Feature December 20, 2023

50 Years of Loving Baldy

A reflection on the changes and challenges of Bald Mountain

I arrived in Sun Valley during the winter of 1968\69 in a broken-down ’55 VW with 95 bucks in my pocket. Not knowing a single person, with no place to stay and no job, I sincerely qualified as a veritable ski bum. It was snowing non-stop day after day and the only bonding experience I had with the locals was ‘packing the hill’. For those unfamiliar with the term, packing the hill literally meant that we were the ‘human groomers’ making the slopes skiable for the guests in the area. The snow was so deep that the line of 30 people side stepping down each slope gave folks the chance to make some turns without pushing snow around. By volunteering to pack the hill for three days straight, it gave me the opportunity to talk my way onto the ski patrol. With that position, I was given a place to stay, a food voucher and $13.00 PER DAY in pay. I was definitely living the dream! 

Since 1936: Human groomers at work! A group of of ski bums ‘pack the hill’ by side stepping down the slopes at Sun Valley Resort—Baldy’s entire Warm Springs run was once ‘groomed’ using the side stepping method. Today, high tech snowcats complete the job at night, covering hundreds of acres of skiable terrain in a handful of hours. Photo courtesy Sun Valley Company.

With this experience of being in the valley for so long, I am regularly asked, “Don’t you miss the good ‘ol days?” I take that question very seriously. Here is my response: 

Skiing was so different back then—way different. 

First of all, the equipment in the ‘70s was NOT user friendly, it was flat-out challenging. The boots were so cold that frostbite was a major concern for skiers that wanted to be out all day navigating the mountain. My feet hurt just thinking about my own Lange boots. We wore heavy wool under ski jackets, and our layers got wet and frozen and very heavy with moisture. Skis were so narrow and stiff (Kneissl skis most famously), and they required loading up the tips so aggressively to make a turn that a skier’s shins would scream out in pain from the undue pressure. And the bindings were just death traps waiting to create an ACL tear or a broken bone. If that wasn’t bad enough, goggles were always fogged up and visibility was nearly impossible. 

1964 RoundHouse: Following the completion of the first lift on Bald Mountain in 1939, The Roundhouse became a defrosting luxury for Sun Valley skiers. At 7,700 feet of elevation, the octagonal mountain lodge embodies the warm charm of Sun Valley. Photo courtesy Sun Valley Company.

Added to the personal discomfort and danger, chairlifts were unbearably slow. From the bottom of Baldy to the top took over 25 minutes and with any line-up at the bottom,  you could easily count on each lap on the mountain taking up to 45 minutes. No wonder the most popular items on Baldy were those large ‘lift capes’ that skiers would wrap around their bodies to protect from the cold and biting wind. 

In spite of all the challenges and pitfalls that the sport of skiing presented, skiing was fun back then—in fact, recklessly fun! 

Skiing was a niche sport—only the heartiest winter lovers came out to play. Consequently, it seemed that everyone knew everyone else. If you didn’t connect with a local or tourist on Baldy, you surely connected at the local watering holes such as Louie’s, Slavey’s, Ore House, Casino or the Boiler Room. 

And Baldy … it was a monster! The ungroomed runs, the gigantic moguls and the jam-packed warming huts were the talk of skiers around the world. If you wanted to be the best of the best, you just had to take a visit to Sun Valley and show the ski world what you had to offer. Ski runs such as Limelight, with the chairlift hanging just 25 feet above the slope, became the ‘video game’ of the day. Watching phenomenal skiers such as Jean Claude Killy, Charlie McWilliams, Bobbie Burns, Pat Bauman and others absolutely crush Volkswagen-size moguls right under the chair was a marvel to behold. The excitement of watching Sun Valley’s best attack and conquer Baldy became the talk of the town in the bars at night.  Only 10% of skiers could be considered experts at that time, and you could find most of those pros challenging Baldy’s 3,400 vertical feet. 

2008 grooming: Modern grooming techniques relieve the hard-working snow packers of the past, offering a cleaner groom, higher ground coverage, and far less sweat of the ski bum’s back. Photo by Kevin Syms.

Fast forward to today’s ski world and here is my perspective: the sport of skiing has become incredibly easy and comfortable. Gondolas are cozy, chairlifts are fast and efficient, elaborate mountain lodges and restrooms are spacious and luxurious. They make the porta-potties of the past look like the Taj Mahal. And, the equipment is out of this world: shaped skis, toasty functional boots, gloves with hand warmers built-in, down jackets that are light and fashionable, helmets for head protection and goggles that don’t fog. 

All the advances in technology, both on Baldy and for the skiers’ equipment, make it possible for the public to master the sport. With 17 super-high-tech grooming machines knocking down moguls nightly, the snow surface is less intimidating and finding that next arc-turn has become a breeze. The world-class snowmaking has made a world of difference for ski quality and snow quantity. No more rock brigade duty for the ski patrol. 

1969 Christmas Lift: While the names of Baldy’s chairlifts have remained the same, their pace up the mountain has quickened. The average lift used to take up to 25 minutes to reach the top of the mountain. Photo courtesy Sun Valley Company

Bald Mountain today is a place that a skier can go ‘bell to bell’ and rack up 50,000 vertical…easily! Or ski just the morning and accomplish the same vertical that skiers captured in an entire day years ago. And, the choices have expanded on Baldy, as well. The skiable terrain on Baldy has expanded over 80% from 1300 acres to over 2400 acres. No need to hike up Seattle Ridge and ski the Fire Trail as we did years ago… just ride the high-speed quad and do lap after lap. 

Do I miss the vibe of skiing back in yester year? Sure, I miss the intimate comradery of the sport years ago…the people mostly. On any given day you would be on the lift with Warren Miller, Dick Barrymore, Ron Funk (of Last of the Ski Bums fame) or any number of noteworthy folks. Do I miss the antiquated equipment of long ago … a definite NO. After all, who among us wants to return to those small-headed golf clubs of long ago or wooden tennis racquets or even skinny bike tires that made mountain biking impossible. 

The sport of skiing is fantastic today…especially on  world famous Baldy! Enjoy! 







Ski Trail Maps 

Ski trail maps: Years of innovation and exploration on the mountain allowed for a mass expansion of Baldy’s terrain for the snowsport community to enjoy. With 17 grooming machines, world-class snowmakers, and more comfortable gear, skiing Sun Valley has become anybody’s sport, from bunny-hill beginners to Olympic-level shredders.   

And Sun Valley’s 88th winter season offers up two new lifts as part of an ambitious Warm Spring base facelift. The Challenger and Greyhawk lifts have been replaced with a cutting-edge Doppelmayr 6-pack, featuring a mid-station unload and covering a distance of 3,138 vertical feet in just 8 minutes. The new and improved Challenger lift will boast the largest vertical rise in North America. The new Flying Squirrel chairlift, a Doppelmayr 4-pack, transports skiers from the Warm Springs base to mid-mountain, offering access to terrain of all difficulty. 

This article appears in the Winter 2023-2024 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.