There’s a unicycle-riding child of the corn in all of us
It had been a perfect spring skiing day with a sky so blue it looked like you could go swimming in it. We had set out early to take advantage of the corn snow on the east-facing slopes that would soften with the first warm rays of the early morning sun. There were four of us, so we just filled up the quad chair. With every run groomed the night before, the combination of spring snow and corduroy was spring skiing to write home about.As the morning progressed, we moved around from the east-facing runs and by noon, we were skiing on the just-softening-up north-facing runs. With fewer than a dozen people skiing here at the Yellowstone Club today, we really had a hoot.Now, all of us sit here in the early afternoon sun with sunburned faces and tired legs, eating lunch, telling lies about the old days and reminiscing about other great days of spring skiing.My first experience with spring skiing was at Ostrander Lake in Yosemite in the spring of 1947 when Ward Baker and I had climbed six miles on sealskin climbers to a cabin. There, we spent five sunny days climbing Horse Ridge and taking 8mm movies of each other movies that we recently found in Ward’s attic when he retired and moved to Maui. It’s a weird feeling to look at movies of yourself that were taken 50 years ago when you had a full head of hair and were trying desperately to make figure eights in spring snow.In the spring of 1948, before the invention of snow grooming, metal or plastic skis, or safety bindings, a few of us would ride up the three lifts on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain with the ski patrol. Then, we would hike along the cornice overlooking the Christmas and Lookout Bowls and get to the Fire Lookout by 9 a.m. We would climb up on the porch and soak up some of the warmth of the sun while we waited for it to turn the ice into perfect corn snow. One of us would climb down every 10 minutes and check to see how fast the ice was melting.The Lookout Bowl was untracked because there were no lifts in the bowls in 1948. You either had to ski partway down and take a long traverse back to the Roundhouse, or ski clear down to the road that runs from Ketchum to Hailey. If you chose to ski to the road, the farther down you skied, the more you had to make sure you carved your turns on the most north-facing exposure, because it was the slowest to melt. At the bottom, it was hard to hitchhike back to Ketchum because sometimes there would be 15 minutes between passing cars.Spring skiing in Chamonix is equally enjoyable. I remember one afternoon in particular when we stopped at a mountain chalet called La Chapeau after we had finished a 9-kilometer ski run down the Valle Blanche. We had been skiing on a delightful quarter inch of corn snow on top of glacial ice that was more than 500 feet deep in some places.Just as we loosened our leather ski boots, two porters came hiking up the trail carrying heavy rucksacks full of groceries. In 1958, the porters were paid one penny for every pound they carried up the almost 3,000 vertical feet to the restaurant. Each of them arrived with 100 pounds of groceries and quickly started back down to make their second trip for the day. Two trips of 100 pounds each would earn them $2 a day, and those were good winter wages in France in 1958. As soon as they unloaded their packs, my filming party immediately consumed at least half a dozen pounds of these expensively transported groceries.On another spring skiing day, at Mt. Rose, Nev., I was filming three members of the 1956 Olympic ski team as they were practicing slalom. It was a slightly hazy day, so I forgot to wear my dark glasses. This was a major mistake because I woke up around midnight completely blind. When the rods and cones on the back of your eyeball are sunburned, it feels as though someone is pouring burning hot sand into your eyes and then rubbing their thumbs in it to make sure it is ground in deep enough.Fortunately, by the time the Silver Belt Race was held four days later, I could look through the viewfinder of my movie camera, but I had to wear three pairs of dark glasses duct-taped together so my eyes wouldn’t hurt too much.When the race was over, I spent that beautiful spring afternoon on the porch of the Sugar Bowl trying to learn how to ride a unicycle. Spring skiing is still one of my favorite things to do, but I learned two very important things on that particular spring skiing and filming trip.Riding a unicycle is impossible.Always wear dark glasses.Warren Miller has been a ski filmmaker for more than half a century. He lived in the Vail Valley for 10 years, and is now director of skiing for the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Mont.
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