The man behind the maps: legendary ski artist James Niehues

James Niehues
Artist James Niehues has devoted his career to mapping mountains in incredible detail (Image credit: Open Road Ski Company)

In the midst of the cruelest winter, when most of us can only dream of hitting the alpine trails and slopes, a beautiful book has been released by Open Road that enables us to live, glide and slide vicariously through some of the planet’s purest peaks, via hundreds of pages of majestically rendered mountain illustrations. 

Specialist artist James Niehues has spent his life producing maps of the most iconic mountain resorts across the Americas and well beyond, hand-painting images that completely transcend the concept of cartography. Now his work has been brought together in a beautiful 300-page coffee table book, which includes 200 high-quality prints of his lovingly created, but fully functional, works of art.   

ski map book

The Man Behind The Maps belongs on every alpine lodge coffee table (Image credit: Open Road Ski Company)

In the pages of the book – which includes trail maps from destinations such as Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley, Alta, Snowbird, Aspen Highlands and Vail, and is introduced by two-time World Extreme Skiing Champion and pioneering big mountain skier Chris Davenport – the artist himself explains how he goes about his work.

One of the last of the great mapmakers, Niehues first spends hours in the air, capturing aerial shots, and then he hits the slopes to explore the mountain himself, before meticulously illustrating every run, chairlift, tree and cliff by hand. 

Niehues has done hundreds of these paintings, making the genre his own and defining the aesthetic style of mountain maps we all recognize. During his 30-year career, Niehues’ work has guided countless skiers and snowboarders along the trails and down the slopes of mountain ranges across North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

ski map book

James Niehues' maps are as functional as they are beautiful (Image credit: Open Road Ski Company)

Seen through this lens, Niehues is the most established mountain guide in winter sports history, as well as one of the most widely viewed artists of the 21st century, since his maps have been printed hundreds of millions of times. Unsurprisingly, he was recently nominated to the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

“I have always enjoyed the challenge of fitting an entire mountain on a single page. Mountains are wonderful puzzles, and I knew if I painted with the right amount of detail and care, they would last,” said Niehues. “A good design is relevant for a few years, maybe even a decade. But a well-made map is used for generations.”

His work has inspired, informed and steered generations of mountain enthusiasts on their alpine journeys over the decades. “Jim has played such a huge role in the development of our sport and there are so many, like me, who have been deeply influenced by Jim and his art,” said Chris Davenport. “His maps are important, even vital, for everyone whose heart and soul revolves around the sport of skiing.”

The Man Behind The Maps is out now.

Pat Kinsella

Author of Caving, Canyoning, Coasteering…, a recently released book about all kinds of outdoor adventures around Britain, Pat has spent 20 years pursuing stories involving boots, bikes, boats, beers and bruises. En route he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked through the Norwegian Alps, run an ultra across the roof of Mauritius, and set short-lived records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s Great Walks. He’s authored walking guides to Devon and Dorset, and once wrote a whole book about Toilets for Lonely Planet. Follow Pat’s escapades on Strava here and Instagram here.