Behind the Piste Maps: A piece of art in your pocket

It’s a battle of science versus art, the modern day piste map. Once drawn entirely by hand by highly coveted artists, the undulations, peaks and forested areas were carefully created using the naked eye for reference. It could take an age to prepare a map for a new ski area by hand. And even then, adaptions and corrections were always necessary.

Olivier Mermillod and his team are responsible for many, if not most of the piste maps you’ll use today, especially in Europe. If a map has the Kaliblue logo in the bottom right hand corner, Olivier has played a part in its conception. And it’s still a little piece of artwork in your pocket.

The PDS summer trail map, awaiting the trails. Image: Kaliblue

How long have you been designing piste maps?

Kaliblue was founded in 2000 and our main activity was drawing illustrations of ski areas on behalf of the mountain’s management company. We’re a subsidiary of Dianeige, who are specialists in tourism planning projects for mountain resorts. For 12 years I have been designing piste maps and now we also create 3D movies to accompany them.

Is your work more art or science?

I would say that it’s art and technology. It’s not really a science and we always try to deliver a piece of art. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. For the finished product to be of a high level of quality, we had to develop a specific technology. And I can’t tell you more about that unfortunately. It’s our production secret!

You’re responsible for designing many piste maps in many areas. Which was the largest? And which is your favourite?

Each year we produce around 15 ski maps, both for Alpine and Nordic skiing, in addition to 10 maps for mountain biking and hiking in the summer months. This is a growing business for us. Kaliblue created the maps for the three largest ski areas in the world – Les Trois Vallees, Les Portes du Soleil and Paradiski. I’ll let you decide which map is the largest…! And my favourite map is the one we’ll make tomorrow.

… And in all its glory.

How does the process of creating a piste map for a ski area begin?

Firstly we’ll gather together all the topographic data of the area that we need to draw. Generally for ski domains, operators already have the required data for their ski domain boundaries in their Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Anything outside these boundaries we must complete ourselves for the digital model using photogrammetry – these are stereographic map projections from aerial pictures. Our company is the leading provider of this technology in the French Alps.

The second step is to prepare a 3D scale model of the ski area. We meet with the client to discuss in detail which is the best way to present their ski domain. The whole resort must be shown on the ski map and all the slopes must be clearly located. Consequently we have to play with the real terrain to make all these things happen.

The third stage is the end of the technical part. We calculate the different layers, which will form the basis of the artwork. Between 5 and 15 layers are gathered in a Photoshop file and we move from vector data to demonstrate the curves and contours to rasterised images.

Next, our artist Marielle will begin to make a piece of art using the calculated layers. This is where the magic happens. Some maps will need more than 10 days of work to bring them to life.

Finally, in the fifth and final stage, the vector data of the map, including the lines for each slope, the lifts and other text will be added. Only once everyone involved is happy with every element do we declare a piste map finished.

Technology X Art: Morzine and Les Gets. Image: Kaliblue

How is the technology you’re using changing?

Between 2000 and the last couple of years we’ve used topographic data from photogrammetry. But now, ski domain operators are updating their GIS with very accurate data, thanks to LIDAR technology (Light Detection and Ranging for those not in the know). For this we can use small airplanes or helicopters, as the geographical coverage is quite large. We’ve seen some devices embedded under a drone, but the area they cover is too small for our work.

The Portes du Soleil’s piste map looks particularly hand drawn compared to others. Is it?

Yes, less than 10% of the map comes directly from calculated layers – or technology if you prefer! More than 90% of this picture was drawn by Marielle.

The PDS looking grand.

What challenges do you face when preparing a map?

Our one big challenge is always finding how to best show the whole ski area. Some resorts are naturally on opposite sides of an area or mountain and couldn’t naturally be seen all together. Yet, all the sectors must be presented clearly with only one eye. When we start a new map we are never sure that we’ll be able to find the best viewpoint and the appropriate deformation. But we are optimists. After 12 years and more than 120 piste maps, we’ve never failed!

Now that we’re all accessing piste information on our digital devices, how is your work changing?

Our first maps were printed on very large, panoramic paper. Now skiers have digital devices and can see very small details on a piste map with a high zoom factor. Skiers and resort managers now expect more accurate and realistic pictures and we’re able to provide images that are 25 times more detailed than they were 10 years ago. Furthermore, we’re beginning to see real time 3D maps such as Google Earth and of course Kaliblue will be ready to provide digital elevation models and mappings, not just drawings.

The technology and skill used to create a piste map are used for other projects too. What else do you work on?

Each year we produce more than 100 pictures or illustrations of other new projects in ski resorts, such as new lifts, new lift stations, new slopes and new buildings. We also produce 3D videos for these projects to help bring them to life. These are important parts of the marketing campaign in ski resorts. Skiers like to see what is coming. It’s exciting for everyone involved.

For more on the interesting work of Kaliblue visit

Behind the Piste Maps: A piece of art in your pocket
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top