On December 19, 2018

Killington’s hi-tech trail map at a glance

By Karen D. Lorentz

There are many different ways to combine one’s love of skiing and mountains with making a living. For Gary Milliken that means creating trail maps.

First asked to produce a summer map for Killington in late winter 2017, Milliken said, “Killington didn’t have a comprehensive map that included all of the hiking/biking terrain and other summer activities. The hiking/biking map was a set of topographical maps which can often be challenging to gauge the level of terrain. The existing winter map had been in use for almost 20 years and presented several challenges in incorporating changes over time. The time was ripe for a clean approach, and I was lucky to parlay the opportunity into creating new maps for both summer and winter.”

Once the summer map was complete, he converted it to winter colors and info. With traditional hand painted maps, there is a point very early on in the process where the artist has to start painting and the ability to change on the fly becomes more and more difficult. But the VistaMap process allows receiving input and fine tuning right up to the point of going to print, which came in handy on the Killington project with a quicker need for the summer map, Milliken noted.

Jordan Spear was his main contact and had the task of coordinating and consolidating the review of the map across several different departments (marketing, ski patrol, mountain ops, etc.) which Milliken noted “can be a daunting task.”

“A trail map seems like a simple thing, but it accounts for several important functions for the resort – creating an attractive image for marketing and display purposes, modifying for different uses and events, but arguably the most important aspect is that as a resource for guests to successfully navigate the mountain and have easy access to vital safety information. The safety aspect makes it imperative for all of the information to be accurate,” Milliken added.

The challenge to creating the Killington maps was “the variety of terrain across multiple, opposing faces. The easy way out is to take a view from a very high, bird’s-eye perspective, but the drawback of this is it visually flattens the terrain. I spend a significant amount of time optimizing a lower perspective view that gives the guest a better visual feel for the terrain,” he explained.

Having just produced the new winter map last year, Milliken had to update it for this season due to some major changes like the new skier bridges, Snowdon Six and South Ridge chairs. “This is where the way my maps are built make for easy and seamless changes. For Killington, I only needed to push a few things around to integrate the changes,” Milliken noted.

Milliken’s route to map making

While loving his job and traveling the world now, Milliken didn’t know he wanted to become a cartographer when he attended college. So when he graduated from the Parsons School of Design in 1985, he became a self-employed house painter for several years. Then one rainy day, curious about what they did, he visited Sitour North America, which is located near his New York home, and walked out with a job. That fortuitous 1989 meeting led to a new career and a vocation that combines his lifelong love of skiing with creative design.

At Sitour at the time, map displays were hand painted and when they required updating, Milliken travelled to the resort and handpainted the required changes on each map. “I also produced mountain renderings in pencil that were used as the reference to produce the large displays which were painted in Austria,” he said.

He saw the possibility of creating a new form of trail-map illustration after being introduced to Adobe Illustrator in 1993. Milliken left Sitour, bought his first Mac and pioneered the use of digital-based art for creating trail maps using a computer. Along the way, he introduced the ski industry to the process of using large format digital vinyl graphics to reproduce large on-mountain maps.

He created maps for Whiteface, Gore and Mt. Van Hoevenburg in 1994 and formed his company VistaMap.

Since then, he 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.

A hi-tech creative process

Milliken uses many references to create a map, including existing maps, topographic maps, aerial photos, and site plans. He also visits the ski area and talks with resort personnel.  He skis the entire mountain and takes his own photos and stresses “the value of skiing the terrain. Nothing provides the feel for the terrain and imprints the resort layout like exploring it,” he noted, adding, “This experience really helps when back at his desk doing the actual rendering.”

That deskwork entails “vector graphics.”

Unlike bitmap images comprised of individual pixel-driven squares which become noticeable when the image is enlarged (i.e., jagged lines, visible squares), objects in a vector-based image are defined by math and are infinitely scalable without losing image quality.

“Algorithms are used to define objects so as you enlarge the object (image) the math multiplies to maintain the shape as a smooth line. Not restrained by squares, there is no limit to this scalability; therefore my maps could be printed at any size without loss of quality – every line, edge remains absolutely smooth,” he explained.

Milliken further defines objects 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 the other objects in the rendering,” he said.

Finding our way

Thirty years ago skiers checked out a paper trail map to plan their day or find their way. Today they are as likely to use a smartphone, tablet or computer so Milliken continues to enjoy creating the digital versions that help people find their way on mountains from Stowe to Squaw Valley.

But Milliken also notes the traditional printed trail maps “will always have a place in delivering guest information.”

And whether working for a large or small area, Milliken is proud of producing the accurately scaled maps that assist skiers in finding their way.

“The VistaMap is a complete product that integrates the mountain rendering with vital info like base facilities and services, emergency/safety info, lifts and trail ratings so the information is easy to read and understand,” he said. And by providing a more accurate perspective, he hopes to enable guests to “more easily find their way and enjoy their experiences.”

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