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Warren Miller: Winter Wanderlust
In January of 1946, I was skiing at Badger Pass and staying at the Yosemite Lodge 12 miles away, down in the Valley. The accommodations were quite nice. They were 16 foot-wall tents with community showers down the way. It was there that I got the motivation to travel the world with my skis and then later with skis and camera.
I had met and skied with a man named Pat Gould from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and he told me the following story: he was in the Army and stationed in New Delhi, India, when he heard about a ski resort in the Himalayas. Investigation revealed that by taking several different buses he could get to that resort in 24 hours. However, during the trip, two of the four different buses he had to take had flat tires so the trip took over 30 hours.
When he left New Delhi the temperature was hovering in the 110 degrees Fahrenheit range. When he arrived in the mountains, the snow was deep but there were no rope tows or ski lifts of any kind.
Instead the ski resort, and I use the word resort kindly, consisted of three or four small buildings and a barn. To get up the hill without climbing, the owner of one of the houses had a horse that he charged 10 cents a ride to the top of the hill that had some ski tracks on it. There was a well-worn zigzag path that the horse climbed up to the top, led by the owner. The owner carried Pat’s skis over his shoulder so the extra weight would not wear out the horse. The hill was not very steep and there were ski tracks that had been left by someone who, Pat thought, could only traverse and make kick-turns.
The skis that Pat Gould had rented cost 25 cents American and had at least a third of the metal edges missing. Of the four pairs of skis in the village for rent, this was the only pair that had edges of any kind, so he rented them. Somehow, a pair of 10th Mountain Division 7’6”, stiff, wood skis had found its way to this distant location.
Pat had his choice of several different kinds of ski boots or I should say boots. Only two of the eight or nine pair for rent were leather, the rest where rubber goulashes. The leather boots were either two sizes too large or two sizes too small for him so Pat paid an extra 10 cents a day for a pair of goulashes.
Pat was smart enough to realize that to try to turn these worn-out skis and bad fitting boots would be impossible. He wisely decided it would be a traverse and kick-turn descent of this 300, not very vertical, foot ski slope.
While he was traversing and kick-turning, his horse ride up the hill and the owner were zig-sagging back down the trail to the bottom.
After half a dozen traverses and kick turn trips back and forth across the middle of the ski hill, he, the horse, and its owner arrived at the bottom at just about the same time.
Pat was really excited to have an entire ski hill and ski resort all to himself.
He didn’t remember what he had for dinner that night or breakfast the next morning but the accommodations were warm and comfortable and there was not one single person in the village who could speak or understand a single word of English. Pat did not understand their Indian dialect either. You quickly learn to talk with your hands in situations like this.
Two days of traversing and kick turning down the hill and riding up on a very uncomfortable saddle dictated that he could not handle another day of horseback riding to ski.
The first bus he had to take back to New Delhi only came to the resort twice a week and the journey back to New Delhi was another nightmarish, 30-hour trip with the thermometer getting three or four degrees hotter with every passing hour, back to 110 degrees when Pat finally got off of the last bus at midnight of the second day.
I don’t have the slightest idea why this ski trip story excited me as much as it did. I had already been halfway to New Delhi from Los Angeles when I was in the Navy stationed at Guadalcanal but I never forgot him telling me all about it.
During my hundreds of later trips to ski resorts all over the world while I was producing ski movies, I never did make it to the Himalayas. I did however send one of my ace cameramen, Brian Sisselman, to film a sequence for one of the films. No 30-hour bus ride for Brian, but the helicopter he used maxed out at an elevation of 18,000 feet. Brian filmed the descent from there to the same small village that Pat Gould skied in so many years ago. It had grown considerably over the years.
Once again watching Brian’s movies of that small Himalayan village last night, I wondered how many memories of different ski resorts are buried somewhere between my ears.
For Pat Gould I know his ski experience on horseback in the Himalayas gave him lifetime bragging rights in the ski adventure category.
Think about it for a moment: Pat had to ride in a dilapidated bus in 110-degree weather for many hours to get to ride up a small ski hill on the back of a horse and in deep snow while wearing terrible equipment, so it was impossible to make turns. But it was something hardly anyone else would ever do.
I had just turned 21 years old when Pat told me that story, I had just spent 3.5 years in the Navy, skied four days in a row at Badger Pass in Yosemite, had access to my old bedroom at my parent’s house and as my two sisters had gotten married I had the use of their car. Six months later when I got mustered out of the Navy I took advantage of all of those things.
I skied and filmed quite a few mountains before they became ski resorts. Most of those ski trips and most of my life I have had good luck on my shoulder wherever I went.
The last time I heard from Pat Gould he had quit skiing and was holding court on weekends at the Heiliger Huegal ski club rope tow hill near Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
My hope is for you to have as many adventures as have I.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)