“Let’s go skiing!” Mike Wiegele would say. And for 50 years, thousands of skiers seeking the ultimate adventure – carving first tracks down massive Canadian glaciers and snaking through stands of old-growth timber – heeded his call.
The Mike Wiegele Heli-Skiing Resort is located in Blue River, B.C., halfway between Jasper, Alta., and Kamloops, B.C., on the Yellowhead Highway. “Wiegele World” or “Mike’s Place,” as it is affectionately called, consists of 6,000 square kilometres smack in the middle of the Monashee and Cariboo mountain ranges. Frequent guest Halsted Morris says, “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world, especially first thing in the morning when the helicopters are taking off and landing. You’re reminded of that classic scene in Apocalypse Now.”
Some, like Mr. Morris, pinched their pennies and sacrificed life necessities to make the pilgrimage to Blue River. The vast majority – from that comfortable class of baby boom professionals – usually find it harder to book the time off than to come up with the money. Then, there are the Hollywood stars or European royalty who take over the six-bedroom Bavarian Estate House or the ultraexclusive Albreda Lodge. At the height of the television show 24′s popularity, star Kiefer Sutherland rolled in with fellow cast members and his family for a memorable Christmas holiday. Singer-songwriter John Denver not only mingled with other patrons, he’d also haul out his guitar for a chorus or two of Rocky Mountain High.
Overseeing it all was Austrian-born Mr. Wiegele and his wife, Bonnie, both of whom lived for powder skiing and entertaining their guests. He died on July 15 at Mineral Springs Hospital in Banff, Alta., at the age of 82.
“His leadership and mentorship will be greatly missed, but in true Austrian fashion he made sure that the business will carry on for another 50 years,” his colleague Bob Sayer says.
Born on Aug. 27, 1938, Mike Wiegele grew up in Lading, Austria, about 200 kilometres southwest of Vienna, on a farm that was economically ravaged by the Second World War. In Call Me Crazy, an award-winning documentary about his peripatetic life, he tells the story of how his father reluctantly allowed him and his brother to cut down a tree on the family property so that a local woodworker could fashion them into skis. He rapidly became proficient enough to earn an Austrian ski instructor certification, a considerable feat both then and now.
Mr. Wiegele was certain that Canada must have bigger mountains and better opportunities and moved here in 1959. Initially, his mountain sense was a bit off-mark; his travels took him first to Quebec, then to Ontario, and then to a modest resort in California’s Sierra Nevada. In the meantime, his brother, Val, had moved to Calgary, where views of the endless Rocky Mountains finally fired up his imagination.
To pay the bills, Mr. Wiegele acquired the rights to operate the ski school at Alberta’s Lake Louise. His Banff Quicken Ski Racers produced several high-calibre racers including “Crazy Canuck” downhiller Ken Read and his brother Jim, as well as Jungle Jim Hunter, Chris Kent and Cary Mullen.
While there was decent skiing at Lake Louise and Sunshine Village at Banff, the biggest and best ski terrain lay beyond the national parks. Mr. Wiegele was mentored in the mountain ways by Hans Gmoser, an Austrian guide who, like Mr. Wiegele, lived in Banff. Mr. Gmoser went on to form Canadian Mountain Holidays, the world’s first commercial helicopter-skiing operation. In heli-skiing, skiers are airlifted by helicopter to mountain peaks that have backcountry or off-trail runs.
Their close friendship turned into a bitter rivalry once Mr. Wiegele announced his intention to start a heli-skiing operation near Valemount, B.C., west of Jasper, operating out of the very same hotel as Mr. Gmoser, battling for the precious few guests who were willing to give heli-skiing a try.
Mr. Wiegele retreated and moved his operation a half-hour south to the hamlet of Blue River in 1974.
“Mike built a beautiful village of peeled log cabins of varying sizes and configurations,” Mr. Sayer says. “It’s in a wilderness setting, yet guests could drive there from Edmonton, Kamloops or Vancouver.”
Heli-skiing needed media coverage, and one of Mr. Wiegele’s first marketing stunts, in 1980, was playing host to the Powder 8 World Championships in mid-April, after skiing at traditional resorts shut down. In Powder 8 skiing, teams of two skiers synchronize their turns; one takes the lead and the other follows a short distance behind and, if properly timed, their tracks will resemble a series of figure eights in the snow.
Like gymnastics or figure skating, Powder 8s is a judged event. To book a spot at Blue River, teams need to win a qualifying event, usually held at a high-profile resort where expert powder skiers gathered, such as Jackson Hole in Wyoming or Lake Louise. The Powder 8 event, along with dozens of other segments filmed at Wiegele World, regularly figured prominently in Warren Miller’s annual ski movies.
Mr. Miller, a California filmmaker who marketed the adventure and romance of skiing more effectively than any other promoter, famously ended each movie by warning his viewers that “if you don’t go heli-skiing now, you’ll be another year older when you do.”
Mr. Sayer was captivated by those Warren Miller movies filmed at Wiegele World. “I want to work for that guy, I remember thinking,” Mr. Sayer says.
He couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars that Mr. Wiegele charged for a week of skiing, but he could handle deep powder snow and, as a ski patrol director at Hemlock Valley in B.C., knew the importance of safety and risk management. He and his partner won a Canadian event at Lake Louise and a coveted spot at the Powder 8s Worlds.
Once up at Mr. Wiegele’s, Mr. Sayer made his mark both on and off the mountain, impressing Mr. Wiegele so much that he took on the key role of operations manager, a job title he still holds more than four decades later.
Helene Steiner followed in her father Leo’s footsteps and guided for Mr. Wiegele – “I considered him my other dad since he sponsored me into Canada,” she says – after becoming the first accredited female alpine guide in Austria.
To increase his margin of safety, Mr. Wiegele instituted the job of “rear guide” or “tail gunner,” who would follow in the tracks of slower skiers – giving them tips on technique and a helpful hand up after a tumble in the powder. Mr. Wiegele developed his very own ski-guiding curriculum based on the needs of heli-skiers.
Invariably, heli-skiing attracted an athletic, hard-charging, highly competitive crowd of superbly conditioned skiers who loved nothing better than “seeing their totals” at the end of the day. As Mr. Sayer says, “some skiers made a big fuss about how much vertical they skied during the day. They’d all be enjoying drinks at the bar before dinner, and then the sheets would get posted. Skiers in the fast group would be elated, but for some, it would ruin their evening.”
Clients skiing on a six-day, five-night package were guaranteed 100,000 vertical feet of skiing in a week and were then charged extra beyond that. It wasn’t uncommon for skiers to have filled their quota after just two or three days of vigorous skiing; finishing out the week could mean a nasty wallet hit at the end of the vacation.
Mr. Sayer says, “I fought with Mike to do away with the surcharge – and the practice of posting vertical totals each night – so that everyone could concentrate on having a good time.”
Still, Mr. Wiegele wanted his kingdom to be known for setting records. After hearing about an American skier who skied more than 300,000 vertical feet at a rival operation in Atlin, B.C., Mr. Wiegele set out to break the record in 1998. He invited elite skiers Dominique Perret, Robert Reindl, Luke Sauder, Edi Podivinsky and Mr. Kent and, using a private A-Star helicopter, they skied 353,600 vertical feet in a day. Mr. Reindl was the guide for these skiers, most of whom were Canadian ski team members
Mr. Wiegele was obsessive about avalanche safety, not just for his operation but also for many of his competitors who opened up after the B.C. government granted new land tenures in nearby mountain ranges.
Dave McClung, a University of British Columbia professor who has dedicated his academic life to snow science and avalanche safety, recalls Mr. Wiegele’s influence on safety. “When Brian Mulroney came to power back in the 1980s, he axed a snow safety program that the National Research Council funded at Rogers Pass. Mike stepped in and pretty much single-handedly financed Bruce Jamieson’s work at the University of Calgary, which has since become one of the top snow-science facilities in the world.”
Prof. Jamieson’s findings – most notably his development of an easy-to-conduct stress test that even weekend warriors can use to assess avalanche risk – have made Canada’s mountains safer for skiing. “There would be no avalanche research program in Canada if Mike hadn’t stepped in when he did,” Prof. McClung says.
By the early 1990s, snowboarding was growing explosively while skiing flat-lined. The snowboard’s wide surface area easily glided over rough spots or irregularities that might catapult skiers into wipeouts. While Mr. Wiegele welcomed the single-plankers with open arms and customized his guiding program to suit their needs, the vast majority of his guests were still on skis.
Mr. Wiegele’s rental fleet at the time consisted of Atomic skis that were designed and manufactured in Austria, and their engineers paid annual visits to Canada as part of their research and development. Legend has it that Rupert Huber, Atomic’s chief head designer, took a band saw to a snowboard and cut it in two to see whether or not they could actually turn. Thus was born the Atomic Powder Plus, a short, stubby pair of skis made to float, rather than sink, in deep snow. The Powder Plus offered a technical solution to the woes of the aging weekend warrior with arthritic knees.
The wider skis also broadened the appeal of powder skiing for those trained on groomed slopes and artificial snow, according to Mr. Sayer. “The participation rate of female skiers, for instance, skyrocketed from virtually being non-existent to almost 30 per cent of skier visits,” he says.
Mike Wiegele leaves his wife, Bonnie; daughter, Michelle; grandson, Charlie Roy; sisters, Paula Haide and Hilda Arnold, in Austria; and extended family.