January Skiing

By Warren Miller

Warren MillerThe Christmas rush is over and the ski resorts have returned to the January doldrums. The January doldrums might not sound like a good thing, but if you are a skier, you know that this is the best time of year.

This is the time of year when there are no customers and no lift lines because everyone thinks it is too cold to ski. However, with as many different kinds of temperature-defeating inventions as there are on the market today, there is no need to be cold. Layering, foam rubber face masks, boot covers, an extra pair of mittens and no lift lines are “where it’s at” for January skiers.

January is the time of year when you don’t have to give your credit card to the restaurant just to make a reservation and then get billed if you don’t show up.

By January, your new ski boots have remodeled your feet to fit them and you are no longer suffering from the stiff thighs you had earlier in the season after neglecting your fall ski-conditioning regimen.

January is the time of year when you don’t have to mow the lawn, shop for gifts, wash the car or entertain kids who are home on school break.

January is the time of year when you don’t have to park a mile and a half away from the lifts and ride to them in a converted hay wagon during a dreary drizzle. Instead, you can drive right up to the lodge and park within sight of the lifts.

Best of all, January is the time of year when those big storms swirl out of the Aleutian Islands and dump not just a few inches of snow, but many feet of it.

I remember a huge storm that hit in January of 1946. I was on leave from the U.S. Navy and learning to ski in Yosemite when a big blizzard showed up and dropped almost four feet of snow on Badger Pass overnight. It was the next afternoon before the rotary snowplows had the road plowed out so we could finally get up to the lifts.

Trying to learn to ski in four feet of powder snow on a flat, rope-tow hill using a brand-new pair of seven-foot-six-inch, very stiff, Swiss Attenhofer, hickory skis proved to be impossible for me, so I went back to my pair of very soft seven-dollar army surplus skis.

Early the following morning when I got back up to Badger Pass, the resort was abuzz with a rumor that a skier hadn’t returned the night before and was presumed lost and hopefully alive somewhere out there. Being very young and heroic, I volunteered to accompany two forest rangers on their sector of the search and rescue effort. Of course we didn’t find the lost man, but instead got ourselves lost and had to spend the night sleeping in a snowbank in the woods.

That night would take an hour to describe, so I will simply skip forward 13 days when someone came trudging back from an eight-mile ski trip to Ostrander Lake. While still four miles out on the trail, this skier had come across Mr. Missing, who was still alive, but very weak. The missing man had found a Forest Service rescue toboggan strapped to a tree and had taken it down and holed up in the blankets. He slept on the toboggan and subsisted on lichens for the next 13 days.

A rescue party was immediately assembled to go out and haul him in. We drove four more miles up towards Glacier Point where half a dozen ski instructors had strapped on sealskin climbers to go get Mr. Missing. The command team told me and another not-very-good skier that the last mile back to the ambulance was almost all uphill and that they would need some guys on snowshoes to haul the guy up that hill. “That’s for the two of you to do,” they said.

So, we snowshoed in to meet the rescue party and the victim at the bottom of a fairly steep canyon. Fortunately, we were able to haul him up the trail at the end of a long towing rope, because he smelled like a six-pack of pigs in a piggery that hadn’t been cleaned since the tenth of July.

We were exhausted after hauling him up the long hill, so the ski instructors immediately took over the toboggan and the almost-comatose victim and proceeded to just coast back down the now well-packed trail to the waiting ambulance and the press photographers. By the time my pal and I had awkwardly snowshoed back down to the road, the press pictures had been taken and all of the ski instructors and the ambulance had driven away.

It was a good thing that I had driven up there in my own car; otherwise, I would have had to snowshoe back down the three or four miles to the Badger Pass Lodge, break a window to get in and telephone to be rescued myself.

Not all January skiing is quite that dramatic, but hopefully the storms are that size and you can get out there and enjoy skiing without the crowds.