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The legendary Warren Miller and SKI Magazine share a long history, including a monthly column entitled “Warren’s World,” which ran in print from 2000 to 2011. We’ll be re-running this column online every week, starting from the beginning. “Travels With Jean-Claude” was originally published in the September 2000 issue of SKI Magazine.
After the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, my film company won the rights to produce a TV series featuring triple gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy. The detailed itinerary called for us to visit a different country or ski resort every week for 13 weeks. So much for well-laid plans.
Our first stop was Mt. Ruapehu on the North Island of New Zealand, where we sat in the rain for three weeks while I began to contemplate how much money I was losing. We finally got enough film in the can by skiing on a nearby active volcano that was blowing up every afternoon between 3:30 and 4. Then we chartered a DC-3 for a bumpy ride to the South Island to film the 12-mile run down the Tasman Glacier on 12,349-foot Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. The DC-3 landed on a field that was no more than a flat strip of grass; the Mt. Cook Airline terminal consisted of a fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit in a wooden box nailed to a four-by-four post.
An hour later, as we drove toward the Mt. Cook Hotel, the scenery was shrouded in low-hanging clouds. When you can see the Southern Alps, they are a rugged range of snow and glacier-covered mountains larger than the Swiss, Austrian, Italian and French alps combined. The wind and rain beat incessantly against the underpowered and overloaded van as we slowly gained altitude. Ten minutes later, wet sticky snow forced the ancient windshield wipers to grind to a halt.
The New Zealand weather, never predictable, again refused to cooperate with our tight production schedule. With 17 people in our crew, the Killy TV series was already way over budget because of the North Island debacle. For five days we waited out the rain and sleet at the Mt. Cook Hotel, where we had to wear coats and ties to lunch and dinner. After dinner on the fifth night, I took a long dejected walk, by now breaking down how much money I was losing per hour. It had been 18 years since I borrowed $100 each from four friends to start my film business. Now I was completely dependent on my client to take care of the weather contingencies and I was scared.
It was then that the weather finally began to clear. By the time I returned to the hotel, the Southern Cross was shining brightly in the middle of a spectacular canopy of stars. I started to get excited. Maybe tomorrow would be the day.
I had hired a small three-seat Bell Helicopter that was piloted by a bounty hunter named Mel Cain. The first time we met he flew his helicopter right through the open doors of an airplane hangar where we were cleaning our camera gear. At the time, an out-of-control deer population in New Zealand was devouring all the natural grasses, which in turn created serious erosion. Government officials were offering a bounty of $3 a tail, and Mel had bagged 900 in the last month alone. I knew that the Tasman Glacier was out of bounds for helicopter landings, but Mel assured us that he had permission to land anywhere he wanted in Mt. Cook National Park.
Since the Bell only carried two passengers at a time, I flew up first with Killy. My other cameraman, Don Brolin, came up on the second flight with Leo Lacroix, Killy’s teammate on the French National Team and a champion skier in his own right. Sometimes Mel let us out on slopes that were so steep he had to anchor the landing gear in snow while the helicopter was still hovering. We would then climb out on the skid in our ski boots, inch our way along it and attempt to gently step off into the hip deep powder snow. Then we would ski the length of the glacier in a foot or two of untracked powder, past 100-foot-deep crevasses and 70-foot-high cobalt blue ice blocks that looked as though they could tumble over at any time.
We lost all track of time while setting up and completing each shot of the two best skiers in the world. Collectively, the four of us had more adrenaline pumping that day than most people generate in a lifetime. It seemed as if only an hour had passed when the light began to fadee into evening. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, yet it was suddenly getting dark. The sun had gone down, the day was over, and we couldn’t get any more powder shots.
It was then that Mel spoke up. “It’s already too late to fly you out in pairs. It’ll be pitch black by the time I can get back up here, and I won’t be able to find the other two. “His solution to the problem seemed simple at first. “Two of you can ride inside the helicopter and the other two can ride on the outside, tied to the landing gear.” This meant flying a three-seater with five people, plus four pairs of skis and more than 100 pounds of camera equipment. That’s a heavy load for taking off from the side of a mountain at 10,000 feet.
Mel suggested flipping a coin to determine who got to ride inside and who had to ride outside, but I reminded the group that I owned the film company. “The three of you can flip to see who rides on the outside.”
Don “won” and prepared to hop inside while Killy and Lacroix bravely faced their fate. We tied two pairs of skis with the bindings down on each of the landing skids to create two platforms. We then tied Killy and Lacroix on these platforms like a couple of tagged deer.Now it was up to Mel to somehow get the overweight Bell off the ground. He revved the engine until the tachometer screamed against the red line. The machine struggled and shook until it finally got a few feet off the snow, where it hovered for a moment before slamming back down with a thud.
It was getting darker by the minute as Mel fine-tuned the controls and gave the engine a slightly different mixture of fuel and air. This time, the helicopter rose four feet in the air, hovered for a few seconds and came down gently.
After five or six of these four-foot high flights, I noticed that Mel was leapfrogging his way slightly downhill and to his left. He was moving 15 or 20 feet with each jump.
“Why are you heading this way?” I shouted.
“There’s a cliff over there and I’m trying to time my short flights so when we get there we can hopefully fall off and get airspeed,” Mel hollered back. “Once we do that, the machine will have enough forward speed so I can get us back to the hotel.”
The disclaimer I didn’t like was the word “hopefully.”
But Mel timed it exactly right. We fell off the cliff and, instead of crashing, the chopper gained airspeed, its human cargo of the world’s two greatest skiers lashed to the skids. We made it safely back to the hotel, where we landed in total darkness. That night at dinner, dressed in our coats and ties, Killy called it the way it really was.”A mountain is like a beautiful woman. You can go to her as often as you want, but she will only give you what she wants.
“Today, she gave us our lives.”
Warren Miller estimates he’s taken 200 helicopter rides while making more than 500 short- and feature-length films over 69 years.