January 23, 2001
Mr. Kurt Miller
Warren Miller Entertainment
2540 Frontier Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
With your father living in the San Juans and you being around Seattle off and on for a long time, you must have heard about The Mountaineers – those guys with the long lines of climbers going up Mt. Rainier in the early days. Have you ever heard about Meany Lodge, the Mountaineers’ ski hut at Stampede Pass? Meany is a remarkable place in a lot of ways and if you haven’t seen it you should check it out.
A couple of years ago in your movie you featured a guy who ran a rope tow for his own kids. Meany has sort of that kind of feel about it – only with a lot more people and sort of a time warp aspect to it. In the issue of Ski magazine where your dad’s column first appeared this year, there was an article about a guy skiing one of Colorado’s lost ski areas. The folks he interviewed reminisced about dads running the rope tow and kids learning to ski in a non-commercial environment. Then he found the old runs and realized that they were pretty sweet. Meany is real close to that.
Meany is about three miles in from the road. You ride in to the lodge on a 1950s vintage snow cat (a Bombardier "muskeg ox" that has been stretched and had its tracks widened by the guys at the Lodge). If there are too many of you some tow behind.
The Lodge interior looks like it was frozen in the 50s – and many of the Meany regulars were obviously skiers then. There are Tyrolian style wall paintings and lots of little kids running around. Everything looks like it has been improvised by guys who tend to over-engineer. Everything is done by volunteers and their priority is obviously skiing, not fashion.
So here is the first pitch – family scenes, old guys (some in their 90s!), teenage boarders with bleached hair, everybody in ski wear with lots of duct tape, a bunch of odd contraptions including ancient snow cats and a rope tow of almost Rube Goldberg complexity – and everybody having a great time. Could come close to the snow-making scenes of those two guys with the ski jump on the farm. Film in the summer and you’ll get footage of people brushing the slopes by hand, digging ditches, remodeling buildings, cutting firewood, overhauling snow cats, erecting towers, etc. In the winter there is a PSIA ski school affording pictures of cute kids snowplowing, going off jumps, falling down, etc.
On one wall of the main room in the Lodge is a rack full of tow grippers. Kurt, you may not have grown up skiing with tow grippers, but I’ll bet your dad can tell you stories about them. Can you think of another place in the US where they are still in use? (They are prohibited by the ANSI lift codes now, but Meany was using them when the Washington regulations were adopted and it was grandfathered in.) The style used at Meany is what the Kiwis call "nutcrackers". They are metal pliers that cam on the rope, but they also hang from a belt at about crotch level. The Meany tow is about 1,200 feet long with a 500 ft. elevation gain. The upper part of it is real steep. They used to run it fast, but in this age of softies they keep it down to about 19 mph (know how fast a high speed quad goes?). Here is the second pitch – imagine people being pulled up this hill with rollers and bumps and drifted ungroomed snow on either side of the track. Imagine them getting air off the bumps and flying when they crest over the edge onto the platform at the top of the tow. Now imagine that these folks include boarders, skiers with funny old gear and hand knitted hats, telemarkers, little kids with aggressive attitudes – all with lots of duct tape. Now imagine the footage of the newbies! Kurt, guess what happens when you clamp down with a tow gripper before you are up to speed? At the beginning of the season they station a guy at the bottom of the tow with a shovel to fill in the faceplants. The steep part with the rollers causes spectacular flailing falls with even more spectacular slides. When someone falls at the top everyone in line behind him either bails or falls and the pile-ups of people unloading from the tow would get as many laughs as those vintage scenes of people unloading from chairlifts. For most people skiing in America nowadays it will also seem pretty damn exotic (or at least anachronistic for those old enough to remember when rope tows were high tech). It may not be India and skiing with bandsaw blade edges, but the skiing at Meany isn’t like anywhere else.
Now, here comes the clincher – the skiing itself is good and photogenic. Because the hill doesn’t get skied during the week it usually has untracked snow on the weekends. Because it is on the east side of the crest it gets snow which is a whole lot lighter and drier than that at Snoqualmie just up the road. (Listen, there is an outfit called Cascade Powder Cats that is running a snow cat skiing operation just a little way down the ridge from Meany.) Imagine these folks with the old gear and the funny hats (and the boarders and the little kids with helmets and attitudes) skiing open pitches of deep untracked powder. If you learn to ski at a place like Meany where only a little of the snow gets groomed, you learn to ski really well, so these guys look smooth. Then they drop into the trees. Or they plunge down a really steep bank into a gully with a hot-tub sized hole full of water at the bottom. Or they launch off a cornice or a cliff. Or they hit a kicker. There are something like 30 named runs from the top of that tow (most of the names are from the Al Capp cartoon strip which kind of reinforces the time warp aspect of the whole scene.) There is enough variety to keep the crowd happy for the weekend, which also means that there is enough to give you decent shots of a lot of interesting terrain. The view from the top of the lift is pretty neat with all of the peaks in the central part of the Cascade crest visible on a clear day. On one side of the lift the hill is exceptionally steep with widely spaced trees. This slope gives some of the sweetest short powder shots you can imagine. The get-back ("psychopath") is at the top of a cliff and protected with rotten climbing ropes. The pool in the stream at the bottom of the cliff is named for Ferguson, a guy who fell in sometime in the late 50s. Kurt, you could complement the humorous footage of the rope tow with shots of folks skiing some really good stuff. The same folks who run the chain saws and welders in the summer are out there cutting smooth arcs in the powder during the winter. Or, send up a few of your big-name skiers or snowboarders and we’ll show them backcountry snow where it is as exciting going up as down.
You can pretty well imagine the scenes in the interior of the lodge after a day of skiing. You’ve got about a hundred folks (who’ve shed the ski wear with the duct tape for polypro long johns) sitting around waiting for dinner in a sort of museum / rec room environment. You’ve got old guys snoozing. You’ve got a bunch of kids running around in and out of the snow. You’ve got teenagers trying to claim a spot for themselves where nobody can see what they’re up to. The energy level gets higher and higher as dinner approaches. The place must look pretty much like it has for the last 70 plus years. Then the whole crowd gets fed – a spectacle in itself. Periodically they try to revive the tradition of folk dancing after dinner. Kurt, it’s what ski lodges were like forty years ago!
The final pitch is the scene at the end of the weekend. Three o’clock, the lessons are over, the lift ropes get hung so they won’t be buried before the next weekend, and everybody gets ready to head down. Now, over the weekend there have been four or five cat loads of skiers coming to the lodge but everybody goes home at the same time. Imagine 30 plus people loaded into this old snow cat. Imagine the packs and stuff piled high on top. Imagine that forty or fifty more people have skied or snowboarded down to the spot where the trail flattens out and lined up on either side. Image the loaded, topheavy-looking snow cat lumbering up between these two lines trailing a couple of ropes. Then imagine the footage of the snow cat towing all those skiers and snowboarders, in their funny hats and duct tape, as they whiz down a logging road throwing snowballs, playing crack-the-whip, knocking snow off the overhanging branches and generally celebrating another weekend. Imagine the look on the face of the snowmobiler coming the other way who cuts around the snow cat only to find fifty skiers trailing behind. Imagine the scene when the cat stops at a snow park dominated by RVs with snowmobile trailers. Imagine skiers inching past mud puddles big enough to hide a car so that they don’t have to take off their skis. Imagine snowmobiles whizzing everywhere, dozens of cars covered with snow, and this ancient snow cat with the packs on top whipping around in the middle of it. Imagine those folks with the funny hats and duct tape unloading skis and boards and kids and gear in the middle of the mud and trucks and confusion. Imagine them saying goodbye to each other and then getting in their fancy SUVs and Subarus. The images of towing out behind the cat and the scene at the parking lot would be compelling even without the shots of the rope tow and the skiing!
Now here is the thing. If you want to capture the Meany scene you’re going to have to act now because they are talking about building themselves a chair lift! It is true that they’ve talked about a chair lift for the last ten or twenty years, but this time they’re serious. They have a couple of schemes, but it looks like they can get most of the parts of an old double chair for free and they’re able to scare up a lot of volunteer labor. It would be a sad thing if this uniquely Northwest ski experience vanished before you got your chance. I don’t know what role you have in the films after having sold your company, but filming at Meany would give scenes that aren’t going to show up in any of the new-school videos and would provide a glimpse into a vanished era. Kurt, even if this isn’t your job anymore, do your fans in Seattle a favor and pass the idea on to whoever does look at this kind of stuff.
So, anyway, let me know if I’ve sold you. There is a Meany website with some pictures and a trail map at http://www.obatik.com/meany/. I’d love to host some of your guys if they want to check the Lodge out some weekend, winter or summer. I’ll even show them my favorite runs. I’ll lend them a chainsaw. Just let me know – and remember, if you don’t do it now you’ll be another year older when you do.