Warren Miller: Skiing dirt in the fall and corn in the spring
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
For more than 50 years, before the invention of instant communications except by telephone or telegraph, I made a lot of long-distance phone calls in the fall and winter, trying to find where the snow had fallen deep enough to start on my next ski movie. Even before the invention of snow compaction and snow-making machines, the ski resorts slowly learned to cut the trees right down at the ground when they were cutting a new trail so it could be skied with less than a foot of snow.
Big Bromley, for example, offered free lift tickets to anyone who wanted to join their rock-gathering weekends in the fall. People from ski clubs would organize a weekend of cleaning rocks over half an inch in any dimension from the grassy, not-very-steep ski runs, so that eventually they could operate on frozen grass and the first two inches of snow that fell. In exchange for a few hours of rock-picking, the rock-pickers would earn credit toward their lift tickets when it snowed that first two inches.
Then when the Tucker snow cat was invented, resorts all bought at least one to pack down the snow before it got all skied down to dirt, which would force them to close down until the next snowstorm.
The classic case of dirt on a ski run was at Vail in the first few years. At the bottom of the mountain there is a run now called Pepsi’s Face (used to be called the Slide for Life). Today that part of the mountain has become covered with $14 million ski-in, ski-out condominiums and is no longer skiable for that reason. Back in those early days when Vail didn’t even have a parking lot, the snow would quickly get skied off the face. People would pull off of the highway and that dirt-flecked run seemed to indicate that the skiing was not very good. The carloads of people who would have bought $4 lift tickets pulled back onto the highway and continued to Aspen without ever seeing or skiing the Back Bowls. They missed so much.
Laurie and I were really lucky when we lived on a dead-end street in Vail where we could walk about 150 feet and put on our skis and coast down to the Lionshead gondola. On some days when the powder was good and everyone was racing to get one run in the back bowls and then wait a half-hour or more in the lift line, we would just make endless runs in Lionshead in the untracked powder with almost no other people. We usually managed to ski until we were so tired we had to coast back to our house and take a nap at about 3 p.m. Just one of the many secrets Laurie and I have shared with a few closed-mouth friends. Unfortunately for all of us, the Vail ski school got to cut up the snow for an hour before we could get a whack at it, but they couldn’t wreck it all because we had a secret monopoly on lots of stashes.
After all, skiing is about searching for freedom. I was lucky I had it that first winter Vail was open and some days when we were the only people making tracks in the Back Bowls – myself, my camera and my skiers. Vail went out on a limb a couple of times for me and said there was too much avalanche danger in the Back Bowls, so we really had it to ourselves.
Somewhere buried in an unlabeled film vault are all of the great shots of Pete Siebert, Christie Hill, Dick Hauserman, Pepi Gramshammer, Dave Gorsuch and Bob Smith. Bob invented the ski goggles that let us all ski regardless of the weather.
Now, good weather or bad, when the Pisten Bullies roll out of the Vail garage for another eight-hour shift of grooming, there are almost 40 of them that cost more than $300,000 each to buy and about $100 an hour to operate, so that you folks who complain about the cost of a lift ticket can have yet another day of total freedom.
I try to educate people to spend their discretionary time later in the spring instead of early in the fall. Corn snow is still one of my favorites!
Some of the California resorts closed in April, even though there is still 30 feet of snow on their hills and it is superb. An inch of corn snow on top of that 29-foot-deep snowpack. What is not to like about that?
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Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.