GeoCarta Has Moved

Apr 25, 2007

Cartographer Follows Ski Trail to Dream Job

Whenever I'm skiing I always enjoy spending some time admiring the trail map of the ski slopes. I sometimes dream that I'm living in a ski village, making those trail maps, when I'm not out on the slopes, of course.

James Niehues is living my dream. The Vail Trail profiles the man who creates most of the ski trail maps for resorts in North America:

...The 61-year-old husband and grandfather is still surprised that he, who grew up on a Grand Junction farm and toiled through years in less-than-desirable occupations, discovered his dream job at the age of 40. His life and career, much like the ski runs he paints, have followed a winding path.

...His name may not be readily familiar, but Niehues' work is unmistakable. Thousands of skiers each day pick up a Niehues map to stow in their jacket pockets. Still others use the drawing to discuss the day's itinerary, to point out a favorite trail, or to mount on their walls.

That very thought is as gratifying as ever, Niehues says.

Niehues' ultimate goal is to maintain credibility and not exaggerate. Instead of measuring things like a cartographer, Niehues focuses on the visual differences and how different parts of the mountain relate to one another.

A mountain with multiple faces complicates things, Niehues says. In some instances, he must rotate the mountain in order to accurately portray every terrain feature. In the case of mountains with multiple sides reaching to one summit, two total views are sometimes necessary.

“First of all, it's a map; second, it's a piece of art," Niehues says. “I try to keep it as it's skied."

To make his maps, Mr. Niehues gathers old trail maps, topographic maps, and as many as 150 aerial photographs of the mountain. On larger projects, he sometimes ski the area to get a feel for how everything relates. Mapping a medium-sized ski area takes about a week. He doesn't see computer mapping as a much of threat, contending the quality is not as high.

See also: Making Maps the Old-Fashioned Way