In 1946, the ski world was a completely different place that very few people in the world would recognize today.
America had less than 15 chairlifts in the entire country as Ward Baker and I started for Alta in mid-November 1946. I was six months out of the Navy, after four years in the service. I’d saved enough money to publish my first cartoon book, “Are My Skis on Straight?”
With a few cartons full of books, Ward and I headed for the only two chairlifts in Utah at the time, at Alta. Every year, Alta was usually one of the first ski resorts in the U.S. to have its lifts running, in early November.
Here is what ski country looked like if you wanted to ride a chairlift: California had two, one at Sugar Bowl in northern California; and 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 Jackson Hole; Colorado did not have a single chairlift, so you would have to drive all the way to Mount Tremblant, out of Montreal, to get to the next one. I believe Mad River Glen and Stowe each had one.
My skis and cameras captured images of them as the ski industry grew in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s easy to talk about all-day chairlift tickets costing only between $2.50 and $4, but a Coca-Cola in those days only cost 5 cents unless you bought it at the top of the mountain, and then it was 10 cents.
Yet it’s impossible to put a price tag on how it felt to ski in those days. Likewise, you can’t put a price tag on how it feels today. Many have sold their home in a big city and gone to a ski resort for their lifetime career. They used to be called ski bums and probably still are today. In my view, they are people with the courage to follow their own convictions, depending on the job they select. They have become snow farmers, living and dying financially by what falls from the sky. That started to change when someone figured out a way to make the snow come out of a hose and not have to wait for the storms to come.
Elaine Kelton 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 they had a gondola and two chairlifts. Today, Vail Valley has more than 30,000 people living there. It’s the size of Bozeman, Mont., and of course, everyone there, in one way or another, is completely dependent on how much snow falls out of the sky.
On a given Saturday or Sunday, Vail has more skiers in one day than the entire U.S. 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. Just give me that person for one blue-sky day, a skiff of powder snow on a groomed run, a chairlift ticket and a good ski instructor, and they’ll be hooked for life. Be careful—that first day will change your life forever, for the better, I believe. The ski industry’s greatest sales tool is a skier who takes a friend to the mountains and exposes him or her to the greatest freedom known to man!
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. 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. I was fortunate in one respect that I did grow up in a dysfunctional family so I never learned a work ethic. When I went skiing, I just went skiing and lived by my wits, which seemed to be enough in those days.
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. It 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 find someone who will let you plug your electric blanket into their electricity at night in exchange for keeping their driveway plowed out every morning. Sounds like a good deal to me.
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 hadn’t invented wetsuits by then and riding surfboards in January was way too cold in Southern California. Particularly when you can see the San Bernardino Mountains covered with snow as you are driving down the street with your 100-pound, redwood surfboard in the back of your car. Or you wanted to go golfing but it was raining—making that great snow in the mountains.