It was 23 below zero when we left the gasoline station in Shoshone, Idaho. Our 10-year-old derelict, convertible Buick was as cold inside as it was outside. North of Shoshone the ribbon of ice-covered, narrow asphalt dissected the stark lava beds on each side of it.
On the advice of two pretty women we met skiing at Alta, Utah, who had told us of the steaming hot water around swimming pools at Sun Valley, we packed up our trailer and headed for those swimming pools. We needed to warm our bones.
Later that afternoon, we discovered that Ketchum had more gambling casinos than any other type of business on Main Street. In one of the few businesses that were open in the middle of the afternoon. The owner told us that the best place to park our trailer and car in Sun Valley would be in the Challenger Inn parking lot and to make sure it is as far east and under the trees as we could hide it.
“I had a lift ticket fastened to my belt and as I hunkered down under the canvas cover on the single chairlift as it glided over the Big Wood River, steaming in the way-below-zero, crystal-clear morning, it was a new day to carve new turns on the side of Baldy.”
The first thing we both wanted to do was to hunker down in one of the round swimming pools. This was our first experience in what would later be called a hot tub that could handle about 75 or 100 people at one at the same time. This was our first experience pretending to be a guest to the staff and subsequently, pretending to be staff to the guests … a ruse that got us through that winter swimmingly. (Ok, I couldn’t resist that.)
We soon found out that the big yellow buses were free, so we took one to the River Run chairlift the next morning. There was no lift on Warm Springs in those days, in fact that wasn’t developed until the mid-1960s. Since we didn’t have lift tickets yet we put seal-skins on our skis and skinned up River Run. At the top of that run, we discovered that they didn’t check lift tickets on the upper two lifts so we had our first day of many skiing at Sun Valley at no charge.
Rather than get in trouble with Sun Valley management, Ward Baker and I went to the manager’s office the next day. Pappy Rogers thought we would be the basis for good folklore conversation around the Valley (local color), if we just hung around for the winter so he gave us free season-long lift tickets. He cautioned us to act like paying customers but we could do anything legal we wanted to do on his property.
Thus began my 60-year love affair with Sun Valley. Ward and I spent that winter skiing seven days a week, swimming in the hot water pools frequently, and in general just obeying Pappy Rogers’ orders to behave as though we were living in the Lodge. (In retrospect, I realize we didn’t look like we did, however.)
We were living in our 8-foot long, 4-foot wide teardrop trailer with the outside kitchen, tucked back in the corner next to the irrigation ditch and only a 50-yard walk from the showers in the Skier’s Chalet.
In the winter of 1947, you could rent a bunk bed in the Skier’s Chalet for $2 a night. The Union Pacific Railroad that owned Sun Valley at the time was advertising a Learn-to-Ski-Week that included a train ride from Chicago and return, three meals a day, six days of ski lessons, seven days of lift tickets and a bed in the Skier’s Chalet for $83. I don’t think Ward Baker and I spent a total of $83 that entire winter. We had figured out that if we lived in the trailer we could ski all winter long but if we paid normal room and board we would probably only have enough money for about a week or two.
During that winter, almost every day was a new experience to us. Many of those experiences I have written about in my book that I wrote first in 1957 called “Wine, Women, Warren and Skis.” It’s full of cartoons and lots of photographs that prove we really did what I have written about.
As my skiing improved over the winter, I gradually discovered that my main motivation in life was my constant search for freedom. I don’t know if I could have put it into words back then but nowhere that I know of do you have more freedom than when you’re standing at the top of an untracked powder-snow hill.
I had a lift ticket fastened to my belt and as I hunkered down under the canvas cover on the single chairlift as it glided over the Big Wood River, steaming in the way-below-zero, crystal-clear morning, it was a new day to carve new turns on the side of Baldy.
I’m grateful to Sun Valley for opening up a new world for both Ward and me in 1947 and then again in 1984 when I met my wife on top of Baldy at the Warming Hut and we’ve been inseparable ever since.
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.