Vail Daily column: Early days of the ski resort | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Early days of the ski resort

When I drove into the Sun Valley parking lot with Ward Baker in January 1947, I had no idea I would spend the next three winters there.

On the road from Ketchum to Warm Springs, there was only one building after the Bigwood River Bridge. There was no reason for anyone to live out there because there was no electricity or water beyond the bridge. The ground was pretty fallow and as they said, it wasn't even good enough to grow potatoes in. The following summer, ski instructor Leon Goodman built what I recall was the first house out there. Prices of real estate were still working against moving that far out of town because you could still buy a vacant lot in Ketchum in the $500 range. I bought my first piece of property in Ketchum right on Trail Creek and the road to Hailey for $350 a couple of years later. There was only one motel in Ketchum, called the Bald Mountain Hot Springs Hotel. As I remember, they had built a wooden pipe from what is now the base of the Warm Springs lift to their hotel and sold the use of that hot water for heating for the houses that were later built along the route.

At the base of what is now the Warm Springs lift there was a lumber mill built in about 1900 or so that belonged to the Farnan ranch just south of town. The giant boiler that ran the mill was powered by trimmings from the logs and was then still standing on its original steel 5- or 6-foot diameter wheels. The belt from the long leather belt powered the 5- or 6-foot diameter saw blade.

Any photograph I'd ever seen of a mill like this had a pond to float the logs in for economical operation. This mill did not have one: they just used manpower instead. The large diameter blade had no safety cover and unfortunately a young helper from Hailey high school slipped at one point and lost his arm.

Owen Simpson, Jack Simpson's father, upgraded a casino on Main Street in Ketchum the first winter I was there, and the next summer the town shut them down so they built a gambling hall halfway to Hailey out of Ketchum's jurisdiction. This was also short-lived, so they decided to build a very large log gambling casino in the middle of Warm Springs and fly gamblers there from Elko and Jackpot, Nevada. By the time they got that giant casino built, Ketchum had annexed Warm Springs and prohibited gambling there as well.

Eventually the building was moved south of Ketchum, just past my little log cabin on Trail Creek on the east side of the road to Hailey and became a large real estate office.

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My history is vague on this point but I think the next resident in Warm Springs was either Ernest Hemingway's son Jack or a doctor whose specialty was putting legs back together before the invention of release bindings.

A year or so later a very modest house was built right out in the middle of the meadow and gradually more and more houses appeared. During that same time-frame, Jack Simpson built a golf course and the Warm Springs Ranch. During their first three years of operation, Jack's wife Mary Lou was the hostess Jack was the bartender and chef. The steaks were abundant in size and economically priced and very quickly became the place to take your friends to dinner.

When Bill Janss bought Sun Valley in 1964, one of the first things he did was build a chairlift on the Warm Springs side of the mountain and created one of the best ski runs anywhere in the world. I think it climbed to 3,000 vertical feet in 10 or 12 minutes and that chairlift is the first one I ever rode with my (soon to be) wife Laurie during the Christmas holidays in 1984. The first time she said I'll meet you at the bottom, I realized I'd met a very attractive lady who I couldn't begin to keep up with on a pair of skis and I still can't keep up with her in many ways, after all of these years.

Several of my skiing friends built homes there 50 or 60 years ago, and they still love their lives there, often saying that they'd come for the winter but the summer is even greater. My smart friends bought the lot next door so nobody could ever take their view of Baldy away from them.

Every winter when I used to drive to Warm Springs for the first time I was always amazed at its steep, vertical rise and fantastic ski runs.

When I look at ski photographs of the late 1930s when Sun Valley was first developed, it helps you understand why they didn't even look at Mount Baldy to develop at first because 1938 equipment could not handle runs that steep. It would be five years after Dollar Mountain had the first chairlift ever invented before the first chairlift appeared on Baldy.

Ward Baker and I spent two years living in the Sun Valley parking lot and skiing seven days a week. In early years before they built the Warm Springs' lift, occasionally there would be a 4:15 bus from the bottom of Warm Springs back to Sun Valley and we could go out of bounds and ski top to bottom … though no area was considered out of bounds back then.

The year that I wanted to be a ski racer, I can remember thinking that last run down College or to Warm Springs to the bottom meant skiing at 6 or 8 miles an hour with snowplow turns nonstop. I knew nothing about getting in shape but after skiing from 8:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon, I always figured I would be in good shape if I could handle that many snowplow turns. My self-imposed training method worked for me and after a year of just skiing, I spent the next year racing and the third year at Sun Valley teaching on Dollar Mountain.

Three single chairs on Baldy, one above the other, a race offered prizes for skiing just one of the lift lengths or all three to the bottom of a bronze pin for the River Run chair, a silver ski pin for the Canyon and River run and a diamond one for the top of Baldy to the valley. As I recall, you had to do it from the top to the bottom in somewhere around two minutes. There weren't a lot of diamond pins awarded to skiers because halfway down the canyon there was a catwalk that should be virtually impossible to cross at any speed.

Ward and I would shadow ski classes and listen to what the instructor told each individual pupil when they finished their run and apply it to what we thought we might be doing. Fortunately, we each had an 8-millimeter motion picture camera and we'd film each other and look at them in the lobby of the skiers chalet and correct our bumbling mistakes.

We enjoyed watching Otto Lang teaching the shah of Iran how to ski in powder snow that was deep enough to come clear up over his metal edges. And standing in a chairlift line with Gary Cooper and his wife Rocky before they abandoned Sun Valley and moved to Aspen for a less formal lifestyle.

After I bought my vacant lot on Trail Creek with a great view of Baldy, I had planned on settling down there someday before I'd established my film business that took me all over the world. When I produced a film for Bill Janss at Sun Valley the first time he showed it, he sold what became Elkhorn to Johns Manville for $4.5 million, which was the same price he'd originally paid for all of Sun Valley. He eventually sold me 11 acres on the back side of Baldy from which I developed some amazing Baldy-view lots on.

When Laurie and I got together we decided to not settle down in Sun Valley because I had my circle of friends of my previous marriage and so did she. On a press trip to Vail, we thought we should start all over at a completely different part of the world with all new friends. That really worked for us, and when the opportunity came to help pioneer the world's only private ski and golf club called the Yellowstone Club, we would've been very foolish to say no to that one. And after a few bumps in the road, that has turned out to be a very good decision, especially because we've made amazing friends there and the mountain is terrific.

After traveling the world of ski resorts with my camera and a rucksack for 50 years, I still think Baldy is one of the best place to turn right and left.

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.