Warren Miller: Reliving Season Endings
In the 73 years that I skied before I broke my back, I never had a bad day of skiing. Mentally, maybe, but I watched ski movies almost every day all summer long as I went through the editing process of my annual feature film.
In 1954, on the Fourth of July weekend, I flew north to Seattle and drove to Mt. Baker for the annual Slush Cup. There was a large pond about 50 yards across of melted snow that skiers, racing down the hill, would try to clear to the other side before crashing or sinking from a lack of momentum.
The Mt. Baker Slush Cup was eventually closed down because so much alcohol and so many drugs were consumed the Forest Service was not able to put up with so many people out of control. I never pointed out that part of the Slush Cup in my films, but it was obvious many of the participants had a little too much alcohol in their systems to be doing what they were doing.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when I was living and working at ski resorts, there were always a few people who would walk a chairlift line in the spring looking for stuff that had been dropped sometime during the winter. There was always the unidentified man who found a valuable watch or lots of loose change.
Once there was no longer enough snow to ski on in the spring, we put our ski equipment away in a cool place, clamping the tails and ski tips together at the splay and inserting a straight piece of two by four between the skis under the binding area so the camber would stay in the laminated hickory. If you had time, you would sand the varnish of the skis and apply a new coat before you clamped them for the summer.
Boot trees were invented in the 1950s so your boots would not warp during the summer. Finally, if you had special ski clothes, you took them to the dry cleaners and waited until the weather started to change. Then, in the late fall you went to retrieve them if you had enough money.
If you didn’t go surfing and couldn't go skiing, you suddenly had a lot more spare time (about eight days a month) that you could work an extra job and raise a stash of cash for the following winter's skiing expenses, such as replacing broken wooden skis.
Quite often in the late 1950s and 1960s, my last day of skiing would be in some great place in Europe, such as St. Moritz, Zermatt, Zurs, or Davos. Then getting to Hermosa Beach was a real hassle: a two- to four-hour train ride to Zurich, a seven-hour flight to New York, and then a 3,000-mile drive home. Twice after locating my car at the airport it would have a flat tire; once I had two flats.
If there were still snow in Vermont or New Hampshire, I would drive up to film a little bit more before turning left or west. In 1953, I was driving a 1950 panel delivery truck with a bed and a jerry-rigged kitchen in the back. It was 500 miles a day for six days. The third year I bought a 1956 Chevy in Slickville, Pennsylvania, from a friend of mine who showed my movies.
When I arrived home and could view all the footage I shot, I could then decide if I had enough or would journey north to Mammoth Mountain for the final days with my camera. When I didn't have enough footage and ran out of snow, I would point my camera at the beach activities around my hometown area: surfing, sailing, water skiing, and even beach volleyball. Those always helped to give the film some pacing interest.
One spring, I had wrapped up my filming in France and was headed home from an airport somewhere when I drove by a still-operating t-bar about 50 percent covered with snow and grass and the rest with green grass. Skiers were splashing across the grass, falling in the mud, and spraying each other with wet snow. It was one of the best comedy sequences I ever shot, and it had a decidedly French flavor to it.
One last spring day at Vail, we had a lightening storm blowing in from the west, and it got a little scary. We got off the lift at the top, and lightning was hitting all around the chairlift, so we decided to get off the mountain as quickly as possible, skiing right down under the chairlift, thinking that would protect us, I guess. Another skier headed for the trees on the left side of the run and was hit by lightning. Luckily, the strike did not kill him, but it melted the snow under his skis and scared the wits out of all of us.
I once passed up one more final day of skiing in the mountains outside of Elko, Nevada, with my friend Frank Wells who was then president of Disney. He had invited me on a group heli trip, but I had already made plans with Laurie to make our reverse annual migration back to our island home for the summer.
Three days later, on Orcas by then, we got a phone call from Frank's son asking me to speak at his father's memorial service. Frank was flying out on the last helicopter of the day when the engine flamed out. He was sitting behind the pilot when the helicopter hit a tree. Frank was lucky on his last day of skiing to be doing something he loved.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)