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How a legendary ski hill artist created the Sun Peaks trail map

Trail map artist James Niehues designed the new map for Sun Peaks Ski Resort.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Sun Peaks Ski Resort
December 27, 2020 - 7:00 AM

Thousands of skiers and snowboards rely on trail maps to find their way home from Sun Peaks Ski Resort at the end of the day.

What started as a collection of lines to help people travel around their local hill has morphed into a cornerstone of ski culture, adorning the walls of luxury chalets and ski bum share houses alike.

Recently, the resort updated its trail map, which has been displayed around the resort since the 2019/2020 ski season.

"While our previous map served us well for years, terrain expansions, new lifts, and other changes around the resort meant that it was time for a fresh look on Canada’s second largest ski area. With the decision made to update the map, there was only one person we trusted to continue bringing our three peaks to life: legendary trail map artist James Niehues," according to the resort.

Sun Peaks Ski Resort's new trail map
Sun Peaks Ski Resort's new trail map
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Sun Peaks Ski Resort


The 2019/20 edition is the fifth trail map Niehues has created for Sun Peaks over the years, stretching back to his first visit in 1993.

While Niehues has hit the slopes of Sun Peaks in the past, describing the view from amongst the snow ghosts at the top of Tod as his favourite part about the ski hill, he didn’t make the trip north from his home in Colorado this time. Instead, he relied on aerial photographs to create the new piece.

To help the resort obtain the photos Niehues would need, the resort enlisted local Kamloops photographer Kelly Funk to capture images of every inch of the resort.

On a sunny December morning, Funk strapped himself into the passenger seat of a helicopter and methodically photographed Mt. Tod, Mt. Morrisey, Sundance, Orient Ridge, the village, and the valley from every angle over a couple of hours. With hundreds of high-resolution photos to use as a guide, the final map portrays every run, bowl, and glade in the resort in as much detail as possible for skiers.

“I’ve been up in helis on multiple occasions with the camera on a variety of commercial and tourism jobs but this was the first time I was in the air for Sun Peaks Resort, and also the first time doing mapping/quadrant work. I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous due to the fact that this was an entirely different end result needed; not emotive images for the most part, but repetitive back and forth while descending, hoping to cover not just Tod and Morrisey mountains, but the village and entire resort as well if possible.

"Failure would have been very costly. Luckily it wasn’t too cold that day as my hands were outside the shooting window, and once we got into the rhythm I felt comfortable with the content and it started to get fun. Then I found myself relaxing and enjoying the fantastic perspectives that you could only get from a chopper," Funk said, according to Sun Peaks.

Sun Peaks from the air
Sun Peaks from the air
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Sun Peaks Ski Resort


Once the photos were complete, it was over to the piste Picasso to work his magic. Niehues has enjoyed the challenge presented by painting Sun Peaks over the years, describing it as the most difficult trail map in the lineup of almost 200 resorts that he’s worked with. 

“The most compelling thing about your mountains is that they're probably the most difficult mountains that I’ve ever done, to get all the trails on one view. Because of Morrisey of course. You’ve got to view it from an easterly direction and of course that means the runs on the west side of Morrisey, like Wringer, In Tatters, and Static Cling, are really, really difficult to get on a single view,” he said, according to Sun Peaks.

James Niehues working on the sketch for the new map.
James Niehues working on the sketch for the new map.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Sun Peaks Ski Resort

Along with the usual challenge of showcasing all three of the mountains at once, Niehues also tackled some other tricky spots in the latest incarnation of the map.

These included the addition of the new Orient chairlift and showcasing how the bases of Orient and Morrisey converge, as well as capturing a more accurate view of Gil’s. His skill as an artist shines through in his ability to create an image that showcases the variety and expanse of Sun Peaks from an aerial angle, while also providing an effective tool for skiers to orient themselves at ground level, according to Sun Peaks.

In order to arrive at his finished painting, Niehues worked through several stages. First up, he created an initial sketch of the scene to review with the Sun Peaks team. This process took around a week and a half.

Once everyone was happy with how the new map looked, he spent a day painstakingly transferring it onto an illustration board, making sure to trace things accurately until every last run, building, and tree was in the right position. Finally, it was time to paint the map, a process that took Niehues approximately three weeks to complete.

Step by step the final painting comes to life.
Step by step the final painting comes to life.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Sun Peaks Ski Resort

The longest part of the painting process is the trees.

Niehues uses a technique in his paintings that saves him from painting every single tree individually, it still takes plenty of time to accurately portray the lush forests that blanket our mountains.

Aside from his work with Sun Peaks, Niehues was a busy man in 2019 with the release of his new book The Man Behind the Maps, which features more than 200 of his trail map paintings from around the world. You can order the book or see more of his work on his website.


Once the painting was ready, it was time to hand things over to the Sun Peaks Resort marketing team to apply the finishing touches. While constant reviews of the map were part of the process from the get-go, now was the time to double, triple, and quadruple check the map to make sure it was as accurate as possible, according to the resort.

The file was then passed over to the resort’s graphic designer, who spent more than 15 hours digitally adding in a coloured route and name label for each run, mountain by mountain.

After more rounds of reviews, the labels for on-mountain facilities, ski-in directions, and more were added as the final piece of the puzzle. Months of work were finally complete and the new map was ready to showcase Sun Peaks Resort to the world.

“In this newest rendition of our alpine trail map, it was important for us to capture the terrain developments we’ve seen take shape over the past several years - Gil’s coming in-bounds, further build-out of the West Morrisey trails, and most recently, the connection of Orient Ridge terrain via the Orient chairlift.

"Jim was able to enhance and more accurately depict these areas while continuing to showcase the 360 degree flow of our terrain around the village, which is one of our more unique and appealing features,” said Christina Antoniak, director of marking and communications at Sun Peaks.

You can pick up a copy of the map in Guest Services or at other locations around the resort. For something more permanent, the Alpine Images Photography team in the village have various pieces of wall art featuring the new map and will also take custom orders.

- This story was contributed by Sam Loxton, Sun Peaks Resort LLP and is reprinted with permission. You can find the original article here. 

The final painting
The final painting
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Sun Peaks Ski Resort

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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