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At 86, James Salter has been many things: West Point graduate and Korean War fighter pilot, skier and climber, New Yorker and Aspenite, and one of our greatest writers on the allure of life in the outdoors. Two of Salter’s works in particular helped define the emerging world of adventure sports: his 1979 novel Solo Faces, which follows a climbing purist named Vernon Rand as his ambition propels him from California to Chamonix, in the French Alps; and his script for the 1969 film Downhill Racer, in which Robert Redford plays a lone-wolf member of the U.S. Ski Team. That world and those sports have evolved almost beyond recognition in the decades since, but Salter’s insights into the curious alchemy that occurs when young men fall under the spell of the mountains remain acute. When Tim Sohn met him for lunch in Manhattan, Salter—sharp, incisive, energetic, and exceedingly gracious—had just returned from winter in Aspen, where he’s lived at least part of the year since 1969.
SOHN: Did you get any skiing in this winter?
SALTER: I didn’t ski this year, because I have a bad leg, but hopefully, if it heals up, I’ll go next year.
Was it hard to be in Aspen and not ski?
Well, a little. Often, when you meet people for a drink or a meal, they’ve come down from skiing and talk about snow conditions, which can be very boring if you’re not skiing. And of course, when you look up at the mountain from Aspen, you see Corkscrew, you see the bottom of Little Nell, and that kind of calls to you.
Skiing’s changed a bit since you moved to Aspen. Have you seen the X Games?
I don’t go to them, but there’s a brilliant blue light in the heavens that comes from those games when they’re in town. It’s unbelievable what they do. I mean, they’re skiing in these barrel-shaped things on skis that are rounded front and back, and they’re 16 years old. Phenomenal, but the connection with what used to be skiing and the life of skiing is tenuous.
It’s certainly different from the world of Downhill Racer. Tell me about when you and Robert Redford went to Europe, to the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, to research the film. I’ve heard that was kind of improvisational.
Exactly. We weren’t invited. I mean, we went over there to be with the ski team mainly, and as I recall there was some, uh, additional business—I believe the Olympic organizers had sold the rights to film to somebody else, so I think Redford was trying to bootleg some footage of the Olympic races for the film, which was not authorized. I wasn’t involved.
You’ve said that Redford’s character was based on both Billy Kidd and Spider Sabich, famous U.S. Ski Team members from the sixties. Do you see any skiers today with that individualist’s attitude? I think of Bode Miller.
Bill Johnson, the American who won the downhill gold in the Olympics in 1984, was a pre–Bode Miller, the same type without the trailer. Not quite the panache of Miller. Just an outsider, and he claimed he based his persona on Redford’s character. I mean, in a way it’s too silly. But, you know, movies are very influential.
That film was the start of a productive relationship between you and Redford.
We had met in New York before that. But yes, after Downhill Racer we stayed in touch, and we talked about doing a subsequent movie, a climbing movie.
Which was Solo Faces.
Right. That book started as a film script I wrote for him. In the end he didn’t like it. I was thinking of that book the other day. I saw a video on YouTube of the guy [Swiss climber Ueli Steck] who soloed the Eiger in 2 hours and 47 minutes. Have you seen it? It makes that whole book seem like the day of sail. Really, it made it almost irrelevant I thought.
But don’t you think there’s continuity in the kinds of people who are attracted to climbing, the challenge, the motivation?
Climbing is a lot different now—there’s more rock and roll—and that dates the book in a way. Although, as you say, the nature of certain characters hasn’t changed.
You climbed with Yosemite pioneer Royal Robbins as part of your research for Solo Faces. What was he like?
Robbins is a smart guy. He’s intensely competitive and reads a lot, but he didn’t discuss those things. They were merely part of the subsurface.
And you went to Chamonix, where the book is based. Have you been back there recently?
I was there two years ago. It’s changed a little, but it’s an old French town. You feel it is an old place. They didn’t just throw this together for you. Have you ever skied at Wengen? You ski down through the town itself, backyards of people, down little streets, through the kitchen, so to speak. It’s a different view of things.
Those places are less changeable than Aspen, I suppose. Have the crowds changed Aspen irreparably?
It’s not the crowds that have changed it. It’s a different town. It used to be quite remote. A different sort of people were there, people who had more or less discovered it. Back then, even just to come for a week of skiing was difficult. So all that changed. And it began to be a moneymaking thing. Before that it was a ski town. But still, the landscape, the natural aspects, can’t be changed.