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Warren Miller’s Counter Culture at Sun Valley
Saturday, March 16, 2024


Filmmaker, author and story teller Warren Miller has been closely associated with Sun Valley since the end of World War II, through his ski movies and his life as a ski bum at the resort, living in an unheated trailer, supporting himself through innovative means.

Warren died in January 2018, at age 93, leaving a lasting legacy to the skiing world. Through his 500 adventure-sport films he become the voice of skiing for several generations.

He said “I don’t think I’ve worked a day in my life,” but that must be viewed in light of Warren’s schedule. He spent 30 years on the road, traveling up to 175 days a year, showing his films all over the country, doing back-to-back shows in different cities in the winter, battling impossible travel conditions and struggling to get from one show to the next.

His films embodied his philosophy of life-- “I won’t ruin a good story with the absolute truth.”

According to his obituary in the Seattle Times, he asked people to go and ski their favorite ski run when they heard of his death. His was Christmas Ridge at Sun Valley.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Miller decided to go on a life-long venture “In Search of Freedom” that turned into a 30-year “non-stop motion picture filming and producing trip around the skiing world.”

Miller described his experiences as a ski bum in Sun Valley in “Wine, Women, Warren and Skis,” “Are My Skis on Straight?” “Lurching from One Near Disaster to the Next” and his brutally honest 2016 autobiography, “Freedom Found, My Life Story.”

After leaving the Navy, Miller spent a month learning to ski at Badger Pass in Yosemite in winter 1946. He rented a bed from a lift operator for $1 a night, and figured out how to avoid paying for rope tow tickets that cost $2.50 a day, using methods he refused to discuss.

Miller drew cartoons of skiers during lunch hour he sold for $1. The ski area was managed by Charles N. Proctor who helped Averell Harriman lay out Sun Valley. Proctor hired Austrian ski instructors, including Hannes Schroll, who beat Dick Durrance in 1935 on Mount Rainier at the National Downhill and Slalom Championships, and Sigi Engl, who soon left to teach at Sun Valley and became head of its ski school in 1952.

Miller met Bill Janss at Badger Pass, when Janss was a college racer at Stanford and member of the 1940 FIS team. Janss taught Miller how to ski using the Austrian Arlberg technique, and his company bought Sun Valley from Union Pacific in 1964.

Miller bought two pairs of army surplus white 10th Army Mountain Division skis, seven-foot six-inches long, scraped off the paint, varnished them and sold one pair for $25. He spent $20 on army surplus poles, ski boots, a parka, goggles, hat, sweater, gloves and a pair of pants.

He bought his first motion picture camera, a Bell & Howell Sportster, for $77, using his $100 Navy mustering out pay, and four Army surplus down-filled mummy sleeping bags--two for Miller and two for fellow adventurer Ward Baker.

For $200, Miller bought what would be his home, an unheated trailer eight feet long, four feet wide and five feet high with a double bed in it, that could be hauled by his 1937 Buick. It had a “homebuilt, aerodynamic, ‘teardrop’ design,” with a flip-up back door giving the built-in kitchen a roof, making it possible to cook outdoors and have tailgate parties.

“It was possible to live and ski out of this rig,” although no one told him how cold it would be sleeping in an unheated trailer in a parking lot of a ski resort. Miller and Ward Baker spent the early part of the winter of 1946-47 skiing in Colorado and Utah, living in the “8-foot, sleep-inside, cook-outside” unheated trailer, selling copies of Warren’s first cartoon book, “Are My Skis on Straight?” for $2, and eating game they shot.

At Alta, they met two girls just back from Sun Valley who told them about hot water swimming pools, the ski runs, nice restaurants, apres-ski dancing and free buses.

“After the cold, cold skiing at Alta, just thinking about soaking ourselves in the hot water of the Sun Valley swimming pool made up our minds,” Miller said.

They headed to Ketchum and ended up living in the trailer in a parking lot where the Sun Valley garage is located now with the approval of Pat Rogers, Sun Valley’s manager, because they offered “local color.”

Miller’s 1957 book, “Wine, Women, Warren, & Skis,” describes his first year in Sun Valley. It is dedicated to the inventor of the oyster cracker, since “without her foresight in offering vitamin-enriched oyster crackers to the Union Pacific Railroad for their Sun Valley, Idaho, operation, I might never have survived the cold winter of 1946/1947.”

Their stay lasted from Nov. 13 to April 16--154 days--and cost him a total of $268. It was so cold in their trailer their breath would freeze and fall as snow. In the mornings, they struggled out of their sleeping bags and fought their way into their frozen clothing, which was “like playing a trombone in a deep freeze.”

Warren’s boots froze so solid one night the tongue broke off. Miller and Baker went to the Skiers Chalet in the mornings to thaw their ski boots and get milk for their oatmeal. They snuck on lifts without paying, hunted rabbits and ducks near Shoshone for food and ate oyster crackers smothered in ketchup for lunch.

Forty-eight tea bags cost 50 cents, and they brewed these in free hot water at the Roundhouse, using each tea bag 11 times. They shaved, washed and cleaned the game they shot in the bathrooms at the Skiers Chalet.

Guests thought they were employees and employees thought they were guests, allowing them to get employee discounts with guest privileges. Life couldn’t get any better.

“In the Sun Valley parking lot, I liked the smell of rabbit frying above the totally silent evening. At the same time, I could look up and see the constellation of Orion high in the black canopy of winter nights. No one ever had it as good as I did then, except Ward Baker, who was cooking the rabbit at the time.”

Miller did all of this “to glide effortlessly down steep mountains, carving graceful arcs of ecstasy in the deep powder snow.”

He got his first national publicity when “Look” magazine did an article on Sun Valley in winter 1947, which included a picture of the two men outside their trailer.

It was strange, Miller noted, “Because our trailer life was the exact opposite of the Sun Valley image, the Steve Hannagan world.”

Miller skied every day, learned to race and returned to Sun Valley the next three years. He sold his book, sold cartoons of skiers he drew for $1 and decorated the casts of hospital patients.

“My financial endeavors proved to be a success in Idaho,” he recounted.

In winter 1948, Miller returned to Sun Valley with a new car, a 1946 Ford, and a new teardrop Kit Kamper trailer on loan from a distributor who Miller convinced the picture in “Look” would lead to publicity for his version. He had made $1,000 selling 1,000 copies of his book, “Are My Skis on Straight?” and showing a ski movie to a group in Malibu, where he received $8.35.

Warren had more success that year earning a living while skiing every day and entering ski races with Ward as the Sun Valley Parking Lot Team. Miller convinced Pappy Rogers to hire him to paint murals on the employees’ cafeteria at the Challenger Inn in exchange for a season’s pass worth $250 and three meals a day for as long as it took him to finish.

Not surprisingly, it took him all season.

He took cafeteria food back for Ward to supplement the rabbits. Pete Lane traded ski equipment for a mural Warren painted for his store, and the owner of a ski shop in Ketchum sold a dozen copies of his cartoon book and paid Warren $200 to paint murals on the walls of his shop.

At one ski race at Donner Summit, Warren and Ward were hired to pack the hill, making two round trips down the course for three days in a row, each earning $120. The life led by Miller and Baker was in contrast to that of the celebrities who stayed at Sun Valley and ate fancy cuisine at the Lodge or in high end restaurants.

The men shot ducks and rabbits near Shoshone, cooking them outdoors in the back of their trailer. “Productive Shoshone hunting trips lasted us two weeks, at a rabbit a day on the Coleman stove. We had rabbits fixed every way possible on the outdoor stove: fried, stewed, boiled, and singed close to burnt.”

One time they were planning a rabbit roast party at their trailer. They took 20 newly killed rabbits to the Skiers’ Chalet late at night to clean them in the bathrooms, figuring everyone would be in bed. They skinned the rabbits when a drunk guest came in, saw the blood all over, and ran to bring the house detectives thinking a murder had taken place.

The men quickly cleaned up the mess and left, leaving the crime scene relatively free of evidence so the detectives thought the drunk guest was lying.

In spite of their financial state, life at the resort had many attractions. The attractions of Sun Valley did not end with good skiing, but included a large population of good-looking girls and guys, either guests or employees, and especially the confident young ladies in the lift line who came from all over America.

One evening Warren watched East Coast ski film maker John Jay narrate his fourth annual ski lecture film” at the Lodge, and he decided, “Hey, I can do that.”

At the end of this season, he said, it was hard to leave Sun Valley as it had begun to feel like home.

When Miller returned to Sun Valley for his third season in winter 1948-49, he rented a 15 by 30-foot garage with a dirt floor in Ketchum for $5 a month, which he turned into a paying proposition.

The garage was so cold that the pot of water on the oil stove never melted all winter.

“I rented floor space to Edward Scott for his sleeping bag for 50 cents a night. Scotty was a real pioneer: he invented lightweight ski poles by making smaller baskets and finding a source for lightweight tapered aluminum shafts. I even had another renter part-time, Bob Brandt, who married actress Janet Leigh; he also paid me 50 cents a night, so I was parlaying my $5 a month rent into more than $30 a month. The additional income helped me buy my first 16mm rolls of film to jump-start my own motion picture career.”

Mountain Manager Nelson Bennett convinced Warren to apply to teach skiing for the Sun Valley Ski School. Warren bought new equipment from Pete Lane “on credit.” He didn’t think he stood a chance of getting hired. It was only his fourth year of skiing, no one had ever taught him to teach skiing, and he had to convince the famous Sun Valley instructors that he was qualified using the techniques he was taught by Bill Janss at Yosemite.

“They were all there: The Gods of Ski Instruction, the leaders of the Sun Valley Ski School, men you read about and watched from afar. Ski School Director Otto Lang, Assistant Director Johnny Litchfield, and Supervisors Sigi Engl and Sepp Froehlich. I really wanted the job. Sun Valley treated its instructor well. Becoming an instructor meant being given a warm room in the instructors’ chalet, three square meals a day at the Challenger Inn Dining Room, and a monthly check for $125, plus a percentage of all the private lessons.”

Much to his surprise, Miller was hired.

“Life was instantly better when Otto Lang came over to me at the end of day three, saying ‘OK, Warren, you can teach beginners, but you have to take a shower and get a haircut before you do.’ I was on the gravy train! Free food and $125 a month in pay! It would be easy to live on that paycheck. And I was really lucky to have Franz Klamer as my roommate.”

Miller taught group ski lessons on Dollar Mountain to beginners and never-evers as one of 34 instructors. In addition to teaching, instructors were expected to be at the Lodge and Challenger Inn for after-ski cocktails and show up in the bars after dinner, duties to which the young, single Warren Miller did not object.

Warren had a new plan to make money that year, fabricating boot laces out of nylon parachute shrouds which were far better than the factory supplied ones, calling them “The Ski Bootlace of the Future.” His attempts to be a capitalist were filled with misadventures that only Warren Miller could experience.

Miller showed his first ski movie at Sun Valley’s Opera House, his first venture into the “money making” portion of life, that he described in a chapter “Overnight Success.” Thirty-seven people bought tickets for the theater that held 300. When he got his share at the Casino later that night, his 40% of the $37 proceeds was $14.80.

In the winter of 1949, Warren met two men in Sun Valley who changed his life: Chuck Percy and Hal Geneen, president and comptroller of Bell & Howell. After the three bonded over skiing, discussing Warren’s attempts to make ski movies, they agreed to provide him with a high end Model 70 DA Bell & Howell that cost $256. He could repay them from his earnings.

“After closing the door on Sun Valley, it was all over for that era of my life, and I never looked back...I was now committed to a different goal: making films.”

Miller spent the next few winters at the newly opened Squaw Valley, teaching skiing for French racer Emile Allais, working construction in the off-season and promoting his ski films. At one of his first movie presentations made to a Southern California ski club, he had no script so he adlibbed stories about his life as a ski bum living in a trailer in Sun Valley, spending $18 total for lift tickets for four months of skiing, shooting rabbits near Shoshone for dinner, and the intricate dance routine involved in getting undressed outside in the freezing night air in order to get into bed in the freezing teardrop trailer after a dinner date.

The audience responded so positively that Warren realized he could entertain skiers and make a living showing his movies. Warren returned to Sun Valley virtually every year to show his movies and film new ski scenes. He considered the area to be one of the best in the world.

He filmed Stein Eriksen teaching Christian Pravda and Jack Reddish how to do a forward somersault on skis. Later Warren took his family to Sun Valley for Christmas vacations, and developed land near Dollar Mountain after his old ski teacher, Bill Janss, bought the resort and hired Warren to do marketing films.

Janss used one of Miller’s films, “A Place for All Seasons,” showing the resort’s year around attractions to convince the John Mannsville Corporation to buy land that became Elkhorn, for $4.5 million--the amount Bill originally paid for the entire Sun Valley Resort.

In 1972, the Sun Valley Company sold 1,900 acres to the Johns-Manville Corporation and it began developing Elkhorn Valley. The first condos were finished for the 1972-1973 season, Elkhorn Village opened the next summer, the Elkhorn golf course opened in 197, and the Elkhorn Hotel opened in 1976.

Warren Miller produced a promotional video for Janss that was used to sell the land that became Elkhorn. He complained about his fee for the video, since the sale brought Janss more money than the company had paid for all of Sun Valley in 1964.

Editor’s Note: John W. Lundin has written several award-winning books on skiing, including “Skiing Sun Valley: From the Union Pacific to the Holdings.”

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