The sudden torrential rain, pounding on the roof of our trailer, snapped me out of an exhausted sleep. How could it be raining? This was New Year’s Eve in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1947. We had towed our small house trailer a thousand miles from Los Angeles to Sun Valley to spend our second winter camping in its parking lot and skiing all day, every day. Rain in December? Impossible. But when I opened the small door to our 9-foot-long trailer, sat up in bed, and looked out; it was as though someone had turned on a warm shower. The south wind drove the tropical rain right into our bed.
By the time we got up, what little snow there had been on the valley floor was washed away and the tropical rainstorm had been replaced by a crystal clear blue sky and a rapidly falling thermometer.
On News Year’s Day, when Ward Baker and I were thawing out our frozen carton of milk in the Skiers Chalet men’s room, the gossip amongst the paying guests was, “it looks like it snowed up top.”
1948 was before the invention of snow-making machines, snow-grooming machines, metal skis, safety bindings, plastic boots, offset edges, or nylon parkas. No one told us we should be cold.
At the top of the River Run lift it was really scary to try and side-slip over to the Exhibition lift while accelerating on two-year-old skis that cost $21.95 and had never had their edges sharpened.
At the top of Exhibition lift, the black ice from the rain had begun to turn to textured ice that we thought we might be able to somehow survive while trying to ski it. The lower lift towers on the Ridge lift were covered with ice, but the tropical rainstorm had turned to snow at 8,000 feet. The nearly foot of snow up top was great and with a chairlift that only hauled 426 people an hour, there was still no waiting in line and we soon quit worrying about how to get back to the valley floor.
The absolute beginners that would normally be skiing on Dollar Mountain were all climbing and doing kick turns in the flat at the very top of Baldy. There was no warming hut at the top in 1948 so when all of the beginners had to eat lunch they rode down on the lift to the Round House. Those who could afford it, bought a top-of-the-line cheeseburger for a then unheard of high price of $1.25. French fries were a quarter and so was a Coca-Cola. Ward and I had a lot of experience eating oyster crackers and ketchup for lunch. Later we would get a cup of hot water, pretending it was for our tea bag, add some ketchup and make a deluxe cup of tomato soup.
About 3 p.m., as the beginners began to ride down from the top of the mountain, I watched their instructors get right on the Exhibition chairlift and ride down behind them. It was as if some of my idols had fallen from grace. When I watched the ski school director Otto Lang climb on the chairlift to ride down, I knew it was OK for Ward and I to do the same.
What none of us knew then was that the thermometer would stay below zero for the next 28 days and there would not be a cloud in the sky during that same time. During those 28 days of riding down on the chairlift every afternoon along with some of America’s best skiers, and having only three runs on the upper lift open, we learned to ski looking for the snow between the rocks instead of the rocks. We also learned that any day you can spend riding a chairlift is a lot better than any day you have to spend in an office. It doesn’t matter what kind of snow conditions there are, as long as it’s white, it’s on the side of a hill, the chairlift is running, and you have got enough money to buy yourself a day of freedom. All day lift tickets were $4.
Fifty years ago we had never heard of El Nino so everything was really great. Today, even with El Nino the snow conditions are still great with the right attitude.