Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Privileged to know Emile
November 16, 2012
A few months more than 100 years ago, in the small French village of Megeve, a baker’s wife had a son that she named Emile.
Recently, a lot of newspapers and some television stations have chronicled the death of 100-year-old Emile Allais. They write about him winning two world championships in the downhill and slalom ski races in 1936 and 1937, as well as an Olympic gold medal in 1936. He would have won for a third year in a row if he had not broken his ankle.
I became interested in his revolutionary ski technique when I was still living in the Sun Valley parking lot in 1947-48. I studied a copy of his technique, spelled out in easy-to-understand photos but hard to understand French.
With college, the Navy and lots of surfing and skiing under my belt, I still wasn’t well enough educated, as I never took a foreign language because I didn’t think I’d ever get very far from California.
I didn’t understand a single word of it, but the pictures made sense to me. Studying his technique may be why, when I raced in Ogden, Utah, that winter against 126 other competitors, I walked away with the first place trophy. That was the first and only winter I raced (that’s another story), but it really sold me on his French technique.
Emile, as a person, really entered my life when he was teaching skiing the same year as I did at Sun Valley. I taught the absolute beginners and he, of course, taught the top class.
I was having trouble teaching the Arlberg technique under Otto Lang, and through an interpreter, Emile simply said, “Warren, you work for Otto Lang, and if he tells you to wear banana yellow pants and no parka, do it, because he is the one paying you to work for him. If you don’t want to do what he wants you to, then I suggest that you quit tonight.”
That was a big, fat lesson and I never forgot it. Emile changed my attitude in that first conversation I ever really had with him (but if you ask my wife, she’ll probably tell you I’m still trying to change the way everyone else does whatever they do!). The next winter, I applied for a job with him at Squaw Valley the year that they opened, and he hired me. I got to spend the winter with three other instructors and on a good day, all four of us would have a pupil.
Emile was a very quiet person, and led by example. When we sidestepped a powder snow hill, he was the first in line. We climbed the hill one day after an avalanche with Emile, two ski patrolmen, a long rope and one wrench. We pulled an avalanche-destroyed tower off of the hold-down cable and the lift was able to run again that same afternoon. Regulations and insurance were minimal in that era.
Emile allowed me to work on my first ski film and helped even more by skiing in it, adding a lot of excitement in the knee-deep powder snow.
When spring was on the land, his agent hired me to film a French ski technique film of Emile. For almost three weeks, we were up every morning by 4:30 and climbing the hill by 5 so that we could take advantage of the spring snow before the hot sun made it into slush, and still get a full day of teaching in.
His agent paid me $25 a day to supply and run the camera. That film never was finished, but it was the first time I actually made money as a cameraman-filmmaker. One day a couple of years ago, all of that original film showed up in the mail here at my house on Orcas and is in the basement still in its original form and unedited.
That spring we parted company, but later I went to Portillo, Chile, and spent a month with him. He was still the best skier on the hill, no matter where he was.
After a few years at Squaw Valley, Morgan Adams hired him away to run the ski school on Mt. Baldy in Southern California. This is an almost 10,000-foot-high pile of granite less than 60 miles from the Los Angeles City Hall.
As you can imagine, the snow there is a little iffy at times, and many of the people show up in T-shirts, Levis and rubber boots, hauling a Flexible Flyer sled. The season is short, and sometimes doesn’t exist at all, so Emile and Georgette, his wife, moved back to France, where he lived for the rest of his life.
A couple of years later, he was designing a new ski resort in France that eventually covered four valleys and 16 airline miles with more than 250 lifts.
When we skied in Courchevel together that winter, there was a 4-inch dump of powder snow on top of corn, which was ideal for avalanche conditions. Instead of playing it safe, he inflated about a dozen red helium weather balloons and tied them to the skiers with a long string. The images of the red balloons set against the small avalanches and the dramatic music I selected is still talked about today. In my narration I said, “If they get caught in an avalanche, we can spot the red balloons and dig them out quickly.”
However, that first winter I filmed and skied with him in France, I could not find Courchevel on my French road map. After many patient directions in sign-language French, I finally found it about half an hour before the last bar closed. It was a small town with half a dozen T-bars and Poma lifts and one gondola.
Emile designed it so that today the four valleys sleep over 250,000 people and you can ski over 14 miles from one end to the other.
Georgette died many years ago. Emile married her caregiver and fathered her children, two daughters, when he was over 50 years old. Both of his daughters earned a berth on the French national ski team.
I last spent some time with Emile when he was already in his 70s and we skied and filmed with Dick Dorworth, Jon Reveal and Pat Bauman. While we were waiting for a cloud to go by and the bright sun to shine, Emile took these three great skiers for a run in his hometown of Verbier, France.
All he said to them is the same thing he always told everyone, “Follow me.” He was in the lead as one by one those amazing skiers had the time of their lives, following him, all of the while Emile was glancing over his shoulder to make sure they were still there.
His revolutionary technique of keeping your skis together instead of in the classic Austrian snowplow position revolutionized skiing forever.
For me, it was a lot more. He was a friend and someone who crossed my path over the years. Every time I was privileged enough to ski and film with him, and learn by his example, my life changed a little bit more.
The ski world was a lot better place while he was alive. Unfortunately, he lost his last race, which was down the Valle Blanche with his cardiologist on his 100th birthday.
Emile, you left an awfully large set of tracks in the snowfield of life.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.