Friday, February 11, 2011

Keep Your Tips Up

Ancient skiers in Sun Valley


By WARREN MILLER

    In January I spent a great four days in Sun Valley with the Ancient Skiers, a group formed in 1962 that has grown to 1,000 members ages 60 and over who ski in the Northwest. Some 250 were in Sun Valley from Jan. 17-23. It’s a group that takes the word “ancient” and skiing seriously. They don’t take themselves as seriously.

     For instance, the master of ceremonies at the dinner dance asked anyone with a metal joint replacement to stand up. More than half of the 240 in the audience stood up. He asked the people with only one knee or hip replacement to sit down. This left over half of the people still standing. Then he asked the people with two joint replacements to sit down. This cut the still-standing people in half. Next the people with three replacements were asked to sit down. There were still about 12 people standing. When he asked the people with two knees and two hip replacements to remain standing, nine people were still on their feet because they could—with their new knees and hips!

     It was a venerable audience consisting of people who had started skiing in Sun Valley as far back as the 1930s. Here are a few examples:

     John Woodward, 96, is still on the masters’ racing circuit on an almost weekly basis. He’s a sight to behold in his skintight downhill racing suit with matching colored brain bucket. His downhill ski poles are bent in graceful curves for a deeper, more aerodynamic tuck. Impressively, he remembered that I had made a promotional ski film for him in 1954 when he worked for Anderson and Thompson Ski Co. A widower, John recently remarried. The story goes that he and his intended went to REI to register for their wedding: naming new bicycles, new kayaks and new camping gear! That’s living for the future!

     Nelson Bennett is also 96. I’m 86, and he and John started to make me feel inferior. Nelson ran the Sun Valley Ski Patrol for many years. I hadn’t seen Nellie since I stopped skiing with him 35 or 40 years ago because he refused to use those new-fangled safety bindings. He kept saying, “I’ve never been hurt with these Dover Toe Irons.” However, two or three years ago someone at the Denver airport stole his 39-year-old, lace-up leather boots and he almost tore the airport apart looking for them.

     At the banquet, hostess Anne Marie Wick and her husband, Peter, after spending 36 winters restoring wooden powerboats, have finally put their 55-foot Chris-Craft on the market. They had planned on skiing 100 days this winter but Peter, at 80 years old, broke his shoulder on his third day of skiing. Right now he has a season pass for sale at a discount. They did a great job of being the “master and mistress” of ceremonies.

     The afternoon before, on Jan. 20, Lou Whittaker gave a great speech called “From Rainier to the Himalayas” in the Opera House. It was about what it feels like to summitMt. Everest as the leader of a successful expedition. Lou ran the guiding school on Mt.Rainier for many years and has climbed to its summit more than 300 times. I seriously questioned him on why. He didn’t have an answer.

     The Ancient Skiers honored two of their members who had won Olympic medals with Sun Valley Sun awards this year. In 1952 at Oslo, Ski Hall of Famer Jeanette Burr had won her medal in the giant slalom wearing Buddy Werner’s tights. This was the first time that skintight racing togs were worn in a ski race. Burr, 83, also won the Diamond Harriman Pin five times for placing in the Harriman Races, a feat matched only by Olympic gold medalist Gretchen Fraser.

     In 1952 also in Oslo, Peter Kennedy won a silver medal as a pairs figure skater in the Olympic pair skating with his sister Karol. After winning the silver medal, he showed up in Sun Valley and tried to make the Olympic ski team the next time the winter Olympics came around.

     After the awards were given out, I was asked to talk about the real old days at Sun Valley—in 1947 when then-general manager Pappy Rogers let Ward Baker and me live in our 8-foot-long trailer and sleep in the Challenger Inn parking lot for two consecutive winters. I earned a season pass and three meals a day by painting cartoon murals on the walls of the employee cafeteria. He said I could eat there as long as I was painting the cartoons on the walls. That was the slowest mural job I ever painted.

     I had a grand time talking to old friends about how good those old days were. Were they really? Snow grooming had not been invented and when I lived in Sun Valley there were very few runs on Baldy. You had “Exhibition,” “The Canyon,” “River Run” and “College” down to the first catwalk. There was the “Ridge” and “Rock Garden” and “Christmas Bowl” as well. There was no Warm Springs lift. There were only three single chairs. We could ski in powder snow from one storm to the next.

     In the late 1930s, Dick Durrance and his crew designed the mountain trails. They were way ahead of their time as nearly the entire mountain was cut in the fall line. In my opinion, it’s probably the single best-developed mountain in the world.

     This amazing group of Ancient Skiers was all out on the hill early the next morning for first tracks on the groomed corduroy of Baldy. Speaks highly for hip and knee replacements!






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