I was lucky to witness the growth of skiing from less than 15 chairlifts in America to more than 400 ski resorts in America today. It is important to note, however, that less than 30 years ago, there were just more than 1,200 ski areas, but with insurance and federal regulations, many of them had to close.
Those were the areas I called kindergartens of skiing as those little mom and pop areas where nearly all of us learned to ski. We’d come up with our sack lunches and rapidly cooling cocoa in Thermos. Many, many more families skied back then and with hand-me downs and sack lunches, they could.
“We quickly decided that the food was bad, skiing was terrible and there were a lot better ski resorts to go to.”
I got to ski at many of them before their first chairlift was put in. Others I filmed their first winter of operation and others I just read about until I could get there with my camera and document its beginnings.
When I skied at Badger Pass in Yosemite in 1946 I met a young ski racer whose father was the president of the bank in Merced. He had bought the U.S. Forest Service lease for what became the Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff. He offered me a job running one of the two rope tows and I could live at the Snowbowl and go to school nearby.
I dragged my surfing and skiing buddy, Ward Baker, along on this adventure that only lasted about two weeks. It turned out that hill that the two rope tows were on were flat. The accommodations were good but the owners cooked our meals and it was potatoes three meals a day.
We quickly decided that the food was bad, skiing was terrible and there were a lot better ski resorts to go to.
We skied in Aspen the first winter their chairlift was running. Lift tickets were $4 a day and vacant lots as low as $10 each. It was near the end of the season and we were out of cash to buy a lift ticket so we had to climb the mountain so buying real estate never entered our minds, which, of course, was another mistake.
In the 1950s and 60s, I was lucky enough to be hired to take movies at quite a few potential ski resorts and take most of my payment in real estate. I priced the real estate at just what the developer had paid for it originally. Those resorts included Alpenetal, Alpine Meadows, Telluride, plus many other resorts in the East, to raise money for their expansion.
More often than not I divided my film into two versions. One segment for my feature-length ski film and the other segment into a 10- or 15-minute commercial film for television or ski clubs showing anywhere they could get the film on the screen in front of viewers.
This offered a lot of opportunities, of course. The first year Vail was operational, I could have bought a $10,000 vacant lot right in the middle of the village. You received two free lifetime lift passes with the lot. That would be hard to figure a price on today.
Some of those early ski resorts were built on mountains that tested skiers of the 1930s and early 40s, but today are hardly a beginning ski area because of new equipment, ski technique development and the skiers search for more freedom.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service and the tree huggers have most of the land in America tied up so that in my lifetime I will not see another major ski resort built.
I took my first ski photo in 1940 with a black and white plastic camera. Starting in November 1949, I produced 55 feature-length ski films that were exhibited worldwide and about 600 other films for marketing purposes for different clients. Almost every year I heard about a new ski resort somewhere, so I would try to include it in a subsequent film. By the time I retired, it was just a matter of selecting which resorts to film because of what was new and excitingly different about them. After all, skiers can only do two or three things on skis or a snowboard. They can turn right, turn left or go straight. Well, maybe four things; you can sell them. I did my best to expose the scenery, the culture and the special reasons for my viewers to visit that particular resort because it offered a lot of other things besides just turning right and left.
Almost any job that you do in a city is available today at the bigger ski resorts. The obvious jobs are just not limited to lift loading, ski patrolling and teaching skiing anymore. But there are many other positions where people are in offices running computers, doing the marketing, doing the accounting for many small businesses that cook the food or shovel the snow, etc. The list is endless. Even at our small resort at the Yellowstone Club we have 750 employees.
In 1936, when Sun Valley, Idaho, opened it set the standard for destination ski resorts in North America for all time.
No matter where I traveled in all those years, I always compared the resort I was filming with Sun Valley and Sun Valley always came out on top.
We need to get the kindergarten ski areas back in operation; all we need to have is a chairlift with a lunchroom in which to eat sack lunches.
Warren Miller is history’s most prolific and enduring ski filmmaker. Visit warrenmiller.net or his Facebook page at facebook.com/warrenmiller. Read more of Warren’s stories at TheTahoeWeekly.com.