Reviewed: Skiing Sun Valley

 Must-Read for Sun Valley Fans

Review by Dick Dorworth

Skiing Sun Valley is a deeply researched, scholarly book about the connections between the Sun Valley of today and the people, places, cultures, economics, wars, inventions, wilderness, ecology, risks and personal relationships in the 19th and 20th centuries that made it what it will be in the 21st. Every aspect of the story is accompanied by an abundance of photos that on their own are worth the price of the book. Every person with a connection to and love for Sun Valley will be better informed, inspired and wiser after reading it.

The first paragraph of the epilogue says it all: Sun Valley has had a history like no other ski resort, since Averell Harriman started it in 1936 as a tool to restore passenger revenue for the Union Pacific Railroad in the middle of the Great Depression, saying, “We didn’t run it to make money; we ran it to be a perfect place.” Sun Valley had a monopoly on skiing grandeur for several decades, and it influenced areas that were developed later. In its over 80 years of existence, the resort has had only three owners, each showering it with love, support, and money, and each taking it to a higher level.

Skiing is a microcosm of the larger world, and Skiing Sun Valley explores some of its racism, sexism, inequality and Nazi connections, as well as its better-known ties to Hollywood glamour and celebrities from world and U.S. politics, economics, athletics, cuisine and crime. These dynamics are still alive in the world, but the reader learns how Sun Valley has contributed to making it a better place than it was in 1936.

The profound and lasting impact Sun Valley has had on American and world Alpine ski racing, backcountry skiing, Nordic racing, ski jumping and freestyle skiing is more rigorously and clearly explored in this book than in any other.

There are enough typos, misspellings (my favorite is Monroc for Monroe, as in Marilyn) and errors in attribution of sources to show that the book was not as deeply copyedited or proofread as it was researched. Some of my own work is included in the book, where there are mistakes in attribution. One excerpt I don’t remember writing, and which is not the sort of material I would write, is attributed to something I did write—but that excerpt is not in it. Like every history, Skiing Sun Valley is not perfect—but it is a must-read for Sun Valley aficionados.

Skiing Sun Valley begins with this:

This book is dedicated to filmmaker and philosopher Warren Miller (1924–2018). Warren will always be associated with Sun Valley through his ski movies and his early days living in a freezing cold trailer in a parking lot at the resort with the approval of Sun Valley’s manager Pat Rogers, who felt Warren offered “local color.” He inspired my generation to seek freedom through skiing. When I was growing up, the ski season in Seattle did not start until Warren showed his new movie. He asked people to ski their favorite run when they heard of his death. His was Christmas Ridge at Sun Valley. Thanks for the memories.

And ends with this: Sun Valley, like all ski areas, faces severe challenges from global climate change. In the last few decades, 272 ski areas have closed in the United States, more than a third of the country’s total, because they could no longer count on sufficient snow. Snow conditions that currently exist at 6,000 feet will rise to 7,000 feet by 2025. A two-degree Celsius temperature change means ski resorts will have 32 fewer days each season for snowmaking at 7,400 feet. “Ski resorts are going to have to reconfigure their operations to get skiers and boarders higher than they currently go,” according to one environmental planner. “Then they are going to have to figure out a way to get them back to the bottom—a bottom that may be more mud than snow in another 30 years. Some resorts may have to go to plastic grass that can be skied on year round.” No matter what happens in the future, Sun Valley will remain one of the world’s great ski areas and a lasting memorial to the vision of Averell Harriman, as enhanced by Bill Janss and the Holding family. 

Skiing Sun Valley: A History from Union Pacific to the Holdings by John W. Lundin. Published by History Press (2020), 528 page, hardcover, $50; Winner 2021 ISHA Skade Award.