Warren Miller
Valley Voices

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January 17, 2014
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Vail Daily column: Inside a deep freeze

When we arrived in mid-December, after our semi-annual migration, all we had to do was unload the big trailer and I had to start taking my altitude medicine so I can breathe my way through the winter.

But no skiing today. The wind is screaming and howling in the high-50-mph range and the snow is driving horizontally, working against the sturdiest transportation Detroit has built so far. After braving the weather and having lunch down at the lodge, four-wheel drive with snow tires was more than the match that winter weather could send our way.

Unfortunately, I won’t be carving turns in the wind-blown powder snow tomorrow. When I broke my back three years ago, I tried to get started again but when I did, because of the fear factor that hovered in my brain, it was just not any fun for me. I crashed badly three or four times. One crash was an out-of-control, high-speed near miss with a lift tower and eventually I lost the battle within about 20 feet of a snow fence.

It was then that I realized that in the many years that I had skied, all 73 of them, I hadn’t fallen very often. I know that was because most of the time I was doing transportation turns with 30 or more pounds of camera gear in my rucksack. I took lots of long climbing traverses to get to that special place for the just right camera angles. When I first started making ski movies, my small leather rucksack held a simple, hand-wind Bell and Howell 16-millimeter camera with three lenses and that rucksack could only hold an additional six rolls of color film and my passport.

Twenty years later, a much bigger canvas rucksack contained an Arriflex with a very heavy 24- to 240-millimeter lens, 20 rolls of film, a heavy battery belt as well as a spar, equally heavy battery belt in case of running out of juice. This rucksack approached 40 pounds and that did not include my very heavy tripod.

Some days were longer than others and some more fun than others and the only way the day was no fun or bad was when the clouds showed up and ruined everything for me, our skiers and our future audiences.

When I fell and broke my back, maybe something between my gyroscope and my framistram stabilizer had been jolted off of its internal dihedral axis and my sense of balance had abandoned my IQ. When I took the lift up to the top for lunch, I pondered what would happen if I had another major spill while skiing and Laurie had to push me around in a wheelchair for all of the years I have left. That spill cost me 17 days in the hospital and more than a month of using a walker, and I don’t want to repeat any of that.

I definitely know that I have a minimum of 15 or 20 years left at the keyboard of a computer in order to finish all of the stuff I still have stacked up on my desk, both here in Montana and on Orcas Island. And that doesn’t include my autobiography which is nearly finished except for sorting through all of the many photographs of those years of movie making. While sorting through them the other day I discovered the first ski photograph that I had ever taken. By the date on the black and white photograph I took it on Jan. 24, 1940. I know I was using a 39-cent Bakelite (plastic) Univex camera with a sports view finder and a shutter speed of 1⁄50 of a second. The snow was hard packed granular on a small windblown patch of snow high above Hemet, Calif., in Idelwild in the San Jacinto Mountains.

The skier was in my Boy Scout troop and wearing almost knee-high leather hiking boots with a small pocket on the side of one of them for a pocket knife in case of a rattlesnake bite. He also wore Levi Strauss pants and was riding on my Spalding, non-laminated pine skis without edges and semi-adjustable leather toe strap bindings. I had paid $2 for these pine skis the winter before. My friends all thought that I was crazy to pay a full week’s salary delivering newspapers for a pair of skis when the closest snow was at least a two-hour drive away from my house in Hollywood and I was too young to drive. Besides, I already had my own two-man toboggan that I had made in woodshop in junior high school two years earlier.

Three hours after the ski photo was taken, we were all in a jumbled heap upside down when the car flipped over and landed upside down in a ditch. I broke my arm and dislocated my wrist. We got home very late from that Boy Scout trip to a day in the snow.

But the enjoyment of any experience is hard to reduce to the printed page unless you are reading it while sitting inside a deep freeze locker under a six watt light bulb.

A few years ago I also suggested reading my column in a deep freeze. Someone with a very low IQ took me up on doing it and received frost bitten fingers for his experiment and I never heard from him after three of his quick frozen fingers had to be amputated.

When you write about the unknown, be careful of what you write because if you have enough readers there will be one doofus who reads it and will take your suggestion as a real one and act on it.

In 12 hours it will be 2014. In spite of Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning movie about global warming, so far this winter it is the most brutal on record. There is an extra 550,000 square miles in the polar ice cap and a cruise ship is stuck at the height of their summer in the Antarctic ice pack by 16-foot thick, saltwater ice. For some reason that doesn’t sound very warm to me. That ice is so thick and hard that that ice breaker, as well as a second one, have temporarily given up and the passengers are being evacuated by helicopter. And that too is being held up by gale force winds. The third ice breaker, the Polar Star from Seattle, is hurrying down on its schedule to help with McMurdo Sound’s frozen-in ships to help get the first two ships out of the ice.

When 16-foot-thick sea ice is buckling and bobbing around in 20- or 30- or more foot ground swells, I certainly don’t want to be anywhere around that kind of brutal summer weather.

Our winter solstice is their summer solstice. If it was not for global warming, then it would be even colder!

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 WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.

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The VailDaily Updated Jan 17, 2014 09:12PM Published Jan 17, 2014 10:30AM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.