Warren Miller film SKI BUM explores family, fatherhood, loss and skiing away from pain

February 25, 2021, 4:17 pm
Cecil Wayne Williams final resting place at Fraser Cemetery. Skiing, dogs and dads.

I sometimes feel like the Forrest Gump of the ski world, and it started with meeting legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller when I first moved to Vail in the early 1990s. For me, and I think for Warren, skiing was and is like running was for Forrest – a means of escape and coping with pain.

I didn’t realize at the time — but know it now after watching the documentary SKI BUM: THE WARREN MILLER STORY – that Miller was in a major transitional stage of his life, having just a few years earlier sold his film company to his son Kurt and moved to Vail to start writing.

As the Vail Daily sports and then ski editor, I was tasked with editing Miller’s often lengthy and sometimes rambling early attempts at a newspaper column that later became syndicated and widely distributed. To me, he was the narrator of the sport that defined my life, and it was surreal to find myself editing his written words.

Fast forward a few years – after his decade as a Vail resident — and the last time I saw Miller was for an in-person interview and to ski untrammeled powder the first year of the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Montana. He was living in a trailer there at the fledging private resort – a much nicer version of the teardrop trailer he first lived in at Sun Valley, Idaho, in the late 1940s.

Watching SKI BUM, which starts streaming on Discovery+ on Thursday, Feb. 25, was like seeing myself in a mirror and replaying all these years of doing anything and everything to be a ski bum, writing for newspapers and ski magazines and forever being in the background during the Winter Olympics, helicopter skiing with Warren Miller athletes and raising a family.

While SKI BUM, which first debuted at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival and won the Audience Award for Beyond Feature, includes interviews and film clips of ski industry luminaries I’ve interviewed or worked with over the years, it’s really a film about family.

And for me, skiing is the ultimate family sport. I think it started that way for Miller, too, but then his workaholic obsession with endlessly promoting and documenting the industry during its boom days cost him his family – or at least cost him precious time with them.

Former SKI Magazine editor and publisher Andy Bigford, with whom I worked on magazine projects over the years, says it best in the film – and I’m paraphrasing – when he posits that Miller gave up being a father to his kids in order to be the father of the modern ski industry.

I saw that underlying sadness when Vail hosted a memorial for Miller at the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame soon after his death at age 93 in 2018. His grown adult children were on hand and spoke eloquently of their late father, but I didn’t really understand the depths of their disconnection and loss until I watched this film.

Part of that stemmed from Miller’s own dysfunctional family growing up in Los Angeles, with an alcoholic and largely absentee father and a mother and sister who he alleges later stole from his film company. Skiing, surfing and traveling far from home were Miller’s escape mechanisms.

“Whether you’re surfing or you’re skiing or you’re drawing, it’s freeing your mind, and that is what he longed for as a child, and he did find that missing piece of his childhood,” Miller’s daughter Chris says in SKI BUM. “He’s 92 and still looking for the love of his father.”

My father, Wayne Williams, was raised by his grandparents after largely being abandoned by absentee parents. He found structure and an extended family in the United States Air Force, which led us to Germany, where I first learned to ski as a 5th-grader at a U.S. Armed Forces Recreation ski area near Garmisch.

Without his own example of how to be a good father, my dad, largely probably at the urging of my mom, figured out that skiing brought us together like nothing else. So when we left Germany and were stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., my parents bought a cabin in western Pennsylvania, where we spent my tween years taking weekend ski trips to Blue Knob ski area.

Then, in middle school, my dad got assigned as the Judge Advocate General (JAG) at the then still-active Lowry Air Force Base in east Denver and I started pounding my knees to pulp every weekend on the moguls of Mary Jane at Winter Park Resort – where my folks would eventually move and my dad is now buried in the cemetery by the Fraser Tubing Hill.

I, meanwhile, will have been in Vail for 30 years this June, raising three boys who love to ski powder – as we all were able to do together last week when three feet of fresh fell on Park City. My dad, however, drifted away from alpine as his knees gave out, and he became obsessed with Nordic skiing out around Hurd Creek Ranch and Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Grand County.

I now click into Nordic skis almost every day (it’s how I “walk” my dogs) and head out around our home in EagleVail. Every time we kick and glide, I think of my dad.

So, watching SKI BUM, I was impressed with director Patrick Creadon’s (Wordplay, Hesburgh, Ocean Stories: The Halls, 30 for 30 ep. Catholics Vs. Convicts) ability to continually bring the film back around to family, friendship, fatherhood and loss.

Even the athletes — Dan and John Egan, Greg Stump, Jonny Moseley, Scott Schmidt and others – talk about Miller in almost paternal terms. Schmidt, whom I met and skied with one magical day on a snowcat at Monarch, pays touching tribute during Miller’s last interview in 2018.

But as a Vail resident for now nearly 30 years, the people who aren’t interviewed but were part of Miller’s universe left me wanting even more from SKI BUM. There’s Vail’s Todd Brown in a fleeting clip being fitted for and skiing with a strap-on camera in an early version of a GoPro.

My youngest son and I just rode snowmobiles and skied over the weekend with Todd’s brother Mike and his family. Mike is a former U.S. Ski Teamer, coach and Colorado Ski Hall of Fame member whose parents are Vail pioneers and knows that families who ski together stay together. It was just recently the 29th anniversary of Todd Brown’s death snowmobiling in Crested Butte.

And then there’s the ultimate Vail connection to Miller, Chris Anthony, who did virtually anything he possibly could to get into Miller movies, including carrying the camera tripod. He’s not in this movie but immediately leaped to mind for me while watching it. Anthony is the reason I wound up heli-skiing with a friend in Alaska for my 40th birthday in 2005.

But after getting largely shut out by the weather in Cordova, where Anthony was a guide with Points North and Miller’s film company shot an annual segment, a friend and I flew to Valdez, where we wound up skiing with another occasional Miller film star and heli pioneer, Dean Cummings. The founder o H20, Cummings is now in the news for all the wrong reasons.

I ran into Anthony in Vail Village over the summer, and like most in the industry who knew Dean, he was not surprised by Cummings’ descent into mental illness. He described for me Cummings’ short fuse dating back many years, including on a Russian helicopter while skiing in Iran for a Warren Miller movie.

But what’s remarkable about Cummings, as highlighted in this in-depth dive by Outside Magazine, is how much skiing anchored his family even as his problems became more and more evident. It’s just such a tragedy Cummings did not get help before his mental illness escalated to the death of another man and the brutal impact that had on the Arriola family of New Mexico.

Loss, family, fatherhood, skiing, mountains, the Warren Miller biopic SKI BUM has it all, and it is especially worth watching following a week in which Mikaela Shiffrin of nearby Edwards culminated a year of loss following the accidental death of her father, Jeff, with no fewer than four medals at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Cortina, Italy.

Loss just keeps piling up for the nation (500,000 and counting) and residents of the Eagle River Valley who now mourn 20 COVID-19 victims, including Vail pioneer Bob Lazier and musician Rod Powell, avalanche victims and friends Adam Palmer, Seth Bossung, Andy Jessen and John Kuo, substance abuse and mental health victims such as a former colleague at the Vail Trail and many others, and cancer victims such as Highline Sports cofounder and friend Jeff Brausch and my own brother and best buddy on the ski slopes when we were young, Dan Williams.

There is one way to feel closer to them all, and that’s by standing on skis in the woods or on top of a mountain. Skiing keeps us together as families, and skiing and being outside in the mountains helps ease the pain of losing a loved one. All of these themes come through in SKI BUM: THE WARREN MILLER STORY, streaming on Discovery+ beginning Thursday, Feb. 25.

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David O. Williams
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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