Warren Miller: The story of Mount Snow
Vail, CO, Colorado
As it always has been since I was a little kid in the early 1930s, sometime in November the wind will come honking out of the north, the rain will fall, the snow will come to the mountains, and isn’t that enough?
Some time 50 years ago, give or take 10 years, I first showed up at Mount Snow, Vt. I was attracted by a man named Walt Schoenknecht and his innovative ideas. I thought some of Walt’s ideas were on the verge of genius, but you can be the judge.
Walt knew he was going to have enough money in a few years to build a much bigger base lodge, so he built the first one on skids without a foundation or a concrete floor. He built it on skids so he could move it somewhere else when he rounded up more money.
The good part of his plan, I thought, was keeping a gravel floor in it. That way it was legally a picnic area and thus, way back then, was subject to much lower property taxes.
The heat was almost nonexistent, which kept the soft drinks cold and guests complaining, but Walt had bought a few small aquariums and filled them with tropical fish to prove that it was warm in his lodge. Well, he believed it.
For two years, he tried to get the Atomic Energy Commission to shoot off a couple of bombs on the back of his mountain so they would blow a big hole in the valley and he would have more vertical rise for his ski runs. Don’t think they ever did.
Mount Snow is where the statistics on the number of skiers in America first surfaced. Two advertising agency executives and a potential client (Marlboro cigarettes) were skiing together one day, and they paused at the top of the hill for a moment. While they lit up Marlboro cigarettes, one of the executives said, so that his potential client could hear, “Look at all of those skiers down there. There must be at least a million of them.”
The other executive said, “It looks to me to be about 2 million.”
On the basis of that scientific survey, the client signed up for a big ad budget to sponsor some ski races. The number stuck, and the magical analysis of the number of skiers today is still probably based on superficial numbers such as these.
Walt thought that he had a much better idea than the conventional cable chairlift that was invented for Sun Valley in the railroad yard of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1936.
Walt had been to Detroit and seen the overhead I-beam tracks on which parts are delivered to the assembly line. So he welded up a bunch of steel I-beams (one looked like the letter H if you laid it on its side) and then he welded those steel I-beams to towers.
It seemed as though the longest piece of I-beam he could get was about 50 feet, so he built a tower every 50 feet. The rollers that the chairs hung from, of course, needed a lot of grease to run steel wheels on steel I-beams and to eliminate the loud squeaking of metal on metal. When you rode the lift, there was a definite jolt every time the wheels went over a weld.
There was one more thing Walt had not thought of. Greasy wheels squeeze out a large amount of grease with each resulting bump over a weld. Of course, gravity dictated that the grease would fall on the people on the chair under the wheels.
I have no idea what his dry-cleaning bill was the first day the lifts ran, but every single person who bought a lift ticket that day turned in their grease-stained parka and pants. The grease also got on top of the skis.
Due to the grease issue, Walt had to build a roof for every chair. The closest roof fabricator was a 10-hour drive away. The next thing you knew, the owner of the local muffler shop was cobbling together the grease deflection roofs. They had to be at least 7 feet, 6 inches from one end to the other because that is how long the skis were in those days.
Years later, I was producing a film for Mount Snow when the resort changed hands. The new owner was going with a hotshot female skier of that era and he wanted her to star in the movie.
I had almost finished his film and said, “I’m almost finished with your movie. If you want to start over and write your own script, that is up to you. If you do, you will have two films. One that is unbelievable – yours, and one that will sell lift tickets – mine. I am OK with whatever you want me to do, but it’s going to cost you a lot more money.”
I finished my movie, got paid and he never bought any prints of it to show. Love affairs in the mountains take strange twists and turns.
The Mount Snow that Walt created always did well because it was about 80 percent intermediate skiing, which makes everyone look like a champion.
Today, riding a high-speed quad chairlift with good boots and shaped skis, you can become a very good skier within a week with good ski lessons. So now that the snow has covered up all of those rocks above 3,000 feet near a chairlift – what are you waiting for?
The warm days of spring are six months away. Are you going to waste those six months complaining about the bad weather, or are you going to get with the program and go skiing or snowboarding before the Christmas crowds show up at all of the resorts?
The best statistic of all is that one person out of one can have a great time on the side of a snow-covered hill enjoying his personal freedom.