Warren Miller: Chasing Jean Claude Killy to Vail and the rest of the world in 1969
Vail, CO, Colorado
It was March 1969 when I flew from Zurich, Switzerland, to my film studio in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
It had been a very long winter for me that had started the previous July when I boarded a big jet with a crew of 11 people, bound for Auckland, New Zealand. There, we would start producing the first of 13 TV shows on Jean Claude Killy, who had just won three gold medals in the 1968 Winter Olympics.
It would be a long trip, with stops at Mt. Ruapehu on the North Island and Mt. Cook on the South Island, then a week in Australia to film Killy and Leo Lacroix, his teammate during the Olympics. The journey would continue in America, with shows filmed at Mammoth Mountain, Aspen and Vail. Then off to Europe to film more shows in Grindelwald, St. Moritz, Zermatt, Chamonix, Val d’Isere and Courchevel.
It was the most exhausting and frustrating time of my 50-year long film-producing career. Not only because of all of the hard work, but also for the fact that no one ever watched the shows because they were run on Sunday afternoon TV, up against National Football League games.
When the European tour was all over, I had to let 43 employees go, as well as sell most of my camera equipment to cover the expenses. Then I went back to the business that I enjoyed the most: producing, filming and directing my annual 90-minute theatrical ski film, for which I would spend four months of every fall and winter traveling to cities all over America and Canada to narrate each show live.
Don Brolin, who ran a camera for me for 35 years, had been a one-man-band most of the winter, going from resort to resort getting part of the feature film captured on 16mm film. As soon as another of my cameramen, Rod Allin, got back from the Killy TV shoot in Europe, I had him on an airplane to film ski resorts Don hadn’t gotten to as yet. I did two weeks of office work, wrapping up the Killy TV series and licking my financial wounds, then I set out myself with another set of camera gear to help out Don and Rod.
There was a new place to ski on the horizon at that time. A man named Mike Wiegele was just starting a helicopter operation in Blue River, British Columbia, and he had invited me to send a camera crew up there and show the world what helicopter skiing was like.
In March of 1969, Mike had hired a small, three-place, two-passenger Bell helicopter. He had a lot of ambition and smarts, but he didn’t even have two-way radios because he didn’t have any employees. One of the skiers was a young man from British Columbia named Wayne Wong, who would later become a permanent fixture on America’s freestyle ski scene.
A week of helicopter skiing and sleeping in the Blue River Motel and eating in the only restaurant that was open at that time of the year, the Bus Stop Restaurant, cost an awesome $1,300 a week or almost $200 a day.
The crew was socked in for three days of fog until finally, Mike decided he would gamble a tank of helicopter fuel and try and fly up above the clouds.
It was a great success. They finally broke out into some of the most awesome and beautiful, never-before-skied-terrain that our cameras had ever documented. Wayne Wong and the other skiers performed freestyle tricks on the glaciers and amongst the crevasse.
I still remember listening to the fantastic audience reaction the next winter as I showed tens of thousands of people Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing for the first time.
Today, his helicopter skiing is still the ultimate freedom trip on skis or on a snowboard.
While Rod Allin was documenting helicopter skiing, Don Brolin and I flew to Anchorage, Alaska, to film the National Junior Ski Championships. The weather held for us and as I rounded the bend and looked down the Turnagin Arm towards Alyeska, I noticed there had been a lot of changes since my first trip up there to film it.
Ten years earlier I had to put one foot in front of the other while climbing the mountain in order to get every single shot for the film that year. The only thing at Alyeska at that time was a trapper’s cabin at the end of a dirt-road, off of the gravel road from Anchorage.
In the Junior National Alpine Championships, there was a spectacular bump in the downhill where Don Brolin got some unbelievable, super slow-motion shots of the kids hurtling through the air, upside down with their skis cartwheeling along behind them. We used such high-speed cameras that at 1,000 pictures per second, it took over 40 seconds to view just one second of action.
Rod Allin spent 15 years filming for me, while Don Brolin spent 35 years taking many of the pictures that people always give me credit for.
The thing that stood out the most about the extra long winter and the around the world adventure that finally ended in Alaska, was that Alyeska, Alaska, is the only ski resort I ever filmed where you can sometimes go night skiing all day long.
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 Miller.net