Vail Daily column: Winter of ’47
It was 23 below zero when we left the gasoline station in Shoshone, Idaho. Our 10-year-old derelict, convertible Buick was as cold inside as it was outside. North of Shoshone the ribbon of ice-covered, narrow asphalt dissected the stark lava beds on each side of it.
On the advice of two pretty women we met skiing at Alta, Utah, who had told us of the steaming hot water, around swimming pools at Sun Valley, we packed up our trailer and headed for those swimming pools. We needed to warm our bones.
Later that afternoon, we discovered that Ketchum had more gambling casinos than any other type of business on Main Street. In one of the few businesses that were open in the middle of the afternoon, the owner told us that the best place to park our trailer and car in Sun Valley would be in the Challenger Inn parking lot and to make sure it is as far east and under the trees as we could hide it.
Thus began a ski adventure that would continue out of the same free location until the end of the season when the snow was long gone from the valley and the lifts on Baldy had shut down until the following December.
The first thing we both wanted to do was to hunker down in one of the round swimming pools. This was our first experience in what would later be called a hot tub that could handle about 75 or 100 people at the same time. So, this was our first experience pretending to be a guest to the staff and subsequently, pretending to be staff to the guests , a ruse that got us through that winter swimmingly. (OK, I couldn’t resist that.)
We soon found out that the big yellow buses were free, so we took one to the River Run chairlift the first thing the next morning. There was no lift on Warm Springs in those days, in fact that wasn’t developed until the mid-1960s. Since we didn’t have lift tickets yet, we put seal skins on our skis and skinned up River Run. At the top of that run we discovered that they didn’t check lift tickets on the upper two lifts so we had our first day of many, skiing at Sun Valley at no charge.
Rather than get in trouble with Sun Valley management, Ward Baker and I went to the manager’s office the next day. Pappy Rogers thought we would be the basis for good folklore conversation around the valley (local color) if we just hung around for the winter so he gave us free season-long lift tickets. He cautioned us to act like paying customers but we could do anything legal we wanted to do on his property.
Thus began my 60-year love affair with Sun Valley, Idaho. Ward and I spent that winter skiing seven days a week, swimming in the hot water pools frequently, and in general just obeying Pappy Rogers’ orders to behave as though we were living in the Lodge. (In retrospect, I realize we didn’t look like we did, however.)
We were living in our 8-foot-long, 4-foot-wide teardrop trailer with the outside kitchen, tucked way back in the corner next to the irrigation ditch and only a 50-yard walk from the showers in the Skier’s Chalet.
In the winter of 1947, you could rent a bunk bed in the Skier’s Chalet for $2 a night. The Union Pacific Railroad that owned Sun Valley at the time was advertising a Learn-to-Ski -Week that included a train ride from Chicago and return, three meals a day, six days of ski lessons, seven days of lift tickets and a bed in the Skier’s Chalet for $83. I don’t think Ward Baker and I spent a total of $83 that entire winter. We had figured out that if we lived in the trailer, we could ski all winter long. But if we paid normal room and board ,we would probably only have enough money for about a week or two.
During that entire winter, almost every day was a brand-new experience to us. Many of those experiences I have written about in my book that I wrote first in 1957 called “Wine, Women, Warren and Skis.” It’s full of cartoons and lots of photographs that prove somehow we really did what I have written about over the last many years.
That winter of 1947 changed the direction of my life forever. In those days Sun Valley was full of celebrities of every dimension. Including but not limited to Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, the Shah of Iran, as well as a number of gangsters who liked the exciting life Sun Valley offered. Day by day, I learned that no matter what you did for a living, how famous you were, or how they spelled your name, when you’re standing at the top of any hill, everyone is equal.
As my skiing improved over the winter, I gradually discovered that my main motivation in life was my constant search for freedom. I don’t know if I could have put it into words back then but nowhere that I know of do you have more freedom than when you’re standing at the top of an untracked powder-snow hill.
I had a lift ticket fastened to my belt and as I hunkered down under the canvas cover on the single chairlift as it glided over the Big Wood River, steaming in the way-below-zero, crystal-clear morning, it was a brand new day to carve brand-new turns on the side of Baldy.
It would take an entire novel to document even half of the adventures that Ward and I had both on and off the ski hill that winter. Riding to Baldy on the 8 o’clock ski patrol bus and getting to the top of Baldy an hour before any guest skiers and being able to get in four or five runs in untracked powder snow is still burned very deeply in my brain.
In today’s ski world, a few people have untracked powder snow runs burned in their brains because of helicopter skiing and snow cat skiing in lots of terrain with not many skiers is a type of skiing that’s not for everyone and its very expensive.
But it was a simple pleasure that Ward Baker and I got to enjoy every day in Sun Valley in 1947. There were almost no people there.
At most ski resorts today, they have too many chairlifts that eliminate long waits in line but by 10:30 in the morning the mountain is completely tracked up. (I wish everyone would write to the government and request that the Forest Service release … possibly sell the land to help the government coffers … much more land to be available for ski area development.)
Turning new skis in powder snow today is considerably easier than it was in 1947 when the skis were long and stiff with almost no side cut and the boots made up of very soft leather, came clear up to your ankle bone. We never knew the difference so somehow everything worked in relaxed harmonics. (My, I’m getting rather eloquent in my old age of 90!)
Today to get untracked snow, some skiers order a breakfast to go and eat it while standing in the chairlift line, freezing to death, an hour and a half or more before the chairlift starts. First tracks are a great feeling and you should definitely go for that same feeling of freedom! All you have to do is get the front desk at your hotel to wake you up at 5:30 instead of 8:30. It’s as simple as that.
I’m grateful to Sun Valley for opening up a whole new world for both Ward and me in 1947 and then again in 1984 when I met my wife on top of Baldy at the warming hut. We’ve been inseparable ever since.
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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