Vail Daily column: Skiing the world

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

The 1950-’60s marketing director for Pan-American Airways was also the inventor of a ski-training balancing board called the Bongo Board. Arguably, as many people got hurt trying to balance on that board as the number of weekend ski accidents in Vermont.

In New York City one afternoon, Stan Washburn suggested that I ride Pan-American Airlines around the world and take my skis along and call my next movie “Around the World on Skis.”

Stan backed up his offer with two free coach tickets, so all I had to lose was about a month of my life. With all of my ski equipment, my camera gear, tripod and wife, I set off from Los Angeles to stop in Honolulu to refuel. En route from Honolulu to Tokyo we dropped 10,000 vertical feet in clear air turbulence and nearly lost the entire airplane but that’s another story.

Once we got to Tokyo, it was a night in a hotel on tatami mats with a piece of 2-by-4 for a pillow. Not speaking a single word of Japanese and without a translator, somehow we managed to get to Shiga Heights. This was before double chairlifts had appeared in Japan and before snow grooming. Almost every skier I filmed or even saw had a small rucksack that contained their lunch and a round-trip, train ticket back to Tokyo.

On the scale of 1 to 10, I would call my cinematic efforts in Japan a three or four at best but I did get some hilarious comedy and found out later that any of the people I had been filming had stood up for the many-hours long train ride from Tokyo. The Japanese are nothing but passionate when they commit to something like skiing.

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I spent a lot of those early years shooting from the hip without doing sufficient background checks on the ski resorts or distances I would have to travel to reach the resort.

After Shiga Heights, we spent two days in Hong Kong and then it was the longest flight in my recorded history, Hong Kong to Munich, Germany. I have tried to erase the agony of that long, long journey in a coach seat because it seems like I spent 172 hours in a seat that was designed for an 8-year-old child.

Landing in Munich, Germany, my next job was to buy another Volkswagen Bug, put all the luggage in the back seat and under the hood and drive from there to Grindelwald, Switzerland. Once we checked into the hotel, I spent the next three days in bed from exhaustion. It was probably some infection as the hotel doctor gave me a shot of penicillin and I was out on the hill on the fourth day with my camera in hand.

Luck was on my shoulder again, because that was the first time I saw Art Furrer. If I would credit anyone for inventing ballet and trick skiing, then it would be Art. This was long before the snazzily attired, group of skiers representing K-2 were doing their amazing flips and mogul runs all over the world. Art truly paved the way for all the great skiers who later became the freestyle movement.

I was riding up on a one-of-a-kind, double chairlift that you had to take your skis off to get on and the attendant laid your skis on a shelf in between the two seats. Halfway up the hill, Art was a real standout doing his cha, cha, cha that he would lead other skiers down the hill in at least a dozen ski films over the next decade. He was smart enough to invest his money in condominiums in his hometown of Andenmatten and sold some of them to American investors. What’s not to like about that?

I did a lot of the photography of Art, set against the background of the fantastic North Face of the Eiger, a sheer granite wall that is over 9,000 vertical feet high. Dozens of climbers have died trying to climb that face of granite, yet several years ago one man solo-climbed it in somewhat less than two hours.

Across the valley from Grindelwald is Murren that can only be reached by a cog and cable railway. This was the first resort in Switzerland that stayed open during the winter months because Sir Arnold Lund had been running summer tours there for several years and was interested in skiing in the 1920s. He convinced one hotel to stay open and destination skiing was invented.

Since you had to pack down the snow with your skis, climbing up the hill and skiing back down got boring so Sir Arnold stuck some sticks in the snow and tried to make turns around them. In that simple process he was also credited with the invention of slalom racing.

In today’s high-tech slalom racing, the two runs take only a couple of minutes and sometimes they are won by less than one-100th of a second. That’s only about an inch or two at the speeds the slalom racers are going.

Winning an Olympic medal these days, that “amateur” Olympic medal is worth a couple of million dollars in advertising revenue to the winner, yet he is still an Olympic amateur.

Back to Grindelwald and Murren. That part of ski country in my opinion is probably the most beautiful ski country in the world and access on the fantastic Swiss national railroad makes it easy to get to and well worth putting on your calendar of places to visit during your skiing career.

By the time I spent three or four days filming Art Furrer, I had made up some ground that I lost by not getting good ski action in Japan at Shiga Heights. In those days the primary marketing tool for my feature-length ski films were posters. Naturally, that year the title of the film was “Around the World on Skis.”

As I look at that poster today, I’m reminded that it was taken by Tom Kelly, who made Marilyn Monroe famous by taking her first nude photograph. The poster is of me standing in a sheepskin leather coat, with a globe of the world on a tripod, and I’m holding a pair of red Hart skis. In today’s marketing/advertising sophistication, it certainly would not want to make me go to a ski movie but apparently it got enough customers so I could sell enough tickets with ski club sponsorship, to support three children with enough money left over to make my next annual ski film.

Those were the good old days when I selected the resorts to film, drove, flew or rode a bus or a train to get there and film them, and then come home and spend the summer editing the film, writing the script and copying songs off of $1 discount songs off of 33 1⁄3 RPM phonograph records.

In October, I would say goodbye to the family and then narrate every film presentation, live on the stage in about 100 different cities.

I was really lucky because I got to ski at and film many mountains before they became ski resorts, full of condominiums.

Years later, I didn’t have to go around the world on skis anymore because I sent my great cameramen, Don Brolin, Brian Sisselman, Gary Nate, Rod Allin, Fletcher Manley and Chris Paterson on the same kinds of ski trips: North Africa, Russia, New Zealand, Australia China, Chile and the Himalayas.

As the number of people attending my movie increased, more and more resorts in the world wanted our company to document their resort and drive skiers to their resort no matter where it was around the world.

Probably, just like you returning from a holiday, when I got back home, I was so glad to be there and not living out of suitcase!

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications.

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