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Warren Miller’s History

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How It All Started

By Warren Miller
Donner Pass, 1945

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I was temporarily stationed in San Francisco. It was December 1945 and I was returning from a three day pass in Reno. My Ensign brass, slightly tarnished from forty seven days of sea duty, still gleamed against the falling snow.

The windshield wipers had years ago reached their peak of efficiency. Now they barely slurped back and forth in time to the spasmodic wheezing of my already ancient 1937 Buick. I was driving over Donner Summit enroute back to the Naval Base. The smoothness of my prewar tires finally forced me to pay $29.50 for eleven pounds of baling wire and rope in a bag labeled "skid chains." The only man in town who knew how to put them on, charged a dollar an hour for his time and eight dollars an hour for his specially designed tools.Two hours later, they were ready to roll and I did.

The car now lurched, slipped and boiled its way up towards the summit. After negotiating Death Curve sideways and Corkscrew Canyon backwards, the car slid once more, hiccuped twice and ground looped into a snowbank.

As I settled back waiting to be rescued, the snow drifted through the cracks in my convertible top. Cracks? They were big holes.

I looked out of the largest hole and there on the nearby hillside gaily garbed girls and handsome men dipped and darted in what seemed to me a suicidal dance. They would hurtle down the hill at a frightening speed only to stop at the last instant and grab a piece of rope that would haul them skyward again. It was about the tenth time I watched a trio of carefree girls grab the rope and go up, that I noticed something strange about them. Their right arms were seven inches longer than their lefts. A malady, I was to find out later, that is not uncommon among guests at resorts featuring this type of uphill conveyance.

Being of sound mind?? and nosy by nature I decided to investigate this method of limb stretching. "Rope Tow," the ancient one answered as he took my $39.00 for three quarts of what, he told me, was home made anti-freeze. Two hours later I had a room in the hotel, a quart and a half of the anti-freeze in the radiator and a quart and a half of it on the dresser to have with dinner, and a pair of rented ski boots. "The toes are turned up on the end in case your skies fall off," the man said. To me the ski poles looked like they came from China with a rug wrapped around them but the skies had genuine metal edges.

With a two dollar rope tow ticket stapled to my Navy jacket I started across the railroad tracks towards the tinkling laughter that drifted across the new fallen snow. I forgot to rent a train schedule. By the time I did my version of a kickturn, the 8:45 out of Reno cut off the tip of one ski, the tail of the other and cut my poles in half which was O.K. because I could now reach the handles without standing on my tippytoes.

My blood, thinned by a tour of tropical duty, offered about as much warmth as a hot water bottle to an elephant with a head cold. This together with my near accident made me hurry the rest of the way to the rope tow. Actually, I floundered terror stricken. "Rope Tow," to quote one of our leading ski writers, "Man’s most economical way to get more people up more hills, in less time, than with any other means of uphill transportation yet invented."

In all fairness to the clothing manufacturers they should have a left handed rope tow, here and there, so that people could stretch the other arm a little now and then. My first day on the rope tow we will forget. By nightfall I looked like a prisoner of Ghengis Khan after fourteen hours on the rack.

That night the thermometer dropped to seventeen below zero. I found the home brewed antifreeze I had purchased was the wrong vintage for cars. It made no difference, however, since I had figured out that General Motors had enough sense to make engines so they would withstand a little cold. Two hundred and eighty dollars and a new engine later I found out that the General wasn’t as smart as he had led everyone to believe.

(Vintage photos courtesy of WarrenMiller.net)

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