smith. They also visit the printing press to make sure the maps are printed with the vibrancy reflected in Smith’s opaque watercolors.
“The new Hero’s terrain is only a portion of the mountain, but in order to really capture it all, we realized we needed to really change the entire Aspen map with a complete re-drawing with a higher perspective to get those new slopes included,” Myatt said. “The biggest thing for Rad was, ‘I don’t want people to even notice that there’s a new map.’ And I think he achieved that and built on something Bill Brown made and executed it perfectly.”
Niehues said the same thing when he started taking over resort map illustrations for Brown, promising to follow his mentor’s style with individually painted trees and careful shading that reflects both shadows and daunting steepness. Niehues created some of the most widespread, utilitarian art in history, with millions of his maps not just guiding skiers but serving as cartographic mementos for snowy experiences with friends and family.
As more resorts turn to GIS mapping and computerized images to swiftly and inexpensively create resort maps, Smith hopes he can carry on the tradition of sketching and painting ski mountains. Artists can adjust and intuit map designs to help travelers in a way that computers cannot, he said.
Smith said he was “endlessly inspired” by Aspen Mountain’s “iconic landscape.”
“I could paint Aspen over and over and I would never grow tired of it,” he said.
The Aspen map was intimidating, Smith said. Aspen likes “quieter, more careful transitions,” he said. Couple that with the community’s and resort operator’s long-standing appreciation of the arts and his effort to replace nearly 50-year-old maps painted by the pioneering Brown, he said, “and it was daunting to repaint and create something new but also make it seamless.”
Smith grew up in the South with Niehues and Brown trail maps on his wall.
“I grew up wishing I was skiing,” said Smith, who now lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he is raising two daughters “in the snow.”
Smith dabbled with computerized images in his early career, but now he’s embracing the hand-crafted process honed by Brown and Niehues. (Both Niehues and Brown painted the Keystone trail map and Smith redesigned the 2023-24 Keystone map to include the Bergman Bowl expansion.)
“If I can at least continue this beautiful tradition Bill and Jim set with art and skiing and the ski experience, I will be so humbled and so grateful,” Smith said. “I have to believe that the human touch and that traditional approach will continue to be appreciated.”