Portrait of a Ski Area – Trail Maps Reinvented (part 1)

Most summers, all it takes is the passing of the Labour Day weekend for thoughts (and efforts) to turn in earnest to preparing for the coming winter season. If that wasn’t enough, two consecutive days of snowflakes drifting past my window last week had me gazing wistfully at my dusty ski boots lurking in the corner of my office. The new snow that dusted the upper reaches of the mountain is now gone – September snow never stays – but the thoughts remain, and the mountain is buzzing with new activity.

When I say buzzing, I mean it – roving crews of brushers with their brush saws are out removing small bushes and trees that threaten to clog ski runs, and our tractor-mounted mower is adding golf-course stripes to the grass on the lower level runs (it still amazes me that every summer the stripes from the previous year are still evident, even after being buried under metres of packed snow for six months or more). This job is not done for aesthetic reasons – rather, shorter grass allows the snow to remain longer on the slope when things heat up in the spring. With long grass, air pockets form when the first few layers of snow hit the ground, and these pockets can accelerate melting in the spring. Melting snow is the disease, and the mower is the cure.

One project of mine that began earlier in the summer and is still in progress is the creation of new paintings of the Lake Louise Ski Area for use in new trail maps. I’d always felt that our current maps didn’t quite do our terrain justice, so of course I was happy to hear that our owner had been in contact with James Niehues, the renowned ski resort artist whose paintings grace hundreds of trail maps from all over the world. After a quick look at the gallery on his website I knew he would the be the one who could show this incredible landscape with all the detail and drama it deserved. It was only a short time later that an agreement was reached and it was confirmed that James would be painting Lake Louise.

Of course, before pencil touches paper, much research is required, and this usually involves James traveling to the resort and finding an airplane that will take him above and around the resort so that he can see it and get photographs from all angles and elevations. Fortunately, James was able to stay in Colorado for this project, as I had been able to gather quite a collection of aerial photos of the ski area from numerous helicopter trips over the years, and sent him a few hundred shots that covered the entire ski area from different elevations and from different times of year.

Based on these photos, James quickly got to work on the first of three stages – producing quick sketches that were meant to allow us to agree upon the perspectives that would be used for successive drafts. Even in rough sketches, James’ talent was obvious, and it was amazing to see someone capture the essence of Lake Louise so quickly and accurately. We weren’t concerned with accuracy of run and lift location – that would come once the perspective of each map was confirmed.

Our current trail maps use four separate views – one each for the front side, back side, and Larch, and one overview that provides a straight-down look at the whole area with the idea of giving our guests a better idea of not only the lay of the land, but the scope and size as well. James stated he could do the same thing in three views instead of four, and in the sketches below, you’ll see that he included Larch in both the front and back side views, giving us the option of one or the other.

With clever use of terrain “warping”, he was able to show views that would not be possible in real life, without sacrificing the realistic portrayal of the landscape. For example, unless one is looking straight down from above, it would not be possible to see all of the front side and all of the runs on Larch at the same time.

Once we had the maps, we decided that including Larch with the front side view would be our preference, for two reasons. First, it would show the lion’s share of our easy and intermediate runs in one view, and it would also allow the view of the backside to swing around to the east since Larch no longer needed to be included. I communicated this to James, and he quickly sketched an alternate view for the back side, as seen below. Upon seeing the revised sketch, it was immediately clear that it would do a better job of showcasing our expansive back bowls, and this is the view we chose.

With confirmation of perspective complete, James moved on to the comprehensive sketches, which would also be in pencil, but would pay close attention to accuracy of detail – topography, runs, lifts, etc. I sent him more photos based on the comments he included with the rough sketches so he could fill in the blanks. James felt that accuracy was paramount, even for terrain that lay outside the ski area boundary. Of course, we did not argue his approach!

Continue to Part 2