Vail Daily column: Age is just a number

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

Apparently on Oct. 15 I am expected to celebrate yet another birthday, my 90th, but let it be known, I am planning to celebrate at least another 10 or 15 birthdays. At least, with my health still good, I’m letting myself think that way. If I listed the body parts that have already worn out, then there would be no room in this story for anything else, but the important things still work well … like my heart and my brain. (Some might say the latter is questionable!)

As I’ve led a very wandering and wondering life with my camera as a passport to the world, I can’t recall ever having a bad day with a camera in my hand or a rucksack on my back. I’m so glad I have these autumn years of my life to recall and reflect on all those adventures.

My 39-cent black and white still camera let me share my Boy Scout trips with my junior high school friends that otherwise spent their weekends playing football or baseball. We were lucky that there was no television in the 1930s. The enjoyment I got out of sharing those early trips to the mountains spilled over into my enjoyment of documenting the growth of skiing on a worldwide basis. In all of those years of skiing and filming, I never had an accident until four years ago when I was traversing at 3 miles an hour, stepped out of a binding and landed on an upturned ski edge and broke my back. But I did have 73 years of making turns, 55 of them with a rucksack full of cameras on my back.

When I traveled halfway around the world planning to film a ski resort in powder snow with blue skies, but it was raining, I still took pictures and all I said in my narration was, “I traveled this far for this kind of snow?”

When Jerry Ford was president of the U.S. and skiing at Vail, my ace cameraman, Don Brolin, was the only cameraman that the Secret Service let film President Ford up close and personal. That was quite an honor for him.

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During the Vietnam War when I was in my 40s, I was honored to send a lot of my films to the troops and I have a valuable photograph of one of them who had my ski bum cartoon tattooed on his shoulder after watching my movie and drinking too much beer one night. I have another photograph of a platoon of soldiers in Iraq holding up a poster of one of the feature films I sent over there for their enjoyment. I wasn’t a great support to them all, but if I could make them laugh and take their minds off their current situations once in a while, then I was proud to do it. I didn’t ever want them to think they were forgotten, but rather, I wanted them to know I was grateful to them for their service.

Which brings me to my favorite phrase that was spoken by Hannes Schneider at the conclusion of World War I. He had taught the Austrian ski troops fundamental skiing and he said, “If everyone skied, there would be no wars.” What if we had been exporting chairlifts to Afghanistan instead of bombs and bullets? Who knows?

Back to my birthday: Never celebrating birthdays sounds like a very good idea because if you don’t celebrate them, then you do not have to fit into an age bracket definition.

As a young kid, nobody in our family ever celebrated anybody’s birthday so I got in the habit of no celebrations early on. The decades have just rolled by virtually overnight.

My first recollection of a celebration of my birthday was when I was 60, my daughter Chris put on a hamburger feed at the California Yacht Club in Marina Del Ray for 10 or 12 of our friends. That was nice as I had just finished fighting my way through an ugly divorce. Then I met Laurie and my control over my birthdays was totally lost!

For my 70th birthday I thought my wife and I were to be on our boat for three or four days when she decided to come home the day before my birthday. I was clueless as to what was going on. Our next-door neighbor, Hobie Alter, took several of my family members who’d come up for my birthday, as well as my older sister Mary Helen and me for a barbecue on his catamaran. At about 3 o’clock, we came back to Hobie’s dock which is right next door to ours and he kept right on going and poked his catamaran up to our beach and 150 of our friends came out from hiding on the property singing “Happy Birthday.” I was totally surprised. That night she had set up a banquet dinner at Camp Four Winds and it was roast Warren time. Slim Sommerville said, “Lewis and Clark would not have found the Pacific Northwest without Sacagawea and Warren would not have found the Pacific Northwest without Sacalaurie.” From his comment, that name has been on the back of our last several powerboats. That 70th birthday was a weekend for me to remember forever because I had absolutely no idea Laurie was going to do this for me.

Then she went one better for my 80th birthday when we again went out on our boat to British Columbia for a few days and had planned on coming back to a fundraiser for the University of Washington on Mike and Lee Brown’s nearby islands called Big and Little Double. We motored in to tie up to their dock, got out and walked up the ramp to their house and a cannon was shot off. This time Laurie had rounded up 250 people for a total surprise party just for me. She rounded up 250 of our friends without me knowing anything about it. I can’t help but wonder what else she has done without me knowing anything about!

I’ve spent half of the past decade, up to my 90th birthday, working on my autobiography, and the major problem now is that it is way too long at over 700 pages. But then, I’ve had a long life. And my wife has said that she’s done. No more big birthdays for me!

Initially I’m filling the book up with lots of stories from lots of places in the world and the people who have changed my life along the way. When I find a publisher, their editors can decide what to leave in the book and what to cut out. The other problem with the autobiography is that I have several thousand still photographs from all over the world documenting the growth of skiing. It’s difficult to leave any of them out. For example, I have a photograph that I took the second time I ever went skiing and that was in 1940 in Southern California.

Most of the stories in the book that I think are really interesting are of all the normal people that I met along the way and the interesting things they were doing, plus I have recounted the occasional celebrity that I pointed a camera at. I showed my films to people who own skis or friends that they had dragged to my movie and just because somebody is a famous politician, singer or actor doesn’t make them any better or worse when they are making turns just like you and I do. We’re all the same on the side of a mountain.

A recent famous birthday was that of my good friend Dave McCoy, who developed and owned Mammoth Mountain for many years. He just celebrated his 99th birthday by driving his solar powered electric motorcycle across the desert around Bishop, California. His wife, Roma, who is a little younger, was driving an identical solar powered electric motorcycle. I have half a dozen friends who also have birthdays during the month of October. (This says a lot for those many cold February nights and the result of them.)


If you’re wondering why the years seem to be getting shorter with each birthday, my explanation is very simple … to me. When you are 10 years old, one year is 1⁄10 of your life. When you are 50 years old one year now has become one 50th of your life. When you’re my age, one year is only one 90th of your life.

If you are as lucky as I have been with my health so far, then you will probably have broken a few bones, had an appendectomy, had numerous visits to emergency wards for five to 10 stitches at a time for a mistake you made doing something athletically stupid, just as I did along the way.

If you are really lucky when you wake up in the morning regardless of your age, then you can hardly wait to accomplish what you have laid out for the day. No matter what, the days are never long enough to accomplish as much as I have set out to do.

Way back during World War II when I was studying to become a naval officer, I began to wish that every day was a minimum of 30 hours long so I could somehow have six hours more to get stuff done. So far, scientists have not yet been able to stretch the day into 30 hours nor have medical scientists invented a way to get by with that much less sleep. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the scientists invented either one of those two things?

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 For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to

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