Vail Valley Voices: Warren Miller remembers how hard it was to make turns back when
Vail, CO, Colorado
It was a very cold July morning in 1965 on the side of Oregon’s Mt. Hood.
The headlights of the Tucker Sno-Cat cut a brilliant path through the crevasses that zigzagged across this glacier. I was filming a ski technique film for Fred Iselin, the co-director of the Aspen Ski School.
By the time the Sno-Cat had struggled up a couple thousand vertical feet, the stars were disappearing and the summer sunrise was painting the snow orange. The many crevasses and irregular ice formations would provide us with a lot of different camera angles to make this ski technique film different.
During the three previous days, as we had sat in the lodge in the clouds, Fred and I had discussed the film “How to Turn Skis the Easy Way.” Back in the 1960s, skis were long and stiff, had no torsional rigidity and very little side cut. It took most of your upper body applying a lot of torque or rotation to make them turn.
Fred told me that in about 1900 his father had brought a Norwegian ski instructor friend to St. Moritz to teach him how to turn his almost 8-foot-long skis with the aid of a single 7-foot-long ski pole.
In the Norwegian technique, the skier advanced the outside ski so that the tip of the ski that was now behind could be tucked into the binding of the outside ski and the skis turn.
On the steeper hills of St. Moritz, this evolved into simply pushing the uphill ski out into what is today called a slice of pizza then shifting the weight to it, rotating the upper body and the skis turn. This method became the basis for the Swiss ski technique, the stemming of the uphill ski.
At about this same time over in St Anton, Austria, Hannes Schneider was working on pushing the downhill ski out and using it as a brake to turn both skis around while using a lot of upper body rotation.
Thus the Austrian and the Swiss techniques developed in a parallel time frame, but each stemmed the opposite ski.
Fred had to demonstrate all of this for my camera and, with no chairlifts to ride that time of the year, it was a lot of climbing to get each shot. I kept telling Fred, “At least put your dark glasses on when you’re climbing.” But he wouldn’t. So I continued shooting and reloading the camera until the late-afternoon sun made it too difficult to handle the now very deep slush.
On our third day of shooting, as we were getting toward the end of the required shots, my face was getting fried in that hot summer sun. Fred was looking more like a North African native than Swiss by now.
That night during dinner, Fred complained about how his eyes were hurting and I knew that what I had feared all day was happening — snow blindness was shutting him down. Having been there twice in my skiing career, I knew how painful it could be.
We continued to talk about ski equipment evolution and what a radical impression Emile Allais had made with his revolutionary parallel ski technique. No stem needed. You simply kicked the heels of your parallel skis up into the air and at the same time applied rotation of the upper body and, lo and behold, the skis turned without the normal stem.
Slowly but reluctantly Emile’s technique had been integrated into both the Swiss and Austrian ski techniques by the extensive travel of ski instructors.
By 8:45 I was fading and Fred was complaining more about his eyes. I got up, staggered to my bedroom, fell in bed exhausted and an hour later heard Fred in the next room moaning in total pain.
He had become snow blind, which feels as though someone is pouring hot sand into your eyes and grinding it around with their thumbs. Nothing eases the pain, and I knew that our filming trip was over for a few days at least.
The next morning I covered a pair of goggles with duct tape so that only one very small slit was available to admit light. It was two days before Fred could come out of his heavily draped, very dark Timberline Lodge room.
On the third day it was heavily overcast with a fierce west wind blowing volcanic dust over the snow and made skiing impossible until the next snowfall.
So we packed up Fred’s car and headed south, where Fred spent the next month and a half editing and creating a very good ski technique film.
Today, in one week, on new equipment and on groomed snow, someone can learn to be as good of a skier as it used to take at least an entire winter or two to become.
Fred became famous for perfecting the royal christie, a turn with one leg stretched high and behind the skier in a most graceful arching turn.
He also continued to teach in Aspen for many years while telling everyone, “I learned to ski when my pants were baggy and my face was smooth. Now my pants are smooth and my face is baggy.”
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. We’ve brought him back to where he started, beginning this week. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net