Open Road Ski Company. Plan less, travel more.
How we discovered our first project with James Niehues and in turn, started our company.
It was February 2017 and we arrived at Tamarak Ski Resort in Idaho, a smallish area in the seldom referenced Wallow Whitman National Forrest. The ticket office and rental shop were in a temporary bubble shaped building perched directly in front of several stories of base area construction. Sadly, the development stopped, mid hammer swing, several years ago. The idle cranes showed their wear from several harsh winters and summers. Few of the buildings had siding. Most wore only white sheets of Tyvec, a building wrap material installed underneath siding to blunt the impact of severe temperatures and precipitation. Tamarak was desperately trying to reinvent itself back in 2008. It was still frozen in time.
The reason we ended up at Tamarak deserves a little explanation. The day before, four 40+ year olds were crammed into a suburban cruising through Salt Lake City on our way to Whistler searching for and finding our own fountain of youth. We had completed day five of our annual ski walkabout and happened to catch Snowbird on an epic powder day. I know, I know. Another ski story talking about epic powder. But this day was a top 10 powder fest; it was an ear-to-ear-grin-high-fiving kind of day and capped off arguably the best multi-day stretch of skiing I had ever had.
Over those first five days, we logged 16 hours in a Suburban and traveled 1,000 miles. We had another 1,200 miles ahead and only two short days to get it done. Our wives and friends were meeting us in Whistler on day seven. They did not see the joy or fun of traveling aimlessly for a week chasing powder. Staying in sub $100 per night hotels was not their idea of a vacation. Packing up the car every morning and staying in a new bed each night was out of the question. They preferred rationale human comforts of a ski-in-ski-out house and eating meals that feature foods outside of our travel food groups: beef jerky, corn nuts, coke zero and nachos. Five days in, we were not fresh – mentally or physically.
We had also made zero progress towards Whistler. But not for a lack of trying. Ski Week rules simply guided us to a different outcome. They are simple:
1) Be present and do not over plan. No discussion on where where we will sleep that night until apres
2) Leave no trace. Keep every possible travel option open by packing up the car up every morning
3) Ben makes the final call on travel decisions. He is a benevolent dictator and really enjoys the role
4) Sharad is the Chief Nacho Officer. He will engage on the merits and structure of nachos at any time
5) Micah is not allowed to drive. Ever.
6) Mike is the cute, quiet one. Martin is the cute, loud one.
A little explanation why, on day 5, we were just passing the Mormon Temple in downtown Salt Lake (again) and made no progress towards Whistler. The first three days were spend at Snowbird, Snowbasin and Powder Mountain. All were great. Powder was phenomenal and blisteringly cold. The car was packed and we were off towards Driggs, Idaho to ski Targhee or Jackson on day four. A few light inches fell on Targhee overnight which led us to their sparsely filled lot the next morning. The base was frozen but topped with three inches of light snow that would make any Jetsetter in a Bogner suit jealous. It was fun for a few hours but a sharp departure from the previous three days.
With no destination in mind (see Ski Week rule #1 ), we packed up and headed back towards route 33. We stopped at Forage Bistro in Alta for a lunch that included exotic foods like vegetables and beef. The included Super 8 breakfasts and Flyjng J truck stop "dinners" keep the blood sugar up but an actual meal was a nice chage. It also allowed for debate on where to go next. The natural choice after Targhee would have been to continue traveling northwest towards Whistler. Maybe hit up Sun Valley. The only critical decision was to drive west on 33 or north on 15. I did a quick sweep of the usual weather and ski websites: NOAA's 24 hour Cottonwood forecast, my personal favorite, showed some showed something unexpected. Another 20-24" was possible at Snowbird overnight. After much deliberation, Ben made the call. We were driving back to Salt Lake...five more hours in the wrong direction.
It was totally worth it. Absolutely fantastic powder skiing. We briefly debated ditching the rental car in Salt Lake and flying to Whistler. Cooler heads prevailed. We drove towards Boise and found a luxurious Best Western that offered a free breakfast and catered to the families of the long term residents at the nearby Idaho State Correctional Center. The next morning we found Tamarak Ski Resort on the map. None of us had heard of it and we drove north to give it a try.
So what was so special about Tamarak? We scanned the trail map and oriented ourselves. It had a simple layout: two main lifts that took skiers to the top and a smaller lift serving a batch of partially constructed homes and condos. I also noticed something else in the bottom right corner of the map: a familiar signature style of the painter. The name was James Niehues. Wait a second. We have seen this signature before. And then it hit us, nearly ever ski map we have ever seen has the same style and feel. I pulled out my phone and searched his name. No way. One guy? All of them? That’s right, Jim has painted nearly 200 ski areas over that past 30 years. Big and small. From the Rockies to the Alps. Japan to Australia.
Over the next year I got to know Jim and we decided to put together a few projects with him. Open Road Ski Company was born.
-Ben and Todd