When I left for work on the day before Thanksgiving in 1950, I put my skis and assorted stuff alongside of my carpenter tools. I would pound nails all day Wednesday and then climb in my panel delivery truck and drive 350 miles north from Hollywood on a two lane road to Mammoth Mountain.
Dave McCoy’s ski area, Mammoth Mountain, with two rope tows was reporting almost 3 feet of new snow and it was the only ski resort in California that was operating at the time. The bottom of the rope tow was at the same elevation as the top of Squaw Peak.
I looked forward to a good three days of working on my next movie and skiing at the same time.
The narrow two lane road stretched endlessly in front of me as car after car with skis on the roof quickly passed me.
When I finally got to the Mammoth camp ground, there were already half a dozen cars there with people stretched out in their sleeping bags, on or under the various picnic tables. I quickly crawled into my sleeping bag in my panel truck but sleep didn’t last very long because the excitement of making the first turns of the year in my new ski boots had my adrenaline pumping.
I started up my combination panel delivery truck, motor home and the gasoline car heater quickly warmed up the inside enough so I could start the Coleman stove and cook a quick oatmeal breakfast while the other people in the campground had to stand outside and cook theirs.
Driving up the road towards the rope tows as far as it was plowed out, I parked, packed a peanut butter sandwich in my rucksack with my 16-millimeter movie camera and six rolls of Kodachrome to get started on my feature length ski film No. 2.
Hanging onto one of the ropes stretched out behind the army surplus wheel driven by Dave McCoy himself, the 14 or 16 of us were towed the rest of the way to the rope tows and the base lodge. Later in the winter, it would be known as The Pit because the 20 feet of snow concealed its whereabouts to the newcomers. Inside you had your choice of hot chili, hot dogs or hamburgers and coffee or soft drinks.
The two rope tows cost $2.50 to ride but Roma McCoy didn’t start collecting the money until almost 11 0’clock. When she asked me for my $2.50 I said, “I’m working on my new ski movie.” She had the right answer. “Where is your camera?”
“I’m waiting until Dave has time to ski for me.”
While Dave McCoy was hauling gasoline for the motors at the top of the two rope tows and making a few more trips in the weasel to haul the last of the late sleeping skiers in for their day, I made half a dozen or more rides on the rope tow while scouting out the various camera angles I would choose.
Two skiers in a sequence are always better than just one, so when I started filming Dave McCoy he brought along Charlette Zumsteirn, a hot young ski racer from nearby Bishop.
That Thanksgiving Day was the start of a long career of getting free lift tickets in exchange for a day of running my camera.
Late in the afternoon, Dave McCoy had his infamous Turkey Toss. He had two frozen turkeys and the rules of the race were simple. Anyone who wanted to try to win a turkey had to stand behind a rope two thirds of the way up the rope tow. Dave would toss the frozen turkey down the ski hill and everyone behind the rope would run and try and grab it.
None of the competitors thought far enough ahead of the race that if they had caught one, they wouldn’t have a place to cook it except over an open campfire, on a spit.
Without a zoom lens (they had yet to be invented for a 16-millimeter camera), I had to film the start and first major crashes with a wide angle lens and quickly switch to a telephoto to get some of the carnage as men of all ages made fools out of themselves while chasing a $6 frozen turkey they had no way to cook.
During this spectacular, but inconsequential, mass mess on the rope tow hill, I managed to get a hundred feet of absurd action. I made sure everyone of the competitors found out that they might be starring in my next movie so they would buy tickets to see it and many of them did. For some of them this might be their only chance at immortality during their entire life.
This turkey toss gave Dave McCoy’s lower rope tow machinery a chance to rest for a half hour. That guy is not dumb!
The sheaves for the rope on its way back down the hill had been mounted on fairly stout tree trunks that he had dug holes for the summer before.
During these rope tow days, Dave McCoy had a full-time job as a snow surveyor measuring how much there was in the Sierra snowpack.
One winter, he had an Indian for an assistant who could stand extremely cold days with very little clothing. One day, Dave McCoy asked him, “How do you stand the cold so easily?” The Indian said, “Does your face ever get cold?” Dave McCoy quickly replied, “No.”
The Indian replied simply, “Me face all over.”
Dave McCoy had two turkeys to throw down the hill and the turkey-catching aficionados wisely waited for the second turkey which included fewer competitors.
The competitors lined up and the two winners were also photographed by a freelance photographer who sold a copy to the Bishop newspaper for $5 and another copy to The Farwest Skier for another $5 and paid for his weekend of skiing at Mammoth.
It was rumored that one of the winners had traded his frozen turkey for a dinner of the same in the Mammoth Tavern, the only restaurant open at that time in the nearly deserted village at the base of the mountain.
I would return to Mammoth many years in a row to film in what he was building to be an amazing place. Dave McCoy was the only bidder when the forest service put Mammoth out for development bids. No one else bid on the development because they all said it got too much snow to be economically viable.
Since I got so sleepy driving the 350 miles up from work, I knew I would be sleepier driving home. I let it be known that I had room in my truck on Sunday night back to L.A. in exchange for a tank full of gas. I had three takers with gas at 18 cents a gallon or less and I had a 16-gallon tank.
It worked for me and I had a complete sequence for my second film called “California Skis and the Harriman Cup.”
That would be film No. 2 of more than 55 that I had anything to do with and dozens of them had a Mammoth Mountain sequence in them. From two rope tows to two gondolas, two base lodges and more than 30 chairlifts, Dave McCoy’s wisdom and the turkey toss helped fuel the growth.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto www.warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.