Originally published in October, 2004 issue of SKI Magazine
It's the spring of 1947 in Aspen. In search of freedom, we're riding one of the only two chairlifts in Colorado. Freidle Pfeiffer had recently bought 10 Victorian houses in town. For $100-or $10 each. Ski-town real estate was cheap back then. But, then again, so were most of us, largely because we didn't have any money. In those days, Ward Baker and I slept in parking lots, making 8-mm movies of our wanderings from Mt. Waterman near Los Angeles to Pikes Peak, Colo.-and every resort in between that had a ski lift of any kind. That year, there were fewer than 15 chairlifts in North America.
By the fall of 1949, Squaw Valley had just built the third chairlift in California, and I was one of four ski instructors there. On a busy day, we would each have a pupil. When I didn't have a pupil, I would run my new 16-mm movie camera, filming my first feature-length ski movie. Showing that first movie turned out to be a problem. The first nine ski clubs I tried to get to sponsor it said, "The photography is great and we would like to support your movie, but only if you get someone else to narrate it."
October marks my 80th birthday. Sixty-eight winters of skiing. Fifty-five years of making films. I never could afford to hire a narrator, so I still do it myself.
After spending most of my life on snow, a lot of things stand out: the invention of the double chairlift, the metal ski, the plastic ski boot, man-made snow, groomed ski runs. But what did the most to make skiing popular? Probably Maria Bogner's stretch pants. She put sex into skiing in the late 1940s, and men followed those stretch pants by the tens of thousands. They still do.
Was skiing different in 1947? Not really. You still could only make one turn at a time. Granted, it was a lot more difficult to ski with the equipment we had. Leather boots were soft and, if you were lucky, they came all the way up to your ankle bone. My skis were made of stiff, laminated hickory. They were seven-feet, six-inches long and cost $19.95. We didn't know that we weren't supposed to be cold, because there was no such thing as waterproof ski clothes.
In 1947, you could ski Sun Valley in untracked powder snow from one storm to the next. That was because the single chairlifts only hauled 426 people per hour to the top of Baldy. It was like having your own private ski area. We never realized how good we had it. Or maybe we did subconsciously—except we didn't know what "subconsciously" meant.
Skiing was a bit more advanced in Europe. During your trip to Zurs, Austria, Martin Strolz would come to your hotel from Lech, measure your feet and hand-make a pair of leather ski boots. He'd have them finished by the time you skied down to Lech the next afternoon. Or he would bring them to your hotel if you didn't pick them up. He'd charge you $22.
That run from Zurs to Lech is still one that you should put on your must-do list. Enjoying a late afternoon après tea and then a taxi ride back up to the Hotel Lorenser in Zurs was one of the best experiences in skiing back then—and still is today.
No matter the changes since 1947, you can still find your freedom on a pair of skis-or, today, on a snowboard. And you still can only make one turn at a time.