Birth of a Ski Resort

In 1936, when Sun Valley, Idaho, opened it set the standard for destination ski resorts in North America

By Warren Miller

I was very lucky to witness the growth of skiing from fewer than 15 chairlifts in America to over 400 ski resorts today. I got to ski at many of them before their first chairlift was put in. Others I filmed their first winter of operation and others I just read about until I could get there with my camera and document their beginnings.

For example, when I skied at Badger Pass in Yosemite in 1946 I met a very young ski racer whose father was the president of the bank in Merced, California. He had bought the Forest Service lease for what became the Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff. He offered me a job running one of the two rope tows.

I dragged my surfing and skiing buddy, Ward Baker, along on this adventure that only lasted about two weeks. It turned out that hill that had two rope tows was very flat. The accommodations were good, but the owners cooked our meals and it was potatoes three meals a day.

We quickly decided that the food was bad, skiing was terrible and there were a lot better ski resorts out there.

In the 1950s and 60s I was lucky enough to be hired to take movies at quite a few potential ski resorts and take most of my payment in real estate. I priced the real estate at what the developer had paid for it originally. Those movies included Alpenetal, Alpine Meadows, Telluride, plus many other resorts in the East.

This offered a lot of opportunities, of course. The first year Vail was operational I could have bought a $10,000 vacant lot right in the middle of the village. You received two free lifetime lift passes with the lot.

Some of those early ski resorts were built on mountains that really tested skiers of the 1930s and early ‘40s but today are hardly a beginning ski area because of new equipment, ski technique development and skiers search for more freedom.

I took my first ski photo in 1940 with a black-and-white plastic camera. Starting in November 1949 I produced 55 feature-length ski films that were exhibited worldwide and about 600 other films for marketing purposes for different clients.

Along the way I know that I influenced a lot of people. Case in point: When I was standing on a ski hill in Vail, a young man stopped and simply said, “My father hates you.”

He was scheduled to take over his father’s radiator manufacturing company in the Midwest when he went to ski in Colorado one too many times and told his father he just couldn’t do it. He wanted to spend the rest of his life working the ski patrol.

Almost any job that you do in a city is available today at all the bigger ski resorts. Even at our small resort here at the Yellowstone Club there are hundreds of employees. I am very fortunate to have fallen into a profession that offers the best of all worlds. When I was filming my ski movies, if it decided not to snow where I had planned on filming I would simply go somewhere else and as long as I narrated the story in the newscaster manner, it worked as long as there were resorts that the average person could visualize himself someday visiting.

In 1936, when Sun Valley, Idaho, opened it set the standard for destination ski resorts in North America for all time.

No matter where I traveled in all those years, I always compared the resort I was filming with Sun Valley and Sun Valley always came out on top.

I think Hannes Schneider, the father of skiing beginning with the Austrian technique from the 1920s, said it very well after World War I, when he said, if everyone skied there would be no wars.

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