WARREN’S WORLD: Skiing Has Always Been Great
Today even old timers can still enjoy skiing—-including me at over 80.
These days you just wander down to the ski shop with a sliver of plastic and in a short time are able to take advantage of several million dollars worth of research and development. This makes it possible for you to continue to make turns on a snow- covered slope no matter how many winters you have skied.
Turn back the calendar to when rope-tow tickets were two dollars a day and chairlift tickets were four dollars a day, but there were only but 15 chairlifts in America! One was in Colorado and one was at Aspen. There were two in California: One was at Sugar Bowl and the other on Mt. Waterman in Southern California.
Back then, the early 1940s, you listened to the radio near the end of October. When the announcer started talking about the end of daylight savings time plus the second hour for ‘war time,’ it was time to go to the garage and get your skis ready.
If you were a careful person you would have clamped them to a piece of two X four with a block under the center of each of them to keep them from twisting and warping. With some tender-loving care, you would put a couple more coats of varnish on the skis and argue with your friends about what kind of lacquer to paint on the bottoms.
In Southern California there were only two places to buy skis: One was a shoe store in downtown Los Angeles called Van De Grifts; the other was Hollywood Tennis and Golf. The second pair of skis I bought was from the Hollywood store and they came complete with micromatic bindings. The toe irons had adjustable screws on the side so you could easily adjust them to fit someone else’s boots if you wanted to take a rest. Your friend could climb up and ski down a couple of times. You were able to buy skis and bindings for $19.95 and if you bugged the clerk long enough he or she might throw in a pair of $2, genuine-bamboo poles. Boots of course were extra and the cost between fifteen and twenty dollars.
When the prices were that low, so were wages. Minimum wage was twenty-five cents an hour, but a riveter at Lockheed Aircraft Company could make as much as fifty cents an hour. War was raging in Europe, Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and I was waiting to be called up for active duty in the Navy.
The closest chairlift to where I lived in Hollywood was only 47 miles away on Mt. Watermen. It would haul about 300 people an hour. The only place to park your car was alongside the two-lane road, so if you arrived late to ski you might have to walk a mile or more to get from your car to the chairlift.
I have forgotten a lot of things that happened in the 40’s but I haven’t forgotten anything that happened on every day I managed to scrounge up enough gas to get to the chairlift or a rope tow. The runs were often quite icy and no one knew that you should file your edges. Your skis were whatever they were. When I look at the garage full of skis I have collected over the years, I know I couldn’t turn any of them right or left anymore, even on a beginner’s hill that is groomed! They had no side cut, no tortional rigidly, and no flexation pattern you could get used to. Did anyone care? Not in the least. Skiing was wonderful then, as it is now, but it was much harder work back then.
After some storms, the bumps were as big as Volkswagens before VW's were even invented, and the north side of the bumps were icy while the tops had spring-like snow. Food and beverage service was whatever you brought with you. On the way home your feet and clothes were wet, your face was sunburned, and your body sometimes ached from hanging onto a rope tow all day.
One of my friends showed up one day with a rope tow gripper and the world was changed forever for all of us. Imagine a giant walnut shell cracker on the end of a short rope that was attached to a canvas belt that hung low around your waist. It worked well but did nothing towards making a fashion statement. The two ski shops in Los Angeles could not keep them in stock once the word got out. There were a few macho guys who scorned the use of the grippers, but their right arms are still longer than their left.
I paint a somewhat grim picture of skiing in the early 1940s, but it was anything but grim. It was great because none of us knew anything different. We would drive home jammed eight or nine in a sedan, all smelling of wet wool and sweat and planning the next weekend. Who would pay for the gas if I supplied my sister’s car? Who would provide the rationed gas coupons so we could buy enough gas? And so on.
The people who ski the back country today talk about enjoying every turn a lot more after they have climbed to the summit. It was something of a “climb” to get to the top of hill in the great old days…just so you could go back to the bottom. The thrill is still there.
Editor’s Note: This is one in a Tahoetopia series written by Warren Miller, legendary ski cinematographer. For other columns by Warren, click on Warren Miller.
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