Vail Valley Voices: Giving back freedom |

Vail Valley Voices: Giving back freedom

Warren Miller
Vail Valley Voices
Vail, CO Colorado

In Sun Valley in 1947, there was a man skiing with a big wedge under his right heel that was almost an inch and a half high. He also had a long spring from 6 inches above the top of his boot to a point midway to the back of his ski. He skied with a very different style with the same knee behind the other no matter which way he turned. I found out later that he had lost his leg in World War II and he was the first amputee that I had ever seen making turns on skis.

For many years I almost always devoted part of my feature ski films to a segment on someone who had overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to find their freedom on the side of a hill. My first ski film, in 1949, “Deep and Light” featured a blind skier on the rope tow hill in big moguls at Squaw Valley.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting and turning my cameras on people such as Diana Golde,n who lost her leg to cancer at the age of 11. She went on to win over 30 gold and silver medals in World and Olympic competition. In her prime, she could jog a mile on her crutches in less than 10 minutes. (I can’t do that with two legs!)

One day, I was skiing in Vail with a group of what were then called disabled skiers (now they have been renamed again as adaptive skiers) and was asked if I could tell which leg was real on my skiing companion. His technique was so good I guessed the wrong leg.

Hal O’Leary in Winter Park, who is the real pioneer in developing teaching methods for disabled skiers, was in several of my films helping people overcome seemingly impossible odds.

Ed Siegel, of Salt Lake City, came to see my 1957 movie. In that film was an amputee ski patrolman handling a toboggan as a member of the Sun Valley ski patrol. Ed had lost a leg in a ski accident but after coming to the film, he got back on his skis and sponsored my movies. At over 80, he lives and still skis in Sun Valley today.

Yesterday, a friend told me of a horrific incident his brother had endured. He was part of a research expedition in Greenland and was forced to spend 60 hours in an ice cave at sub-zero temperatures. This was after he and his partner got lost on their snowmobiles during a blizzard and a whiteout. When he was rescued, he had frozen both of his tendons of Achilles and both of his wrists. As a result, he was flown to the burn center at the University of California at Davis to endure a triple amputation of both of his feet and one hand.

Dan and I talked about it at length and I learned his brother, Jake Gibbons, is having prostheses made for his feet with the sole of a ski boot molded in so he can once again make well-controlled turns on the side of a hill and get his freedom back.

I think having the sole of a ski boot molded into the artificial foot is a great idea because many of my handicapped friends say, “It is almost impossible to find a ski boot that will fit over an artificial ankle because the ankle doesn’t bend”. The limb with the ski boot soles molded in also has an adjustable articulated hinge for the ankle. The angle can be adjusted to the kind of snow he or she will be skiing in.

In the back of my mind is the hope that one or more of the younger generation of ski film makers will find my friend’s brother, Jake, and turn their cameras on him as an inspiration to a lot of less fortunate people than the ones I see in all of the latest films: jumping out of helicopters and going down impossible ski terrain, over and over again.

In the meantime, there are a lot of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who could use this simple but overlooked method to get back out there and make some turns and get some of the freedom back that they left on a foreign battlefield so that you and I could enjoy the freedom of riding a chairlift at our favorite ski mountain.

I think Hannes Schneider said it very well after he finished training the Austrian ski troops during and after World War I in 1919: “If everyone skied, there would be no wars.”

None of us can change what has gone before us, but we can lend a helping hand to anyone who wants to get their freedom back on the side of a snow-covered hill. Why don’t you introduce someone to freedom on skis for the first time? There are a lot of handicapped ski programs across America. Check with your local ski resort and lend some of your freedom time to someone who has lost theirs.

Contact me through if you’d like to help a skier, and I will give you Jake’s email address. You never know …

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren

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