Vail Daily column: First tracks in Europe
In 1953, I was hosted by both the Swiss and Austrian tourist bureaus on my first trip to Europe. All I had to do was get to New York and carry my camera everywhere and expose a lot of 16-millimeter film. It was a very long drive in my panel delivery truck from Los Angeles to New York on a two-lane highway. The interstate had not yet been built yet.
The two largest resorts in Switzerland were Davos and St. Moritz. Almost all of the hotels back then were on south-facing slopes because when they were built in the 1800s when the only known cure for tuberculosis was high-altitude and lots of sunshine. As a result these hotels/sanitariums had hallways that were wide enough to push a bed out of the room, down the hallway and onto the balcony in the fresh air, sometimes with one person on each side of the head of the bed pushing.
Even when the resorts started catering to skiers, many of them only had one bathroom per floor so you had to make an appointment with the maid to use the bathtub. One of the luxuries that these hotels furnished was to polish your ski boots every night so people put them out in the hallway by the door. The hall porter would pick them up take them somewhere and put a brilliant shine on them. He kept track of them by chalking the guest’s room number on the bottom of the boot. There have always been pranksters who would change the boots to another room after the erasing the numbers on the bottom of them. I still remember the luxury of down comforters — it seemed like they were 2 feet thick and weighed almost nothing. The mattresses, however, were lumpy as a sack of potatoes.
I was able to get some great photographs of dozens of people stretched out on lawn chairs, spending their days getting bronzed by staring at the sun with their eyes shut.
Back in those days, all of the ski lifts were on south slopes because that’s where hotels were and the chairlift invention had not yet arrived in Europe. (Remember the chairlift was invented in a railroad yard in Omaha, Nebraska, by the Union Pacific railroad for the then-new ski area, Sun Valley, Idaho.)
My foreign language skills were limited to “Excuse me,” “Hello,” “Goodbye” and “Can I take a movie of you since you’re such a good skier?” I had that last phrase written in French and German on a 3-by-5 cards in my rucksack because I couldn’t memorize them. Cable railways were the primary ski lift in both St. Moritz and Davos.
In those days, you could find a small hotel and get a nice room with two meals a day for less than $8 per day. Prices varied with the proximity to the cable railway, and I remember lift lines for those cable railways that were as long as two or more hours. To get to the powder snow, you rode the cable railway to the summit and skied down the back of the mountain to a village as far as 12 kilometers away and then climb on a train and ride back up to the cable railway and stand in line again.
What Americans were most amazed about were the extremely long runs. They were however, rather flat. For example, there is a downhill race in Davos, Switzerland, called the Parsenn Derby which is 12 kilometers long from top to bottom and only has starting and finishing gates. There are no control gates! Winning time in those days was approximately seven minutes and that was before offset edges on icy spring snow.
I quickly learned that a cheese omelet was the best thing to order for breakfast and lunch when I was traveling in Europe. Plus, it was the only thing I could pronounce.
My first stop in Austria was in Zurs at the summit of the Flexen Pass. If you needed new ski boots this was the place to buy them. The Martin Strolz family custom-made ski boots was in nearby Lech and Martin himself would come to your hotel in Zurs in the evening, measure your feet and at the end of skiing the following day would come to your hotel with a brand-new pair of custom-made ski boots for as much as $19 a pair.
That first winter in Switzerland, I became well acquainted with the owner of a woodcarving and souvenir shop where I made the down payment on a magnificent carving of a shepherd. He is carrying a baby lamb under his arm and its two sheep are walking beside him. It is carved out of a single block of white oak and still stands on our mantle in our island home.
One day at the summit of the Weisiflujoch, I ran into some of my friends from Southern California who had bought a Volkswagen bug and were spending a month in Europe. Two days later, they were skiing down to Klosters and were both caught an avalanche. Unfortunately, one of them died but the other one spent the rest of his life living in Germany.
I was tired after three weeks of traveling and filming and when I got back to New York, I was greeted by a flat tire on my red truck plus having a 3,000-mile drive back to Hermosa Beach on a two-lane road ahead of me. This first trip to Europe with my camera kicked my film business into high gear that lasted over 50 years.
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, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.