Warren Miller: The More Things Change…
In 1960, two years before Vail opened with one gondola, two chairlifts and a Poma lift, I rode to where Chair 4 ends with Pete Siebert in some sort of an Army surplus, over-the-snow vehicle.
He was able to drive to an advantage point where I got my first view of the now famous back bowls. There were no ski lifts, no ski tracks, just awesome potential for my movie camera.
While we were doing this, a small group of investors were trying to raise the necessary dollars to build the first lifts, the hotel and small subdivision.
When I showed up the following year with my camera, the 42-room hotel was finished, the gondola was running, as was a chairlift to the top and a chairlift down into the back bowls and very few skiers.
Every member of the small staff was busy working so they couldn’t ski for my camera, so I got contacted a friend of mine, Bob Smith who later invented Smith goggles, when I found out he was staying in Aspen. I talked him into driving over to Vail to ski for me and he commuted for four or five days because there were no beds available in Vail at that time.
In those days there was only a narrow two-lane road clogged with slow moving 18-wheelers to get to Vail from Aspen. To get to Vail from Denver you had to drive over 11,000- foot Loveland Pass, down into Dillon where there was no dam and no lake, climb up over Vail Pass, down the other side and then you were there.
Since those early days Vail has grown into almost the largest ski resort in America with weekend crowds sometimes in excess of 25,000 skiers and snowboarders on the hill at the same time.
Unfortunately some unanticipated consequences have come from the development of this great ski resort.
The 100-mile drive to Denver normally takes 90 minutes, but on a Saturday or Sunday night, according to what my friends tell me, it sometimes takes them as long as 7.5 hours on a four-lane freeway to get back home.
At the bottom of the mountain at Vail, to ski back to the town is a steep pitch called Pepi’s Face where the snow used to get skied off very quickly. As a result people would stop on the highway, see that steep face with dirt showing, figure the whole mountain was that way, and then drive on to Aspen instead of stopping and going up and skiing in the back bowls.
The developers forgot two things in the master plan: a parking lot and a cemetery so nobody could die there either. All in all I thought that was a good plan because I’m against dying.
The first time I filmed in those back bowls there were so few skiers that I got five days of untracked powder to introduce Vail to all the people that would see my next movie.
Vacant lots were selling for $10,000 and you got two free lifetime lift passes as well. I don’t have the slightest idea what one of those lots is worth today, but I made a major mistake by not buying one. I think the reason I didn’t buy one as they had a codicil to the deed that you had to start construction within one year, which I found out later was illegal.
In those early days of filmmaking I didn’t know where my next rolls of Kodachrome would come from and quite often I paid cash for them from a pass-the-hat show the night before. Yes, I would have been smart to have purchased one of those lots, but $10,000 to me back then was more like $10,000,000 is today.
Years later in 1984 when Laurie and I met, we spent some time skiing at Vail. Before I knew it I bought a piece of property, built a house, got married and lived there for 12 years. I never had a bad day of snow, but then I never do wherever I go. We met a whole new group of friends and then we moved to the Yellowstone club in Montana, where we’ve been lucky to meet many, many more great family-type friends.
Some of our old Vail friends skied with us in Montana recently and one, a retired doctor, told me that the number of collisions between skiers or skiers and snowboarders has risen dramatically because of the awesome number of people charging down the hill at the same time. There are only a couple of runs that lead directly into downtown Vail and at the end of the day when the lifts close, that awesome number of skiers all head for the same destination at the same time.
If you think about some of the logistics necessary to feed and service that number of people every Saturday or Sunday, that’s a lot of hamburger buns, relish, bottles of beer and Coca-Cola served at the various restaurants scattered across this massive ski resort.
That first winter of 1962 my kids went to ski school on Gold Peak riding on the short Poma lift. At the same time I was filming Bob Smith and anyone else I could get to ski for me, with my son Scott tagging along behind me kick turning and traversing and kick turning to get away and get those long shots that used to sell skiing so effectively.
Two facts I do know are I never had a bad day of filming in my life and I never had a good night of sleep when I knew I would be filming in powder snow the next day, always worrying that I wouldn’t be the first one on the lift.
People often ask me what was my favorite place to film.
I think my favorite place was wherever I had sunshine and powder snow on the north-facing slopes so the skiers could be backlit with the powder snow floating up behind them…intoxicating footage.
This short story about Vail is one of many resorts that started after I made my first movie at Squaw Valley in 1949-50. At that time there were less than 15 chairlifts in America and today you have your choice of over 400 different ski resorts, only one of which is Vail.
American skiers are very fortunate.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)