In the 1930s, the Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch was scouring the US for a potential site for the world’s finest ski destination. Upon seeing central Idaho, he wrote, “Among the many attractive spots I have visited, this combines the more delightful features of any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland, or Austria for a winter ski resort.”
Based on Schaffgotsch’s endorsement, Averell Harriman — chairman of Union Pacific — built just that resort. He hired the best skiers and ski instructors in the world to come live and work at his new ski destination, Sun Valley. Ever since then, this small resort town has been attracting world-class athletes, world-class adventurers, and world-class outdoor entrepreneurs.
But what was it exactly that originally attracted Schaffgotsch? What can explain Sun Valley’s magnetic pull? And how has it persisted for nearly 100 years?
The local athletes: Inspiring and incognito
Nowadays, three generations of Olympic medalists and adventure superstars call this small Idaho town in the Northern Rockies — population 1,473 — home base and daily training zone. But you’d never know it: Try picking them out of the crowd during a powder day on Baldy’s 3,400-foot vertical drop, on their bikes riding up Trail Creek, hiking the local trails, fishing the creeks, running errands around town, or playing with their kids at the park.
The truth is, they look a lot like every other Sun Valley local or visitor, blending in quite seamlessly with a community chock full of unassumingly bad-ass adventurers. After all, Sun Valley is home to the inspiringly fit and the aspiringly adventurous, where 70-year-old trail runners cheerfully greet you as they waltz past going uphill, where pros wear their status like a good base layer — comfortably, but undercover. It’s hard to tell the difference between your dog’s vet, the chef at your favorite restaurant, a local elementary school teacher, and all those famous Olympic medalists, pro skiers, mountain climbers, expedition leaders, and every other type of adventure superstar. They’re called here because they fit right in.
A who’s who of Sun Valley adventure stars
The list of professional athletes and adventure heroes with roots here is a long one: 56 former and current Olympians hail from Sun Valley, including 2014 Olympic Gold Medalist Kaitlyn Farrington and 1948 Gold Medal winner Gretchen Fraser. The roster also includes endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch; X-Games gold medalists and big-mountain skiers Zach and Reggie Crist; professional mountain climbers Ed Viesturs and Peter Whittaker; pro skier Karl Fostvedt; and expedition kayaker, Mt. Everest cameraman, and all-around adventure guru Gerry Moffatt. These names barely scratch the surface — and they certainly don’t include all the incredible athletes and adventurers who have come before us.
Nor should we neglect the number of outdoor entrepreneurs who helped create the special cultural fabric so singular to Sun Valley, like the founders of POWDER Magazine. Following in the footsteps of early Sun Valley ski-film pioneers such as Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore, brothers Jake and Dave Moe launched POWDER Magazine in 1972 from a small office in town. Celebrating the people who made skiing cool and the coolest thing of all — skiing powder — POWDER has inspired countless skiers with their motto, “If you’re not having fun, you’re fired!”
Why Sun Valley?
The reasons why so many of these remarkable and talented individuals are drawn to Sun Valley differ for each person, but it’s safe to say it all boils down to a few key factors. Sun Valley has that rare combination of adventure opportunities out your front door paired with a vibrant, fun-loving, quietly-kickass-yet-wildly-cultured local community. This potent mixture creates a unique mountain town and lifestyle, one that celebrates spending lots of time outside in the fresh mountain air with good friends, getting plenty of exercise at and above 6,000 feet, and enjoying an abundance of cultural resources — like a world-class four-season resort, nationally recognized theaters and performance arts groups, critically acclaimed film festivals, a plethora of amazing restaurants, and residents that value freedom, adventure, and the natural environment.
At its very roots, the culture and community here couldn’t care less about how much money you have, how famous you are, or what your last name is, valuing instead the experiences, humility, relationships, and simple beauty of a life lived well in the mountains. It’s also a place with an enduring pioneering spirit — from the world’s first chairlift to the first aluminum ski pole, double-lens goggle, collapsible ski, and countless other advancements in outdoor equipment design, Sun Valley has always been a hotspot for innovation. A commitment to staying chain-free and locally owned and operated keeps Sun Valley authentic to itself, while also providing a future that’s both sustainable and diverse.
When you combine all these factors, it’s easy to see why the very people whose careers and livelihoods extend from free-spirited adventure and athleticism choose to call Sun Valley home. If you ask any of them, though, they’ll probably say the same thing: It’s the local people that make this place so special. There’s an easy-going and accepting vibe that pervades everything, freeing Sun Valley from the tiresome hype and competition found in other mountain towns.
At the end of another long sunny day spent playing in the mountains, lying beneath a star-filled sky, listening to the river roll on by, or watching snow fall and stack up on the evergreens outside — surrounded by friends and family — it’s easy to understand why the idea of personal success is a little different in a place like Sun Valley.