Warren Miller: A Mammoth Turkey Toss

Posted by Warren Miller
Warren Miller
Warren Miller is considered by most to be the pioneer or godfather of action spo
User is currently offline
on Monday, 02 December 2013 in News
Filmmaker Warren Miller

When I left for work on the day before Thanksgiving in 1950, I put my skis and assorted stuff alongside of my carpenter tools. 


I would pound nails all day Wednesday and then climb in my panel delivery truck and drive 350 miles north from Hollywood on a two-lane road to Mammoth Mountain.


Dave McCoy’s ski area, Mammoth Mountain, with two rope tows was reporting almost three feet of new snow and it was the only ski resort in California that was operating at the time. The bottom of the rope tow was at the same elevation as the top of Squaw Peak.  


I looked forward to a good three days of working on my next movie and skiing at the same time. The narrow two-lane road stretched endlessly in front of me as car after car with skis on the roof quickly passed me. 


When I finally got to the Mammoth campground, there were already half a dozen cars there, with people stretched out in their sleeping bags, on or under the various picnic tables. I quickly crawled into my sleeping bag in my panel truck but sleep didn’t last very long because the excitement of making the first turns of the year in my new ski boots had my adrenalin pumping.


I started up my combination panel delivery truck/motor home and the gasoline car heater quickly warmed up the inside enough so I could start the Coleman stove and cook a quick oatmeal breakfast while the other people in the campground had to stand outside and cook theirs.


Driving up the road towards the rope tows as far as it was plowed out, I parked and packed a peanut butter sandwich in my rucksack with my 16mm movie camera and six rolls of Kodachrome to get started on my feature length ski film #2.


Hanging onto one of the ropes stretched out behind the army surplus wheel driven by Dave McCoy himself, the 14 or 16 of us were towed the rest of the way to the rope tows and the base lodge. Later in the winter it would be known as The Pit because the 20 feet of snow concealed its whereabouts to the newcomers. Inside you had your choice of hot chili, hot dogs or hamburgers and coffee or soft drinks.


The two rope tows cost $2.50 to ride but Roma McCoy didn’t start collecting the money until almost eleven o’clock.


When she asked me for my $2.50, I said, “I’m working on my new ski movie.” She had the right answer, “Where is your camera?” 


“I’m waiting until Dave has time to ski for me.”


While Dave was hauling gasoline for the motors at the top of the two rope tows and making a few more trips in the weasel to haul the last of the late sleeping skiers in for their day, I made half a dozen or more rides on the rope tow while scouting out the various camera angles I would choose. 


Two skiers in a sequence are always better than just one, so when I started filming Dave he brought along Charlette Zumsteirn, a hot young ski racer from nearby Bishop.


That Thanksgiving Day was the start of a long career of getting free lift tickets in exchange for a day of running my camera. 


Late in the afternoon Dave had his infamous Turkey Toss. He had two frozen turkeys and the rules of the race were simple. Anyone who wanted to try to win a turkey had to stand behind a rope two thirds of the way up the rope tow. Dave would toss the frozen turkey down the ski hill and everyone behind the rope would run and try and grab it.


None of the competitors thought far enough ahead of the race that if they had caught one, they wouldn’t have a place to cook it except over an open campfire, on a spit. 


Without a zoom lens (they had yet to be invented for a 16mm camera), I had to film the start and first major crashes with a wide angle lens and quickly switch to a telephoto to get some of the carnage as men of all ages made fools out of themselves while chasing a $6 frozen turkey, they had no way to cook.


During this spectacular, but inconsequential mass mess on the rope tow hill, I managed to get a hundred feet of absurd action. I made sure every one of the competitors found out they might be starring in my next movie so they would buy tickets to see it. Many of them did. For some of them this might be their only chance at immortality during their entire life.


This turkey toss gave Dave’s lower rope tow machinery a chance to rest for a half hour. That guy is not dumb. 


The sheaves for the rope on its way back down the hill had been mounted on fairly stout tree trunks that he had dug holes for the summer before. 


During these rope tow days Dave had a full time job as a snow surveyor measuring how much there was in the Sierra snowpack. 


Dave had two turkeys to throw down the hill and the turkey-catching aficionados wisely waited for the second turkey that included fewer competitors. The competitors lined up and the two winners were also photographed by a freelance photographer who sold a copy to the Bishop newspaper for $5 and another copy to The Farwest Skier for another $5 and paid for his weekend of skiing at Mammoth.


It was rumored one of the winners had traded his frozen turkey for a dinner of the same in the Mammoth Tavern, the only restaurant open at that time in the nearly deserted village at the base of the mountain.


I would return to Mammoth many years in a row to film in what Dave was building to be an amazing place. He was the only bidder when the forest service put Mammoth out for development bids. No one else bid because they all said it got too much snow to be economically viable.


Since I got so sleepy driving the 350 miles up from work, I knew I would be sleepier driving home, so I let it be known that I had room in my truck on Sunday night back to LA in exchange for a tank full of gas. I had three takers with gas at eighteen cents a gallon or less and I had a 16-gallon tank.


It worked for me and I had a complete sequence for my second film called “California Skis and The Harriman Cup.”


That would be film number two more than 55 I had anything to do with and dozens of them had a Mammoth Mountain sequence in them. From two rope tows to two gondolas, two base lodges and over 30 chairlifts, Dave’s wisdom and the turkey toss helped fuel the growth. 


Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)


Warren Miller is considered by most to be the pioneer or godfather of action sports films as his efforts were among the first to capture and share the excitement of extreme athletes. Much of what is now portrayed as extreme sports, which is a giant industry, originated from Warren's own life and entrepreneurial lifestyle as the original ski bum. He is a man who followed his interests, saw and created opportunity, and then developed and grew a business that has spanned six decades and is known the world over. The Freedom Foundation was named in his honor for his extraordinary life and success as an entrepreneur. Aptly incorporating the word freedom, for which was and is Warren's goal as an entrepreneur: to accomplish both economic and personal freedom. He continues to write, speak, and promote entrepreneurship and the Freedom Foundation.


Mark Jeffrey Tuesday, 03 December 2013

Always enjoy watching the Warren Miller videos, although they aren't as enjoyable without your narration now. I started snowboarding when I turned 50 ( 13 years ago )and always take videos of the friends I ski & ride with.
I've be lucky enough to ride in most of the great ski areas out West, but it's a real trip to see our local "hills" such as TimberRidge & Boyne Mtn. on the big screen!
Thanks Warren for inspiring us all!

Leave your comment

Guest Monday, 21 April 2014

Get $5 off a Purchase

Enjoy the latest news from the world of snow, plus travel features, tips and deals on vacations and lift tickets.