The world is a different place every night when I get into bed. In 1946, the ski world was a completely different place that very few people in the world would recognize today. America had fewer than 15 chairlifts in the entire country as Ward Baker and I started for Alta in mid-November of that year. I was six months out of the Navy, after four years in the service. Alta had the only two chairlifts in Utah at the time.
Statistically, here is what ski country looked like if you wanted to ride a chairlift. California had two of them, one at the Sugar Bowl in Northern California; another one at Mount Waterman, less than 50 miles from the L.A. City Hall.
Oregon had one chairlift at Timberline, near Portland; Idaho had three on Baldy and one on Dollar Mountain; Wyoming had a small one on Storm King Mountain in the suburbs of Jackson Hole; Colorado did not have a single chairlift, so you would have to drive all the way to Mout Tremblant, out of Montreal, to get to the next one.
It is impossible to put a price tag on how it felt to ski in those days. You cannot put a price tag on how it feels today, either. There are
readers who have sold their home in a big city and gone to a ski resort for their career. They used to be called “ski bums” and probably still are today. Instead, I think they are people of courage to follow their own convictions.
Today I talked with Elaine Kelton, who has written a good book about the women who came to Vail in the early days. They came as single women for the most part and settled down and married and raised their families at the base of Vail Mountain. That first winter the mountain had a gondola and two chairlifts. Today, Vail Valley has more than 30,000 people living there.
It is the size of Bozeman and, of course, everyone there, in one way or another, is completely dependent on how much snow falls out of the sky. On any given Saturday or Sunday, Vail has more skiers in one day than the entire United States used to have on a Saturday or Sunday during the winter of 1946-47. I could almost draw a comparison of skiing to drug or alcohol addiction.
I was very lucky because those four years in the Navy
allowed me to save enough money to pay my expenses that first winter of skiing. Remember, my lifestyle was very minimal in those days. When I skied that winter in Sun Valley, a lot of the employees were from Omaha, Neb., the site of the Union Pacific headquarters. People got a round trip ticket to Sun Valley and room and board and $125 a month. A lot of them never cashed in their return trip.
Could you do the same thing today? I believe you can if all you want to do is make turns on your skis or snowboard every day. The formula is simple but requires some sacrifice.
First you have to earn enough money to buy a van or a pickup truck and a camper for the back. Then you have to get a nighttime job of some kind that should be in a restaurant where you get dinner along with your wages and a season lift ticket that you pay cash for, and the restaurant reimburses you if you work all winter. There are plenty of places within a mile or so of most chairlifts where you can park a van every night.
If you are lucky you might even find someone who will let you plug your electric blanket in at night in exchange for keeping their driveway plowed out every morning.
If I had it to do over again I know I would not do anything differently. Ward Baker and I managed to ski seven days a week for two winters and got money ahead during the summer to do that. Were we the pioneers? I don’t think so. We were just lucky because they had not invented wet suits by then and riding surfboards in January was way too cold in Southern California.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.