Vail Daily column: Opening day
October 18, 2013
Think, for a moment, about your best first day of skiing of any winter in your life and know that the first day of skiing for this winter is right around the corner.
I am very lucky because I’ve had 73 of them if you include three first days in the snow with my Boy Scout troop in Hollywood. The first time was in 1937 when I took along my toboggan that I had built in my seventh-grade woodshop and we went up to the mountains on a Scout trip.
I quickly got hooked on sliding over snowflakes and spent most of the rest of my winters doing it. By the third winter, I had paid money at a garage sale for a pair of Spalding pine skis without edges, but they did have toe straps as bindings.
By the middle of November of that year, I got so I would ride my bike the three miles to the Hollywood Tennis and Golf sporting goods store that also carried ski equipment. Way in the back of the shop was a blackboard with four local Snow Play areas listed. Hopefully by the time of our annual Boy Scout trip to the mountains to play in the snow that blackboard would have the snow depths written in big letters and I could do the final preparations for the annual three-day trip on the day after Christmas.
Today you just go to your computer, type in the ski resort of your choice and a video, current to the moment, is running live so you can really get excited long before you drive into the parking lot with your wife and kids.
The first thing you will do after you park your car is take all of the skis and snowboards off of the roof rack and lean them up against the car. That way they can all tip over together and scratch up the front fender of your new whatever-it-is car. It’s OK because everyone is so excited this first day, you don’t even notice. Now you have to give Tommy his lift ticket money so he can go snowboarding with his friends. Your wife needs another parka because the one she has doesn’t match her new over-the-boot pants that she bought last week at her favorite ski shop to help burn up her credit card.
Daughter Marilyn just spotted that darling boy in her geometry class so it is adios to her until it is time to drive back home after your memorable first day of skiing this winter.
Before anyone splits for the day, though, you agree to all meet at chairlift 12 at 11 to miss the noon lunch-hour rush.
You ride up on the quad chairlift with Melvin who was a nerd in your college class and he turned out to be a top dog in the regional senior racing scene and you have trouble keeping up with him.
In your exhaustion trying, you’ve forgotten about where you were supposed to meet the family. Was it at chairlift 11 at 12 or chairlift 12 at 11?
Not to worry. This is your first day of skiing this winter and you have the keys to the car to get home. No one will leave without you.
If you are lucky enough to live within driving distance of a major resort with 25 or 30 ski lifts, a scene such as this is not only possible but is probable.
With that many ski lifts, Opening Day with a good snow report, as many as 20,000 people might be at the same resort with you and your family.
Fortunately, for Laurie and me, we spend our winters in Montana, a state with 16 ski resorts and barely 1 million people in the entire state. One of those resorts, Big Sky, has over 4,000 vertical feet of skiing and some very steep runs. I’m loving living my winters in Montana because it’s just like Colorado was 50 years ago but with state-of-the-art facilities. Great people, great snow.
I once spent my first day of skiing in the winter at Wilmot, Wis. I was on my film show tour and heard that they had snow — not natural but the beginning of the man-made snow boom that helps start the early seasons for all ski areas today, though a bit more sophisticated! The hill at Wilmot is reputed to have only 200 vertical feet, including the unloading ramp at the top of the lift. It was many years ago and I was skiing on man-made snow for the first time and filming the other skiers. Since you can only make one turn at a time, any hill with at least one chairlift can offer you the freedom for your first day of skiing this year.
I think that day of skiing on the 200-foot-high hill in Wisconsin could well be my most memorable first day of skiing out of 73 of them. I rented skis, boots, poles, gloves and a 16-millimeter camera. I had to buy eight rolls of 16-millimeter Kodachrome film, a sweatshirt and pants, long underwear, a wool hat and a chairlift ticket.
I spent that first day running on adrenaline because it was my first day of skiing that winter and I was recording history at the same time. Walt Stopa was the real pioneer with his jerry-rigged batch of galvanized pipe and a rented air compressor. He was making history and still covering his ski hill with snow. What was not to like about a brilliant blue sky, the pulsing sound of the air compressor and the hiss of what would become known as snow guns?
My second day of skiing that winter began two weeks later in Hermosa Beach when I loaded my wife and three kids in the station wagon and drove the almost 900 miles to Sun Valley to do my annual three nights of showing the movie.
It was one of those rare late winter snow years. The bowls on Baldy were closed because not enough snow had fallen. Over on Dollar there was not enough snow to ski except for a couple of narrow patches on Half Dollar because the sagebrush was too tall. I sat for a few minutes on the porch of the Dollar Cabin looking at the sage brush-covered mountain with Sigi Engle, the ski school director. We were talking about the future of snowmaking machinery and what it could do for the ski industry to extend the ski season. With his lifelong Austrian and Idaho ski teaching experience, his comment was simple, “That snowmaking stuff is fine back East where they don’t get enough snow, but it is not necessary out here in the West where we get plenty of snow.”
The Dollar and Half Dollar chairlifts were shut down and just gently blowing in the afternoon wind.
Years later, Sun Valley has one of the most extensive and technical snowmaking layouts in America. I have heard estimates as high as $75 million so that skiing on Baldy is really good on Opening Day as well as every day all winter.
Thank you, Walt Stopa, wherever you are, from all of us who depend upon snow, natural and man-made, to support our addiction to skiing!
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 http://www.warrenmiller.org.