This year’s celebration of winter adventure from Warren Miller Entertainment serves up the usual spectacle of skiing and snowboarding in exotic locales that always makes viewers ache to hit the slopes and envy the ability of those who make extreme look easy.
There is also a surprise in this year’s film: a segment that depicts cross country skiing as you’ve never seen it before that prominently features Aspen native Simi Hamilton.
The “Face of Winter,” the 69th installment of the iconic Warren Miller series that marks the beginning of winter for more than 300,000 viewers annually, is the first since Miller’s death in January at age 93. The film, now touring through Colorado, ends with a sweet tribute to the man who created the genre and attracted millions to winter adventure in the high places.
The cross country segment stands out not only because Nordic skiing is rarely seen in Warren Miller films — this is only the eighth time in seven decades, and the first since 1986 – but also because it makes cross country look fabulously cool.
Local lineup for Warren Miller’s “Face of Winter”
- Thursday: Lakewood Cultural Center, 7:30 p.m.
- Friday-Saturday: Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Center, 7:30 p.m.
- Nov. 7: Parker, Pace Center, 7:30 p.m.
- Nov. 8-11: Boulder Theater, multiple showings
- Nov. 9: Evergreen, The Wild Game, 7:30 p.m.
- Nov. 13: Loveland, the Rialto Theater, 7:30 p.m.
- Nov. 14: Northglenn, DL Parsons Theatre, 7:30 p.m.
- Nov. 15-17: Denver, the Paramount Theatre, multiple showings
- Nov. 19-21: Lone Tree Arts Center, 7:30 p.m.
In August, a Warren Miller crew went down to New Zealand to film U.S. Ski Team cross country racers — including Hamilton, a three-time Olympian — while they trained for their upcoming season. What we get to see isn’t languid skiing over the river and through the woods. This is the styles of skate skiing and kicking and gliding above timberline, against the backdrop of majestic panoramas filled with steep, massive mountains.
The segment was shot at a place called Snow Farm on New Zealand’s South Island, where the ski team goes for summer training because August there is akin to February in the Northern Hemisphere. Timberline there is much lower than in Colorado because of its latitude.
“It’s such a cool spot,” Hamilton said from Aspen in a phone interview last week. “You’re up above treeline the whole time. It’s still at moderately low altitude; it’s only about 5,000 feet, which is really good for training. But the peaks down there are just unbelievable, like 9,000 to 10,000 feet vertical relief from the valley floors to the top of the peaks.”
The segment also includes footage of the women’s team sprint at the PyeongChang Olympics last February when Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the first Olympic cross country gold medal in U.S. history, prevailing by half a ski length over a pair from Sweden with a desperate lunge at the finish line. That historic achievement helped sell the idea for the segment with the Warren Miller folks.
“It’s such an honor,” Hamilton said. “They have historically just been about alpine skiing and snowboarding, backcountry stuff, so it’s super cool that they decided to showcase our team and our team’s personality. They are so good at what they do. They were so accommodating. We were basically just doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing for training every day and they just worked around our schedule.”
Hamilton’s grandfather, D.R.C. Brown, was one of the pioneers of the Aspen Skiing Company, serving as president and general manager for 22 years. Ruthie’s Run on Aspen Mountain is named after Hamilton’s grandmother, Ruth Humphreys Brown, and Baby Ruth at Snowmass is named for Hamilton’s mother, also named Ruth. She never could have dreamed her cross country-skiing son would star in a Warren Miller film.
“Bravo, Warren Miller, for including the cross county team and the spectacular footage that captures the heart and spirit of an extremely demanding sport,” said Hamilton’s mother, who coached at the Aspen Valley Ski Club for many years. “And to have Simi be highlighted front and center, really electrifying.”
At one point in the film, Hamilton says cross country racing is “a little bit like NASCAR with Spandex.”
“Face of Winter” includes segments of heli-skiing in Alaska, Iceland, Chile and British Columbia — typical Warren Miller fare — along with ski mountaineering segments shot in Denali National Park and Chamonix, France, the cradle of alpinism where extreme skiing is almost routine.
But cross country was overdue for a little love in the Warren Miller lineup. Over the years, previous cross country segments featured Hayward/Telemark, Wis. (1986 and 1979), Putney, Vt. (1971), Minneapolis (1973), Squaw Valley, Calif. (1983) and Frisco, Colo. (1976).
Modern cross country racing is no longer just a series of lengthy races stretching from six to 30 miles that can seem tedious to those who don’t understand the grueling demands of the sport. In recent years, the sport has added sprint races, made up of a series of head-to-head duels less than a mile in length on multi-lap courses. That’s the race Diggins and Randall won in PyeongChang. It’s also Hamilton’s specialty, hence his NASCAR analogy.
“It’s really cool that the high-profile mainstream setting of Warren Miller is exposing a lot more people to what cross country skiing is in the 21st century,” Hamilton said. “It’s a fast, fun, spectator-friendly sport. It strikes down a lot of the misconceptions of the older-school vision of cross country skiing.”