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You Can't Get Hurt in the Air

The only people who can compare to the athletes featured in Warren Miller movies are those who film them--men and women who travel the same speeds down the same extreme lines while carrying 20-pound cameras and looking everywhere except straight ahead.

Since 1945, Miller, now 80, has been profiling the best skiers--and later, snowboarders--around the world. Miller's definition of "best" doesn't simply mean those whose technical skills have been acknowledged with medals--though Olympic athletes are certainly well represented--it means athletes who love their sport so much that they push the limits of where and what they can ride until they reach the kind of extreme that Miller's 55-year-long tradition was built on.

Former Olympic mogul skier Sean Smith says there are four rules of skiing; two of them--"skiing and thinking don't mix" and "you can't get hurt in the air"--ought to give those who haven't seen a Miller movie an inkling of what to expect. Something that's new to Miller movies, however, is a women-only segment featuring Burton riders Kjersti Buass, Kelly Clark (Olympic gold medallist), Hannah Teter and Natasha Zurek, first at half-pipe competitions at Big Bear (Calif.) and Copper Mountain (Colo.) and later launching out of helicopters to sail down mountain bowls. While Miller has always featured women athletes, the 17 represented in his latest film--from snowboarders and Olympians to big mountain and freeskiing phenoms--claim more screen-time than ever.

Warren Miller's IMPACT: Exploring Winter Since 1949: Session 55 will screen at 6 and 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30, at the Leo Rich Theater in the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church St. Screenings began back in October in Alaska; since then, it's traveled throughout Washington, Oregon, California, Utah and Idaho--Tucson is its 46th stop in a 74-stop tour; a testament to IMPACT 's enduring popularity.

The athletes are but one hallmark of a Miller winter installment; the other is location. Session 55 begins in Alaska's Chugach mountains, then moves to Snowmass, Colo.; Park City, Utah; Chamonix, France (where Hilaree Nelson O'Neil--a big-mountain skier who has claimed first-tracks in unmapped regions of China, Lebanon, Tibet and Mongolia--attempts to answer the question, "Is a 60-degree slope skiable?"); Alberta, Canada; the backcountry of Montana; Steamboat Springs, Colo.; the Bansko ski area of Bulgaria; Davos, Switzerland; Acapulco, Mexico (where skiers gain strength and agility by Rüking--a training method that involves running and hiking over uneven rocks and beaches); plus a dozen stops in between.

There's a lot of equipment involved, too--from various types of skis and snowboards to the transportation the athletes use to enter some areas, several of which are hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from the nearest chairlift. When Nike-sponsored Sarah Clemensen, Ben Dolenc and Christian Santelices head for Alaska's Kluane National Park--the largest national park lands in the world, featuring the Bagley Icefield, the largest subsolar icefield in North America--they have to leave the helicopters behind (none are allowed due to the pristine nature of Kluane) and catch a turbine-powered "super otter" to the base of the mountain, then attach skins to their telemark skis for the climb up. After eight hours of climbing, they get only one run down the mountain; but it's thousands of vertical feet of the most beautiful mountain you've ever seen.

There's inspiration everywhere in Session 55, whether the landscape alone does it for you or you find the enthusiasm of the athletes catching. And from 4-year-old ski racer Bridger Gile ("When he tucks, he's only 14 inches tall," says Miller, "but when he free skis, he's a giant") to a 90-year-old man from Georgia (who enjoys displaying his retro rear-entry ski boots), the people in the film exemplify Miller's motto: "If you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do."

Tickets to the event are $18--which adds up to $26.80 if you go through Ticketmaster (321-1000) but only $19 if you get over to Peter Glenn Ski and Sports (5626 E. Broadway Blvd., 745-4514). Everyone who attends Session 55 will receive free lift tickets to Arizona Snow Bowl and Durango Mountain Resort, plus special offers from Steamboat and Peter Glenn. Large groups wanting to sit together should call (800) 523-7117.

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