SUN VALLEY, IDAHO — Three words never heard on the slopes of America’s first winter resort are “carry your speed.”
The flat spots that so often require arduous treks at other resorts simply aren’t part of the landscape or lexicon at Bald Mountain, the broad-shouldered behemoth at desert’s edge in central Idaho. Two words define Baldy: “consistent pitch.” A feature unmatched in North America, it begins at the 9,150-foot summit and ends on the floor of the Wood River Valley, 3,400 vertical feet below.
In between lies what many seasoned skiers contend is the best terrain in the world. After thorough exploration of the mountain and its dazzling variety, disagreeing may be difficult.
That steady pitch can be experienced on delightful long descents that range in steepness from the 19 degrees of College, the easiest run, to more than 40 at the brutal bottom of the misleadingly named Sleeping Bear. (Another word never heard on Baldy is “short.”)
If you’ve never skied this unique mountain, bear in mind that to do it and yourself justice, you should at least be comfortable on slopes intended for intermediate skiers. Although some runs are designated least difficult, they would be rated intermediate at most other North American resorts. The less skilled will be far more comfortable at Sun Valley’s other hill, Dollar Mountain, which also caters to snowboarders.
The first thing that might strike the first-timer is the convenience and speed of the lift system, which boasts 14 conveyances. Eight are fast detachables, including a gondola. Although Baldy is among the truly big mountains of the West, getting from one extremity to another — say from the Warm Springs base lodge to Seattle Ridge — requires but a single lift ride and should take even a slowpoke no more than 15 minutes.
So imagine it’s 9:10 a.m. on a clear morning, and you’re at the summit. A good first choice would be Seattle Ridge, typically groomed last and therefore offering the best snow. The fastest, most direct route is Christmas Ridge, a wide blue screamer that tilts at about 25 degrees and invites speed, as do so many of Baldy’s runs. This mountain is the Daytona of American ski resorts, and patrons ply it accordingly.
Leaving Seattle, the call would be the Mayday lift, which rises 1,621 feet to the top of Baldy’s seven east-facing bowls, which range in pitch from about 25 to 35 degrees and are at their best in deep snow. After some descents here, it should be about time to hit the nation’s best blue run, Warm Springs, all 3,100 vertical feet of it. When it begins to pall, move over to Limelight, a frequently groomed 35-degree dive of more than 1,500 vertical feet. No less a skier than Olympic champion Alberto Tomba has called it the best ski run in the world.
Next, if the legs are still functioning, you might want to look for some bumps. Regardless of where you are, you needn’t look far. Exhibition is the signature mogul run, with a pitch of about 37 degrees. Nearby is Holiday, about 4 degrees flatter until the end approaches, when the plunge plummets at 39 degrees. At 41 degrees, Inhibition is the steepest designated run. Several other bumpy rides are available on Olympic, Rock Garden, Picabo’s Street, Sleeping Bear, and the troughs at the end of all the bowl runs.
The resort, which began in December 1936 with the opening of the still-luxurious Sun Valley Lodge, was built by Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, whose primary purpose was to increase ridership on his passenger trains. That winter, skiing was confined to Dollar and another small hill.
However, the cadre of instructors Harriman had imported from Austria quickly discovered the charms of Baldy, where they skied on their days off. They demanded development as fast as possible. Harriman agreed, and Baldy opened a year later.