“There are readers who have sold their home in a big city and went to a ski resort for their lifetime career. They used to be called Ski Bums … I think they are people of courage to follow their convictions.”
The world is a different place every night when I get into bed. In 1946, the ski world was a place that few people in the world would recognize today. America had less than 16 chairlifts in the entire country as 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?” and with a few cartons full of books, Ward and I headed for the only two chairlifts in Utah at the time, at Alta. Alta was usually one of the first ski resorts in the U.S. to have chairlifts running in early November.
Statistically, here is what ski country looked like if you wanted to ride a chairlift. California had two of them, one at the Sugar Bowl in Northern California and another one at Mount Waterman, less than 50 miles from the L.A. City Hall. Oregon had one chairlift at Timberline, near Portland; Idaho had three on Baldy and one on Dollar Mount; Wyoming had a small one on Storm King Mountain in the suburbs of Jackson Hole; Colorado did not have a single chairlift, so you would have to drive to Mount Tremblant out of Montreal, Canada, to get to the next one. I believe that Mad River Glen and Stowe each had one, but then I’m not quite sure.
At one time or another, 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 and as high as $4, but a Coca Cola in those days only cost 5 cents unless you bought at the top of the mountain, and then 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 cannot 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 career. They used to be called Ski Bums and probably still are today. Instead, I think they are people of courage to follow their 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 and not have to wait for the storms to come.
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 more than 30,000 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.
I was 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 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 and 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 did grow up in a dysfunctional family and so I never learned a 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 can if all you want to do is make turns on your skis or snowboard every day. 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 every morning. Sounds like a good deal to me.
If I had it to do over, I know I would not do anything differently. Ward Baker and I managed to ski seven days a week for two winters and earned money during the summer to do that. Were we the pioneers? I don’t think so. We were just lucky because they had not invented wet suits by then and riding surfboards in January was way too cold in Southern California.
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.