Warren Miller: I still miss Frank Wells
Vail, CO, Colorado
The evening after Christmas in 1986, I was riding up to a party at a mountain restaurant in Beaver Creek when I met Frank Wells for the first time.
Frank and his wife, Luanne, had a condo in the Vail Village. The next morning, he and I went out skiing together.
From then on, almost every time he came to Vail, we managed to spend many of his days there skiing together. Occasionally my wife, Laurie, would ski with us, and she was the only person who could beat Frank to the bottom of the hill. He was a fanatic about being in shape. From time to time he would have me meet him at the top of the mountain, have someone carry his skis up on the lift and he would jog to the top before we skied hard all day.
One afternoon, I stopped by his condo with some artwork to show him. I had created a credit card with Mickey Mouse on the front of it and told him, “Anyone who put that card on the table at a power lunch would have it picked up by the waiter.” Unfortunately, Disney has an absolute ban on the discussion of anything to do with money, so my idea was turned down.
We probably skied together 15 or 20 days a year and got into some pretty lively discussions about everything, except his or my business.
In the spring of 1984, I got a phone call from Frank and he said, “Miller, come on out to Elko and ski with us this weekend. I’ve rounded up a bunch of friends and it’s the last weekend of the year ski celebration.”
I said, “Frank, I can’t do that because Laurie and I have our trailer all packed up to go to the San Juan Islands for the summer and work on our new house.”
Frank called me back twice the next week and finally on Thursday, he said, “Miller, this entire weekend is on me. It won’t cost you a dime. Free room and board, airplane ticket and helicopter rides. Where can you ever get a better deal than that?”
Again I declined and said, “We are leaving Vail for the summer and the date is chiseled in granite because we have to meet our San Juan Island plumber on Saturday. Call me when you get back and thanks for the invitation.”
The drive from Vail to 90 miles north of Seattle is a two-day, almost 1,000-mile-long drive, and when you have a dog and a couple of cats, it can seem like a two week drive. We loaded up, and wrapped up in tarps, the stuff we would take to our new cottage in the islands and we started driving.
When we got there, it took the usual two or three days to get unpacked and moved into our 900-square-foot cottage, which was really a three-car garage built in 1934. I had remodeled it into a house with two bedrooms and it became our summer home for the next nine years.
On Tuesday afternoon the phone rang and it was Frank Wells’ son. What he said almost knocked me off of my feet.
“My mother would like you to speak at my father’s funeral.”
That was the first time I had heard about the helicopter accident. I went down and sat on the rocks overlooking the water and cried long and hard.
I thought about how Frank’s first real experience with snow and ice was when he was flying from Oxford in England to South Africa. He saw Mt. Kilimanjaro from the air and decided to land so he could take a closer look at it. The plane ground looped and they sat around a few days waiting for someone to come and help them. No one showed up, so they climbed the highest mountain on that continent.
Frank later spent several years of his life trying to be one of the first people in the world to climb the highest mountain on all seven continents.
He, along with his climbing partner Dick Bass, who developed Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, climbed all of them except Everest. After Frank was named the president of The Walt Disney Co., Dick Bass went on to complete the Everest ascent himself.
At the funeral, I had the privilege of saying a few words about Frank, along with Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and half a dozen other close friends. Frank was an incredible human being and in the many years that I was privileged to ski with him, talk with him and have dinner together with his wife Luanne and my wife Laurie, I never tried to get him interested in any of my hundreds of films that I had produced.
He was my friend and that was enough for me.
Had I gone on that ski weekend in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, I would have been sitting next to Frank Wells when that helicopter slammed into the ground at over 125 miles an hour. That’s something I have never quite gotten over.
He is missed.
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. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.