A few months more than a hundred years ago, in the small French village of Megeve, a baker’s wife had a son named Emile.
In the last week, a lot of newspapers and some television news have chronicled the death of 100-year-old Emile Allais. They write about him winning two world championships in the downhill and slalom ski races in 1936 and 1937, as well as an Olympic gold medal in 1936. He would have won a third year in a row if he had not broken his ankle.
I became interested in his revolutionary ski technique when I lived in the Sun Valley parking lot in 1947-48. I studied a copy of his technique, spelled out in easy to understand photos but hard to understand French.
I didn’t understand a single word of it but the pictures made sense to me. Studying his technique may be why when I raced in Ogden, Utah, that winter against 126 other competitors, I walked away with the first place trophy.
That was the first and only winter I raced (that’s another story) but it really sold me on his French technique.
Emile, the person, really entered my life when he was teaching skiing the same year as I did at Sun Valley. I taught the absolute beginners and he (of course) taught the top class.
I was having trouble teaching the Arlberg technique under Otto Lang and through an interpreter, Robert Albuoy, Emile simply said, “Warren, you work for Otto Lang and if he tells you to wear banana-yellow pants and no parka, do it, because he is the one paying you to work for him. If you don’t want to do what he wants you to then I suggest that you quit tonight.”
That was a great, big, fat lesson and I never forgot it. Emile changed my attitude in that first conversation I ever really had with him (but if you ask my wife, she’ll probably tell you I’m still trying to change the way everyone else does whatever they do!).
The next winter, I applied for a job with him at Squaw Valley the year that they opened, and he hired me. I got to spend the winter with three other instructors and on a good day all four of us would have a pupil.
Emile was a very quiet person and led by example. When we sidestepped a powder snow hill, he was the first in line. We climbed the hill one day after an avalanche with Emile, two other ski patrolmen, a long rope and one wrench.
We pulled an avalanche-destroyed tower off of the hold-down cable and the lift was able to run again that same afternoon. Regulations and insurance were minimal in that era.
Emile allowed me to work on my first ski film and helped even more by skiing in it, adding a lot of excitement in the knee-deep powder snow.
When spring was on the land, his agent hired me to film a French ski technique film of Emile.
For almost three weeks we were up every morning by 4:30 a.m. so we could take advantage of the spring snow before the hot sun made it into slush, and still get a full day of teaching in.
His agent paid me $25 a day to supply and run the camera. That film never was finished but it was the first time I actually made money as a cameraman/filmmaker.
After a few years at Squaw Valley, Morgan Adams hired him away to run the ski school on Mt. Baldy in Southern California. This is an almost 10,000-foot high pile of granite less than 60 miles from the Los Angeles City Hall.
I last spent some time with Emile when he was already in his seventies and we skid and filmed with Dick Dorworth, Jon Reveal, and Pat Bauman. While we were waiting for a cloud to go by and the bright sun to shine, Emile took these three great skiers for a run in his then hometown of Verbier, France.
His revolutionary technique of keeping your skis together instead of in the classic Austrian snowplow position revolutionized skiing forever. For me, it was a lot more. He was a friend and someone who crossed my path over the years, and every time I was privileged enough to ski and film with him, and learn by his example, my life changed a little bit more.
The ski world was a lot better place while he was alive. Unfortunately, he lost his last race, which was down the Valle Blanche with his cardiologist on his 100th birthday.
Emile, you left an awfully large set of tracks in the snowfield of life.
Warren Miller is an American ski and snowboarding filmmaker. He is the founder of Warren Miller Entertainment and produced, directed and narrated his films until 1988. His annual films on skiing and other outdoor sports are renowned for their stunning photography, witty narrative humor, and the impressive talents of athletes. He has received wide acclaim for his promotion of the sport of modern skiing through his films spanning over 50 years and is an iconic figure in ski movie filmmaking. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of the Mammoth Times.