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Robson Gmoser's good nature, generosity remembered

Family and friends honour mountain guide who died in an avalanche in B.C.'s Selkirk Mountains last month
robson remembered Mountain guide Robson Gnomer died in an avalanche in B.C.'s Selkirk Mountain in March. Photo submitted

In our lifetimes, we are fortunate to meet a handful of people who, whether they become our closest friends, casual buddies or passing acquaintances, share with us a brilliant sparkle of life they alone possess. They inspire us to think about life one layer deeper, and to appreciate the wonders that come with every new sunrise.

For the 700-odd people who gathered at the Mount Norquay day lodge on Friday, March 27, Robson Gmoser was one of those people. Family, friends, fellow mountain guides, backcountry lodge staff, and clients he guided, came from Montreal, Vancouver, Revelstoke, Invermere, Squamish, Whistler throughout the Bow Valley and further afield to share in a memorial for Gmoser, who died in an avalanche at Sorcerer Lodge in B.C.'s Selkirk Mountains on March 10. He was 45.

"I've known Robson as far back as I can remember," recalled Marco Delesalle, Robson's best friend, the following day. "We had the red measles together. He's always been a super-happy person, whether he was stressed or not. All the memories I have of Robson are positive, happy ones."

Delesalle's father, Philippe, was a close friend of Robson's father, Hans, and his wife, Margaret. An architect, Philippe Delesalle joined Hans on mountain expeditions and designed several of the early backcountry lodges for Hans Gmoser's heli-skiing company, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). Hans died in 2006.

Marco Delesalle and Robson Gmoser grew up playing together, including backcountry skiing at Battle Abbey, the remote Selkirk Mountain Lodge Hans built with Bill Putnam in 1978. While just a teenager, Robson guided ski touring groups at Battle Abbey under his dad's tutelage.

As small children, Delesalle remembers dreaming of their futures.

"I remember we said, 'When we get older, we should be guides,'" Delesalle said.

Although Robson was two years younger, he followed the guiding track sooner, and by his mid-20s had earned his full ski guide certification with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, the organization his father was instrumental in creating in 1963.

"It was pretty easy for him," Delesalle said. "Robson knew how to do that (guide clients through wilderness ski terrain) more or less when he was born. When we were kids, I was definitely following him. He made all the decisions."

In their mid-teens they skied on their own into Assiniboine, the lodge then run by Swiss-born mountain guide Sepp Renner, and his wife, Barb, Margaret Gmoser's sister. As was the norm then, they didn't wear transceivers, but relied on their terrain reading and avalanche awareness skills.

Delesalle began pursuing a guiding career in his late 20s, and Robson supported him through the process as Delesalle eventually earned his full mountain guide certification.

"He didn't say a lot, he never told me anything, but he supported me when I was doing my exams," Delesalle said.

They also went rock climbing together as teens, with Gmoser leading, of course. They climbed the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire and Ears Between in the Bugaboos, Gmoser in a pair of EBs, Delesalle in his hiking boots.

"Robson led the whole thing with a handful of cams and hexes."

Professionally, the two friends guided about 20 weeks together over the years, at least a dozen weeks together at Battle Abbey, which Robson co-owned with Roger Laurilla.

"He was super easygoing. He never disagreed with anything," Delesalle said. "We knew each other so well. We didn't have to talk a lot. And he never had a temper."

Robson's brother Conrad recalled how he, Robson and Delesalle spent weeks one summer working as pre-teen labourers to help build Battle Abbey.

"We were skinny kids. We'd be sent down to the stream with pack boards and we'd have to shovel wet sand out of the stream and carry more than our body weight," Conrad said. "The whole experience made a really big impression on Robson, and it grew his attachment to the place."

Conrad, a Vancouver resident, said he felt fortunate to have spent time with his brother on two visits already this year, adding he'd been really looking forward to the upcoming Gmoser family week at Battle Abbey, a 20-plus-year tradition.

"I can't imagine being up there without him," Conrad said. "It's something we've always done. I told my daughter it's the closest thing I've ever had to a religious holiday. It's a pretty special place for us."

While Conrad and Robson also grew up in CMH lodges in the company of guests who included many accomplished and influential people, including European royalty, Conrad said their parents set the example of being down to earth.

"Our dad was such a down-to-earth guy. He never put himself on a pedestal," Conrad said. "It wasn't in our DNA to raise him up."

That down-to-earth quality was a reason Robson connected with so many people from such varied backgrounds, said Rob Alexander, Robson's friend since their elementary school years in Canmore.

Along with many of Robson's friends, some for a day or two, others for weeks, Alexander spent from April through October 2002 building straw bale houses on Mount Seven overlooking Golden, B.C. Robson had purchased a large piece of land a couple of years earlier, and ignited by his enthusiasm, Conan Purves and a Canmore school friend, Thomas Achenbach, each built their own house, too.

"Robson started building a sauna first and lived in it while he built the main house," Alexander said. "It was this big summer frenzy of building."

The Mount Seven summer brought together two different paths of Robson's life, he said – Purves from boarding school in B.C., Achenbach and Alexander from school in Canmore, then a small rural town of just a few thousand.

"Really, what Robson did there was create a community," Alexander said. "There's a pile of people who have a Mount Seven experience or story. People would show up with beer and food to barbecue and pitch their tents. It became a place to hang out. Robson was the type, the more the merrier. Everyone was welcome. Mount Seven is a huge part of my life now."

One of the most remarkable things was how Robson's generosity drew friends from his school days, Arctic sea kayak guiding adventures, and mountain adventures.

"So many people wouldn't share. Robson couldn't help but share," Alexander said. "You never quite knew what would unfold, but inevitably it would break out in a dance party."

For the past decade, Robson's partner in adventures, in guiding, and in parenthood, has been Olivia Sofer, with whom he was raising their three-year-old son, Max.

In a beautifully written, touching, humorous and deeply heartfelt eulogy, Purves credited Sofer for inspiring Robson to be a good father, a better guide and better person overall.

Like all those close to Robson, and many others who appreciated his ever-present laugh and good-natured character, Delesalle said he was simply heartbroken to bid his best friend farewell.

"I'm really heartbroken. I've never known life without Robson," Delesalle said. "Robson touched a lot of people. He had a personality that wasn't like a lot of people. I wish I had another 30 years."