Vail Daily column: Skiing through the ages | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Skiing through the ages

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

If you’re lucky enough to have skied as long as I have, from way back in the late 1930s, then you’ll know that the ski season then was completely different than today.

In 1940, the day after Labor Day, which is the first Monday in September, I would stop by a sporting goods store, go way back to the seldom-visited ski department and look at a blackboard with all the local resorts listed and the snow depths. It was written in chalk so it could be changed as soon as any snow arrived.

About that same time, with the ocean temperature at the surfing spots dropping below the 50-degree mark (before wetsuits had been invented), it was very easy for you to switch your mental and physical gears from your surfboard to your skis.

First thing on the agenda was to remove the skis from the 2-by-4 piece of lumber that they had been clamped to for the summer to prevent them from warping and twisting in the semi-moist atmosphere of sea level. Then you would check your edges. Nearly always that would result in a trip to the hardware store to buy $2 worth of stainless steel Phillips-head screws to secure the edges for those that were missing.

While there, you also bought a handful of copper rivets. If your skis were almost as worn out as mine usually were, with the hickory so soft it could no longer hold a Phillips-head screw, then you drilled all the way through the ski. I would insert the rivet with a big copper washer on the top of the ski, and somehow I thought the skis would last another winter. But they never did.

When I made sure that the edges were firmly attached, I would remove the bindings and sand the tops of the skis and apply many layers of varnish to them.

Next, I started working on the bottoms, sanding off the lacquer from the previous winter and applying all new coats of lacquer, reattaching the bindings and then going back to the sporting-goods store and ogling all the new skis and new boots that I wanted more than anything in the world — that is, with the exception of early snow.

Perhaps you put in extra shifts at the drugstore or the malt shop to earn the extra money to buy some other new stuff: Perhaps a new pair of gabardine pants with the seam in the front and tapered to fit smoothly inside of your boots. The prices for those pants started at $7 a pair but the super deluxe gabardine went for as high as $19.95. If you wanted a new pair of poles or gloves, then you might have to spend as much as $3.95.

If you’d saved enough money to complete your outfit for your winter of foreseeable fun, then you bought one item at a time so you could continue to visit the sporting-goods store and not waste too much of the shopkeeper’s time as you dreamed about what you wanted.

Snow tires had not been invented yet, so you had to make sure that your skid chains from the winter before still fit the tires on your car and you had a couple of coils of bailing wire to fix them when they broke.

The November issue of the ski magazine usually arrived within one or two days before Labor Day so you dreamed and coveted the vacation ads at places such as Sun Valley, the Sugar Bowl and Stowe, Vermont. Aspen had not been invented yet. The Union Pacific Railroad advertised a round-trip train ride from Chicago to Sun Valley, Idaho, five days of ski lessons, a dormitory room and three meals a day and lift tickets for seven days for $85.95. That wasn’t in my world of possibilities but I did dream.

At that time, I was skiing at nearby Mount Waterman on a single rickety old single chairlift for $2.50 a day. Another prerequisite was to have friends who had enough money to help pay for 15 cents a gallon gasoline to get you there and back. Since there was no restaurant at Mount Waterman it was peanut-butter and strawberry jam sandwiches, with fig newtons in a brown paper bag.

You put your boots on while sitting on the running board of the car in a muddy parking lot, and then with the heavy hickory skis and bamboo poles, over your shoulder we’d walk the mile or so to ride the chairlift. If you were lucky, then you got in the chairlift line early but the line was probably already 45 minutes long.

It would be many years before snow grooming was invented and as the winter progressed in snow depth, the moguls progressed in altitude with each new snowfall. Before long, the hill looked as if random Volkswagen Bugs had been parked everywhere and then got snowed on top of. The moguls were usually corn snow on the top with sheet ice on the sides and with your not very good edges you really slipped a lot as you traversed from tree to tree on the side of the run, for safety.

The first few years I was able to drive, during World War II, the country was on gasoline rationing and stamps were hard to come by. I knew who was going to go skiing with me long before I knew where I was going skiing and all you cared about was you were going skiing and you had enough gas rationing stamps lined up to get you there and back.

There were many end-of-the day runs that were sheet ice so we did nothing but traverse between trees and execute kick turns while hanging on to a tree and then traverse back. On occasion, to your surprise, you would end up higher when you got back than you were when you started.

Going skiing back then meant in a four-door sedan with room for six people you sat jammed in a car with seven other people, everyone smelling of melted snow and sweaty, wet wool.

Now, the sporting goods stores are still general sports stores but those selling skis are called ski shops and the day before Labor Day the ski shops are overwhelmed once again by early-season bargains. To get involved with today’s bargains you just have to add a couple of zeros to most of the pricing of equipment in 1940.

For example: A cheap pair of skis and bindings today start at approximately $1,200 a pair, and hold on to your wallet for this one: Last spring a pair of top-of-the-line pair of skis without bindings was offered to me for $2,695.

Yes, you read that number right, and here is what happened when a European industrial tool manufacturer figured out what you might call a good scam. His accountant told him that if he turned out X number of pairs of skis he could also be the traveling representative and ski all around the world to introduce his skis and all of his travel would be tax deductible. That tax deduction also included all of his meals that he bought for ski shop owners with expensive French wine and his airplane and car rental hotel and laundry expenses as well.

About the same time last spring I was introduced to a pair of ski boots that had to be a combination of woven gold and silver. How else could a pair of ski boots cost $2,000, not including sales tax?

Today, instead of rounding up a car load of friends, many skiers simply pick up a copy of Ski Magazine, pick out the one-week holiday of the month for December, January, February and/or March and stop by the bank and get the loan limit increased on their credit card.

For many people, it’s two or three months between when they hang up their surfboard in the garage and then feel the rush of cold air against their already frozen body.

When I was paying $2.50 for a day to ride the Mount Waterman chairlift in 1940, I was earning $2 every Wednesday and Saturday morning delivering three hundred copies of the Los Angeles downtown shopping news. Times have changed. I never hear of kids today having paper routes to enable them to buy what they want.

I made sure those 350 papers were placed on the front porch of every house in my area. It took between two and three hours to do that, so you can see what we were earning in those days if we were lucky enough to have a job.

Today, many people don’t even buy skis because it’s such a hassle to get them back and forth from your hometown to the ski resort and back, so they just get demos and get to try out a new pair of skis every day of their vacation. Makes lots of sense.

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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