Warren Miller was the tip of a spear tossed into North America after WWII. A spear creating what we now call the “ski industry.” For Warren and all those riding in on the shaft, skiing was never an industry.
Skiing was a passion.
In WWII a select group of troops trained at Camp Hale in the high Colorado mountains outside of Leadville. From Camp Hale they skied through passes opening into new valleys and across the surrounding mountains. The troops-in-training marveled at the ski terrain and the consistent deep snow of the high mountains. After the war, these 10th Mountain Division veterans returned with investors, a love for skiing and started what is now the heart of North American skiing—Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain and a host of other smaller areas in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming. What originally was a community sport practiced on small local hills became a national destination sport for families.
Warren started skiing in the mountains of Southern California. At every chance he tossed his skis in his car or a friend’s and they headed for the snow. Ironically, while the 10th Mountain troops skied the mountains of Colorado, Warren spent WWII looking for submarines. After the war, he again headed for the mountains. This time with a movie camera.
As they say, the rest is history.
His first movies took people into mountains with seemingly impossible steeps ripped by skiers without hesitation. Huge cliffs dropped with casual ease. There was always a pile up at the top of the beginners lift with a frustrated liftie trying to create some semblance of order. In the first years, Warren sat at a little desk on the left of the stage with a gooseneck light on his script. The lights dimmed. The movie started. Warren started the tape of the sound track and began reading his script. Well, sort of reading his script. The script was a loose guide. The words were always Warren in the moment remembering the shoots.
As technology (and money) developed, the soundtrack became part of the movie and eventually Warren’s voice over became fixed on the movie. With all the progress, the passion and the casual nature of the film never varied. Never wavered.
The winter of 1970-71, I lived in Vail and worked at Gorsuch Ltd, then and today one of the finest ski shops on the continent. Just after Christmas a girl walked in and handed in her resume. The girl was tall. From Miami, Sonja carried herself with the sultry Cubano nature of the women in Miami Vice and CSI Miami. She’d never skied. In Miami, she worked in fashion retail and modeled. Gorsuch slotted her into the schedule before Sonja walked back out the door.
Earlier that Autumn, Sonja went to the Warren Miller movie screening in Miami with a couple of skiing friends. Part of that movie was filmed in Vail. After a couple weeks of questioning life, she sold everything that didn’t fit in her car and drove to Vail.
Over that winter, I got to know her well. The first snow she ever saw was in Georgetown, on the east side of Loveland Pass. (This was before the tunnel.) She pulled off the road, got out of her car to feel the snow and then got back in and headed over that twisty pass and Vail pass (equally twisty then) to reach Vail.
She had a tough start skiing. In short order, she was following me onto the upper lifts. By April, she skied anything on the mountain. Anything. Not fast, but beautifully and in control.
Warren changed her life. A found passion, all from one of Warren’s movies.
Over twenty-five years later, I’m in Vail covering the World Cup GS and Slalom. The Vail Hospital built a new orthopedic wing. The dedication was one evening during the races. It was who’s who of skiing and sport. Martina Navratilova was there to show how the mobile slope worked. Ski team members showed off scars. Warren was there. His first book just released, Warren donated all the proceeds from sales that night to the new wing.
Sure, the 10th Mountain veterans brought New York and California money to the mountains and built the lifts, but Warren brought the people. He was the original dirt bag ski bum living in his pickup camper in ski area parking lots. Scamming lift tickets. Taking movies and skiing. And then going on the road with spreading his passion for all to see; couch surfing or sleeping in his camper.
After his movies, we followed him like the Pied Piper back into the mountains and found a new passion, a passion that changed our lives and lasted a lifetime.
Wednesday January 24, Warren died at his home on Orcas Island. He was 93. He is the example of what one person can do with passion. Change the lives of everyone they touch. Warren was that person.
Next time you ski, stop at the top of a run. Any run. Stand for a second, take a deep breath and say out loud, “Warren, this one’s for you.”
Read Warren Miller’s Journal on skitheworld.com