Growing up in Seattle, Cheryl Varner only went skiing twice. But when the Evergreen High School graduate matriculated at Boise State University in the 1970s, she got bitten by the bug between day trips to Bogus Basin and weekends at Sun Valley.
“Fortunately it was my latter part of college, otherwise I wouldn’t have graduated,” Varner, 70, told The Seattle Times via phone from her home in Lake Tahoe, California. “I became a ski bum as soon as I could after college.”
That career path, which took Varner to Vail, Colorado, for a decade and now 33 years in Tahoe, landed her a bit part in the latest Warren Miller Entertainment ski film, “Winter Starts Now,” which screens Nov. 19-20 at McCaw Hall. Although the company’s namesake passed away almost four years ago at his home on Orcas Island, the Warren Miller juggernaut continues undaunted with its 72nd annual preseason film to hype up the nation’s rabid skiers.
The segment featuring Varner shows her biking up the road in the wee hours to lay claim to the coveted first ride of the day on the KT-22 Chair at Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley). “When it comes to powder, you have to be here at oh-dark-thirty,” she says in the film. Her knack for nabbing the first chair has earned her the nickname “KT Cheryl.”
The early start is no big deal. “I’m always awake by 4 a.m.,” she said. “I have to shovel 50 stairs before I can get out of the house.”
The film’s penchant for characters like Varner creates a well-rounded portrait of the U.S. ski scene. For every big mountain panorama like heli skiing in the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska, there are humbler moments like interviews with teenage members of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as they train at Howelsen Hill, Colorado, a mom-and-pop “town hill” in the shadow of a destination resort.
While western destinations like Sun Valley and Solitude, Utah, dominate, the film’s directors also pay their respects to U.S. skiing’s northeastern roots and the craft culture of independent manufacturers. The film’s first sequence opens on a boat off the coast of Maine, where husband and wife Amy and Phil Taisey crack open steamed lobster tails before retreating to the home where they handcraft Amalgam Skis. Independent makers Winterstick Snowboards showcase their shop at the base of Sugarloaf. Maine’s largest resort is probably the farthest U.S. ski area from Seattle, though having visited last winter I can attest that it is worth the eastern pilgrimage.
“Winter Starts Now” also breaks the mold by unabashedly embracing the need to celebrate diversity in skiing through on-screen representation. One segment at Aspen, Colorado, films the annual meetup of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an umbrella for Black ski clubs from around the U.S., and spotlights teenage ski racers Jayna Davis, originally of Spokane, and the Rivers triplets. Another scene features Paralympic gold medalist Noah Elliott, who lost a leg to osteosarcoma but nevertheless persevered in a successful snowboarding career. Most impressively, the film ends with the stunning feat of Pete McAfee and Vasu Sojitra, who claimed the first disabled ski descent of Denali in Alaska in June.
These vignettes are proof that even in its 72nd year, a storied franchise can evolve with the times and hopefully prove to the ski industry that creating a more inclusive ski culture need not be out-of-bounds terrain.