In 1960, two years before Vail opened with one gondola, two chairlifts and a Poma lift, I rode to the where Chair 4 ends with Pete Siebert in some sort of an Army surplus, over-the-snow vehicle.
He was able to drive to an advantage point where I got my first view of the now-famous Back Bowls. There were no ski lifts, no ski tracks just an awesome potential for my movie camera.
“I never had a good night of sleep when I knew I would be filming
in powder snow the next day, always worrying that I wouldn’t be the first one on the lift.”
While we were doing this, a small group of investors were trying to raise the necessary money to build the first lifts, the hotel and small subdivision.
When I showed up the following year with my camera, the 42-room hotel was finished, the gondola was running, as was a chairlift to the top and a chairlift down into the back bowls and few skiers.
Every member of the small staff was busy working so they couldn’t ski for my camera, so I got a hold of a friend of mine, Bob Smith, who later invented Smith goggles, when I found out he was staying in Aspen. I talked him into driving to Vail to ski for me and he commuted for four or five days because there were no beds available in Vail at that time.
Since those early days, Vail has grown into almost the largest ski resort in America with weekend crowds sometimes in excess of 25,000 skiers and snowboarders on the hill at the same time. Unfortunately, some unanticipated consequences have come from the development of this great ski resort.
The 100-mile drive to Denver normally takes an hour and a half, but on a Saturday or Sunday night, according to what my friends tell me, it sometimes takes them as long as 7 to 12 hours on a four-lane freeway to get back home.
At the bottom of the mountain at Vail, to ski back to the town is a steep pitch called Pepi’s Face where the snow used to get skied off quickly. As a result, people would stop on the highway, see that steep face with dirt showing, figure the whole mountain was that way and then they would drive on to Aspen instead of stopping and going up and skiing in the back bowls.
The first time I filmed in those back bowls there were so few skiers that I got five days of untracked powder to introduce Vail to all the people that would see my next movie.
Vacant lots were selling for $10,000 and you got two free lifetime lift passes, as well. I don’t have the slightest idea what one of those lots is worth today, but I made a major mistake by not buying one. I think the reason I didn’t buy one as they had a codicil to the deed that you had to start construction within one year, which I found out later was illegal. In those early days of filmmaking, I didn’t know where my next rolls of Kodachrome would come from and quite often I paid cash for them from a pass-the-hat show the night before. Yes, I would have been smart to have purchased one of those lots but $10,000 back then to me was more like $10 million today.
Years later in 1984, when Laurie and I met, we spent some time skiing at Vail and before I knew it I bought a piece of property, built a house, got married and lived there for 12 years. I never had a bad day of snow, but then I never do wherever I go.
That first winter of 1962, my kids went to ski school on Gold Peak riding on the short Poma lift. At the same time, I was filming Bob Smith and anyone else I could get to ski for me, with my son, Scott, tagging along behind me kick turning and traversing and kick turning to get away and get those long shots that used to sell skiing so effectively.
Two facts that I do know are I never had a bad day of filming in my life and I never had a good night of sleep when I knew I would be filming in powder snow the next day, always worrying that I wouldn’t be the first one on the lift.
People often ask me what was my favorite place to film?
I think my favorite place was wherever I had sunshine and powder snow on the north-facing slopes, so the skiers could be backlit with the powder snow floating up behind them; intoxicating footage.
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.