Vail Daily column: My first day on skis | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: My first day on skis

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

Tied tightly to the roof of the nearly-new 1929 Model A Ford coupe was my two-man toboggan on which I had spent half of the semester of my seventh-grade woodshop class, with this as my first project.

I was already freezing cold as we started to climb up into the San Gabriel Mountains. Even though I had left my pajamas on when I pulled my Levi's over my skinny legs at 4:30 in the morning, I also wore two sweatshirts and a semblance of a windbreaker. I had dipped my 29-cent wool mittens in melted paraffin to make them waterproof.

On the advice of my woodshop teacher I had spent an extra 25 cents on copper rivets instead of ordinary wood screws to make sure that the toboggan would hold together for what turned out to be a fun day of frolicking in powder snow.

After an hour or so of digging, we had built a left turn that would bank the toboggan but still maintain most of its speed.

We were sopping wet almost to our waist by the time we got the toboggan track built and had only taken two rides when we watched four skiers making turns wherever they wanted to and pulled up to a stop to watch us flounder in the deep snow. This turned out to be on one of the two most important life-changing moments I ever experienced because of the freedom a snow-covered hill could offer anyone willing to climb to the top of it on skis. This was in 1937, the year after the first chairlift in the world was built at Sun Valley, Idaho.

I was born with good luck on my shoulders because a week later a friend of mine named Julius Butler showed me a pair of skis hanging in his garage. They had no metal edges and the bindings were just a simple piece of leather that went through a horizontal mortise in the ski itself and over the top of the toe of the boot. The ski poles were made of heavy bamboo with baskets on the end the size of dinner plates.

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On my next trip to the snow with the Boy Scouts, I wore my hiking boots that came almost up to my knees and had a special pocket on the side of one where I could keep a folding pocketknife in case of a rattlesnake bite. If the snake was successful in biting my leg, then the procedure was to take the knife and cut an X in each tooth mark and then suck the venom out of the wound. No one ever told me how I could get my lower leg into my mouth in order to drain the poison out but at least I was prepared.

Back to the first day I got to use my brand-new skis: I rode to the end of the road that became the Mount Waterman ski development several years later when I tried to sidestep up the hill with these tow strap skis and bindings. I watched my Boy Scout patrol leader traverse across the hill. As my skis traversed across the hill and I attempted to push my heels of the skis apart and keep the tips together, they didn't work the way I wanted them to. My tips and tails stayed together and the heels of my boots went out to each side and dragged in the snow. When I eventually got to the end of the traverse and turned around, I had come to a stop in the granite gravel on the side of the snowfield and fell right out of the bindings. It was very simple then to lift the skis up and point them back in the other direction and traverse back. After my fifth traverse, I felt like I was 9 feet higher than where I started.

When lunchtime came, I traded my patrol leader a peanut butter sandwich and two Fig Newtons for the use of his skis and boots while he ate half of my lunch. It was a completely different experience with a pair of skis with real bindings and metal edges and borrowed ski boots than it was with my 3-foot long, pine skis without edges.

I wish I could say I completed a turn on these laminated hickory skis with edges, but that was not the case. All I accomplished was getting in a steeper and steeper and faster traverse with fear in my heart luckily falling uphill in a long skid.

Over the many years since that first traverse, I have asked lots of people if they can remember their first day on skis.

If that person's first day on skis was after the age of 5, then they can remember everything about that day. What time they got out of bed, what kind of car they rode to the resort in, where they made their first traverse, what the weather was like, what kind of clothes they wore, every item about that day is remembered because I firmly believe that that was that person's first day of total freedom.

Undoubtedly, I reacted more to that first day on skis than most people do. Over the years, I have tried to figure out why and come up with a realistic answer. I don't have one other than it was also my first day of total freedom, enough to have that first day of skiing buried in my psyche. I know that in October every year I start getting anxious and twitchy for the first day of winter when I can once again feel that bitter cold wind on my face and the draining of my bank account once again.

Remembering standing at the top after one's first chairlift ride, you turn on your brain to once again bring up every complex interaction of your body parts in a smooth rhythmic pattern.

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.