Warren Miller: Tribulations Of A Ski Tour Leader
As I stepped off the train in Kitzbuhel, Austria, I had two jobs ahead of me. One was to film the European portions of my annual ski film and the second was to lead a tour of 14 skiers on a once in a lifetime ski trip. I had promoted this adventure from the stage as I traveled that fall and winter, narrating my film in person.
I was in for a bit of a surprise when I went to the tourist office and discovered that the executive at Scandinavian Airlines who was to make our reservations didn’t think anybody would sign up for the tour so he didn’t bother making reservations either in Kitzbuhel or any of the other resorts we would be visiting. I definitely had my work cut out for me. We were somehow able to find a room for everyone in 14 different hotels and pensions.
I wired the people in Los Angeles I had dealt with telling them the problem. Somebody flew down from Oslo the next day and they were followed a day later by somebody from the airline office in Los Angeles. They assured me they would visit the rest of the resorts and make things right. Making things right consisted of finding a room in 14 different hotels rather than all in one. Not very convenient for me. Since these people had paid in advance for room and board, it was extremely difficult to figure out where to eat, where to meet and where to ski.
As you can well imagine my film was put on hold until we sorted out this incredible mess and by the time I got through complaining to the airline I was able to get the land portion for all of these tourists refunded.
My compensation for selling these 14 round trips from New York to Zurich, Switzerland was a free ticket and free room and board. We were scheduled to visit Kitzbuhel, Zurs, Arosa, Davos and Zermatt and without a reservation at any of them. This was in March at the height of the ski season in Europe and not an easy thing to accomplish. Until they heard their land portions of the trip were to be refunded, I had 14 very angry customers and I understood their complaints.
After I showed them some of the endless runs in several of the resorts, we got to the point where they were enjoying it and I finally got to take a few shots for my movie.
The cable railways were then as they are today, the highlight of the trip especially the one in Zermatt, Switzerland. If viewing the Matterhorn in all its glory doesn’t change a person’s perspective on things, I don’t think they have a mind.
Money of course was tight in those days and the free trip to Europe in retrospect was not worth the hassle, but it was put up with the hassle or not go to Europe. I think the three-week trip flight from New York City to Zürich and return, room and board, ground transportation in Europe and lift tickets cost $650.
In those three weeks between the 14 people we had a thousand good times, but I should’ve learned my lesson and never done a second one. When I stayed in Zurs that first year, I spent four nights sleeping in a small bathroom on a sheet of plywood on top of a bathtub.
The good part was that I had a quilt between the plywood and my body. The bad thing was I couldn’t go to bed until after 11 at night when the bathroom was shut down and when I got dressed for skiing in the morning I had to put all of my clothes and belongings in my suitcase and it was put in a closet somewhere for the day. I think I led three tours to Europe before I learned my lesson.
If you’re a slow learner, you’re a slow learner. I was a slow learner.
In those lean financial years I scheduled one tour to Portillo, Chile. Fortunately for me 45 days before the tour was supposed to leave I didn’t have enough sales for the free ticket so I canceled which was one of the smarter things I did in my checkerboard career.
To get those European photographs of skiing in the early days, most of the skiing was on south slopes because the Swiss ski resorts had been tuberculosis sanitariums in the years before they were ski resorts. The only cure for tuberculosis in those days was sunshine and fresh mountain air. An Englishman talked one of the hotels in Murren, Switzerland, to stay open during the winter so that he could bring people over to ski and that was the beginning of the European ski resorts.
I have a lot of memorabilia from those days. I also have no bad memories of those days, only good memories, such as 14 people and myself all clomping onto a Scandinavian Airlines plane in our ski boots to save excess baggage weight. We were only allowed 44 pounds of stuff when you fly to Europe and a man from Montreal on one of my tours took his 44-pound curling stone with him instead of a pair of skis. I found out after we got there that he put most of his clothes on under his overcoat to save weight.
Another one of my ski trip travelers was a veteran of World War II who had been fighting his way across Europe a decade earlier and was afraid to go out of the hotel unless he was with me.
Over the years several people came on the tour because they thought they were hot skiers and would wind up in my annual film. They weren’t as hot as they thought so that never happened (except in some of the comedy sequences).
A long time friend of mine who is a Chevrolet dealer in Slickville, Pennsylvania, always drove a new Volkswagen bug and went everywhere I took my tour group. The last three years we skied together, I climbed into Sam’s Volkswagen bug and traveled to some resorts that I had never filmed before such as Cortina, Italy.
Sam explained to me I could buy a Volkswagen bug in Germany for between $850 at $900, drive it all over Europe, ship it to Los Angeles, and then sell it for $100 more than I paid for it. So I did that for many years including in 1960 when I purchased a Porsche but didn’t anticipate how little luggage I would be able to carry with me.
It was quite a car but after getting it back into the states, I was driving down a windy road in the rain and did a 720. Scared to death, I put the car up for sale the next day. It was such a new car design to U.S. drivers that it took a while to sell, but I finally got all my money out of it plus I’d saved on transportation while in Europe.
The money I saved of course, was spent on Kodachrome so I could bring better movies to the audiences across America. No more ski tours just free transportation instead. It was a 55-year-long learning curve.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)