Ski Sun Valley
Head to Idaho for bucket list snow and ski adventures.
It’s 7:30 A.M., and I’m near the top of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. I’m ready to rip as part of Ski Patrol 101, a special sunrise adventure for two guests, who join the patrollers while they check that runs are safe and knock snow off signs to get the mountain ready for a day of skiing.
But it’s January, and at 7:30, it’s pitch-black. The sun won’t rise until a little after 8. So, we’re enjoying the sparkly view of sleepy Ketchum, streetlights and houselights glowing at the base of the mountain, where the faithful get ready for another day on perfectly groomed, hardly ever crowded, extralong slopes.
Ketchum only has three traffic lights. It’s an old mining town that was founded in 1880. Townspeople still celebrate the Wagon Days festival every Labor Day, and many of the redbrick buildings have been preserved from the early 1800s. Though now, most are filled with cool art galleries, chic boutiques, hip beer bars, and lively restaurants.
Less than one mile to the east is Sun Valley Lodge, where Ernest Hemingway finished For Whom the Bell Tolls and where we are staying for our ski adventure in Idaho.
The lodge was built in 1936 by railroad king W. Averell Harriman, who developed Sun Valley to lure passengers onto his Union Pacific Railroad trains. To make it a destination, Harriman invited Hollywood’s A-list, knowing that crowds would follow Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, and Lucille Ball to Idaho.
Sun Valley Lodge closed in 2014 for a yearlong renovation that took the hotel down to its studs. Now, it boasts spacious rooms and all the amenities you would expect in a world-class resort.
The hotel’s luxe spa has 15 treatment rooms, plus a sauna and steam room. The resort features a fitness center and yoga studio, two outdoor swimming pools and a hot tub, a skating rink, and a 1950s retro bowling alley with a bar and video games. You could stay and play at the lodge all day and never even hit the slopes. But that wouldn’t be a bucket list ski adventure.
Before we can get to work with the ski patrol, we need coffee and the morning patrol assessment, so we ski over to the old, low-slung wooden lodge. Even though I ski 40 days a year, I’m a little nervous about skiing in the dark. But it’s just a few easy turns, and soon we are inside the warm lodge, which has the gritty ambience you might expect for hard-core ski patrollers. It is cluttered with rescue gear and ski paraphernalia, and scattered with tables and metal chairs. Three avalanche dogs, already in uniform, wag their tails hello.
It’s almost 8 a.m., but before the mountain report and assignments are given out, our patroller, David Schames, herds us outside to catch the sunrise. I pull out my iPhone as the sun peeks over the stark white ridge of the Smoky Mountains. One very cool thing about Sun Valley is that it’s high desert, so its south-facing slopes are sun scorched and treeless, leaving absolutely perfect white mountain vistas.
As the sky turns purple and orange, the rest of the 25 patrollers start creeping out of the lodge. Every. Single. One of them. And each one pulls out a phone to capture the view. “It never gets old,” Schames says.
The assessment report is quick: One lift is closed for repairs, but the rest of the mountain is open. Sun Valley is having its best winter in 20 years, and the head patroller warns that it will be a busy day. He ends with what must be the standard closing: “Be safe out there.”
We click into our bindings, and Schames quickly finds a rare stash of ungroomed powder left over from a storm, and we swoosh down a black double diamond. We have the mountain to ourselves until the lifts open at 9 a.m.
We do a little patrol work, but mostly Schames wants to show off Bald Mountain. He takes us to the bowls, where we find more powder. We even catch a little tree skiing in a small glade at the bottom. Then, over at Seattle Ridge, we ski nice, long, perfectly groomed greens.
We’re sorry when we have to say good-bye to Schames, who’s been regaling us with stories about his time in Sun Valley. He first came to Ketchum back in the ’70s, when lift tickets cost $12, Pabst Blue Ribbons were 25 cents, and everyone went into town on Friday night for the “shoot-out,” a cowboy drama staged to entertain tourists and locals alike.
I had expected the Ski Patrol 101 program to give me a great insider’s view of patrolling. But this once-in-a-lifetime experience also made me fall in love with Baldy, as I saw it through the eyes of those who know it best.
We have skied hard all morning, and we’re hungry, so lunch sounds good. Even better, our friends have a table, covered with a white tablecloth no less, near an old stone fireplace in the 1939 Roundhouse lodge. And they have ordered fondue. We dig right in, dipping chunks of crusty baguette and slices of apples into the cheesy goodness. I order white wine and a pear and Gorgonzola salad with endive, dates, and walnuts. Day one at Sun Valley is turning out to be pretty sweet.
I want to ski till the lifts close, but the spa is calling. So, I leave my gear at the base of the mountain and hop on the bus back to the lodge. (Buses run every 30 minutes, so there’s no need for a car in Ketchum.) The spa has its own wing with a private elevator for clients only. I’ve opted for the resort’s exclusive HydraFacial, which is a soothing alternative to microdermabrasion, featuring several rounds of plumping and rehydrating serums. It’s just what I need after a day of travel and a morning on the slopes. I savor the quiet time in the sauna and steam room, and sip tea, with my feet up on a chaise lounge.
But the huge outdoor swimming pool and hot tub also call to me. I even join some of the kiddos jumping in the snow banks to make swimsuit snow angels, because why not? This is a bucket list kind of vacation.
A few hours later, we’re outside the lodge with a tall man in a cowboy hat who’s helping us climb up into a horse-drawn sleigh that takes us through the fields to Trail Creek Cabin, a 1937 log cabin, for a fireside dinner. We pause on a bridge to listen to the babble of a creek before making our arrival. We hardly notice that dinner is delicious—Rocky Mountain elk, Northwest steelhead, and bison short ribs—because everyone is chattering about their various Sun Valley adventures: Strolling downtown Ketchum, strapping in to ride a snow groomer, or trying out the new extrawide-tired fat bikes. Everyone has had a great day.
On our way home, we snuggle under wool blankets on the sleigh, and the clouds part to reveal a nearly full moon. It’s almost as light as day, with the moon shining off the snow-covered slopes. We pause to pay our respects when we pass Hemingway’s memorial.
The next day, I’m first in line at the lifts. I needn’t have rushed. During the week that I ski Sun Valley, I never have to wait even a minute in a lift line. But I’m excited to connect with Steve Rivera, Diablo magazine’s founder. Steve and his wife, Marilyn, built their house in Ketchum almost 10 years ago. They are avid skiers and spend half of their time in Idaho.
Steve shows me his favorite runs, and I do my best to keep up. My favorite is Warm Springs on Baldy, which has a 3,400-foot-vertical drop—one of the longest in the United States. The challenge here is to ski it without stopping. And I’m proud to say that I can do it.
For lunch, Steve and I meet Marilyn at Cristina’s Restaurant in Ketchum, a charming spot on a side street in a former home. It’s clear why the Riveras love it. It’s simple Tuscan fare, well-prepared. I snag a cookbook on my way out.
The rest of our vacation is packed with big, fun skiing and all sorts of adventures. We go ice-skating and bowling at the resort, have dinner up on the mountain at night, hit the bars and art galleries in Ketchum, and savor an evening nightcap at the resort’s Duchin Lounge.
But be warned: Should a storm roll in, you might be stranded. And that’s just another reason to head to Sun Valley. When the weather’s bad, you’re staying an extra day and skiing powder. That is what happened to us. And that was perhaps the best part of our ski adventure. Because Baldy did not disappoint; it has some of the best groves and tree skiing in the West, and we bombed the mountain until the lifts closed. sunvalley.com.
Sun Valley Bucket List
1 Sign up for Ski Patrol 101: Every Saturday, the patrollers take two guests out for a sunrise view of what it takes to open and patrol the mountain. It’s free. Sign up in the River Run Day Lodge. Guests are selected by raffle.
2 Eat dinner on the mountain: Ride the gondola up for dinner at the Roundhouse. The old ski chalet was built in 1939 and serves gourmet fare. Tip: Order the Idaho trout for a taste of local cuisine at its best.
3 Ride the Beast: Climb up into the cab of a groomer to see how that corduroy gets laid out. You’ll definitely want to fasten your seat belt because heading down the runs is a thrill. If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to take a Dramamine or two.
4 Take a sleigh ride to Trail Creek Cabin: Winter is lovely weather for a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the Idaho countryside to a cozy log cabin for dinner.
5 Stay in Papa’s suite: Book a stay in Ernest Hemingway’s suite, which includes a living room, den, bedroom, bar, private patio, and view of Baldy.
A round–trip ticket for the two-hour United Airlines flight from SFO to SUN costs roughly $550.
Be warned: Should a storm roll in, you might be stranded. And that’s just another reason to head to Sun Valley.
Sun Valley is part of the Mountain Collective, which offers skiers two-day passes to 14 resorts, including Alta, Mammoth, and Telluride. mountaincollective.com.