This year the iconic Sun Valley Resort marks its 75th season of creating joyous memories for its visitors. The celebration of this milestone inspires reflection on its early days and the importance this foundation has been for the growth of Sun Valley as a recreational innovator and standard-setter.

This season on April 2, 2011, skiing recognizes the force behind Sun Valley, owner R. Earl Holding and the Holding family. The Ski Hall of Fame will induct Holding as a member for his contribution to the sport in ceremonious evening, as well as inducting local Paralympic alpine skiing champion, Muffy Davis. This event culminates a weeklong celebration of the International Skiing History Association and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame and reunion of great athletes of the sport.

Go Higher Spirit Inspires Firsts

Sun Valley has always been known for a “go higher spirit,” a term coined by Friedl Pfeifer, an early head of Sun Valley’s ski school. The area itself is prone to firsts, beginning with the first electric lights in Idaho at a Ketchum smelter in 1882, and a year later the first telephone service in Idaho initiated in nearby Hailey. But despite an early mining boom followed by a waning sheep industry, by 1935 the area was a difficult place to carve out a living. It was then that W. Averell Harriman, a successful industrialist and Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, set his sites on developing an American ski resort along the tradition of St. Moritz in the Alps, and transformed the gritty mining area and sheep range.

The story of how Harriman designated Count Felix Schaffgotsch to search for North America for the equivalent to Europe’s St. Moritz with the right combination of elevation, slope, sunshine, snow, and Union Pacific Railroad access is well entrenched in local Sun Valley legend. How well he found a parallel location to Europe’s St. Moritz is evident in the similarities between St. Moritz and Sun Valley. The story of St. Moritz is also a tale of firsts. Known as “the top of the world,” in 1864 hotelier Johannes Badrutt established St. Moritz, Switzerland, as the first winter resort in the Alps. St. Moritz hosted the first European curling tournament in 1882, the first European Ice Skating Championships in 1882, the first Alps golf tournament in 1884, and the first bob run and bob race in 1890. St. Moritz installed electric trams in 1896, the first in the Alps, and in 1929, St. Moritz established the first ski school in Switzerland.

In 1936, Harriman’s team established Sun Valley resort on a former ranch, and the doors of the concrete lodge opened to greet visitors to first US western ski destination resort. The resort’s innovative thinkers built the world’s first chairlifts by adapting a banana-loading device. The year-round outdoor rink was the first in the world, setting the tradition of the resort’s ice shows that feature the greatest skating athletes of the day. The ski school was unique in that it was the first Austrian-based ski school, and through today Dollar Mountain is considered the finest teaching locale in the United States with over 250 instructors in the resort’s ski school.

There are so many firsts and innovations, like the obscure first performance in the U.S. of the Hokey Pokey at Sun Valley’s Ram Restaurant in the 1940’s, but what is telling in the 74 seasons leading up to today is how the resort has aimed and strived to be the best. The starting place for Sun Valley’s greatness lies in place: 300 days of annual sunshine, the consistent vertical pitch of the ski terrain, little wind, abundant snow, and the year-round all-encompassing beauty of the Wood River Valley. And through its continuing efforts to “go higher,” every year the facilities and activities expand and quality increases.

Taking Skiing to the Top

The question at Sun Valley has always been how to enhance the sport and the experience of skiing. Gentle Proctor and treeless Dollar Mountains had the first runs, but the first Austrian ski instructors climbed up and skied down Bald Mountain, declaring it to be the best ski mountain in the world. In 1939, three lifts brought skiers to the 9,150-foot summit of Bald Mountain, and Sun Valley has remained at the top since.

The same conditions and variety of challenges at Baldy that inspired the Austrian ski-school instructors and trained Olympic medal winners continue to please alpine skiers from around the world. The names of Baldy’s runs — Gretchen’s Gold, Christin’s Silver, Picabo’s Street, and Muffy’s Medals — honor local ski champions. Gretchen Kunigk Fraser was the first American skier to win an Olympic Gold Medal when she captured the gold in the slalom and the silver in the combined in 1948 in St. Moritz. She worked actively to support young women racers and to develop the field of skiing for rehabilitating those with injuries and disabilities. Gretchen’s restaurant in the Village is named for her.

Ketchum’s Christin Cooper captured the Silver Medal in giant slalom in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. A decade later, Picabo Street won the Silver Medal in downhill (1994), the Gold for Super G in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, and became the first American to win the overall title in the World Cup. Local Muffy Davis took three Silvers in the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake and a Bronze in Nagano. Sun Valley’s Baldy continues to be an important Olympic training mountain.

Last season initiated operations for the Roundhouse Gondola that carries passengers from River Run up to the Roundhouse Restaurant. In addition to skiers and riders, the gondola extends enjoyment of the vistas and dining at Roundhouse to non-skiers, summer visitors, and evening diners. One of the things that sets Sun Valley apart is the absence of lift lines, as there is lift capacity at Bald Mountain to take more than ten times the average demand. Dollar Mountain makes for easy access with two quads, one triple, one double, and the ever-so-easy Wundercarpet.

Recent Dollar Mountain upgrades focus on challenging fun for adventure-seeking boarders and skiers. The Terrain Park has 25 new features and rails for all different skill levels and there is a practice area for freestyle jumps. Last season saw the tubing hill relocated closer to the updated and refined Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge. Only a quarter of Dollar’s runs are for beginners despite its reputation as a great beginners’ hill, so there are great intermediate runs on Dollar, as well.

One of this season’s innovations is the lift ticket exchange program. It allows flexibility to swap out an alpine ski day for dining, a spa treatment, something at the shops, or Nordic skiing.

Nordic skiing has steadily grown at Sun Valley since its introduction in 1970 because of its exceptional terrain with over 200 kilometers of groomed trails. This is the third season for the new Nordic Ski Center north of the Village in a shared space with the Golf Clubhouse and a 40 K groomed trail. The quality of Nordic skiing attracted the Norwegian Ski Team for six weeks of pre-Olympic training, as well as the US Nordic Team. Named Nordic Town USA, this year the resort again hosts the nine-day Sun Valley Nordic Festival January 29th through February 6, 2011, with races, sprints, clinics & demos, and music, including (it makes the mind wander) 2nd Annual Snowshoe Dance Competition.

Offering Something for Everybody

Skiing, skating, and entertainment in the clubs and Opera House occupied the time of the first guests. Over the 74 preceding seasons, there has been no greater change than the expansion to a year-round resort and the varying opportunities for recreation, relaxation and enjoyment.

“You can’t do it all in one stay is saying around here,” said exec Jack Sibbach. “Our statistics validate the truth of the statement, as we have a 75% return rate for visitors. We offer so many diverse experiences, it is impossible to accomplish everything in one or even two visits.”

Sun Valley Resort is now busier in the summer than winter. Golfing at Trail Creek has enjoyed a superb reputation. Two seasons ago Sun Valley even improved the experience by opening its luxurious new clubhouse and White Clouds, a challenging alpine-links course with unmatched views.

A playground to the stars in the early days as well as now, entertainment has always been a focus at Sun Valley. This year marks the third season for the Sun Valley Pavilion, an architecturally stunning outdoor amphitheater that is new home to the symphony and draws an increasingly exciting line-up of performers. The resort still has more intimate venues for music, comedy and theater performances.

Enduring Timelessness

There is no question that the improvements that grace Sun Valley will endure another 75 seasons, and much, much longer. The Sun Valley Pavilion features Italian marble from the same quarry as the stones cut for the Coliseum. This same mindfulness can be seen in the timber frame and stone in the Golf Lodge/Nordic Center. The other lodges are similarly designed and built with quality to endure and become landmarks for the future.

Accessible Solitude

Trains, planes and automobiles—since the beginning Sun Valley has balanced easy transportation with being far enough away for secluded relaxation. Union Pacific discontinued passenger rail service 47 seasons ago in the early days when dogsleds (and various other inventive transportation) took arrivals from the depot to the lodge. In its continual effort to make transport easy, this season the resort is offering Horizon Air passengers traveling from Seattle a half-day lift ticket for the day of arrival.

Last season, Avis opened a no-fee rental car drop-off at the Village. This is handy for guests who find that without a car they can get to all their Ketchum and Sun Valley destinations with the convenient shuttle, or for those interested in renting a car for just a day to see the outlying area. Now, there is also shuttle and van service between Boise and the Village.

In its 75th season, Sun Valley is still aiming to improve, and Jack Sibbach explains why the resort is always striving. “Sun Valley’s momentum is fueled by guest surveys. We aim for 100% guest-satisfaction, so if a survey suggests we can do something better, we do it.” This explains how Sun Valley is still seeking new heights, the go higher spirit: it has an altitude attitude.

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