Vail’s Chris Anthony: Skiing for my father
Special to the Daily
VAIL — Sometimes to figure out where I’m going, I have to ask the Warren Miller crew as we are checking in the luggage for the flight. However, this past year, I was on my own, already in a foreign country and at the time lost not only among my plans but in my own reason of existence. From the beginning of 2013, my life has been a roller coaster. What eventually ended up being my Warren Miller segment for this year’s film, “Ticket to Ride,” loosely traces how lost I have been. Sometimes the back story is intriguing or even more so than what appears before us.
It started in January on my way to Aspen with my dad. I received another of many texts from one of the Warren Miller cameramen asking me how I felt about Lebanon or Afghanistan. I can’t really remember. When I get this text, I just said, “yes.”
My dad laughed and said, “Be careful.” With my mom in the car, they were excited to drop me off at the Aspen airport for a last-minute trip. I loaded onto a jet with two other individuals and headed off to Japan. It was a short time later that I received a message on Facebook that my dad had been airlifted from Vail to Denver. He fell skiing. I was back in Denver a few short days later, where my dad lay in a coma, surrounded by gifts from friends around the world, including a bunch from Italy, where we were planning to go a few weeks later with one of the programs we had designed along with Vail’s Marco Tonazzi.
I felt helpless as my dad lay there. The doctors insisted, as hard as it was, we needed to keep our lives moving forward. There was nothing we could do at this point. I left for Canada then came back and sat by his bed for a couple more weeks, alternating with my sister, brother-in-law and mom. Eventually, I left for Italy with the group my dad helped me put together. It was a bittersweet departure.
My father had put me on skis and hoped that I would make the most of it. Now as he lay in the ICU, fighting to recover from a ski accident, he somehow encouraged me to continue. I had packed for two trips as I prepared to leave. I would guide the group in Italy and then meet up with the Warren Miller crew that consisted of cameraman Chris Patterson and athletes Espen Fadnes and J.T. Holmes in Kazakhstan if time or my dad’s condition permitted.
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East or west?
While in Italy, I kept close tabs on my dad’s conditions back home and was ready to leave at any moment should things change. As the days went by skiing the Dolomites and the Julian Alps, I could not help but smile at times. I was doing the right thing, and he was there. I wanted to catch everything on video and bring something home for him to watch.
Following our final amazing day skiing in Italy, we closed the evening with a dinner. I was emotionally torn as I had been for weeks already. But after trying to go to bed at midnight and fighting with my frustrations and a few people around me, I left Valbruna, Italy, and the group at 3 a.m. to catch a flight at 6:30 a.m. in Venice. I headed to Frankfurt, Germany, and decided which way to go, east or west. This was dependent on the status of my father’s condition back in the Denver Health ICU. East would be a long flight to Kazakhstan; west would be home.
The latest news was that my dad was showing some improvement. The doctors emailed me — if he pulls out of this, it’s not going to be a sprint. It will be a marathon, and right now there is nothing you can do but continue to do what he would want you to do. So I headed east to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Thankfully, I had made this trek 17 years earlier with a Warren Miller crew, several years after the decline of the Soviet Union. The flight then was much like it was this time. From the terminal, it felt like a half-hour bus ride out on to the tarmac where they park the one flight to Almaty.
It’s an interesting group that gets on a plane to Kazakhstan. I’m not sure how to describe it. They are dressed in dark clothes and are not really a happy group. But in some sense, they seem very warm. As compared to the 17 years prior, this plane was full. Back then, there were about 30 of us on a huge passenger jet. Some people had very expensive furs. Others just wore dark clothing from Cold War days.
We landed in the city of Almaty at 3 a.m. I had been traveling for almost two days and not slept. As compared to my last arrival in the city of Almaty, when the airport looked like a prison with little or no power, this airport was new with neon lights everywhere.
I was picked up by Karlygash Makatova from outside the security, which this time barely existed. Seventeen years earlier, it was intense, and Karlygash picked me up then, too. It was more like a Jason Borne movie back than. We drove through the city that had once been dark with limited electricity and candles burning in people’s windows for light to this new city of Bentley, Mercedes, and Rolls-Royce dealerships and name-brand designer lining the main street. What I learned later is that just beyond the main avenues, the economy drops off dramatically. We drove through the early morning darkness up a freshly paved road that I remember as a hellish drive. Above, through the darkness, I could see what resembled the new $300 million gondola they had put in from the city of Almaty up to the resort of Shmybulak and beyond. The once-dark road was lined with lights and at the end of it, a resort had been built where once it was a skeleton of trash piled up from the Cold War. The building I had stayed in 17 years prior was still there. But next to it was a small village that looked like Beaver Creek.
Instead of the old single-person chairlift falling off the cable you see in the Warren Miller film “Snowriders,” a high-speed quad was built. Lights were put up and music played. Of course, when I arrived it was 4:30 a.m., and everything was dark. I crawled into bed after checking emails. I received some good news as it was day earlier in Colorado and my dad had been moved to Craig Hospital for rehab.
At 6:30, I was awoken for breakfast and to meet the rest of the crew that had been there for a week filming already with speed-riders. The new sport of gliding the terrain with skis and a small-volume wing was going to be the subject. How they were going to work me into the segment was still a mystery until I arrived. But by 9 a.m., we were out filming. While J.T. and Espen got more speed riding shots with the cameraman, I hiked like crazy to get some skis shots through the dangerous, unconsolidated snowpack for the camera.
The clouds were moving in quick from the valley below, so it was a race to get as much on filming done as possible before we were weathered out for who knows how long. At one point, we decided to get a long shot done. I noticed a couloir across a glacier I wanted to get 17 years prior. We went for it. The hour-plus hike was brutal, and once we reached the top of it after a thousand feet of elevation gain, we turned around and watched the clouds engulf our cameramen’s position and then eventually the entire couloir below us. We were fogged in with zero visibility and a long way from home.
The descent proved to be over very difficult snow that it would have been hard to make look good for the camera anyway. So perhaps Mother Nature saved us. As we traversed back across the glacier through the fog — carefully as to not fall in a hole or get lost — magically a St. Bernard from the ski area found us and guided us back to the resort and below the fog, where he parted ways. I made my way back to my room, where I immediately was able to get online check the status at home and upload the first of my photos of the day. Eventually, I passed out for the first time since the day before I left Italy.
The next several days were spent with the locals filming the skit for the segment around the outskirts of city of Almaty and delving into the culture of this location.
From the interesting food to the music and architecture, I’m always amazed at what I have been able to experience from the top of a pair of skis. Now here I was in Kazakhstan for the second time in my life being part of something so unusual because of sport introduce to me by my father.
I hope you come join me for this tradition of a Warren Miller film when we come to the Vilar Performing Arts Center tonight and Saturday. I would like to dedicate this segment to my father, Vino Anthony, who will not get to see what I came up with. He passed a few months later, peacefully back in the mountains.
Longtime Vail resident Chris Anthony is a former Alaskan extreme-skiing champion and veteran of nine World Extreme Skiing Championships and 24 Warren Miller films. He is currently recruiting skiers for upcoming ski trips to Chile, Italy and Alaska. Learn more about Anthony and his adventures at chrisanthony.com or on Twitter @chrisanthonyski.