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Ski Resort Life

Cathedral of the Gods

Warren spent most of his life sharing skiing with the world, but there was one time he kept a secret to himself.

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Originally published in the December 2003 issue of SKI Magazine.

At 7 a.m., a few years back, I arrived at the helicopter pad with our guide, three skiers from Idaho and my cameraman. The pilot did whatever pilots do with the controls, the tail lifted up, and we clawed our way into the cold thin air of the Alps.

Warren Miller
Warren Miller, master skier and person who knows how to keep a secret.

Since I was paying for everyone’s ride, I got to sit in the front seat, to the left of the pilot, with my movie camera running. In the back seat sat our Zermatt guide, Ricky Andermatten, my cameraman, Don Brolin, and skiers Bob Hamilton, Pat Bowman and John Reveal.

As the magic machine climbed toward Theodel Pass, which leads from Zermatt to Italy, the sun was etching beautiful, angular shadows across the untracked snow and glacial ice fields, which in places are more than 1,000 feet deep. To our right, the Matterhorn assumed its rightful role as the throne in this vast world of peaks and snow.

Barely 15 minutes after we left, we landed gently in deep powder on Italy’s Monte Rosa. During the next six hours, Bob, Pat and John leapt over crevasses, rappelled down ice blocks and carved endless turns in untracked powder.

Don and I were filming all this. About 2 p.m., Ricky said, “Follow me, but be sure to stay in my tracks. He then disappeared down a slope that led right into a crevasse. We timidly followed him.

At the bottom of the slope, everyone was standing in silent awe. Except for me: I was scared to death. As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness, I became even more frightened. We were standing inside the beginning of a half-mile-long, 120-foot-wide, 60-foot-high tunnel of ice. Beside us, a 30-foot-wide, three-foot-deep river of pale gray-green, almost white, water rushed noisily by.

Overhead, the massive ice of the glacier leaned together, forming a true Cathedral of the Gods. The slanting ice walls were 40 or 50 feet high and had been undercut along their base by the river.

Ricky was the only one who wasn’t scared when he said, “Ski along this ice ledge by the river. It’s about a meter wide. Be sure not to slip and fall into the river. If you do, you’ll get sucked under the ice and drown before I can rescue you.

This seemed like an appropriate time to ask Ricky a logical question: “What makes you think this ice won’t cave in on us while we’re down here?

He had a logical answer: “Warren, what makes you think it will?

As I inched slowly along on the black ice ledge, I was spellbound by the hanging icicles, the dripping water, the pale, ghostly water rushing by. I was scared by the occasional rumble and thunderous explosions coming from the movement of some massive ice block in the vast glacier.

About half a mile later we emerged into the brilliant light at the end of this unbelievable ice canyon—more beautiful and, to me, more religious than any of the cathedrals I have visited in my lifetime of world travel.

The helicopter had returned earlier, so now we had to hurry to catch the last gondola back to the village. Ricky, John, Pat and Bob quickly skied away from Don and me, as we were laden down with 50 pounds of cameras and tripods. I was lurching along when a flash of light caught my eye way off in the distance.

I stopped and was barely able to make out two tiny dots carving figure eights in the late-afternoon corn snow. They were headed for one of the mountain huts to spend the night.

It was a beautiful sight. So I took off my rucksack, unhitched my tripod, set it up, got out my camera, mounted it, hooked up the battery belt, spun the prism so I could see through the viewfinder, focused the lens and then zoomed it to the maximum focal length.

What I saw through the lens was truly unbelievable: The tracks they were leaving in the backlit corn snow were almost black. As I was reaching for the switch on my camera, a thought occurred to me: I’ve been recording scenes like this since 1949 and sharing them with millions of people. Why not save this one for me?

So I didn’t turn on my camera. I just watched those two skiers make 109 turns while my own party traversed ahead. If I missed the last gondola, so be it.

No one will ever see that beautiful scene. Nor will anyone ever see any pictures of the interior of my own private ice cathedral.

I never did turn my camera on.

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