Vail Daily column: Ski-area beginnings
It was the middle of February 1950, at this brand-new ski resort called Squaw Valley. Which was, at best, only half finished in almost every respect.
It was really hard to push the door open to our Navy surplus, unpainted barracks because of the 4 feet of snow that had fallen during the night. The door swung to the outside and we had to push a great big pile of snow aside to get the door open. Suddenly Squaw Valley was a completely different place after this massive snowstorm.
I was surprised that the chairlift was not running. Instead, the bottom bull wheel would revolve about three quarters of a turn, then stop and slide back. It was obvious that a tree had fallen or some catastrophe had happened to the chairlift during the storm. So the only option was to climb up and see what had happened.
Stan Tomlinson, Emile Allais, Brad Board and I set out for the long, hard climb to inspect the lift. It was very difficult going because each time we took a step forward, our skis disappeared in knee-deep snow and we had over 2,000 vertical feet of this slogging ahead of us.
About an hour or so later, we found the problem. A massive avalanche had come down the headwall and tipped over Tower 22. It was a hold-down tower that was still firmly attached to the ground and had pulled the chairlift cables both up and down to about half of its designed height.
None of us were ski lift repairmen, but we had brought about 200 feet of climbing rope and several spanner wrenches that we would need to detach the lift from the ground platform it stood on, if we possibly could.
We would tie the rope to the bottom of the tower and then gradually remove the bolts that held the tower to its foundation. We figured that the tower just might have enough tension on the cable to have it just hanging there so that we could swing the bottom of it back and forth until it was on enough of an angle to release the cables, and with luck the lift would run again without the need for the hold-down tower.
Since I was the youngest and dumbest in the group, I was elected to remove the last bolt that held the tower to the ground. None of us had any idea whatsoever which way the tower would tip over when we were swinging it back and forth by pulling on the long rope as I removed the last nut and started tapping on the final bolt to release the tower. I would take a quarter of a turn and then jump out of the way. I was thinking that maybe the whole thing would explode with me in the middle of it.
The final time I tapped the bolt it gently fell out of the hole and the tower just was sort of hanging there so you could move the bottom of it simply with a gentle push of your hand. Now we all got on the end of the rope and started swinging the bottom of the tower back and forth with a little larger swing each time.
Finally one of the small wheels on the tower broke off the tower and it fell explosively into the 4 feet of new snow.
The tower fell off of the cable, the cables shot up in the air and the chairs spun around the cables and the sympathetic vibration of the cable went all the way down to the bottom of the lift — fortunately, not derailing itself from any of the other 20 some odd towers.
We considered our job finished and skied down to relate our story to the lift operators. With fingers crossed the lift was turned on and miraculously it ran without a problem.
The tipped-over lift tower, as I recall, lay there in the snow the rest of that winter and the following and I’m not even sure was ever replaced, though I do know that it was finally removed.
Unconfirmed reports that Alex Cushing, the owner of Squaw Valley, contested the bill the ski lift construction company had given him for cost of that tower because he claimed it was not necessary and the lift ran perfectly well without it for two full winters. The only problem was when you rode the chair at this point it was over 100 feet in the air.
These kinds of extracurricular activities came along with your job description and pay scale of $125 a month, a place to sleep and three meals a day. Management considered us part-time employees because we only taught from 10 to 12 and 2 to 4 or a four-hour day. That same length of time instructors had taught ski school was invented many years ago.
I didn’t have a business plan for my film company in those days because I didn’t know what a business plan was. All I know is that I did everything possible to earn an extra $10 here and there to buy yet another roll of film to produce my first film, called “Deep and Light.”
My boss, Emile Allais, was very understanding about my obsession with getting deep powder snow onto my Kodachrome film at every opportunity. Several times when there was powder snow I had no money for Kodachrome so I pretended to change rolls of film and practiced camera angles. These images were imprinted only in my brain. To help buy Kodachrome film, I drew a new cartoon every day after work, put it up on the bulletin board, sold it for a buck and did pretty well with selling them.
Unfortunately, for history’s sake, I did not take my 16-millimeter camera with me on the day of the lift tower catastrophe. It would’ve made a nice sequence in that first film if in fact I knew what a sequence was at the time.
Fortunately, I became friends with a dentist from Marin County by the name of Dr. Frank Howard who had been making 16-millimeter ski movies for free trips to ski resorts for quite a while, and I was not the least bit bashful when asking him how to edit film, even to the length of how long the film should be when finished.
If I had stayed in Sun Valley, Idaho, for a second year of teaching instead of moving on to Squaw Valley, the opportunity to produce that first film might never have happened.
Everything starts somewhere, and my film business started when I was living in the Navy surplus, unpainted, dormitory at Squaw Valley that first year.
And I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up.
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 WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.
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