It’s only a matter of hours until the slopes of the Sawtooth mountains, as respectable a range as there is in the Rockies, will be covered with prominent citizens from New York, Hollywood, and intermediate points …
… Movie actresses, Wall Street financiers, debutantes, Men-About-Town and society matrons, all with hickory bed slats strapped to their feet, will be falling up hill and down dale on their expensive faces. And all pour la sport. The sport is skiing and the place, so help me, is my own, my lovely Idaho . . . Society with a capital ‘S’ is on a par with termites. It gets into everything. Nothing is sacred, not even the Sawtooths . . . The good people of Ketchum had best make up their minds right now to being regarded as ‘quaint’ and ‘native.’ And they’d better prepare themselves to answer the damnedest assortment of questions that ever have come their way. Also, to contain — as best they can — their laughter the first time they spot a skier in his full and fashionable habiliments.”— Boise native Inez Callaway Robb,
writing in 1936 for the New York Herald Tribune
The draw to work at Averill Harriman’s new Sun Valley must have been irresistible for any young man who had grown up in Ketchum. All sorts of intoxicating possibilities would have danced in the head of a small-town boy, attractions never before seen in the outback of central Idaho: the goddess-like starlets, the elegant foods (who ever heard of Mousseline de Lobster Polignac?), the aromas of expensive cigars and rare perfumes, the heroic faces of Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway, and Clark Gable. Properly trained, the young worker would be able to stifle his laughter while disengaging an unlucky celebrity from a down-slope evergreen.
After all the ritzy splash of Sun Valley’s grand opening, though, it may have brought some relief to our young bellman’s simple, mountain-town heart to hear word of a new, more rustic cabin being built on a 10,000-foot perch across from Hyndman Peak in an attempt to provide skiers with the kind of destination hut experience Europeans had long enjoyed. Yes, rustic little Pioneer Cabin and its sister “lodges”—Trail Creek Cabin and the Roundhouse—were the talk of the town when they were built.
Sun Valley’s crown-jewel lodges of today—Warm Springs, Seattle Ridge, and River Run—easily capture the imagination. Visitors crane their necks looking up at the massive log beams in the ceilings, marvel at how a human could have cobbled such a massive fireplace together out of river rock, gaze in awe out Seattle Ridge Lodge’s plethora of windows, and wonder aloud whether they should take their ski boots off before traipsing across the marble floors in the restrooms.
But, as magnificent as they are, these award-winning lodges can’t hold a candle to Sun Valley’s three originals when it comes to sweet nostalgia. The Roundhouse, Trail Creek Cabin, and Pioneer Cabin are beloved reminders of the early glory days of America’s first destination ski resort—and their useful years are not over yet. >>>
Trail Creek Cabin
Boisean Charles Davidson, who landscaped Sun Valley resort for Union Pacific, conceived the rustic Trail Creek Cabin in 1938 as a getaway to which guests could be taken by sleigh on moonlit nights. He built it with leftover lumber scrounged from the construction of Sun Valley Lodge.
“It’s only two miles from the Lodge, but guests would go out there on the sleighs and think that they were miles and miles from civilization,” recalled Jack Flaherty, longtime baker for Sun Valley. “And the stars on clear nights just added to the magic. Most visitors don’t realize how many stars there are until they get away from the lights.”
For celebrities like movie actress Ann Sothern, actor Gary Cooper, and author Ernest Hemingway, the cabin quickly became a favorite spot for throwing private parties and celebrating New Year’s Eve. Pianist Eddy Duchin played at Trail Creek, and it was there that an impatient Averell Harriman announced the engagement of Gretchen Konig, America’s first Olympic Alpine medalist, to Don Fraser—even though neither had yet proposed to the other.
Partygoers were a wild bunch in those days, doing the bunny hop and the hokey pokey, which some claim originated in Sun Valley. When, at certain parties, unsuspecting blindfolded guests tried to “pin the tail on the donkey,” they would find that they had stuck their hand into a can of lard.
Leif Odmark, who taught skiing to Jackie Kennedy, Judy Garland and even “Tarzan” Rex Barker, talked Sun Valley General Manager Wally Huffman into a once-a-week ski-to-dinner tour from Sun Valley Village to the cabin. He recalls that a hundred people showed up for the inaugural ski-in dinner, many of them beginners. About midnight the guests and instructors headed back to the lodge, following the light of tiki torches.
Odmark returned to close the cabin at about 2:30, and found three young women, completely soused, sitting around the pond singing and using their ski poles as fishing poles. From then on, guests were responsible for getting themselves back to their hotel rooms.
Trail Creek Cabin was turned into a Naval Officers’ Club during World War II, when Sun Valley became a Navy rehabilitation base. Gloria Battis, who ran the Rio Club casino with her husband, took over cooking detail at the cabin and served up home-style platters of roast lamb, Spanish rice, garlic potatoes, and her locally famous fried chicken. >>>
Even more rustic than Trail Creek Cabin was Pioneer Cabin, which opened the same year on a 10,000-foot perch looking out onto such peaks as Hyndman, Old Hyndman, Cobb, and Handwerk. The hut—the forerunner of today’s yurts—was billed as a high-mountain hostel for guests who wanted to spend a few days “in a remote and peaceful winter wonderland.”
Harriman believed that such overnight huts were essential if the resort was to compete with European ski resorts. And the idea pacified Austrian ski instructors like Friedl Pfeifer, who found the idea of lift-accessed skiing less appealing than the time-honored method of climbing a mountain slope with sealskins or “canvas creepers” on his skis.
The two-room cabin featured four double-decker bunks with green Pullman car curtains for privacy, plush sleeping bags with sheets sewn into them, and leftover maroon carpet from the Sun Valley Lodge. Ski instructors packed in steaks, bacon and eggs, and cases of dehydrated soup imported from Switzerland. And Sun Valley provided a cook—albeit a temperamental one who threw a fierce temper tantrum every time he burned the French toast on the wood stove.
The area’s wide-open spaces and plentiful sunshine offered unlimited spring skiing along numerous routes fanning out from the cabin. Skiers could take Route 82 to Duncan Peak and into the Hyndman Peak Basin, for instance. Or they could follow Route 81, as outlined in ski instructor Andy Hennig’s trail guide, up the Salzburger Spitzl.
One of the ski guides Harriman hired to guide tourists on that 4-mile European-type tour into the cabin was Florian “Flokie” Haemmerle. Dorice Taylor, Sun Valley’s early publicist, recalled how the Bavarian guide, who often wore lederhosen, added a teaspoon of rum to every cup of tea—the way “my grandvater used to do.” Even as World War II unfolded in Europe, he downplayed talk of war. “Var? Why talk of var? If they vould build more ski lifts and more little houses [like Pioneer Cabin], there vould be no need for var.”
One of the guests Flokie guided into the cabin was Dwight Shepler, an American landscape artist who loved to paint the craggy mountains that form a half-cirque around the site. Shepler traded Haemmerle watercolor-painting lessons for ski lessons, and Haemmerle took to painting like a skier to a powder day. He sold his work to Lucille Ball, Gary Cooper, Darryl Zanuck, and other Sun Valley regulars. He also covered the walls of the Sun Valley Inn, the Knob Hill Inn, and a few homes along Fairway Drive with St. Florian and other designs in Bavarian fashion.
Pioneer Cabin has also been a favorite destination of hikers over the years.
When a religious group living in Triumph announced in the early 1980s that UFOs would be landing in their vortex, Ketchum native Bill McDorman decided to hike into Pioneer Cabin with a friend and watch the landings from there. Darkness fell before they had finished the 2,400-foot climb, and the sliver of moon was providing little light.
Suddenly, the friend’s dog set off a cacophony of agonized howling.
“I was never as scared in my entire life,” McDorman remembers. “I didn’t know if the dog had run into an alien creature or what!”
Their hands shaking, the two men rummaged through their packs for a flashlight as the dog came bounding down the path toward them, still howling in a bloodcurdling manner. In the light of the flashlight, the cause was immediately revealed: a face full of porcupine quills.
“We spent the rest of the night picking quills out of the dog’s face,” McDorman says. “We didn’t have time to watch for the UFOs.” >>>
The historic Roundhouse, which sits midway up Bald Mountain, was where spectators used to stay warm while watching internationally famous skiers like Stein Ericksen and Jean Claude Killy schuss around slalom poles. The octagonal warming hut and mid-mountain restaurant opened in 1940, the same year as Baldy’s first chairlift. Founder Averell Harriman christened it the Roundhouse because of its resemblance to a railroad switch house.
Sun Valley Manager Pat “Pappy” Rogers, who had managed Union Pacific’s North Rim Lodge in the Grand Canyon, picked the spot for the Roundhouse by riding a horse up and down Baldy. And a stonemason who had worked on the massive lodges in the Grand Canyon built a four-way fireplace in the center of the Roundhouse, with log beams emanating from it like wagon-wheel spokes. Forty-six windows were ordered from Omaha, Nebraska, to let skiers gaze in every direction to the surrounding mountain peaks. Recalled William Castagnetto in the 1976 book Sun Valley: A Biography, “I immediately got a wire back that said, ‘What the hell are you going to do with 46 windows?’”
Skiers used to stop off at the Roundhouse to warm up with a cup of cocoa before continuing their way up the mountain on the slow-going, three-part Bald Mountain ski lift, which carried skiers 11,005 feet from across the Big Wood River to the top of Baldy.
“It was like the lodges today—you could get fantastic food there,” noted Ketchum native Jeanne Flowers. “We’d go at eight in the morning and pack snow with our skis for a couple of hours to earn a free pass—that was before the snow groomers, you know. Then we’d go in for a bowl of chili, which was the most inexpensive thing on the menu.”
Come nightfall, the Roundhouse played host to parties featuring glamorous movie stars and ski-racing legends. As each party wound down, a ski instructor checked the partygoers’ sobriety, clearing some to ski down in the moonlight and instructing others to ride the chairlift.
Occasionally, partygoers were so inebriated that ski instructors had to tie them onto the lift and relay to the ski patrol that guests were coming down on chair No. 8 or No. 9. If that particular chair was empty when it reached the bottom, ski patrollers went out to retrieve the person in the snow. Fortunately, the chair riders were so numb and flexible they couldn’t possibly have hurt themselves.
The Roundhouse also had a prominent role in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade, starring Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie. But, according to Paul Tanner, a trombone player with the original Glenn Miller Orchestra, the building in the movie was faithfully re-created in a Los Angeles studio, and the orchestra never played in the actual Roundhouse.
It was also in 1940 that Sun Valley built a second alpine touring cabin, to sleep 16 guests, at Owl Creek, about two miles southeast of Galena Lodge. Several years later, the resort renovated some cabins at the old Boulder Basin mining site, one of Idaho’s best-preserved ghost towns.
The first ski party went into Boulder Basin on July 4, to ski on snow preserved by 11,000-foot mountain ridges. Guides took ski-touring groups in Jeeps along a wagon trail once used to haul ore from the Golden Glow Mine. They rode to the timberline on horseback, and from there skied the 1,500-foot vertical drops in the bowls. Just for kicks, they’d often pile guests into a canoe and push them down the slopes into Boulder Lake.
In 1952, the Owl Creek Cabin was destroyed by an avalanche that roared down nearby 10,225-foot Bromaghin Peak. That, combined with a second deadly avalanche down Baldy’s Lookout Bowl, put an end to Sun Valley’s backcountry ski program.
Roundhouse, Trail Creek, and Pioneer cabins are still very much in use, however. The trek to Pioneer Cabin remains one of the most popular hikes near Sun Valley, although someone hauled a bucket of paint up there two summers ago to paint over the “The Higher You Get The Higher You Get” sign on the roof. The cabin is in a state of disrepair, but visitors can still thumb through the guest book, pluck the remaining strings on a guitar someone left behind, and drop a granola bar into an emergency food tin.
Hundreds of people—snowshoers, skiers, and sleigh riders—still head to Trail Creek Cabin each winter, where they enjoy hearty bowls of seafood stew under the wagon-wheel chandeliers. Surrounded by stuffed elk and pheasants, they gaze out at the winter wonderland through frosted windowpanes.
And skiers still park their skis—and, now, snowboards—at the Roundhouse. They happily climb 67 steps, one for each year of Sun Valley’s existence, to dine on such elegant fare as mascarpone cheesecake and vol-au-vent filled with a ragout of veal and forest mushrooms.
Among the fans of the Roundhouse is Ketchum Masters racer Kim Cathleen Verde, who likes to warm her feet at the four-sided fireplace as she listens to Tim Ericksen pump out Edelweiss on his accordion. “The Roundhouse may not be as elegant as Sun Valley’s newer lodges, but it is unique,” she says. “I ski a lot of places, and I can’t think of another ski resort in America that offers such formal dining on the mountain. This place is so special.
hen you think of the celebrities who came through here—Lucille Ball, Hemingway . . .
“What memories this place holds!”
Yes. Memories. Counted consecutively, these three places hold almost two centuries’ worth—and we’re still counting.
Yep, Karen Bossick has a permanent crick in her neck from oogling Sun Valley’s lodges. But after four years of living in the Wood River Valley, she’s yet to curl up and take a nap in one of those comfy oversized sofas on the second floor of River Run Lodge. “The skiing’s just too good!” she says.