The Man Behind So Many Ski Maps

Some of us enjoy skiing very much. Some of us just try it every once and a while. Whether you’re the former or the latter, odds are you’ve found yourself in need of a good map, and, odds are, you’ve seen the map artwork of James Niehues.

Jams Niehues is the reason behind so many skiing maps across the world looking so much like each other. The man is a bonafide artist, having hand-painted 255 trail maps for 175 ski mountains all over the world in his long career, which started at 1988. Given the quality of his map artwork, the man, unsurprisingly, has fans, which is reflected by the collection of his work, The Man Behind the Map, funded via Kickstarter.

Now, creating a ski map isn’t as simple as just mashing together aerial shots of a mountain, but the 72 year old explains that it’s not just as simple as that. He notes he has to rearrange a lot of things to get it all in one view, to get the runs that run down and forward a page. Basically, he has to subtly tweak the perspective of the map, kind of how subway maps work; sacrificing a bit of geographical accuracy for clarity.

Niehues starts his process by riding a small plane and photographing the mountain to be drawn,, starting thousands of feet above the summit, then slowly circling down the mounting. As for Google Earth and the like, he does use them, but prefers taking pictures, as he thinks the former doesn’t really get the topography and provide a sense of perspective.

Then he uses the photos to make a first sketch that takes around two days, then sends that to his client for feedback, before starting the painting process. A large mounting, like Colorado’s Breckenrige Resort, usually takes around three weeks, due to his attention to detail, with every single tree being individually painted.

Even in the age of Google Maps and GPS, Niehues’ work remains a staple, in spite of the quality and automation of the map artwork from competitors. Niehues chalks it up to the fact that these ski maps are the most powerful and recognizable branding tool for ski resorts, something that captures the life and splendor of their mountain.

Niehues says that his maps, archaic as they might be, make a lasting impression all the same, plastered on trail maps, up on the mountain, and, even on the internet.


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