By Tyler Allen EBS Managing Editor
BIG SKY – It is impossible to overstate the impact that Warren Miller had on the ski industry, or on the millions of fans he encouraged to carve out an existence in the mountains, and spend their lives chasing the perfect powder day.
Miller died Jan. 24 of natural causes at his home on Orcas Island, Washington, sending a wave of mourning around the world that swelled especially high in his winter home of Big Sky.
Born in 1924, in Hollywood, California, during the height of the Great Depression, Miller emerged from a hardscrabble youth to become the most important figure in action sports filmmaking. He purchased his first camera at age 12 for 39 cents, and a pair of skis and bamboo poles for $2 when he was 15.
“When you come down the mountain from your first time on skis, you are a different person,” Miller wrote in his 2016 autobiography, “Freedom Found.” “I had just now experienced that feeling, if only for half a minute; it was step one in the direction I would follow the rest of my life.”
What he didn’t know at the time was there were countless others who would follow that very first step of his.
Inventing the quintessential ski bum lifestyle, Miller and his buddy Ward Baker lived in a teardrop trailer in the parking lots of ski areas around the West, shooting ducks and rabbits for dinner and filming their mountainside escapades on Miller’s 8-millimeter Bell and Howell motion camera. Those exploits appeared in his first feature film, “Deep and Light,” which premiered in the fall of 1950.
The decades that followed weren’t always the stuff of fairy tales professionally or personally, but his persistence, artistry and love for gravity made Miller a household name—drilling his distinctive voice and notorious wit into the memory of nearly everyone who has clicked into ski bindings or strapped on a snowboard.
When he and his wife, Laurie, took a chance on an upstart private ski community in Big Sky, the Yellowstone Club, Miller became the director of skiing and the club’s biggest advocate. The pair would spend the next two decades splitting their time between Montana and Orcas Island.
“I met Warren in 2005 and skied with him and my kids in March at the [Yellowstone] Club,” said Sam Byrne, co-founder of CrossHarbor Capital Partners, the principle owner of the Yellowstone Club. “I was just in awe. Being a kid that grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I idolized his movies. They defined skiing for me.”
Byrne grew up skiing at the now-defunct Boston Hill in Andover, Massachusetts, as well as Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain Resort, and said he always attends the annual Warren Miller film tour—including 2017’s “Line of Descent” in November at the Cabot Theater in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Warren and Laurie had a slope-side home above the eponymous, 140,000-square-footWarren Miller Lodge at the ski area, and by all accounts Miller was humbled by the gesture. The Yellowstone Club also honored his name with the Warren Miller Cup, a giant-slalom relay race held annually in February, which now includes more than 100 participants of all abilities—just the way Miller liked it.
But his impact on this southwest Montana community stretched beyond the gated ski and golf resort, as he also lent his name to Big Sky’s Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, located in Lone Peak High School.
The capital campaign to build the theater began with the 2011 Strings Under the Big Sky annual fundraiser, sponsored by the nonprofit Friends of Big Sky Education. When Miller was asked to lend his name to the venue, he was thrilled—and, again, humbled.
It opened in March 2013, with Miller on the stage, and he subsequently performed at the MOTH event in February 2014. He told two stories instead of one, but no one dared cut him off, according to WMPAC Artistic Director John Zirkle.
“It’s really Warren’s name that enables us to take big risks, and big leaps into the unknown, knowing there’s greater beauty on the other side,” Zirkle said. “I think it’s like Warren is there, especially when we’re getting nervous about something that is scary, to think about him whispering, ‘Hey, if you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.’”
Travis Andersen, a Bozeman-based photographer and owner of White Creek Art, has also heard Miller’s voice resonate through his career. He ran the original on-mountain photography business at the Yellowstone Club from 2001 to 2004, taking action photos of members and guests on the slopes.
“When you rode the chairlift with [Miller] and hearing his stories … you felt like you were in one of his movies. His voice was so iconic,” Andersen said. “Honestly, meeting my childhood heroes, Warren Miller and Scot Schmidt … was the highlight of my time working at YC.”
Schmidt’s professional career came full circle when he started working at the Yellowstone Club in 2003, and then became the official ski ambassador in 2006.
Schmidt was an extreme skiing pioneer, Warren Miller Entertainment film star and Montana native. He grew up racing at Bridger Bowl Ski Area, and when he was 18, his coach told him he had a shot to make it big, and should leave Montana for an elite program. Schmidt moved to Squaw Valley, California, in 1979 and competed for three seasons before the financial challenges of racing forced him to quit.
“I started freeskiing with a bunch of long-haired speed skiers, going big and fast on the 220s off of cliffs,” he said, referring to the 220-centimeter skis of the day.
In 1983, Miller sent a cameraman to Squaw named Gary Nate, who called Schmidt up to go ski Squaw’s biggest, gnarliest lines. The footage from that session would appear in Miller’s feature “Ski Time,” and a few weeks after the shoot, Schmidt received a personal letter from Miller that he still has to this day.
“Dear Scot,” it reads, “the footage of you leaping through space at Squaw Valley is probably the most spectacular footage to come into my office. Next time my crews go to a foreign country to film a segment for a feature film would you be interested?”
Of course, Schmidt said yes and ended up appearing in more than a dozen Warren Miller titles, including 1992’s “Extreme Skiing 3: The Scot Schmidt Story.” He managed to turn freeskiing into a profession and has been a North Face-sponsored athlete for 35 years.
“I’d never skied with him back in the ‘80s. It wasn’t until I got to Big Sky [that] I started to get to know the man,” Schmidt said. “It was such a pleasure working with him. He lived a very full life and should be proud of what he did and all the people’s lives, including mine, that he changed.”
Schmidt is now part of the team working on a feature-length documentary of the filmmaking legend’s life, narrated entirely by Miller himself. They hope to release it next fall and enter it into the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
“A lot of us owe him a huge debt of gratitude for changing our lives, inspiring and encouraging us to find our freedom in the mountains,” Schmidt said. “Warren is the most successful ski bum in history. He basically created the lifestyle and culture.”
Kristen Ulmer was a mogul specialist for the U.S. Ski Team in the ‘90s, was the first woman to ski Wyoming’s Grand Teton and appeared in three Warren Miller films. For over a decade she was considered the best extreme skier of her gender and was dubbed the female Scot Schmidt.
“I doubt that anyone who’s a ski film star would have careers if it wasn’t for Warren Miller,” Ulmer said, adding the first movie of his she saw was 1985’s “Steep and Deep,” starring Schmidt. “It was so cool and so sexy to watch him jump off those cliffs. It put a spark in my eye for cliff jumping.”
As Schmidt experienced through that first correspondence from Miller, he wasn’t just a brilliant artist, but a master salesman. Eric Ladd, the publisher of EBS, worked at the Yellowstone Club in its early days with Miller and founder Tim Blixseth, doing everything from ski guiding to real estate sales.
“Warren once told me that 90 percent of real estate sales are made on the hood of a car, 15 minutes before someone’s plane departs. Warren was the finest salesman I have ever met,” Ladd said. In 2002, Miller bought the hood of a car, had it turned into a desk and installed in Ladd’s office at the club.
Charlie Callander has worked at the Yellowstone Club since 2001 in a number of different roles, including vice president of sales and his current positions as a liaison for members and a board member of the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation.
He fondly remembers his days skiing with Miller, who would schuss down the private slopes in his red one-piece until he was 86, when his health no longer allowed him to ski.
“A lot of people at the club would use that 86 [year old] benchmark as, ‘I want to ski at least as long as Warren did,’” Callander said, adding that Miller wasn’t just an inspiration to members and guests, but the entire mountain staff.
“He’d attend the ski instructors’ morning meetings three times a year, telling them how important it was to bring people the freedom of skiing,” he said. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Passionate, perhaps beyond compare, about the sport of skiing, Miller will not be forgotten.
“We loved him and he’ll be deeply missed by everybody in our community,” Byrne said. “But that voice will live on.”
Ulmer believes that voice, and Warren’s legend, will live on in nothing short of infamy.
“He basically is the sport of skiing as far as I can see,” she said. “In 1,000 years, in the history books, there will be photo of Warren next to ‘Skiing.’”
If you’re one of the lucky ones to spend a season, decade, or a lifetime pursuing your perfect turn, take a moment to thank Warren Miller. His first step made the dream a reality for so many of us.