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Hi-Tech Ski Resort Wayfinding In The Digital Age

CRYSTAL-MT-winter-01052018 Visiting beautiful places and skiing awesome terrain like that at Crystal Mountain is part of Gary Milliken's mapmaking job. (VistaMap)

When visiting a ski resort for the first time, most people check out the trail map to plan their day. But whereas 30 years ago it was a paper map, today it is likely to be on a smartphone or computer. 

For those of us who still enjoy a paper map, the good news is that the traditional printed trail maps “will always have a place in delivering guest information,” notes mapmaker and lifelong skier Gary Milliken.

A cartographer who helps us find our way on mountains from Stowe to Squaw Valley, Milliken has created trail maps for 36 ski resorts in the U.S. and another 12 worldwide. (He’s also produced some 70 maps of amusement parks, zoos, and other leisure activity resorts.)

But he doesn’t just visit and sketch an area and produce a hand-painted acrylic map the old-fashioned way. 

Thanks to being introduced to Adobe Illustrator in 1993, Milliken pioneered the use of digital-based art for creating trail maps. 

Milliken introduced the ski industry to the process of using large format digital vinyl graphics to reproduce large on-mountain maps. (Gary Milliken)

From Painter to Computer

After graduating Parsons School of Design (1985), Milliken was a self-employed house painter until one rainy day in 1989 he visited Sitour North America (near his New York home) and walked out with a job. 

“Their map displays were hand painted and when they required updating, I would travel to the resort and on each map, handpaint the required changes. I also produced mountain renderings in pencil that were used as the reference to produce the large displays which were painted in Austria,” Milliken told SnoCountry.com.

When he saw the possibility of creating a new form of trail-map illustration by using a computer, he left Sitour, bought his first Mac, created maps for Whiteface, Gore and Mt. Van Hoevenberg (1994), and formed VistaMap.

Milliken enjoys skiing each mountain and talking to personnel for making a VistaMap. (Gary Milliken)

Travels, Technique

When creating a map, Milliken uses many references, including existing maps, topographic maps, aerial photos, site plans, resort visits and talks with resort personnel. “I ski the entire mountain and take my own photos,” he noted, stressing “the value of skiing the terrain. Nothing provides the feel for the terrain and imprints the resort layout like exploring it. When I'm back at the desk doing the actual rendering this experience really helps.” 

Deskwork entails using “vector graphics.” Unlike bitmap images comprised of individual pixel-driven squares that become noticeable when the image is enlarged, objects in a vector-based image are defined by algorithms that retain clarity. There is no limit to this scalability; therefore the maps can be printed at any size without loss of quality.

“These objects are further defined by adding color and in some cases additional texture — you're just adding more information to the digital ‘description’ of the object, so each object (trees, rocks, buildings, shadows, everything) remains an individual object and the description can be changed at will. Any object can be added, removed, altered in size, location, color, or orientation independently of all theother objects in the rendering,” Milliken explained.

Big mountains with many faces often present creative challenges that Milliken enjoys. (VistaMap)

Challenges, Clients

Areas often have characteristics that make it challenging to produce the map. They can involve unique features like a trail network extending over different opposing faces like that at Mt. Baldy and Vail or major expansions like at Arapahoe Basin

Clients extend from small areas like Willard, Wilmot, and Mt. Brighton to larger resorts like Killington, Mount Snow, and Crystal Mountain where summer maps are also needed.

VistaMap produces high quality maps for smaller areas like Wilmot Mountain, too. (VistaMap)

Large or small area, Milliken is proud of producing the accurately scaled maps that assist a skier in finding their way. 

“The VistaMap is unique in creating a complete product that integrates the mountain rendering with all of the vital info like base facilities and services, emergency/safety info, lifts and trail ratings. By providing information that is easy to read and understand,” Milliken said he hopes to enable guests to “more easily find their way and enjoy their valuable leisure time.”

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