6 minutes reading time (1185 words)

Warren Miller: All About Lift Tickets And Inflation

Filmmaker Warren MillerWhile finishing up my autobiography, I decided to include some of my old cartoons from a book I published in the summer of 1947. It’s called “Are My Skis On Straight?” Two cartoons in particular pointed out rather clearly what inflation has done to skiing.

When Ward Baker and I walked through the Challenger Inn lobby the first time, we never paid more than $2.50 to ride a chairlift in Utah or California and never more than $2 to ride a rope tow anywhere.

Imagine our surprise when we saw the chairlift rates posted on the bulletin board as follows: single ride $3; all day, $4; three-day pass, $11; one-week pass, $22.50; one-month pass, $75; full season pass, $150.

But Sun Valley, at that time, was undeniably the best in the world and worth it.

There is no need to quote the rates of chairlifts and gondolas today because most people I know who ski already have looked up this season’s price on the Internet. I have not checked them yet myself, but the last time I looked, most major ski resorts charged over $100 per day. However, Colorado for example, has a package where you can buy a season pass for about $360 that included Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail, Arapahoe Basin, as well as numerous other resorts in California.

For a person who really skis a lot, this is an incredible bargain because it would be possible to ski 180 days at these resorts for $2 per day. Of course that $2 a day does not include your accommodations or groceries or extracurricular activities or the latest and greatest ski equipment you might be able to wear out in two years if you ski that 180 days each year.

Going back to my cartoon book, the luncheon menu was a real shocker to Ward and me in January of 1947. This, of course, was four or five years before the invention of McDonald hamburgers for 15 cents.  The price for a hamburger was 75 cents and a cheeseburger was a $1. Coffee was 25 cents and a pot of tea was 35 cents.

Tea was the drink of choice for us because we could get several cups of hot tea out of one teabag that worked well with our peanut butter sandwiches we brought along in a rucksack.

My wife Laurie gives me a bad time when I talk about the cost of stuff. However, there is a definite trade-off of time for money and in those days exchange rate was completely different than it is today.

Most ski areas have filled jobs needed for this winter, but when the Sun Valley Lodge was built in the middle of a cow field, the only people who lived there were ranchers. There were no employees available in the Wood River Valley where it was built, so Averell Harriman who owned the Union Pacific Railroad headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, offered the following job opportunities:  a round-trip ticket on their train from Omaha, Nebraska, to Ketchum, Idaho, room and board, and $125 a month. 

The jobs ranged from washing dishes in the kitchen to mopping floors or any job you can imagine at a brand-new ski resort. A lot of the people that applied and received the free train ticket to Sun Valley never used their free return ticket to Omaha. They settled in Ketchum, Idaho and raised families.  Some of their grandchildren are already old enough to have children of their own and still live there.

Many of the ski instructors came from Austria because Harriman, who was president of the railroad, had skied in St. Anton for four or five winters until the scepter of World War II loomed too ominously on the horizon.

Minimum wages in the United States prior to and just after World War II hovered around 25 cents an hour with jobs hard to find because of the 1929 stock market crash and the resulting depression, so the available jobs in Idaho were welcomed.

When Sun Valley opened, there was only one motel in Ketchum, so when Harriman built the Lodge he also built accommodations for all of the people who came there from Omaha.  They put two people in a very comfortable room with shower and toilet facilities down the hall. A few of the people that came to perform management positions were given adjoining rooms and shared a relatively private bathroom.

Some of the executives at Sun Valley that I knew very well over the years spent their entire professional lives in one of those two-bedroom, shared bathroom situations. From 1936 when Sun Valley began, until the mid-1960s, Sun Valley was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. I imagine some of those original employees were able to retire with some sort of a railroad pension.

Fortunately today in Colorado, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming there are literally hundreds of places to build a perfect ski resort such as Sun Valley. However that will probably never happen in the foreseeable future. The government, the forest service, and the tree huggers are really good at shutting down the chances of anybody ever building a major ski resort in America again so that more people can enjoy the freedom of skiing.

In my opinion, that is a real shame because anyone who visits any ski resort between Portland, Maine, and Snow Summit in California has their life changed forever once they make that first ski run. Add to that the fact that ski resorts provide thousands and thousands of jobs nationwide and everybody that works in one won’t be in front of you on the freeway tomorrow morning when you’re struggling to get to your cubicle in a high-rise office building somewhere.

That first winter in Sun Valley, in 1946/47 changed my life forever. I was born and raised in Hollywood, California, and I was lucky enough to wrap my pair of wet, woolen gloves around a soggy wet rope tow at Mt. Waterman and start on my life-long journey. You had to pay 25 cents per ride on the single chairlift to the top of the mountain to access the rope tow servicing the part of the hill that was flat enough for learning. 

The freedom I found that first time on that flat rope tow hill has been with me ever since. I don’t know what I might have done instead of skiing my life away all over the world since that first day on those skis without edges.

Just don’t pay any attention to the inflationary prices of today’s ski world particularly when you’re buying time on the side of a hill with total freedom stretched out below you.

Whether you are from Omaha, Nebraska, or any other city where your parents created you, set some time aside right now so you can go skiing or snowboarding.  The 75-cent cheeseburger is definitely a thing of the past, but deep white snow and cobalt blue skies are waiting for you to leave your own tracks on the side of a hill of your choice.

Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)

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