November 26, 2012 | Back to: News

Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Skiing's come a long way

In 1946, the ski world was a completely different place, one that few people would recognize today. America had less than 15 chairlifts when Ward Baker and I started for Alta in mid-November of that year.

I was six months out of the Navy after four years in the service. I had saved enough money to publish my first cartoon book, "Are My Skis on Straight?" With a few cartons full of books, Ward and I headed for the only two chairlifts in Utah at the time - at Alta.

Here is what ski country looked like if you wanted to ride a chairlift back then:

* California had two, one at the Sugar Bowl in Northern California and another one at Mt. Waterman, less than 50 miles from Los Angeles City Hall.

* Oregon had one chairlift at Timberline, near Portland.

* Idaho had three on Baldy and one on Dollar Mountain.

* Wyoming had a small lift on Storm King Mountain, in the suburbs of Jackson Hole.

* Colorado did not have a single chairlift, so you would have to drive all the way to Mount Tremblant, outside of Montreal, to get to the next one. I believe that Mad River Glen and Stowe each had one, but then again, I'm not quite sure.

My skis and cameras captured images of them as the ski industry grew in the 1950s and '60s. It is easy to talk about all-day chairlift tickets only costing $2.50 to $4, but a Coca-Cola in those days only cost 5 cents, unless you bought at the top of the mountain, in which case it was 10 cents.

The thing that is impossible to put a price tag on is how it felt to ski in those days. You can't put a price tag on how it feels today either.

There are readers who have sold their home in a big city, and gone to a ski resort for their lifetime careers. They used to be called ski bums, and probably still are today.

But I think they are people of courage to follow their own convictions, depending on the job they select. They have become snow farmers, living and dying financially by what falls from the sky. That, of course, all changed when someone figured out a way to make the snow come out of a hose, instead of waiting for the storms to come, and having the snow fall in the form of rain instead.

Today, I talked with Elaine Kelton, who has written a good book about the women who came to Vail in the early days.

They came as single women for the most part ,and settled down and married and raised their families at the base of Vail Mountain. That first winter they had a gondola and two chairlifts.

Today, Vail Valley has over 40,000 people living there. It is the size of Bozeman, Mont. And, of course, everyone there, in one way or another, is completely dependent on how much snow falls out of the sky.

On any given Saturday or Sunday, Vail has more skiers in one day than the entire United States used to have on a Saturday or Sunday during the winter of 1946-47.

I could almost draw a comparison of skiing to drug or alcohol addiction. Just give me that person for one blue sky day, a skiff of powder snow on a groomed run, a chairlift ticket and a good ski instructor, and they will be hooked for life.

Be careful because that first day will change your life forever - for the better, I believe. In fact, the greatest sales tool that the ski industry has is a skier who takes a friend to the mountains and exposes them to greatest freedom known to man!

I was very lucky because those four years in the Navy allowed me to save enough money to pay my expenses that first winter of skiing. Remember, my lifestyle was very minimal in those days.

When I skied that winter in Sun Valley, a lot of the employees were from Omaha, Neb., the site of the Union Pacific headquarters. People got a round-trip ticket to Sun Valley, room and board and $125 a month.

A lot of them never cashed in their return trip.

I was fortunate in one respect that I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and so I never learned about work ethic. When I went skiing, I just went skiing and lived by my wits, which seemed to be enough in those days.

Could you do the same thing today? I believe you could, if all you want to do is make turns on your skis or snowboard everyday. The formula is simple but requires some sacrifice.

First, you have to earn enough money to buy a van or a pickup truck and a camper for the back. Then you have to get a nighttime job of some kind. That should be in a restaurant where you get dinner, along with your wages and a season lift ticket that you pay cash for, and the restaurant reimburses you if you work all winter.

There are plenty of places within a mile or so of most chairlifts where you can park a van every night. If you are lucky, you might even find someone who will let you plug your electric blanket into their electricity at night in exchange for keeping their driveway plowed out every morning. Sounds like a good deal to me.

If I had to do it over again, I know I would not do anything differently. Ward Baker and I managed to ski seven days a week for two winters and got money ahead during the summer to do that.

Were we the pioneers? I don't think so. We were just lucky because they had not invented wetsuits by then, and riding surfboards in January was way too cold in Southern California - particularly when you can see the San Bernardino Mountains covered with snow as you are driving down the street with your 100 pound redwood surfboard in the back of your car. Or you wanted to go golfing, but it was raining ... making that great snow in the mountains.

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller's stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Nov 26, 2012 04:38PM Published Nov 26, 2012 04:37PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.