Vail Daily column: First turns
The eastern city limits of Pasadena rise abruptly up to Mount Wilson where there is a 100-inch telescope that was a state-of-the-art telescope until sometime in the ’30s or ’40s. Driving by Mount Wilson on a winding narrow road will get you to Mount Waterman. There in the late 1930s, Lynn Newcomb and his son built the second chairlift in California.
In 1937, this is where I made my first wobbly attempt at traversing across a ski slope. My pine skis were 3 or 4 feet long, with leather toe strap bindings that when the heels of my boots would go out into a snow plow position, they hung out over the skis, while my skis remained side-by-side going straight ahead until I ran out on the gravel on the far side of the small patch of snow.
This later was the first chairlift I ever rode. It was during the winter of 1942-43 when I was stationed at the University of Southern California as a seaman third class.
During that period of time, what later became CalTrans were extending the road beyond Mount Waterman and it was being done with picks and shovels by conscientious objectors to the war.
Driving home from a day of skiing at Mount Waterman I got into a conversation with three of my surfing friends about the concept of being a conscientious objector. The war was raging in the South Pacific and I had already lost a couple of high school friends; being a conscientious objector seemed a lot more appealing than being on a Navy ship somewhere, but I stuck with my Naval studies anyway. (My wife says it was lucky I did as I wouldn’t have any self-discipline without those years in the service — she thinks I have very little, as it is.)
Back to the early chairlift, it was by today’s standards very rickety and fragile. 1942-43 is a long time ago, and if my memory serves me correctly, the parking was only alongside the narrow two-lane road with no convenient place to make a U-turn. There was no restaurant and very meager bathroom facilities. However, the snow was white, it was on the side of a hill completely full of giant bumps, the tops of which were good corn snow and the faces of which were hard ice. Offset edges were unheard of back then; ski boots that gave lateral support did not appear for almost a decade.
Several times near the end of my ski photography career, I’ve put 1942 equipment on current really hot skiers and they could barely make them turn. However, the front end of the ski was turned up, they had metal but very dull edges, almost no camber or side cut, but including bindings they were the best ski that $15.95 could buy.
During that winter of 1942-43, I probably made six weekend trips to Mount Waterman using my sister’s Buick, loaded with five passengers and all of our skis, poles and peanut butter sandwiches necessary.
We did not want to waste time sitting down to eat, so we stopped by the car and got our peanut butter sandwiches and in the 30- to 40-minute wait for a single chair were able to finish lunch while standing in line waiting for our turn.
At the top of Mount Waterman, there was a small rope tow on the only nearly flat part of the world. Once I found out how to ride the rope tow, I realized that I could make four or five turns and grab the rope and go right back up. My clothes were a complete mess from the wet that I squeezed out of the hemp rope that hauled me up to the top.
The first time I rode the rope tow at the top of the mountain, it was too late in the afternoon so I ended up with the worst ski run in my memory. The steep face of Waterman had frozen in the late afternoon sun and it was a question of traversing as slow as I could go until I got to a tree I could grab and do a kick turn and go back across virtually the same set of bumps. I distinctly remember a couple of traverses where I wound up 10 feet higher than when I started the traverse.
I think everybody that learned to ski after the age of 5 can remember those first timid traverses, the equipment, tired muscles, sunburned faces and wet gloves and clothes from hanging onto the rope.
Back in those days, there were less than a dozen chairlifts in North America, and when I finally got to Europe to ski and film in 1953, I don’t recall riding on a single chairlift in Switzerland or Austria at that time. All of those great black and white postcards that attracted me to drive from Los Angeles to New York then fly to Switzerland had been taken by climbing rather than riding in a chairlift.
That first winter on Mount Waterman I can only remember two or three good skiers. One of which had come south from Seattle to work at Lockheed in the war effort.
The skis of that era had almost no torsional rigidity whatsoever, and when you tried to make the tips hang onto the hard packed snow, your only recourse was to lean as far forward as possible from the ankles to push the tips harder into the snow. Needless to say, this did not work very well but, at the same time, neither did we!
The safety binding, or release binding as it is called today, had not yet been invented. Among all of my friends who I skied with, not one of us ever broke anything except our bank account.
One weekend we had gone to Malibu to go surfing and the waves were only inches high, so we decided to go to Mount Waterman on Sunday and while we’re at it, why not take a couple of dates along? We knew that neither one of them skied, but they could take a ride up and down on the chairlift while my friend and I were riding up and skiing down. The four of us ate peanut butter sandwiches at the top of the mountain, and we decided to try to show off in front of our dates as they got on the chairlift. We figured we could ski down underneath the chairlift and they could watch us ski from top to bottom.
As I said before, the chairlift was very, very slow, however, it was a great deal faster than we could ski and they were waiting at the bottom when we finally got there.
A couple of years ago I found one of my ski boots from the 1940s and it gave as much lateral support as a pair of black high-top basketball shoes, or almost zero lateral support.
I can’t recall ever having a bad day on a pair of skis, however, there were a few challenges along the way.
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.