The Last Run
Last week, the snowsports world - and, for that matter, the outdoors film-making world - lost a legend when Warren Miller passed away at age 93. He wasn’t just the high priest of the ski film genre; for decades, he was the ski film genre.
He picked up a camera when he was discharged from the navy (as if I needed another reason to like the man) at the end of World War II. He took his Bell and Howell 8mm to Sun Valley, Idaho, and after some seasons of living out of a trailer in ski resort parking lots, the rest was history. His first film, Deep and Light, came out in 1950, and they’ve been coming out every year since, arriving just in time to stoke snow-starved powder-hounds’ appetites before the first flurries fly. He directed each one until 1988, and even then remained involved with the films through 2004, when he was 79. In all, he would produce over 500 films as well as write over a thousand columns and eleven books.
Video credit: Warren Miller Entertainment
I was late to discover the magic of ski movies. Though my elementary school and parents combined to get me on the slopes for the first time at age 9 (and, by my count, I’ve only missed 3 seasons since), I remained unaware of the genre till probably my senior year in high school. As an early graduation gift (my folks felt good about my chances), my father took me to Whitefish, Montana, to ski what was then Big Mountain. There, over lunch in what I’m pretty sure was the Hellroaring Saloon, we saw TVs playing videos featuring all manner of alpine chicanery. There were people racing down the mountain in ski-mounted outhouses. Other scenes showed people jumping over - or at least trying to have enough speed to skim along the top of - ponds dug into snow (it would be another few years before I learned that was called, fittingly enough, pond-skimming). There was no shortage of comedically sped-up footage of presumably new skiers unsuccessfully dismounting a chair lift. And, of course, there were skiers getting the sort of big air you can only get when you spend a lot of time on the slopes … and lack a sense of self-preservation.
Since then, of course, I’ve become a fan of the genre - which, not surprisingly, has grown since Warren started it. When a dozen of us went to Whistler en masse to all crash in the same condo for a squadron ski weekend, one of us brought an extensive collection which we kept on a more or less continuous loop. When I did two back-to-back carrier deployments to the Arabian Sea (where it's really warm and my air conditioning didn't work), I took a stash of Warren Miller movies to remind me of better times, and much more comfortable climates.
From his interviews over the years, however, it was pretty clear that to Warren Miller, the movies were about more than the incredible scenery, the occasionally death-defying (or at least insane) feats, and the omnipresent humor. He said he was “looking for freedom and documenting it with a camera.” His work, then, was not just a celebration of snowsports. It was a celebration of what he felt was one of man’s most basic drives - the desire to be free. Maybe this is part of the reason why I've maintained a special fondness for Warren's movies among all the quality work that others have produced following in his ski tracks.
America was skiing before Warren Miller came around - skiers had been bombing Alta’s ‘greatest snow on earth’ for a dozen years before his first film debuted. But he and the industry he pioneered certainly added a dimension to the sport and helped give everyone who partook in it a way to celebrate it together. As Otto Lange, a legendary ski instructor, put it: “There isn’t a man who has contributed more to the joy of skiing.”
SkitheWorld.com’s tribute said that “Warren suggested that a fitting memorial, for those able, would be a run down a favorite local slope in his honor.” I’ve not been able to find the quote anywhere else, but it certainly sounds plausible - and, frankly, I was going to do that anyway. Last Saturday, I headed down to Alyeska for a few runs off Glacier Bowl Express on the upper half of the mountain. They'd had good snow that week, but Saturday was clear - a perfect day, and a perfect sunset. My skiing wasn't good enough to make one of Warren's movies - but it wasn't bad enough to make one of them, either.
One quote I can verify (because you can hear him say it in the movie) goes “I’ve changed a lot of lives by showing people there’s another way to live their life. I hope I’ve changed yours.”
You did, Warren. Thanks.
PS: Fittingly enough, the day he died on Orcas Island, Washington, nearby Mount Baker got almost two feet of fresh snow.