Taking flight 

Remembering Canadian mountaineering's 'éminence grise,' Hans Gmoser

click to enlarge Hans Gmoser
  • Hans Gmoser

"Every time that I look from mountaintops that I reach during the summer, I can see hundreds of fantastic ski runs, and the desire to skim over those distant snowfields grows so strong within me it hurts... as I look down from the peaks I get the feeling that a man should have wings to carry him where his dreams go. Since we are not angels, a pair of skis is a good substitute."

- Hans Gmoser

After a magical week in British Columbia's Purcell Mountains, we landed one afternoon atop a glacier abutting the iconic granite tooth for which the CMH Bugaboos operation is named.

Clambering out and retrieving our gear in what now seemed routine fashion, the helicopter levitated from a self-generated snow cloud and disappeared into a cerulean sky, leaving us in preternatural quiet to consider the impressive shadow cast by Bugaboo Spire into the valley. Hard to imagine after a week of magical vistas, but this one was the most soul stirring of all.

That's the thing about heli-skiing. Every chopper lift is a geology lesson — the sweep of the land, the thrust of the mountains, the flow of glaciers and moraines. Textbook stuff. As such, every lift is also a revelation: of the forces that shape the Earth, keep it together, make winter work. And when you find yourself alone on a ridge where it feels you're the sole living thing in this grand sweep of silence and history, your heart, famously, swells two sizes. Not to mention that you're about to ski thousands of metres of untracked, ethereal powder.

This, I knew, was the moment that iconic guide and CMH founder Hans Gmoser knew so intimately, and dedicated his life to sharing with others.

Born in Linz, Austria, in 1932, a young Gmoser took to the hills to escape the grind of the post-war era. A dreamer and doer with new horizons always on his mind, the capable climber immigrated to Canada in 1951 with friend Leo Grillmair and headed directly to the Rockies outside Calgary. Wasting little time he linked up with the Alpine Club of Canada and during the 1950s pioneered new rock climbs, made first Canadian ascents of several peaks, and led successful expeditions to Mount Logan (1959) and Denali (1963). Early on he began shooting films of his adventures, and, eager to share Canada's mountains through this new medium, travelled throughout North America presenting them. He was a founding member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and first director of the Canadian Avalanche Foundation. Before that, in 1957, he founded Rocky Mountain Guides, the company which, catapulted by heliskiing, would become Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the largest mountain adventure operation in the world. When he retired in 1991, Gmoser had time to reflect on the unlikely trail that had led there.

Following on the 1950s experimentations of a few European and Alaskan skiers with helicopters, in 1963 Calgary geologist Art Patterson convinced the Banff-based Gmoser to guide for him in a nascent commercial heli-ski venture. Unfortunately their two attempts had been, by all measures, disastrous: costly, with manky snow and high winds that beat back the tiny, 178-horsepower, two-seater Bell 47. Patterson gave up and Gmoser put it out of his mind until, touring a ski movie through the eastern U.S., he met Olympic racer Brooks Dodge.

"On a flight back from Europe I was thinking how... the good powder would get cut up in one day, and that we needed to go out into someplace in Western Canada — maybe use a ski plane or a helicopter," recalls Dodge in Topher Donahue's Bugaboo Dreams (2008).

After a Gmoser show at MIT, where his film about ski-touring included a shot of a helicopter unloading food and gear, Dodge asked Gmoser if he thought it might be possible to use a heli to ski from. Given the earlier trials Gmoser was hard to convince, but Dodge was persuasive. It was a classic partnership: the brash American with money and clients, and the circumspect, typical Canadian mountain guide (i.e., European immigrant) who knew his way around the mountain labyrinth of British Columbia. One place Gmoser didn't know well was the Bugaboos, a relatively unknown rock-climbing area in the Purcells located just beyond the checkerboard of national parks that would, in any event, make heliskiing in the Rockies difficult. That spring, Gmoser ski-toured into the Bugaboos with a crack team and liked what he saw.

With Dodge still keen on the big lift and Gmoser feeling he'd now found the perfect isolated place to execute it, Dodge and his wife shepherded their ski club west to B.C. in 1965 on what was guaranteed to be a no-money-back adventure. As it turned out, the first week of heli-skiing in the range whose name would forever be synonymous with the activity was seven days of perfect powder and bluebird skies. For all, the experience was clearly transcendent.

Man has always wanted to fly, and when he invented skiing — often lauded as the closest thing to flying without leaving the Earth — he came damn close. But Gmoser's vision of wings to soar through the mountain wilderness and experience true freedom on skis linked both these ideas.

When Gmoser was tragically killed in July 2006 at age 75 in a cycling accident near Lake Louise, many mourned the loss of the pioneer and visionary who laid the foundation of modern mountaineering in Canada, creating a new way to access the mountains to boot. "It's a staggering loss," said luminary climber Barry Blanchard. "He was a father figure for a whole couple of generations of young mountain guides."

Chic Scott, author of Deep Powder and Steep Rock: The Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser, eulogized him as the "the éminence grise of Canadian mountaineering."

The loss was particularly heartfelt throughout the CMH family — a large one on the brink of its 50th anniversary with 11 lodges, 20 million square miles of tenure, and 9.5 million runs skied to the tune of some 18 billion vertical feet of powder bliss. Numbers are a measure of success, but it was Gmoser's own enthusiasm for getting more people into the mountains that honours his legacy best: "What were we trying to do?... inhale and breathe life again... We were rebelling against an existence full of distorted values, against an existence where a man is judged by the size of his living-room, by the amount of chromium on his car. But here we were ourselves again: simple and pure. Friends in the mountains."

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