It’s that time of year again. The fall colors have peaked, the air is crisp, nearby mountain peaks are sporting a fresh dusting of powder … and the latest ski film by Warren Miller is playing soon at a theater near you.
“Journey,” Miller’s 54th annual feature film, is aptly named, having taken 19 film crews and 73 of the world’s best extreme skiers and snowboarders – including Vail Valley locals Chris Anthony and Toby Dawson – to four continents. The list of featured locations this year includes Morocco in North Africa, Bella Coola in British Columbia, Cordova and Girdwood in Alaska, Portillo in Chile and Chamonix in France. And the recurring theme – “it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey” – indeed leaves the viewer yearning to make reservations, get equipment tuned and pray for powder.
“Let’s get the freak on,” Miller says to open the show, perhaps a sign the 78-year-old ski industry icon is far from fading away.
The action starts at Portillo, high in the Chilean Andes, with awe-inspiring footage of Dawson and others carving giant turns on enormous mountainsides in chest-deep powder – in July. Fun and frolic back at the lodge ensues after the film crew builds a jump off its roof for an impromptu lunchtime aerial show.
“It’s an old Chilean recipe for your siesta,” says the ever-present Miller in his trademark, calm, tongue-in-cheek manner. “Equal parts cold, deep snow, cool white wine, warm July sun, hot Chilean food … and an aerial show, too.”
Fade to Heavenly, at Lake Tahoe, home to extreme skier extraordinaire Glen Plake, who with his famous antics and foot-high Mohawk – though it’s now turning gray – is in fine form. Plake’s sizzling run down Gunbarrel, “1,700 vertical feet of the gnarliest moguls in the nation” on 218cm downhill racing skis, is unforgettable.
“You can tell how fast he’s going by how far the leading edge of his hair curls back,” quips Miller.
A moving segment follows as Miller’s crew visits members of the Aspen Ski Patrol as they celebrate last year’s grand opening of Highland Bowl. The “unsung heroes” had boot-packed snow 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day for six weeks in anticipation.
“When that sign (on the gate) is flipped (to read “open’), you better be ready if you want fresh tracks,” says a female patroller as a public throng for the first time heads for one of the last bastions of vast, steep, in-bounds powder in America.
Taking the cake for exotic extreme sports destinations, Miller this year takes the audience to Morocco, where ski rentals are offered on the side of the road and donkeys are a primary mode of transportation. And in bringing watersports into his realm, Miller’s crew this time includes Vail kayaker Brad Ludden, who describes the five-day descent through uncharted waters from the Moroccan highlands, through remote villages to the deserted Atlantic beaches, as “super unique.”
“I think it’ll stand out in my mind as the most unique place I’ve ever put in or kayaked,” says Ludden, who runs First Descents, a kayaking camp for young cancer survivors in Vail. “I’ve never done anything like it before.”
Then, for humor, Vail Valley local Chris Anthony finds himself on a silly journey in search of “Valbruna,” a resort high in the Dolomites straddling the borders of Italy, Austria and Slovenia. Without a helicopter to ferry them to the best locations to begin filming, he and his fellow “world travellers” find themselves hiking the heights in hip-deep powder.
“At Valbruna, we hiked, and we hiked, and we hiked some more,” says a winded, red-headed Anthony during a break from post-holing in deep snow searching for huge, near-vertical stashes of skiable powder. “The last 15 years I’ve been going on Warren Miller shoots and they’re not getting any easier. Trying to combine the best snow with the sun, the light, the cameraman always seems to be pointing a little higher, a little bit farther away the lifts aren’t going.”
Miller sums up the Valbruna experience – which did provide footage both charming in its European flavor and stunning in its beauty – with a snow report: “Sixteen inches of powder snow full of deep footprints.”
By contrast, one of more mature segments of “Journey” comes from Chamonix, the cradle of mountaineering in the shadow of Mt. Blanc, where four Americans – all in their 40s – conquer the 45-degree couloirs of the famous Aguille du Midi with the authority of age and experience.
“I only think about the first, second, third turns as I’m going down,” one of them says under footage of his death-defying descent of a particularly impressive chute. “I don’t think about anything else. If I did, I probably wouldn’t go.”
Then there’s the two sequences filmed in Alaska. Tommy Moe, the current king of American ski racing, dons fat skis for the first time and powerfully takes on massive fields of near vertical powder in his “kingdom,” near Girdwood, where apparently “a third of the population has a helicopter license.”
Perhaps the most impressive sequence of “Journey,” however, was filmed at Cordova, where a local fisherman seems stunned when somebody tells him where Miller’s crew is filming skiers and snowboarders these days.
“It’s amazing to be here almost all you life and to these these mountains on a daily basis,” he says. “To think that people ski ’em and the slopes they ski is unheard of.”
This sequence leans heavily on Alaska’s “get scared” factor, too, with helicopter sky-diving and skiers surging ahead of avalanche sluff falling so fast they might as well be free-falling.
Poignantly, “Journey” ends with a tribute to Craig Kelly, who Miller says was “ahead of his time” as an extreme snowboarder when he was killed last year in an avalanche in British Columbia. The ensuing montage of Kelly’s finest moments, set to Pearl Jam’s “I am Mine,” is perhaps one of the most inspirational pieces of ski filmmaking in history.
Indeed, after more than half a century of making ski films – spawning an entire industry that continues to copy his work – Miller shows he’s still the king of the “schuss flick” and still has the knack for making powderhounds laugh, learn and yearn for snow-covered slopes once again. And at 78 and semi-retired as director of the Yellowstone Club, a private ski resort in Montana, apparently he’s still able to cruise the powder with a grace perhaps only someone on a journey like his can display.
“Ever since I pointed a camera at a ski area in Yosemite in 1946, I’ve been on a journey on a pair of skis,” says Miller, inviting his audience for another show next ski season. “On my journey next year, I look forward to riding with you. I’ve still got some time to bring along some friends. See you next year.”