Travel News

For whom the snow calls

Golden Age style meets unspoiled snowfields at Sun Valley, Idaho – the ski resort of choice for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Clark Gable. Pat Nourse soaks up its attractions both on-piste and off.

Mountains, it has to be said, aren't the first thing that spring into the popular imagination when you utter the word "Idaho". (That would be potatoes.) Until you get close, it's flat, flat and bright, and if you're coming by road, many of the highway approaches stretch off dead-straight to vanishing point, past the occasional stand of wind turbines, motionless, like broken pinwheels. This being winter, there's not much in the way of crop life to be seen, save some dead corn in the fields and cattle mooching around bales of grain. And then suddenly there are mountains. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area hems in Sun Valley; this is Idaho's stretch of the Rockies, and 10,000-foot summits jostle for space.
Sun Valley is the place you want to visit if you like your runs long and your skiing fast. Bald Mountain, known to locals as Baldy, is unusual in the evenness of its pitch. Where most ski mountains in the US are stepped, "Baldy is shaped like a beautifully sculpted ice-cream cone," in the words of the resort's Jack Sibbach. "There's a consistent vertical drop all the way down the 9150-foot mountain." The mountain also has more lift capacity per hour than any other ski area, so skiers impatient for some action benefit from not having to queue for lifts.
For the most part, Baldy's slopes are ideal for advanced skiers. Even its easiest runs, though they're flagged green, are definitely not for beginners. If you want to fit a lot of skiing into your day, this is the place to do it. Baldy's not loaded with tonnes of powder, but it's well protected from the wind and it's not that cold. Clocking up 30,000 vertical feet before lunch and 50,000 feet bell-to-bell isn't far-fetched, depending on how often you check in at Irving's Red-Hots for chilli-dog resuscitation.
Dollar Mountain, a treeless peak with 10 runs and a vertical drop of 628 feet, is where the less advanced Sun Valley skiers and kids go. It has its own share of thrills and, like the rest of the runs, it's well supplied in terms of lifts and a large, expensively kitted-out day lodge (home to the Sun Valley Ski School). It's a 15-minute shuttle bus ride from Baldy, which means if you've got a range of skill levels in your posse you're probably not going to see much of each other till sundown. This isn't necessarily a drawback, depending on your point of view. Between the two mountains sits the Sun Valley Resort, which is a short drive from the township of Ketchum. There are other places to stay, but Sun Valley is the big name in town, and has been for a long time.
Sun Valley was the United States' first ski resort. Opened by Union Pacific Railroad in 1936, it was also home to the world's first ski chairlift, invented by rail engineer James Curran. A well-resourced, carefully cultivated operation from the word go, with the name picked specifically for its allure to non-skiers, Sun Valley kick-started US ski-culture. Even back when it was served by the railroads, it was still considered a bit of a trek from the urban centres of the west coast, so plenty of money has been spent getting people there over the years, and plenty more has been spent to keep them there.
Back in the '30s and '40s the hook was baited with celebrities. At first, the big names were enticed up with comped trips, but many of them stayed on for years to come regardless, and in their shimmering wake followed the personalities of the succeeding years. Walk the halls of Sun Valley Lodge to map the transition in framed photos, from Clark Gable and Gary Cooper to Lucille Ball, with Desi Junior and Lucie in tow. There's Jack Carter mugging with Louis Armstrong. Here are the Kennedys in the '60s, Adam West in the '70s and Peter and Jane Fonda resplendent in their early '80s ski gear. The old-money feel remains; though construction has continued apace, the region's permanent population has been stable since the '70s, and a great many of the sizeable properties you see around town are second homes for the Hankses, Willises and Schwarzeneggers of the world (and, yes, Arnold's Run is named after him). The region's relative isolation and expense, combined with its limited popularity with snowboarders, means that the social scene skews on the older richer side. There are plenty of young folk here, and families, but it's really the cougars and the silver foxes that rule this roost.
You might, at a stretch, say that the silver-fox tradition goes back to the greatest silver fox (or should that be silverback?) of them all. Ernest Hemingway is probably the Valley's most famous adopted son. He'd been a guest at the lodge each autumn from 1939 to 1947, invited, as a hot young writer, to hunt as part of the resort's celebrity campaign. In those first years his routine was to write till noon, working on For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then head into the woods in search of ducks and pheasants, rabbits and doves. On at least one occasion, though, he was seen firing at birds from the balcony of room 206.
Like many other members of the boldface crowd, Hemingway was drawn back to the Valley in later life. He bought a house just outside town in 1959 on the Big Wood River, planning to divide his time between Idaho and his home in Cuba. The fishing and hunting in Idaho held their appeal, and he had visits from the likes of Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Nonetheless, on the morning of 2 July 1961, he shot himself at the Ketchum house. Hunter S Thompson, author, mountain man and, to some extent, a kindred spirit, thought that Hemingway had returned to Sun Valley to "live among rugged, non-political people" with mountains above his house and a good river below. "In this congenial atmosphere," Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt, "he felt he could get away from the pressures of a world gone mad and 'write truly' about life as he had in the past."
There's no Hemingway museum in Sun Valley. His most visible legacy may be in the ski runs named for him, along with the meatloaf, the fish 'n' chips and the misspelled cocktails. You can visit his small, stark grave marker at the Ketchum Cemetery, but a wade through the snow to the Hemingway Memorial out near Trail Creek is more satisfying. The legend on it was written by Hemingway himself as part of the eulogy for his hunting buddy, publicist Gene Van Guilder, who had been killed in a shooting accident in 1939, but it seems a fitting memoriam for Papa himself: "Best of all he loved the fall, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies. Now he will be a part of them forever."
Almost no one here knows how to make a Hemingway Daiquiri, though you can buy the maraschino liqueur you'll need with your white rum, lime and grapefruit juice at the excellent Sun Valley Wine Company on Leadville Avenue, along with what's said to be Idaho's best range of wines. Better still, they've got a tasting lounge.
All in all, Idaho is not widely regarded as a food and wine lover's paradise, and Sun Valley is not known for its destination dining. The legend on the numberplates here is "Scenic Idaho/Famous Potatoes", and that in itself says a lot. At the resort, as a general guideline, you're really best off sticking within the Western/Alpine theme established by the architecture. If the room you're sitting in contains a chandelier made of antlers, or a pitchfork used as a decorative device, you're likely to profit from opting for the simpler stuff. This is more-is-more country, and at many of the restaurants the menus seem to have been carpet-bombed with superfluous cranberries, candied walnuts, "bleu" cheese and bacon. If uninspired takes on tuna tataki and balsamic-drenched carpaccio don't put lead in your pencil, consider instead the likes of the Sun Valley Club's sliders, served with surprisingly excellent skin-on French fries. They weren't kidding about those potatoes.
The better option might be to turn your attention to the fondue at The Ram, one of the oldest restaurants in Sun Valley, and which appears untouched: a 1930s Alpine fantasy preserved in butter and broad-beamed timbers, its walls decked out with two-man saws and yokes, and its light provided, yes, by fittings formed from antlers. If there's a better place to enjoy large volumes of melted cheese this side of the Rockies than in The Ram's high-backed booths, don't tell these guys. They also do killer onion rings.
If you'd like to build a small element of adventure into your dining, Trail Creek Cabin is for you. We use the word "adventure" advisedly - it's a half-hour sleigh ride from the resort over the snow out to the cabin. The guy running the teams of black horses is a dead-ringer for Jack Palance in City Slickers, aptly enough; it's blankets and Facebook photo-ops all the way. The cabin was built in 1937, and the look here is Laura Ashley-does-bloodsports, all gingham, cushions, and framed flies and ammunition. It's here that you'll find Papa's quesadilla and the Hemingway meatloaf, as well as the less sacrilegious cherry clafoutis. The only thing better than the bucket of hot soup that's placed before you the second you sit down is the offer of hot toddies for the ride home.
The other place to indulge your inner alpenhorn in these here parts is The Roundhouse. It sits maybe halfway up Baldy, and maybe halfway back in the last century. An octagonal stone-and-timber affair built around a large central fireplace, it's also a world away from the dreary standard ski-in-ski-out restaurant. It's a haven of warmth, wine and raclette, a place where an extra helping of piano accordion from a chap in a feathered hat doesn't seem too out of place with the croques-monsieur, bratwurst and cabbage. It's ballast, but ballast made with some care, and if you happen to be a non-skier or here in summer, the new gondola will put you right where you want to be. Now pass that elk and spaetzle.
In town it's much the same story. There are traditionalists such as Michel Rudigoz, a former coach of the US women's ski-team, who runs the cherished Michel's Christiania. It's a restaurant rich with athletic memorabilia, and its menu runs to unambitious Franco-Americana such as onion soup, a classic Caesar and trout meunière. On the more modern side, restaurants such as Globus and Rickshaw have a good reputation locally, but I'd want to have done a serious day's skiing before the likes of the roasted Alaskan halibut with fresh morel couscous, tomato-cardamom broth, basil, cherry tomatoes and edamame with yuzu butter (yes, that's one dish) at the former or the crab Rangoons ("wild American crab and cream cheese wrapped in a wonton then fried") started to make sense to me. As a visitor from this side of the Pacific Rim, the half-baked Asianesque holds little appeal. What you want is American food. You want Grumpy's, a divey burger and beer bar on Warm Springs Road, and you want it bad. They've been pushing the "Sorry, We're Open" gag since 1978, and beneath an A-frame ceiling thickly clustered with beer cans, "Larry Flynt for President" stickers, and pictures of men holding fish and women wearing little, they go about the business of serving vast goldfish-bowl 32-ounce schooners and melting burgers nested in plastic baskets with perfectly blond chips. And by god they do it well.
For something a little more off the beaten track, there's Rinconcito Peruano, a Peruvian restaurant in an old train car on East Sixth Street. The food is as homespun as the décor - causa Limeña, chicken fried rice, ceviche and tiradito. Sopa a la minuta, a beef broth with noodles, milk and egg, seems like nothing so much as an Andean laksa. The Peruvians, it turns out, have been in Idaho since the turn of last century, brought in along with Basque shepherds to manage the sheep flocks in the region, whose numbers once rivalled Australia's own.
On the drinking front, you have to try the Tatertini, pride of the cocktail list at The Roosevelt, a friendly tavern of exposed brick and sizeable bar. The Tatertini, something you're unlikely to see in any other state of the union, is a combination of two Idaho vodkas, the Koenig - a pure potato number - and 44 North, a huckleberry infusion. There's really no need to try a second. If live music's your thing, the newly rebuilt Whiskey Jacques, a dive of some repute, is the ticket; otherwise you can join the revellers at The Pioneer. The Pio is a favourite of locals, and among its charms is a display of the 50 or so kinds of wire that fenced the Western frontier - entanglement wire, snail barb, oval twist, buckthorn, Underwood's tack, Watkin's Lazy Plate, you name it. Over at the Sawtooth Club, things are a bit more sedate and grown-up, and it's a fine and civilised place to tell tall tales over a Fat Tire or Mac and Jack's African Amber beer. A framed photograph of Hemingway, tankard in hand and with knuckles freshly bloodied, speaks of its rougher days.
But even if Idaho is known for potatoes, trout and beautiful women, you're really here for the trout - or at least the wilderness they live in. Sun Valley, like many ski resorts, is actually busier in the summer. The state of Idaho has the greatest proportion of wilderness of any of the lower 48, and it's at your doorstep, rain, hail or shine. The thigh-melting pleasures of vast downhill runs and the challenges of Limelight and Exhibition on Baldy, the moguls-for-moguls on Rock Garden and Upper Holiday, are enough to hold most skiers' attention, but if you want to up the ante, Sun Valley was the first US resort outside Alaska to offer heli-skiing. If Nordic skiing is your thing, you're also in luck - international cross-country Olympic teams train here, drawn by the extensive trails. For something more light-hearted, there's ice-skating to '80s tunes indoors and out, summer and winter, up at the resort, not to mention ice-hockey, sledding down Penny Hill with the kids and, for the truly intrepid, the warm springs out at Frenchman's, just past Rob Reiner's house.
Here steams the swimming pool, there wander the ducks. Heavy on charm and light on hoons (unless they're silver-haired and sporting a vintage Rolex), Sun Valley offers a fast pace on the slopes without the aggro, and a relaxed, down-home vibe after-hours with none of the trashiness or cheap elitism of the other US resorts. Best of all, Hemingway loved the fall, but for the rest of us, it's all about winter.