I went to work as a ski instructor for Emile Allais at Squaw Valley, Calif. in 1949. Squaw Valley had one chairlift at that time, two rope tows, four ski instructors and, on a good day, we'd all have a pupil.
I produced my first ski movie that winter, while working for $125 a month. I was filming Emile Allais at a new ski resort once again six years later. This one was in Courchevel, France.
Today, Courcheval is part of the Three Valleys, which have 214 lifts and sleep over 200,000 skiers and boarders. Courchevel had one gondola and several surface lifts at that time, as well as the same powder snow that the Sierras of California boasted.
The resort was so new, it was not yet even on the Michelin road map. I arrived at the end of a dirt road and found a smoke filled bar that was still open. It was about 2 a.m. and I had driven from Zurs, Austria. I had almost no knowledge of the French language, but I somehow managed to get the owner to let me sleep in a corner booth after they closed up.
I went in search of my old friend, and three-time world ski champion, Emile Allais a few hours later. He was in charge of designing the resort, the ski runs, and locations of lifts. He was the local hero. We skied and filmed together in powder snow once again while he told me of his plans for the future.
An entire village would have only ski-in, ski-out accommodations. An airport over would be built on that ridge so skiers could fly here non-stop from Paris, land and be met by their hotel porter, and handed a ski lift ticket. They could then ski downhill from the airport to the lift while their porter took their baggage to their room. All of this, he said, would be reality before anyone thought possible.
It came about from a very simple idea.
Several former French ski champions, who had flown a lot of missions over the Alps during World War II, made notes of every potential ski area so that when the war ended they would have a project.
They convinced the French Government, once the war had ended, that there was a future in winter tourism and got the government to build roads to these high mountain locations. The government also made land available for development and the rush was on.
If you built a certain number of beds in a given time frame then you could have the land free. The money you saved in not having to pay for the land, enabled you to build that many more hotel rooms. This was similar to what the American government did for the railroads in the 18th century when they opened up the West.
The concept has worked simply and dramatically. A very substantial amount of taxes has been generated, as well as thousands of jobs created. There was nothing there before except high mountain meadows above timberline; meadows good for grazing livestock for only three or four months a year.
But I get ahead of myself. Two days after I arrived in 1956, I had an appointment to meet Emile and four ski patrolmen at the gondola building at 8 a.m. I was excited driving down to the gondola from my chalet that sat halfway up the mountain on one of those mornings that you only see in ski movies.
Fourteen inches of new powder snow had fallen. The skies were crystal clear and cobalt blue. No one else would be in the first gondola except Emile, the four ski patrolmen, and me, all raring to go. I didn't notice that it had rained during the night before it turned to snow and that I was driving on black, glass ice until I did a 12 mph, 225 yard, triple 360 spin around.
None of the normal automobile control devices were of any use. Not the steering wheel, throttle, brakes, clutch, or the plastic statue of Jesus the German used car lot from whom I had bought it, mounted in all of their cars.
I spun rather gracefully down the road without slowing down and was rapidly approaching the back of a dump truck that was serving as a snowplow. The new driver of the new truck on the new road at the new ski resort didn't yet know about putting salt or gravel on the roads.
I finally got a little control of the car as it slowed down to about four miles an hour and slid under the back of the dump truck. Fortunately, I hit the truck with the passenger side of the car and only did about $600 worth of damage to my $1,000 used Volkswagon bug. I also did about fifty cents worth of damage to the dump truck.
I scrambled out of the car once the noise of the crash and the tinkling of glass quit echoing back and forth across the valley in the still morning air. My feet slid out from under me as I did, on the black ice. I staggered to my feet clutching the car and inched my way towards the truck to meet the truck driver who was doing the same thing in my direction, but he had something more substantial to hold onto.
I was already late to meet Emile and my skiers, so I gave him my business card, the name of the chalet where I was staying, showed him my movie equipment, 100 French francs, (the old ones that were now worth ten new ones, or about a dollar), used Emile's name as a reference, and got him to drive out of my way so I could go on down to the gondola.
I slid the car sideways down at the small village, deep inside of a new snow bank, grabbed my gear, raced up the steps to the gondola, met the group, and 10 minutes later, we got out at the top.
Emile said, with a twinkle in his eye," Warren, I have something special that should make a good movie for you."
He pulled five red meteorological balloons out of his parka and we walked over to what looked like a tank of welding oxygen. It was a tank of helium. Emile started filling up the red balloons until they were about three or four feet in diameter. Each one floated about 10 feet over the heads of the ski patrolmen while tied to them with a stout string.
"We'll be skiing on some very steep slopes for your camera," he told me. "If any of us get caught in an avalanche we can see their balloon, follow the string down to the snow and easily locate their bodies before they die." That sounded like a fantastic sequence for my camera as well as a pretty good idea for the skiers.
We figured out where everyone would ski and I set off in a long traverse with my tripod and rucksack to get set up for the first shot that was truly a sight to see. Five skiers chased each other down a near vertical slope while they were all being followed by giant red balloons, and an avalanche that was going at the same rate of speed.
They came to a stop on a small ridge and the avalanche went on down on both sides of them. I hollered instructions of where to go for the next shot. Then, as I started traversing across an even steeper slope, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn't have a balloon so they could find me.
(Copyright, 2009: WarrenMiller.net).
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