Feb. 01, 2012 - Issue #850: Godot
Genesis of heli-skiing
Fifty years on, one constant remains: glorious powder
Awestruck by the finger-like, snow-cloaked peaks clawing the sky above them, the group strapped on their skinny '60s skis and pushed off into a vast expanse of powder utopia. Although they didn't realize it at the time, this particular group had just revolutionized the way people would think about powder skiing forever.
While the birthplace of successful helicopter-assisted skiing is the Bugaboos—seven hours south of Edmonton between Golden and Radium Hot Springs, BC—the story really begins high among the mountaintops of the Austrian Alps.
Its pioneers, the late legendary mountaineer Hans Gmoser and accomplished climber Leo Grillmair, grew up as close friends in Austria—a country badly affected by the Second World War. While Hans worked as an electrician and Leo as a plumber, job security was uncertain in the post-war economy. An immigration opportunity for skilled tradesmen to travel to Canada presented itself and Leo decided to take the chance and signed up for the sea voyage, persuading his friend Hans to come along when they bumped into one another on the chilly streets of Linz in February 1951.
With visions of climbing and skiing Canada's great mountain ranges, the duo requested simply to be sent to "the mountains" when filling out their application forms. They were instead shipped to Edmonton, and disembarked from the train brokenhearted. Years later, Hans told a reporter from the Edmonton Journal that when he first saw the never-ending prairie landscape, he sat down and cried. "It was as if somebody had sawed the world off!" he explained.
With little money or knowledge of the English language, Leo and Hans joined a logging crew near Edmonton, but were fired shortly after for trying to fell four trees at once in a comical mishap resulting in a broken saw. Eventually the pair started satisfying their thirst for the alpine lifestyle when they found work in the Bow Valley. Here, the two explored; climbing, skiing and pushing the limits of what could be accomplished on the faces of Canada's great peaks. In 1957, Hans incorporated Rocky Mountain Guides Ltd and led people on momentous climbs, including the first Canadian ascent of Mt Logan, the tallest peak in Canada, and a new route on the north face of Alaska's Denali (Mount McKinley), North America's highest summit.
At this point, Hans and Leo were engrossed in adventure. The pair (and especially Hans) had a passion for sharing their experiences and were forever looking to impart their love of the mountains.
"What were we trying to do? Were we trying to show off? Were we trying to kill ourselves?—No!" wrote Hans in an idealistic article for the Canadian Alpine Journal. "We wanted to inhale and breathe life again ... This mountain to us is not a sports arena. To us it is a symbol of truth and a symbol of life as it should be. The mountain teaches us that we should endure hardships and not drive along the easy way, which always leads down."
Hans, Leo and their frequent outdoor companion, fellow guide Franz Dopf, climbed, hiked and ski-toured all over the Rockies and the Columbia Mountains, with their trips eventually leading them to the Bugaboos, a mountain range formed from glaciers whose eroding power left behind massive peaks and spires of granite just perfect for climbing, with prime ski terrain beckoning in between.
Leo's initial reaction to the sight was the one he still has today.
"By anybody's standard, it's amazing. It's awe-inspiring," he says. "It hits you so fast when you come around the corner on the road and see them; it's just a 'whoosh' sort of feeling."
While Leo and Hans began touring and guiding in the area, using an old sawmill camp as their base, a geologist named Art Patterson had hatched the idea of trying helicopter-assisted skiing in Canada. He'd used helicopters for geological surveying, and was tempted by the lure of reaching powder stashes with the whirring machines. The idea had already been tried in Europe and Alaska, but with minimal success.
In 1962, Art applied to Banff National Park for a permit to fly out of Lake Louise and Sunshine, but after his request was rejected, Art searched for a guide who could help. After asking around at climbing equipment shops in Calgary, he settled on Hans, who came with glowing recommendations. Art rounded up 15 people willing to venture off the ski hill to give it a try and charged them $20 each. Hans strapped a car's ski rack to the skids of a small Bell 47 helicopter, and the group flew to the Old Goat Glacier south of Canmore, after being rejected for a permit to fly near Rogers Pass.
Because the helicopter could only fit two at a time, it took two hours to shuttle everyone to the top, by which time the first people to be dropped were cold and miserable. The entire experience resulted in disastrous skiing, with crusty, choppy snow and a tough bushwhack to complete the long day.
After such a dismal experience, Art abandoned the idea, but later that same year Hans was approached by Brooks Dodge, a young US Olympic skier who was intrigued by a photo Hans had taken of a group ski touring near Boulder Camp in the Bugaboos. Brooks asked Hans if he would be willing to try heli-skiing again, but this time in the Bugaboos and offered to pay for the trip even if it didn't work out. With nothing to lose, Hans accepted.
This time the result was a smashing success. Although shuttling people with the helicopter was time-consuming, the snow-seekers found exactly what they were looking for: reams of untouched powder. Seven days of bluebird skies and powder later, the skiers were hooked.
Three years of heli-ski success followed and Hans began to realize he might need to expand the rustic sawmill camp to accommodate the increasing number of guests. Word had spread, quickly attracting blue ribbon clients from Europe and North America. Hesitant to erect a lodge in the pristine wilderness he loved so much, Hans consulted clients about the decision, eventually deciding to forge ahead and construct a lodge facing the prestigious peaks head-on, with an unrivaled view.
Together, Hans and Leo ran the construction of Bugaboo Lodge, which opened in 1967. Because they didn't have the cash flow for such an expense, the structure was funded by their clients in return for the promise of heli-ski trips for years to come. Building the lodge launched the beginning of a successful company, which morphed from Rocky Mountain Guides Ltd into Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH)—now one of the largest heli-ski operations in the world.
After years of guiding and running CMH, followed by an active retirement, Hans said goodbye to the mountains he loved so much when he died in 2006 at the age of 73. Leo, now 81, still lives in nearby Brisco, BC, with his wife Lynne, where he woodworks, hikes, skis and pays visits to Bugaboo Lodge when he finds the time. The company the intrepid duo started has evolved a lot since the early days when it charged $275 for a week of skiing. CMH now has 11 lodges with 475 staff and 120 guides, with access to 36 helicopters for trips that cost an average of about $10 000. Although the lodges still don't have TVs or newspapers, they all now have wireless Internet—a big change from when Hans purposefully excluded lamps from guest rooms so people would be forced to mingle and chat in the common areas. Other major developments include the invention of avalanche transceivers and ski baskets, an increased knowledge of snow science, massive advances in helicopter technology, and perhaps the biggest: shaped powder skis.
"I think the most significant change that we've seen is the actual ski technology," says CMH spokesperson Sarah Pearson. "Going from those long, skinny skis to the nice, beautiful fat skis has completely changed the heli-ski industry. It's opened up heli-skiing so that even an intermediate skier can go heli-skiing, which wasn't the case in the early days."
After five decades of changes, the mountains and the people who flock to them are still a constant.
"We still get amazing snow in amazing mountains, and they're the same types of conditions the first skiers skied on in the sixties," Pearson says. "Everyone who goes to the lodges goes because they have a love of the mountains and a love for skiing. That makes everyone equal at the lodge; you could be a king or a taxi driver, and it doesn't matter because you love skiing."
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