Miller Time

The celluloid spectacle of skiing

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I was 12 years old when the magic happened. 

Instead of making my seventh-grade classmates and I suit up in our activewear and barking at us through the prescribed regime of competitive athletic endeavors, one cold and rainy late October afternoon Mr. Hans Nyland—our burly World War II veteran physical education instructor—let us keep our street clothes on and ushered us into the gym for an “inspirational viewing opportunity.”

While Nyland threaded film into the sprocket guides of a reel-to-reel movie projector, we assembled the projection screen and threw some wrestling mats on the floor.

“The film you are about to watch is going to take you on a journey,” Nyland said as we settled in for the show. “It was made by Warren Miller, a fellow United States Navy swabbie of mine who loves skiing so much he once spent a winter camping in an Idaho parking lot subsisting on nothing but crackers, ketchup and boiled jackrabbits.”

Although such unorthodox dietary staples gave me pause regarding the content of the spectacle we were about to watch, I found myself riveted to the screen once the lights went down and the projector came whirring to life.

The name of that film was Winter People, and even though it was already 13 years old by the time we watched it in the fall of 1985, the effect it had on our impressionable young minds was persuasive.

Within two weeks of absorbing this grainy slope-side spectacle, about 90 percent of us had signed up for ski club.

Over the course of the following winter, I dutifully boarded a school bus bound for the small but critically necessary scattering of ski areas that bejewel the prairie knolls of the upper Midwest.  

I buckled into my first pair of alpine bindings beneath the rope tow at Hyland Hills (boasting a 1,075-foot summit and 175 feet of vertical) and strapped into my first snowboard in the base area at Buck Hill (1,225-foot summit and 309 feet of vertical).

My inaugural successful cliff jump occurred in a grove of oak trees high on the slopes of Afton Alps (700-foot summit and 350 feet of vertical).  And I was able to negotiate my first mile-long run while overlooking the icy expanse of Lake Superior at Spirit Mountain (1,320-foot summit with a whopping 700 feet of vertical!).

By the time I graduated high school, my unquenchable thirst for fresh tracks and face shots compelled me to roam widely among the far-flung mountain ranges of the American West.

During the epochal winter of 1994-95, I holed up in a log cabin near the burgeoning ski-bum mecca of Whitefish, Montana.

Although my fellow dirtbags and I never resorted to subsisting on ketchup packets and rabbit meat, we gladly endured the throes of privation in our dogged pursuit of new terrain. And once again, I turned to Warren Miller—who died at the age of 93 at his home on Orcas Island last week.

Our motivational video that season was Steep and Deep—Miller’s classic 1985 offering that features helicopter-assisted exploits of sundry legendary extreme skiers along with one of his most indelible quips—“Skiing is believing… in the power in you.”

Thanks for the inspiration, Warren. Long may you poach fresh turns.

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