Warren Miller skiing

Photo: Courtesy Warren Miller Company

IN THE OPENING MOMENTS OF WARREN MILLER’S 1984 FILM SKI COUNTRY, which is considered a classic of the genre he created, the self-taught narrator-director-producer advises viewers to “hang on tight, ’cuz here we go.”

“We’re going to ski where there’s no lift lines, and no bad snow either,” Miller narrates. “We’re going on a six-month, around-the-world ski trip, and I’m going to be your guide.” The next 90 minutes are filled with slo-mo shots of skiers backflipping off cliffs, plunging into waist-deep powder, carving S-turns through frostings of white, and crashing spectacularly in explosions of snow. There are also bloopers, corny jokes, pretty women, and a madcap series of wipeouts by people tobogganing on air mattresses.

All the elements that fans had come to rely on year after year are there: extreme skiing, exotic locations, silly sequences, and hokey but earnest narration, peppered with the bons mots fans call Warrenisms—“Whatever resort you are at, that is the best one in the world.” Released in the VCR era, such films are becoming harder to find, but fans can still view excerpts on YouTube, where one person recently commented on the opening of Ski Country: “Is there anything better than kicking off the winter season with a Warren Miller film? The new ones are still great but I miss that voice!”

Unless you’re a skier, Warren Miller may be the most prolific filmmaker you’ve never heard of. In addition to dozens of ski movies, he’s directed films about sailing, surfing, and off-road racing during half a century of hauling camera gear around the world. He’s inspired generations of extreme-sports filmmakers, having practically invented the blooper-filled format that’s now a staple of ESPN, Fuel TV, and YouTube.

Now 87 and semiretired, Warren Miller divides his time between Orcas Island and a Montana ski resort. His loose definition of “semiretired” means he no longer makes films (and in fact is now legally barred from doing so, due to a dispute following the sale of his production company), but he continues to write books, newspaper columns, and his autobiography, while occasionally lecturing, raising funds for charitable causes, and comanaging the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, which teaches business skills and entrepreneurship to youth.

Though he can seem like a lovable-but-gruff curmudgeon, Miller is actually a softie, a sentimentalist, and a patriot. He’s traveled to spectacular spots across the globe, but still feels that “America is the best place to live.” Even so, some friends were surprised by his early-1990s decision to call the Pacific Northwest home.

MILLER NEVER EXPECTED to end up here, having spent most of his life in Southern California. He had been living in Hermosa Beach, where he owned a house, his office building and studio, and other real estate. When he wasn’t traveling and skiing, he was at the beach or on the water, surfing or sailing or swimming. He hates ski resorts in the muddy and barren off-season—“nothing worse than walking around, looking up and seeing no snow and saying, ‘Well, what are we going to do today?’”

Miller soon committed himself fully to the pursuit of an unfettered life, driven by a belief that “the basic instinct of man is freedom.”

After he and Laurie married, in 1988, they spent a decade living in Vail and Maui. But Warren never forgot that ferry ride and in 1992 he and Laurie decided to settle on Orcas Island, where they bought waterfront property and built a home. He realized he could indulge his two loves—sea and snow. “It filled, if you will, every one of my needs,” he said. “And I was with Laurie, and that filled them all up.”Then, in 1984, he met Laurie Kaufmann, who owned a ski shop and school in Seattle. Several months later, Warren joined Laurie and a group of friends for a bike ride around San Juan Island. As the gang left Anacortes, Miller stood on the ferry deck and, looking back into its wake, saw one of those picture-postcard scenes: a sailboat framed by the looming bald-white peak of Mount Baker. “It just turned me inside out,” he said. “I had never seen anything that pretty, that beautiful.”