Warren Anthony Miller, a ski-film pioneer in Sun Valley and lifelong pillar of the genre, died Wednesday at his home on Orcas Island, Wash. He was 93.
Born in Hollywood, Calif., in 1924, Miller took to the outdoors—and to photography—at a young age, surfing on a homemade board, hiking and camping with friends. Having fallen in love with skiing in the San Gabriel Mountains in the late 1930s, Miller turned his full attention to the burgeoning sport after serving in the Navy during World War II.
While famously living with friend Ward Baker in a teardrop camper trailer in Sun Valley Resort parking lots in 1946 and ’47, subsisting on tomato soup made of ketchup and hot water, Miller melded his love of skiing and his love for filming, sparking a prolific career of annual self-narrated ski films that as much defined the genre as propelled it forward.
From powder turns and light-hearted antics on Bald Mountain and around the West in the ’50s and ’60s to sport-progressing “big air” at exotic locations the world over, Miller’s films were the must-see winter event for generations of skiers and, more recently, snowboarders.
Miller said in a 1978 Idaho Mountain Express story that he ended up in Sun Valley because someone in Alta, Utah, told him and Baker that the lifts here were the easiest in the West to sneak onto—plus, the gambling in the town then made it feel like Las Vegas.
“I wasted a lot of film, but I learned that if you develop hand-eye coordination, and hold the camera as far away from the body as possible, and remain loose to absorb the vibrations, you can take steady film while skiing down a mountain,” he said.
That was the beginning of “five decades of wandering the world with a camera to document the white world above 6,000 feet,” he wrote in a 2009 column for the Mountain Express, titled “Nostalgia.” He called his first years here “the good old days. They were good, old and cold.”
Miller wrote that he was forever changed when he walked barefoot in an inch of fresh snow on Topanga Beach, Calif., in 1929. He stepped from the warm ocean and into the snow, “and a kind of visceral feeling happened that to this day is impossible for me to explain.”
That feeling guided Miller for the rest of his life, at times leaving him wondering, “Why are all my friends leaving the Pacific Northwest for Southern California and Arizona’s warm deserts while I am going to Montana for the winter where today the temperature was 25 below zero?”
But despite the cold, the lifestyle of the original ski bum was straightforward.
“My job was pretty simple,” he wrote. “All I had to do was get in my truck, which had a bed and a stove and was a refrigerator, and drive to where there was a chairlift running or a mountain to climb and skiers to make turns for me.”
A 2011 Mountain Express profile of Miller, written during one of his many sojourns back to Sun Valley, stated that he was proud to have diverted countless “would-be professionals” to the ski-bum life.
“The fact is, it’s so easy to slide into something in life that you don’t want to do,” Miller said. “I think you should follow your dreams. Of course, that’s a lot easier if you’re single.”
Miller noted in the interview that there were 15 chairlifts in the U.S. when he first visited Sun Valley—one of which is still here on Ruud Mountain. Now there are more than 450 resorts and more than 5,000 lifts nationwide.
And Miller said he knew why: “People have a universal search for freedom, and that freedom is governed only by adrenaline—by how long you can stay in the line.”
According to The Seattle Times, Miller had stated that a fitting memorial would be a run down a favorite slope in his honor. As he said throughout life, “If you don’t do it now, you’ll only be a year older when you do.”
For the record, Christmas Bowl was a favorite run of his.
“Treasure every moment of your life,” Miller wrote as the last line of his 2009 Mountain Express column. “Believe me, it goes by way too fast.”
The Times reported that Mount Baker, in Washington, received 19 inches of snow on the day Miller died. And as the Wood River Valley stirred awake on Thursday morning to news of the death of one of its most-beloved visitors, the blow was softened by a rare sight this winter—it was snowing.