Hitting the Skids

A few of the stories we're willing to tell...

From Snoworld 1997
Text by Laurie Hendrie, Illustrations by Michael Witte

In the summer of ’68, Warren Miller’s film crew waited in silence atop the Tasmin Glacier in New Zealand. They had finished a fine day of skiing and filming, but now they were uneasy, staring first up at the clouds, which were sifting in faster than before, and then over at the helicopter that was supposed to ferry them back to the hotel, and then at their pilot, who with a maniacal sort of cheerfulness had just informed them that because of the late hour and the incoming clouds, this would be the last flight of the day.

Not that they weren’t ready to take it. They were tired, wind-stung and hungry. Leaving seemed a good idea. Problem was, there were four people ready to climb aboard a helicopter that could carry only two of them. The other two would have to ski down the glacier, then shoulder their equipment, cross the moraine on foot and walk out to the nearest road. This might sound like a good opportunity for taking in the scenic wonders of New Zealand, but it would also mean trekking in ski boots until dawn.

While the four friends waited, knowing that two of them would have to bow out gracefully to let the other two ride, they stamped at the snow and sniffed and studied the sky and peered at their bindings. As cinematographer Don Brolin described it, “Nobody was exactly volunteering.” Of course, Brolin says, they all knew who would be using the helicopter. In the ski film business, the talent always rides, meaning in this case, Olympic triple gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy and his teammate, silver medalist Leo Lacroix. Miller, on the other hand, was responsible for overseeing the entire project, which meant that he didn’t have a chance of squeezing onto the helicopter, and if he wasn’t going in style, neither was Brolin.

The pilot, however, was an ordinary man. He had come to them without a name, a beefy, cigar-chewing riddle in camouflage who had upholstered his helicopter yak fur and lined the back of it with old military weapons, ammo belts, grenades and carbines that he used for shooting red deer. When he looked over and saw Miller and Brolin putting on their skis again, he spat in disgust. Where the hell were they going? Just because he couldn’t fit everyone in, they were supposed to walk home? What kind of pansy did they take him for? He told them to shut up, take off their parks, and get in the copter. Then he gave the parkas to Killy and Lacroix, told them to put them on and ordered them to crawl under the bird. There, without further ado, he tied them, face down, to the ski rack that was suspended between the skids.

“For God’s sakes, you think I made it this far in my life by following the rules?” he kept muttering through a chunk of cigar. “I know what I’m doing, and when I don’t, I sure as hell know how to fake it until I do.” Whether he knew what he was tying world-famous Olympic gold medalists to skids, he didn’t say.

When he was satisfied with his knots, he jumped in the cab. The engine turned over, the rotos started, the snow blizzarded up and the little helicopter attempted slowly, valiantly, to lift off. It couldn’t. For every time it strained upward, it moved forward a few dozen feet and then sank back down onto the glacier, each time a little closer to the edge of the landing area. After a series of long, sea-sickeningly slow hops, it was perched at the very edge of a drop-away precipice. Miller and Brolin weren’t even breathing anymore, but the pilot seemed unflappable. He looked out over the chasm for a moment and then over at Miller and then back at Brolin—the same kind of look a military commander might give his men just before battle. Then, with a grin and a nod, he opened her up and the little lawn mower leaped into space and plunged straight down several hundred feet before it finally gained enough speed to drift forward as well as down.

“I thought so,” roared the pilot delightedly, punching Miller on the arm. “Copters, see, they’re kind of like buzzards—can’t take off when they get too full. Have to drop off the edge of something, use velocity to get going in the right direction. What’s wrong with you, mate?” He reached behind his seat and banged Brolin on the knee. “Aren’t afraid of a little free fall, are you?”

Brolin leaned forward to the window to see if he could spot Killy and Lacroix still strapped in below. No, he wasn’t afraid of free fall. Then again, he thought, he was just glad he wasn’t out there tied to the skids.