Warren Miller: The Birth Of Ski Resorts
I was very lucky to witness the growth of skiing from less than 15 chairlifts in America to over 400 ski resorts in America today.
It is important to note, however, that less than 30 years ago, there were just over 1,200 ski areas. But with insurance and federal regulations, many, many of them had to close.
Those were the areas I called kindergartens of skiing as those little mom and pop areas are where nearly all of us learned to ski. We’d come up with our sack lunches and rapidly cooling cocoa in thermos bottles. Many more families skied back then and with hand me downs and sack lunches, they could.
I got to ski at many of them before their first chairlift was put in. Others I filmed their first winter of operation, and others I just read about until I could get there with my camera and document its beginnings.
For example: when I skied at Badger Pass in Yosemite in 1946, I met a very young ski racer whose father was the president of the bank in Merced, California. He had bought the Forest Service lease for what became the Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff. He offered me a job running one of the two rope tows and I could live at the Snowbowl and go to school nearby.
I dragged my surfing and skiing buddy, Ward Baker, along on this adventure that only lasted about two weeks. It turned out the hills the two rope tows were on were very flat. The accommodations were good, but the owners cooked our meals and it was potatoes three meals a day. We quickly decided the food was bad, skiing was terrible and there were a lot better ski resorts to go to.
We skied in Aspen the first winter their chairlift was running. Lift tickets were $4 a day and vacant lots as low as $10 each. It was near the end of the season and we were out of cash to buy a lift ticket so we had to climb the mountain. Buying real estate never entered our minds…which of course was another mistake.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, I was lucky enough to be hired to take movies at quite a few potential ski resorts and take most of my payment in real estate. I priced the real estate at just what the developer paid for it originally. Those movies included Alpental, Alpine Meadows, Telluride, plus many resorts in the East…simply to raise money for their expansion.
More often than not I divided my film into two versions. One segment for my feature-length ski film and the other segment into a 10- or 15-minute commercial film for television or ski clubs showing anywhere they could get the film on the screen in front of viewers.
This offered a lot of opportunities, of course. The first year Vail was operational I could have bought a $10,000 vacant lot right in the middle of the village. You received two free lifetime lift passes with the lot. That would be hard to figure a price on today.
Some of those early ski resorts were built on mountains that really tested skiers of the 1930s and early ‘40s. Today they wouldn’t even be a beginning ski area because of new equipment, ski technique development and skiers searching for more freedom.
Unfortunately the Forest Service and the tree huggers have most of the land in America tied up so that in your lifetime you will not see another major ski resort built.
I took my first ski photo in 1940 with a black and white plastic camera. Starting in Nov. 1949, I produced 55 feature-length ski films that were exhibited worldwide and about 600 other films for marketing purposes for many different clients.
Almost every year I heard about a new ski resort somewhere so I would try to include it in a subsequent film. By the time I retired, it was just a matter of selecting which resorts to film because of what was new and excitingly different about them. After all skiers can only do two or three things on skis or a snowboard.
They can turn right, turn left, or go straight. Well, maybe four things…you can sell them. I did my best to expose the scenery, the culture, and the special reasons for my viewers to visit that particular resort because it offered a lot of other things besides just turning right and left.
Along the way I know that I influenced a lot of people to change their lifestyle. Case in point: I was standing on a ski hill in Vail when a young man stopped and simply said, “My father hates you.”
He was scheduled to take over his father’s radiator manufacturing company in the Midwest when he went to ski in Colorado one too many times and told his father he just couldn’t do it. He wanted to spend the rest of his life on the ski patrol. As far as I know, he still lives in Vail, has three children that go to Battle Mountain High School and lead normal teenagers’ lives. They spend all of their spare time skiing, riding on mountain bikes, fishing, or backpacking. What is not to like about raising your children in that kind of environment?
Almost any job you do in a city is available today at all the bigger ski resorts. The obvious jobs are not limited to lift loading, ski patrolling, and teaching skiing anymore. There are many other positions where people are in offices running computers, doing the marketing, doing the accounting for many small businesses that cook the food or shovel the snow, etc.
The list is endless. Even at our small resort here at the Yellowstone Club we have 750 employees. 180 of them keep the rooms clean, make the beds, and do the housekeeping. If you choose a high-end resort such as Vail or Mammoth on a weekend, they will have 25,000 people on their mountain and that takes an incredible number of employees to bring order out of potential chaos.
I am very fortunate to have fallen into a profession that offers the best of all worlds. When I was taking my ski movies, if it decided not to snow where I had planned on filming, I would simply go somewhere else. As long as I narrated the story in the newscaster manner, it worked as long as they were resorts that the average person could visualize himself someday visiting.
In 1936 when Sun Valley, Idaho, opened, it set the standard for destination ski resorts in North America for all time.
No matter where I traveled in all those years, I always compared the resort I was filming with Sun Valley. Sun Valley always came out on top, though when I joined the YC, my awareness of standards went up several notches.
But we do need to get the kindergarten ski areas back in operation…all we need to have is a chairlift with a lunchroom in which to eat sack lunches.
Hannes Schneider, the father of skiing beginning with the Austrian technique from the 1920s, said it very well after World War I: “If everyone skied there would be no wars.”
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)