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James Niehues

Hall of Fame Class of 2019

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James Niehues’ three-decade legacy of producing resort trail maps has arguably touched more skiers and riders than anyone else in the sport, approximately tens of millions strong and still counting.

Since 1987, Niehues has magically distilled the complex topography of sprawling resorts down to one page, creatively and realistically hand-painting trail maps for some 200 ski resorts, including virtually all the major ones.

His works of art are displayed in bedrooms, patrol shacks, and ski-tuning rooms around the globe, serving to rekindle memories and inspire travel to new destinations.

When you do the math, you realize that hundreds of millions of Niehues’ trail maps have been circulated, a feat few artists can claim. The maps have animation, but they are still truthful to reality. His ability to make things understandable; to show skiers how to get from here to there, that’s a skill that makes him a master.

He closely studies the resorts, a process that starts with aerial photography. Niehues prefers to shoot it himself, starting at 2,000 feet above the summit and working down. From the photos, he spends about a week sketching out the mountain, then another three weeks hand-painting. The whole process takes about a month for a large resort.

“It’s the one image that can really define a resort,” says Bill Jensen, the longtime veteran resort executive who has overseen dozens of ski areas and knows what he is talking about.

The pent-up demand for Niehues’ work was amply illustrated when he announced plans in late 2018 to publish a coffee table book “The Man Behind the Maps”, to include all his finest work in one place.
The $85 book became the best-selling art book in Kickstarter history, and has now broken the 10,000-copy barrier and earned rave reviews.

Niehues was 40 years old, under-employed as a graphic artist, and living near Grand Junction when his second wife, Dora, fortuitously persuaded him to move to Denver. It was there he met Bill Brown, the resort mapmaker of the time who was preparing to retire after having followed Hal Shelton into the field. Niehues apprenticed with Brown, painting Winter Park’s Mary Jane insert in 1987, and producing his first major destination resort map in 1988, for Jackson Hole.

Niehues has produced maps for three-plus decades, compared to the decade apiece of his predecessors.

Jim and Dora have been married 35 years and live in Parker, Colorado. They each brought two children to their marriage, and they now have 10 grandchildren.

Jim is looking to pass the paint brush on to a worthy successor at some point, but doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to put his life’s work behind him.

Perhaps it was Jason Blevins, the longtime ski journalist, put it best:
“Without Jim, the ski world would be lost.”

For this role in guiding and inspiring skiers and riders for more than three decades, James Niehues earns entry into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.

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