The eastern city limits of Pasadena rise abruptly up to Mount Wilson where there is a 100-inch telescope that was state of the art until sometime in the 30s or 40s. Driving by Mount Wilson on a winding narrow road will get you to Mount Waterman. There in the late 1930s, Lynn Newcomb and his son built the second chairlift in California.
In 1937 this is where I made my first wobbly attempt at traversing across a ski slope. My pine skis were 3 to 4 feet long with leather toe strap bindings. This later was where I rode my first chairlift. It was during the winter of 1942/43 when I was stationed at the University of Southern California as a Seaman Third Class.
By today’s standards, the chairlift was very rickety and fragile. It was on the side of a hill full of giant bumps, the tops of which where good corn snow and the faces of which were hard ice. Offset edges were unheard of back then and ski boots that provided lateral support did not appear for almost a decade.
During that winter I probably made six weekend trips to Mount Waterman using my sister’s Buick, loaded with five passengers and all of our skis, poles and peanut butter sandwiches necessary.
We did not want to waste time sitting down to eat, so we stopped by the car and got our peanut butter sandwiches and during the 30-minute wait for a single chair, were able to finish lunch while standing in line waiting.
At the top of mount Waterman there was a small rope tow. The first time I rode it to the top of the mountain, it was too late in the afternoon so I ended up skiing about the worst run in memory. The steep face of Waterman had frozen in the late afternoon sun and it was a question of traversing as slow as I could go until I got to a tree I could grab and complete a kick turn to go back across the same set of bumps.
Back in those days there were fewer than a dozen chairlifts in North America and when I finally got to Europe to ski and film 1953, I don’t recall riding on a single chairlift in Switzerland or Austria at that time. All of those great black-and-white postcards that attracted me to drive from Los Angeles to New York then fly to Switzerland, had been taken by climbing rather than riding in a chairlift.
The skis of that era had almost no torsional rigidity whatsoever and, when you tried to make the tips hang onto the hard packed snow, your only recourse was to lean as far forward as possible from the ankles to push as hard as you could.
The safety binding, or release binding as it is called today, had not yet been invented. Among all of my friends who I skied with, not one of us ever broke anything except our bank account.
One weekend we had gone to Malibu to go surfing and the waves were only inches high so we decided to head to Mount Waterman on Sunday and while we’re at it, why not take a couple of dates along? We knew that neither one of them skied but they could take a ride up and down on the chairlift while my friend and I were riding up and skiing down. The four of us ate peanut butter sandwiches at the top of the mountain and we decided to try to show off in front of our dates as they got on the chairlift we figured we could ski down underneath the chairlift and they could watch us ski from top to bottom.
As I said before, the chairlift was very, very slow. However, it was a great deal faster than we could ski up.
A couple of years ago I found one of my ski boots from the 1940s and it gave as much lateral support as a pair of high-top basketball shoes.
I can’t recall ever having a bad day on a pair skis, however, there were few challenges along the way.
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