In the last week a lot of newspapers and some television news have chronicled the death of 100-year-old Emile Allais. They write about him winning two world championships in the downhill and slalom ski races in 1936 and 1937, as well as an Olympic gold medal in 1936. He would have won a third year in a row if he had not broken his ankle.
I became interested in his revolutionary ski technique when I was still living in the Sun Valley parking lot in 1947-48. I studied a copy of his technique, spelled out in easy-to-understand photos but hard-to-understand French. Studying his technique may be why when I raced in Ogden, Utah that winter against 126 other competitors, I walked away with the first-place trophy.
Emile really entered my life when he was teaching skiing the same year as I was at Sun Valley. I was having trouble teaching the Arlberg technique under Otto Lang and through an interpreter, Robert Albuoy, Emile simply said, “Warren, you work for Otto Lang and if he tells you to wear banana yellow pants and no parka, do it, because he is the one paying you to work for him. If you don’t want to do what he wants you to then I suggest that you quit tonight.” That was a great, big, fat lesson and I never forgot it. Emile changed my attitude in that first conversation I ever really had with him.
The next winter, I applied for a job with him at Squaw Valley the year that it opened, and he hired me. I got to spend the winter with three other instructors and on a good day all four of us would have a pupil. Emile was a very quiet person and led by example. We climbed the hill one day after an avalanche with Emile, two other ski patrolmen, a long rope and one wrench. We pulled an avalanche-destroyed tower off of the hold-down cable and the lift was able to run again that same afternoon. Regulations and insurance were minimal in that era.
Emile allowed me to work on my first ski film and helped even more by skiing in it, adding a lot of excitement in the knee-deep powder snow.
His agent hired me to film a French ski technique film of Emile. For almost three weeks we were up every morning by 4:30 and climbing the hill by 5 so we could take advantage of the spring snow, before the hot sun made it into slush, and still get in a full day of teaching. His agent paid me $25 a day to supply and run the camera. That film never was finished but it was the first time I actually made money as a cameraman/filmmaker. One day, a couple of years ago, all of that original film showed up in the mail here at my house on Orcas and is in the basement still in its original form and unedited.
That spring we parted company but I later would go to Portillo, Chile and spend a month with him. He was still the best skier on the hill no matter where he was.
I last spent some time with Emile when he was already in his 70s and we skied and filmed with Dick Dorworth, Jon Reveal and Pat Bauman. While we were waiting for a cloud to go by and the bright sun to shine, Emile took these three great skiers for a run in his then hometown of Verbier, France. All he said to them was the same thing he always told everyone, “Follow me.” He was in the lead as one by one those amazing skiers had the time of their lives, following him as he would glance over his shoulder to make sure they were still there.
His revolutionary technique of keeping your skis together instead of in the classic Austrian snowplow position revolutionized skiing forever. For me, it was a lot more. He was a friend and someone who crossed my path over the years and every time I was privileged enough to ski and film with him, and learn by his example, my life changed a little bit more.
The ski world was a lot better place while he was alive. Emile, you left an awfully large set of tracks in the snowfield of life.
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