Trail maps

Which way you gonna go
To the left or to the right
Gonna go up gonna go down
I ain’t got no clue tonight

Which way you gonna run
To the east or to the west
To the north to the south
Which way you like the best

Which Way, Bob Seger

If you stand at the top of a mountain wondering where you’re going to go, you’re likely to pull out a trail map to help you figure it out.

If you’ve visited some of the largest and most upscale resorts in the world, you may have noticed that their maps tend to have the same style. That’s no surprise, because if you look carefully at the map, you may find, hidden in the glades, the name James Niehues. His portfolio includes Aspen, Killington, Park City, Snowshoe, Stratton, and Vail.

He starts each project by taking photographs of the mountain from the ground and from the air. Instead of using a computer program to convert the photo into a graphics files and then a map, he paints each map. His preferred paint is a watercolor known as gouache. While the skies and snow get laid down with an airbrush, Niehues reaches for a tiny brush for the specifics of each map, such as hundreds of trees at a time. That’s no small project, as painting in trees can account for 80 percent of the time he spends on a map.

One significant challenge of making maps is to capture important elements of a three-dimensional space into two dimensions. When asked how he managed to convey distances on a flat medium, he told Cabinet Magazine:

Some of it is done with color perception—your blues are farther away, and your warm colors are closer and there’s a natural perspective. You have to foreshorten areas that aren’t important and yet keep that feeling of distance in there. That’s showing the mountain as it would ski, not necessarily as a flat map. It’s difficult to explain … I just do it.

He adds, on his own website, “distortions are necessary to bring everything into a single view. The trick is to do this without the viewer realizing that anything has been altered from the actual perspective.”

To Niehues, a map serves more than a utilitarian function. For one thing, he told Fortune magazine in 2006, “I have to first be a mapmaker, but I’m really a painter.”

As he told NBC News, “I wanted people to really look at the runs and see the different variations of the slopes.” He added, “I hope whenever they look at my map, maybe they not only look at how they get down, but maybe they’ll look and see a little bit of the beauty that’s there, and stop and admire what they’re skiing in.”

At his peak, Niehues would paint 13-20 maps per year, but he is now semi-retired. As NBC News says, he’s the only American who creates map this way. Expect his style of trail maps to fade away from the American alpine scene, so enjoy it while you can.

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