Heli-Skiing: Where We've Been and Where We're Going
"No Turning Back" brought the WME film crew to Niseko to participate in and film Japan's very first heli-op expedition. In the spirit of celebrating 65 years of ski culture and transformation, we took a look back at where heli-skiing came from, and how it has evolved over the years.
Before the second half of the 20th century, as in before there were heli-skiing operations, it was a very different endeavor when it came to accessing skiing in all the pristine, snowy peaks of the world. The price of that powder was usually a multi-day, self-supported, often exploratory expedition. For today’s booming scene of heli-skiing operations around the globe, powder enthusiasts can thank a few enterprising and ambitious Austrian skiers who left post-World War II Europe for North America with empty pockets, big dreams and a love of the mountains.
“It felt so great to get to North America, I was so happy when I got my ticket, you have no idea,” says Mike Wiegele, founder of Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in British Columbia’s (deep and snowy) Bugaboos. Upon his arrival in Canada from Austria at age 21, Wiegele headed straight for the Rockies, and set out to find an ideal location to start a ski touring business and make a name for himself in the ski world, eventually ending up as head of the Lake Louise Ski School. “I met Hans Gmoser [fellow Austrian and founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays] right away. We did a lot of exploring on foot, we didn’t have access to helicopters,” says Mike. “I explored valleys and glaciers, and I was looking for just the perfect place for a ski touring business.”
Gmoser, who had begun a successful ski and climbing guide business himself in the interior mountains of British Columbia, happened to have a regular client in the early 1960’s who worked as a geologist and flew in helicopters for jobs. The client, Art Patterson, suggested during one trip that they try using helicopters and cut out all the walking up the mountains. “Hans thought it was ridiculous – why pay to go up a mountain when you can walk for free?” said Rob Rohn, GM of current day CMH and a heli ski guide. But he gave it shot, with a makeshift lodge for the first trip of some draughty, abandoned plywood shacks up in the Bugaboos.
It quickly became clear that as a business, helicopter accessed skiing might just catch on, so a base lodge was going to be needed. Gmoser, who had a loyal clientele, had the first lodge built and funded by some of his guests, according to Rohn. “Hans was very frugal,” remembers Rohn. “He was even against indoor plumbing in the new lodge at first – but he was finally convinced that if people were paying the kind of money needed to heli-ski, they’d expect indoor plumbing.” Gmoser’s operation quickly gained traction, and commercial heli-skiing was born.
Inspired by Gmoser’s work, Wiegele decided that instead of just a ski touring business, the places he knew of in the Bugaboos might work great for helicopter skiing as well. “The heli-ski that Hans started in 1965 was so well-received, I thought I would do that too,” he said. However, Mike still hadn’t settled on the perfect place in the mountains. “I had met my wife, and we did a lot of exploring together. We would explore the Cariboos, and we would walk in one, two days, climb a mountain for a day, ski one run, and walk back out. Then the week was gone!” said Wiegele.
By 1970, he was ready to promote a trip, but, according to Wiegele, no one signed up. “So I went in anyway, with some other ski instructors, and my wife!“ Still, he was not ready to give up. The next year, he signed up five guests. Wiegele had also met Warren Miller during a stint in California, and he decided to write to Miller, telling him he should come up and make a movie.
Miller, intrigued, sent one cameraman to film Wiegele and his first guests (ever), with the request to deliver blue sky, sunshine, and powder. And it promptly snowed for the next three days. The group could not go out. But on the evening of the fourth day, the sun came out, and Wiegele insisted they keep skiing and film the whole evening. The snow was so deep and shots so beautiful, Miller was thrilled, and Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing was finally on its way.
“Warren was my supporter from the beginning – he really motivated and helped people like myself,” says Wiegele. “If it were not for Warren Miller that winter, my career in it would have been over! But after that we grew, and we were able to make a meaningful business.”
The demand for the delights and adventure of helisking grew exponentially, and eventually, many other heli ski operations sprang up not just in western Canada but around the world, in places as far flung as Japan, India, South America and Alaska. But the heart of heli-skiing still lies in western Canada with the original visionaries. “Hans was an incredibly humble man. He couldn’t believe he became as successful as he was, and he always viewed himself as mountain guide first. He had a heart of gold, and the business was never about getting rich, but building an experience.,” said Rohn.
Today, both operations are well-established and highly respected in the heli-skiing world. In addition to supplying memorable powder days to thousands of guests, environmental standards and stewardship of the wilds they play in are high on the list for CMH and Wiegele. “We want to be decent people, and decent to the wildlife,” says Wiegele. “All our guests from all over the world appreciate it.” Wiegele’s has helped the University of Calagary and University of Kamloops in wildlife studies. CMH declared in 2004 a plan to be the leading sustainable tourism operator in North America, and has won several awards for environmentally responsible tourism.
The two companies have found themselves in the position to promote their values and protect what is important to them, thanks to one thing: passion for powder. “The skiing we have here is unmatched! I looked for it for ten years!” says Wiegele, gleefully. “Every day is the best day.”