News from the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame that Warren Miller had died on Jan. 24 triggered a string of memories, mostly of times when I was fortunate enough to meet him and actually ski with him.
The first time was in the early 80s, on a trip to Vail. A friend and fellow ski writer, Craig Altschul had moved into the marketing position at the resort and, realizing how beneficial having the world’s preeminent ski filmmaker headquartered there, had Miller spending most of the season at Vail. He also knew how important the eastern skier market was to his company so he immediately started bringing ski writers from the East to Vail.
At the time, I was also doing TV ski reports for Channel 8, so Craig arranged a taped interview with Miller. He was as interesting as his narratives that went along with his films and the response I remember most came after my question, “After 38 straight years of producing a new ski film every year how do you maintain your enthusiasm?”
He answered: “It’s simple, I look at life through the eyes of a 14 year old.”
That probably sums up a lot of us who have built our lives around skiing, but it was especially significant coming from someone who, after serving in the Navy during World War II, teamed with a friend, bought an eight foot house-trailer and headed for Sun Valley. Miller told the story of that winter in his book, “Wine, Women, Warren, and Skis.” I read the signed copy he gave me on the plane home, and got an even greater understanding of the legendary ski filmmaker. He was not only gifted storyteller, but an equally gifted cartoonist. If you can find a copy, it’s a fun read.
On another trip to Vail I watched as Miller not only filmed a special event, he created it. This was the “Look Ma” slalom. The debate over who the world’s best skiers are has been ongoing since skiers first began competing. The locals who challenge the bumps and back bowls at Vail consider themselves to be the best. To answer the question Miller invited hot local skiers to take on a couple of pro ski racers in the “Look Ma” slalom. Any skier who has enjoyed a beverage sitting in front of the giant lodge at Mid Vail while watching skiers challenge those bumps remembers the steep face that towers above. That famed pitch is called “Look Ma.”
Skiing those big, ugly bumps on that steep pitch is enough of a challenge. Warren had gates set and one by one skiers fought to make all the gates. Most failed miserably, either crashing or skiing out of the course. There were two exceptions — brothers Edvin and Jarle Halsnes. They had dominated Ed Rogers’ pro tour and this day was no different. They carved turns down through the moguls, and made all the gates. Jarle won one run, and Edvin the other.
Another memorable trip included not only Miller, but Stein Eriksen. We were in Norway to tour the venues for the Lillehammer Olympics a year before the games. At Hafjell, site of the women’s gate races, Stein and Warren were filmed as they descended one of the runs side by side. Now, Miller was a fine skier — you have to be to ski with those very expensive cameras. But no skier should have to ski beside Stein and be compared with one of the most elegant skiers in the World. Miller accepted the challenge, and the two looked good coming down the run.
Tuesday morning, I was at Shawnee Peak and GM Ralph Lewis and I talked about Miller and his films, especially the one that featured a segment at Pleasant Mountain. Lewis, who grew up skiing Pleasant Mountain, was there when the segment was filmed. Rudi Wyrsch, called the Clown Prince of Skiing, was directing the ski school at the time and performed for the filming. Ralph remembered how he jumped, landing high up in a pine tree. Wyrsch also did his famous stilt skiing, and Miller used a lot of footage of beginner skiers struggling to get their skis up to the lifts, all narrated with Miller’s sense of humor and in his distinctive voice.
I can’t identify the year that piece was used, but pieces of it may be in other Miller films. The key to these memories is the influence Miller had on our sport. For more than 60 years his films were shown everywhere, especially as kickoff events for ski seasons. Because he showcased the sport in ways that entertained skiers and non-skiers alike, he introduced countless numbers to skiing. One of his films featured the Heavyweight Championships at Sugarloaf. Whether it was a giant resort such as Vail or a local area like Pleasant Mountain, he found ways to make it exciting and entertaining.
He also led the way for other ski film makers to follow, such as our own Greg Stump. Most skiers haven’t had the good fortune to meet and ski with him, but can there be any skiers out there who have never felt the excitement of a coming ski season while watching his newest film?
In his own words: See you next year, only from a different mountain top.