Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.
Everyone can easily remember his or her first day of skiing in the early winter with 5 inches of powder snow, crystal clear and very cold. Anticipation is in the air as you feel your new skis getting extra grooves in them on the 4-inch rocks.
I can remember a lot of my 73 last days of skiing in the spring before I started making movies in 1950, and all of these days were epic!
In 1945, before I was shipped overseas again with the Navy, I spent some time becoming an intermediate skier at Badger Pass in Yosemite. My orders got mixed up (you’ll read about how I managed the mix-up when you read my memoirs as soon as they are published ... yes, I was sneaky!), and the Navy secretary finally found me on a Thursday afternoon at Badger Pass. I had to gather up all my stuff and leave at 1 p.m. after skiing all morning. I drove to Hollywood and left my sister’s car and all of my gear at my parents’ house and took a cab to the Greyhound bus depot for a ride to Oakland in time to get on a troop transport at 1:30 for a long ride to Kwajalein Island for my next duty ship. I was able to stay awake on the long drive to Los Angeles thinking about the last few runs I had skied on that final morning. It was a long time before I returned to the mountains. The war had to end first.
In 1947, when Ward Baker and I hiked the six miles from the road to the Ostrander Lake hut in Yosemite National Park in California, the climb was gentle but uphill all the way. We were the only two people climbing Horse Ridge and laying down figure eights, of which I still have a black and white photo as well as color photos in my memory.
The spring of 1948 followed another winter of living in the Sun Valley parking lot with Ward, skiing and racing all over the West. We took our goodbye-to-winter ski run, a four-hour climb to the Pioneer cabin above Trail Creek. There we hiked and filmed for four or five days, and finally, we took a four or five mile downhill ride back to our car parked on the road alongside Trail Creek. Snow and winter weather again were leaving our world.
Also in 1948, I remember that after one final ski race in the Harriman Cup, I made a few ascents of Durrance Mountain north of Ketchum, Idaho, in about an inch of perfect corn snow. One of the best things about spring skiing is corn snow. So many people quit too early in order to go golfing or sailing and never experience corn snow.
After teaching skiing on Half Dollar in Sun Valley the winter of 1949, I watched Everett Kircher dismantle the original Dollar Mountain chairlift, put it on a train and ship it to his new resort, Boyne Mountain, Michigan, and open up Midwestern skiing with its first chairlift. By the time it was dismantled, I had taken one final run with two friends on Galena Summit. We drove up and skied down in that delicious corn snow.
1950 was a new experience after I spent a winter teaching at a brand new ski resort called Squaw Valley. When the resort shut down for most skiers, we still had plenty of snow, and I had a photo job that paid $35 a day to film a ski technique movie of the ski director and twice former world champion, Emile Allais.
For the final two weeks of filming, we both got up at 4:30 a.m. and were climbing by 5 a.m. to start as high as possible and take advantage of the early light and the perfect corn snow. I learned a lot about camera angles and early morning light as Allais did what only a world champion could do on skis.
The shots worked very well, but Allais’ agent never funded the rest of the movie. I was very sunburned, and I got a lot of well-exposed and composed ski action demonstrations. By the time we got down off the mountain the final day, the dirt had crept up the hill almost to the slopes we had been working on.
As I generated more cash to buy more film by pounding nails 40 hours a week, I quickly learned to move up in altitude with each passing weekend I filmed until I had enough footage for a finished film. I did a lot of shooting at Mammoth on its rope tows and then on the first chairlift and the first gondola. Filming in the spring is better for the screen as the trees become a better color — greener than the almost black they appear when the weather is much colder in early and mid-winter.
Before the gondola at Mammoth, I filmed and skied in untracked powder snow by climbing to the top of the mountain in May and as late as Memorial Day weekend. Often there would be good powder snow above 10,000 feet.
Most late spring days were really wonderful. As I said, I pounded nails all week between the 700-mile round-trip drive and climbing and filming on those weekends. There are a lot of circumstances that all come together and make that last day or those last few days of skiing memorable.
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 WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.
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