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Sun Valley Suns Articles:
10/25/2008
Paper: The Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Robert Upe

The stars come out to ski
Sun Valley is Hollywood's snow town, writes Robert Upe.

Tempers are flaring at Sun Valley. One of the town's finest young men is down with concussion and amid the fracas my plastic cup of Budweiser spills across the floor and over me.

But it's not a fist fight in a bar. It's an ice-hockey game between arch rivals the Sun Valley Suns and Jackson Hole Moose and it's the best entertainment I've had for $US8 ($11.60) in ages.

I'm standing in the front row with my beer balanced on a narrow ledge on a wall separating fans from skaters when a pack of beefy players rams into it and sends the cup flying.

So that's why seasoned locals never perch their drinks here. I realise I have signposted myself as a blow-in.

On the ice, the players take to each other as hockey players do: sticks are pressed into chests and they shove each other with menace to assert regional pride. But I have greater issues in mind and I race off to beat the mob to the beer queue before the hooter sounds to end the period.

This show of aggression is unusual in Sun Valley, an up-market and genteel ski town in the out-of-the-way Sawtooth Mountains of conservative potato-growing American state, Idaho.

Quiet as it is, Sun Valley is where Ernest Hemingway shot himself in 1961. The author of classics, such as For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man And The Sea, lived in Sun Valley and was inspired by its rivers, mountains and forests. But one morning he leant over his double-barrel shotgun and pulled both triggers.

The beauty of the area has not diminished since then. I see snow-covered paddocks and golf courses in the flat lands below the mountains; horses pulling sleighs with bells; neatly stacked wood piles; fast-flowing forest-fringed rivers that lure fly fishermen in summer; grand log-cabin homes; and stone fireplaces with real fires.

Sun Valley is the type of place where you'll see a farmer in a 1960s Chevy pick-up cruise into town for groceries.

"It has a strong sense of community," says professional ski guide Travis Will, a lifelong resident. "If a family is struggling, everyone pitches in to help."

The sense of homeliness and friendliness pervades but I particularly warm to the Catholic church called Our Lady of the Snows, a place of worship that seemingly pays homage to the strong ski history and heritage here.

Sun Valley was "manufactured" in 1936 at the insistence of the chairman of the Union Pacific railway, Averell Harriman. He was a keen skier and he wanted to establish America's first winter destination resort to help increase rail passenger numbers and the real estate wealth of the company's directors.

Harriman wanted an up-market resort, such as Switzerland's St Moritz, so he hired Count Felix Schaffgotsch to scout out a location during the 1935-36 winter. Schaffgotsch dismissed many places that subsequently became successful ski destinations, such as Jackson Hole (too remote and windy), Lake Tahoe (blizzards) and Aspen (too many trees and too far from the rail line).

He was running out of options when he pinpointed the mining town of Ketchum and decided it was the place because it had mountains, plentiful snow, sun and treeless slopes in a sheltered valley.

Work began almost immediately and the Sun Valley Lodge opened in December 1936. Schaffgotsch never got his day in the sun because he returned to Austria soon after and was killed on the Russian Front fighting for the Third Reich.

New York publicist Steve Hannigan, who transformed a sand dune into Miami Beach and then successfully promoted it, was enlisted to do the public relations. He came up with the name Sun Valley and invited Hollywood stars and society notables to visit to give the area the cachet of a luxury resort.

The star-studded line-up of visitors has included Lucille Ball, Ingrid Bergman, Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Demi Moore and the original Batman, Adam West. Bruce Willis lives nearby, acting for free at the local theatre company and playing in a local band.

The Hollywood push of Sun Valley was helped by the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade, a girl-chases-boy flick starring Sonja Henie, John Payne, Milton Berle and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which included tunes such as Chattanooga Choo Choo. (The film plays on a constant loop on a Sun Valley Lodge channel.)

Sun Valley's rise was ensured with the installation of the first chairlift in the world in 1936. The chair was financed by Harriman and developed by the Union Pacific's engineering department in Omaha, Nebraska.

The lift is long gone but the modern lift system, comprising 19 lifts across two mountains (Bald Mountain is for beginners and Dollar Mountain for competent intermediates or better), works like a wonder. During our stay there are no lift queues and the long, steep, wide, groomed slopes are so deserted that we let our skis run with reckless abandon. There are also tree runs, bumps and steep bowls to tackle.

The slopes at Dollar are of a constant pitch that require a lot of muscle work and technique to check your speed. Legs are well and truly burning by lunch.

On-mountain lunches are a treat, with Sun Valley's day lodges - such as River Run and Seattle Ridge - the best I have seen in the world. Think of big, open fires, soft sofas, quality tables and chairs (no plastic), sophisticated bar areas, widescreen TVs and fresh, affordable food.

The service and food ethic is also evident at the elegant five-star Sun Valley Lodge, which remains the centrepiece of the area and retains a strong sense of Hollywood and ski history. The lodge is a 10-minute bus ride from the slopes. It is an essential experience, from the grand dining rooms to the piano bars to the outdoor glassed-swimming pool.

Many of the rooms have French country interiors and marble bathrooms and there are glorious apartments with fires and plasma TVs. Hemingway is said to have penned much of For Whom The Bell Tolls in room 206. The lodge also has a bowling alley, a spa and massage facility, shops and an adjacent ice rink.

In the early days big bands played at the lodge but now it is a little more laid-back and you're more likely to hear a jazz trio.

Unlike other big North American resorts, Australians are a rarity at Sun Valley. But four-time world surfing champion, Nat Young, is one high-profile Aussie to have bought property here, along with Andrew Fairley, the chairman of the Alpine Resorts Co-ordinating Council in Victoria. Fairley says he fell in love with the resort because of the "six-star" experience.

"There is never a crowd or a lift queue; there is diversity of terrain and the snowmaking is of the highest standard. There are beautiful and affordable lunches in the day lodges, where people are lined up behind the servery in chefs' hats to serve or cook fresh food. It makes you feel good.

"But what really makes Sun Valley compelling is the unconditional welcome. At other resorts in the US there is an A and a B crowd. Visitors are in the B crowd. But in Sun Valley everyone wants to know you and welcome you."

I've wandered into a Sun Valley bookshop to buy For Whom The Bell Tolls and have struck up a conversation with a store attendant who shows this typical friendliness. But then she drops a bombshell. In a town that reveres Hemingway she admits to finding his writing "boring".

I settle for a copy of the local paper, which reports the concussed ice-hockey player, Paul Baranzelli, is probably done for the season.

On a brighter note, the paper describes the last minutes of Sun Valley's 5-4 victory over Moose: "Mike Hanson broke away with the puck. Skating to the right, the left-handed forward slapped a blazing fast slap shot that whizzed by the Moose goalie. The crowd went wild and Hanson took a head-first victory slide into the Suns bench."

By that time I was holding my new beer tightly, just like the locals.

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