Warren Miller: In the summer, dreaming of snow
Vail, CO, Colorado
Until the early 1950s, a summer without skiing was a lot different than it is today.
Summer, in earlier times, meant frequent trips to the garage to check on whether your skis had warped or twisted in the heat. The skis were all made out of laminated wood and didn’t have plastic bottoms.
To try and prevent the warping, there were a few tricks that people did.
Some of my friends would take their metal edges off and cement the screws in the wood when they put them back on. Other people who were trying to get a third season out of their skis would put copper rivets in some of the edge screw holes.
And almost everyone I knew scraped the finish off of the top of the ski and re-varnished the wood. We would patiently rub the tops down with steel wool between coats of varnish, and while we were varnishing them, we would talk of rope tows and what would today be called primitive accommodations.
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We planned trips to resorts within an all-night drive of where we lived, and my married friends got their wives to cook up tuna or cheese casseroles that we could heat up in an electric frying pan in a cheap motel.
It would be 1953 or ’54 before the minimum wages were over 25 cents an hour, so a $2 dollar rope tow ticket took some people eight hours of work just to earn the money to buy one.
No matter, most of our ski clothes all had diluted, gray, rope-tow hemp splashed all over them.
After a summer of surfing every weekend, some people had their entire winter ski trip schedule all mapped out. If it snowed in the San Bernardino or San Gabriel mountains of Southern California, we would of course drive to these nearby mountains since they rim the Los Angeles Basin to the east.
Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains is over 10,000 feet high and its steep sides offer some truly spectacular skiing when they get snow. However, in the late ’40s we had to climb up for every turn we made going down.
Summer was when you tried to keep your legs in shape so when you finally drove to the snow, you could climb and ski all day long and not have it bother you.
The other thing that was missing in the late ’40s and early ’50s was plastic on the bottom of your skis. We laboriously put on layer after layer of lacquer as a running surface and then guessed at what kind of wax to put over it when you finally got to the snow. The warmer the snow, the softer the wax was about all I knew.
I used to just watch the hotshots and then borrow their wax. I was usually a weekend behind and sometimes I climbed up and walked back down with big globs of snow stuck to the wrong wax on the bottom of my skis.
The laminated wood skis had almost no torsional rigidity no matter how many coats of varnish you put on them. As you skied across an icy patch, the tip of the ski would twist off toward the valley below. So you leaned farther forward to put more pressure on the tips of your ski. That’s why most of the early photographs of skiers show them leaning very far forward.
Arguments were also made about long poles or short poles. The short pole aficionados thought that if the poles were short, it would make you lean farther forward when you were skiing.
When I went to a friend’s house to watch him varnish his skis, or he came to mine, we got in lengthy and complicated discussions about camber, rigidity, placement of bindings, which ski to stem and esoteric stuff such as that.
At the end of the ski season we had an 8-foot-long piece of 2 by 4 lumber that we clamped the tips and tails of our skis onto. There was another smaller piece of wood under the binding to keep the camber in the ski until it could feel the soft caress of powder snow the following winter.
We took very good care of our pile of stuff because skis already cost as much as $24 a pair for the top-of-the-line model. I spent an entire winter in Sun Valley skiing every day on a pair of $21.95 Northland seconds that I got in trade for painting a sign at Pete Lane’s ski shop. They were seconds because they had a knot in the wood up near the tip and were less than aesthetically perfect, but they skied perfectly for me.
It was not until the winter of 1948-49 when the French national ski team showed up in Sun Valley with offset edges that we started chiseling out the wood above our edges so that we, too, could have offset edges. Never mind that we didn’t know what they were for and that the French also sharpened their edges.
The enjoyment level for us was just as much as it is today for the many skiers who when they get to their computer, with a few strokes make all of the arrangements for their ski vacation — including condo, airplane tickets, rental car, lift tickets and rental equipment that is all tuned up, waxed and ready to go. You have to do it that way today because everyone is so busy texting each other instead of sitting around in a garage working on their equipment and reliving the past and planning the future.
I’m lucky I enjoyed it then and I can hardly wait until I start looking for the snow reports.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log on to WarrenMiller.net.