The Little Sisters of Sun Valley’s Grand Dame
PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY The Community Library REGIONAL HISTORY DEPARTMENT
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The historic Roundhouse, which sits midway up Bald Mountain, was where spectators used to stay warm while watching internationally famous skiers like Stein Ericksen and Jean Claude Killy schuss around slalom poles. The octagonal warming hut and mid-mountain restaurant opened in 1940, the same year as Baldy’s first chairlift. Founder Averell Harriman christened it the Roundhouse because of its resemblance to a railroad switch house.
Sun Valley Manager Pat “Pappy” Rogers, who had managed Union Pacific’s North Rim Lodge in the Grand Canyon, picked the spot for the Roundhouse by riding a horse up and down Baldy. And a stonemason who had worked on the massive lodges in the Grand Canyon built a four-way fireplace in the center of the Roundhouse, with log beams emanating from it like wagon-wheel spokes. Forty-six windows were ordered from Omaha, Nebraska, to let skiers gaze in every direction to the surrounding mountain peaks. Recalled William Castagnetto in the 1976 book Sun Valley: A Biography, “I immediately got a wire back that said, ‘What the hell are you going to do with 46 windows?’”
Skiers used to stop off at the Roundhouse to warm up with a cup of cocoa before continuing their way up the mountain on the slow-going, three-part Bald Mountain ski lift, which carried skiers 11,005 feet from across the Big Wood River to the top of Baldy.
“It was like the lodges today—you could get fantastic food there,” noted Ketchum native Jeanne Flowers. “We’d go at eight in the morning and pack snow with our skis for a couple of hours to earn a free pass—that was before the snow groomers, you know. Then we’d go in for a bowl of chili, which was the most inexpensive thing on the menu.”
Come nightfall, the Roundhouse played host to parties featuring glamorous movie stars and ski-racing legends. As each party wound down, a ski instructor checked the partygoers’ sobriety, clearing some to ski down in the moonlight and instructing others to ride the chairlift.
Occasionally, partygoers were so inebriated that ski instructors had to tie them onto the lift and relay to the ski patrol that guests were coming down on chair No. 8 or No. 9. If that particular chair was empty when it reached the bottom, ski patrollers went out to retrieve the person in the snow. Fortunately, the chair riders were so numb and flexible they couldn’t possibly have hurt themselves.
The Roundhouse also had a prominent role in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade, starring Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie. But, according to Paul Tanner, a trombone player with the original Glenn Miller Orchestra, the building in the movie was faithfully re-created in a Los Angeles studio, and the orchestra never played in the actual Roundhouse.
It was also in 1940 that Sun Valley built a second alpine touring cabin, to sleep 16 guests, at Owl Creek, about two miles southeast of Galena Lodge. Several years later, the resort renovated some cabins at the old Boulder Basin mining site, one of Idaho’s best-preserved ghost towns.
The first ski party went into Boulder Basin on July 4, to ski on snow preserved by 11,000-foot mountain ridges. Guides took ski-touring groups in Jeeps along a wagon trail once used to haul ore from the Golden Glow Mine. They rode to the timberline on horseback, and from there skied the 1,500-foot vertical drops in the bowls. Just for kicks, they’d often pile guests into a canoe and push them down the slopes into Boulder Lake.
In 1952, the Owl Creek Cabin was destroyed by an avalanche that roared down nearby 10,225-foot Bromaghin Peak. That, combined with a second deadly avalanche down Baldy’s Lookout Bowl, put an end to Sun Valley’s backcountry ski program.
Roundhouse, Trail Creek, and Pioneer cabins are still very much in use, however. The trek to Pioneer Cabin remains one of the most popular hikes near Sun Valley, although someone hauled a bucket of paint up there two summers ago to paint over the “The Higher You Get The Higher You Get” sign on the roof. The cabin is in a state of disrepair, but visitors can still thumb through the guest book, pluck the remaining strings on a guitar someone left behind, and drop a granola bar into an emergency food tin.
Hundreds of people—snowshoers, skiers, and sleigh riders—still head to Trail Creek Cabin each winter, where they enjoy hearty bowls of seafood stew under the wagon-wheel chandeliers. Surrounded by stuffed elk and pheasants, they gaze out at the winter wonderland through frosted windowpanes.
And skiers still park their skis—and, now, snowboards—at the Roundhouse. They happily climb 67 steps, one for each year of Sun Valley’s existence, to dine on such elegant fare as mascarpone cheesecake and vol-au-vent filled with a ragout of veal and forest mushrooms.
Among the fans of the Roundhouse is Ketchum Masters racer Kim Cathleen Verde, who likes to warm her feet at the four-sided fireplace as she listens to Tim Ericksen pump out Edelweiss on his accordion. “The Roundhouse may not be as elegant as Sun Valley’s newer lodges, but it is unique,” she says. “I ski a lot of places, and I can’t think of another ski resort in America that offers such formal dining on the mountain. This place is so special.
hen you think of the celebrities who came through here—Lucille Ball, Hemingway . . .
“What memories this place holds!”
Yes. Memories. Counted consecutively, these three places hold almost two centuries’ worth—and we’re still counting.
Yep, Karen Bossick has a permanent crick in her neck from oogling Sun Valley’s lodges. But after four years of living in the Wood River Valley, she’s yet to curl up and take a nap in one of those comfy oversized sofas on the second floor of River Run Lodge. “The skiing’s just too good!” she says.