BC resort operator Mike Wiegele popularized heli-skiing

Mike Wiegele’s passion for ski life, combined with his fearless entrepreneurial spirit, took him to the mountains of British Columbia.

Courtesy of MWHS

“Let’s go skiing!” Mike Wiegele would say. And for 50 years, thousands of skiers in search of the ultimate adventure – first tracing trails on huge Canadian glaciers and winding through stands of old wood – have answered his call.

The Mike Wiegele Heli-Skiing Resort is located in Blue River, BC, midway between Jasper, Alta., And Kamloops, BC, on the Yellowhead Highway. “Wiegele World” or “Mike’s Place” as it is affectionately known, consists of 6,000 square kilometers right in the middle of the Monashee and Cariboo mountain ranges. Frequent guest Halsted Morris says, “There is nothing like it in the world, especially in the early hours of the morning when helicopters take off and land. Do you remember that classic scene in Apocalypse now. “

Some, like Mr. Morris, took their pennies and sacrificed the necessities of life to make the pilgrimage to Blue River. The vast majority – of this comfortable class of baby boom professionals – generally have a harder time saving time than finding the money. Then there are Hollywood stars or European royalty taking over the six-bedroom Bavarian Estate House or the ultra-exclusive Albreda Lodge. At the height of the TV show 24s popularity, star Kiefer Sutherland joined the rest of the cast and his family for a memorable Christmas vacation. Singer-songwriter John Denver not only mingled with other clients, he also pulled out his guitar for a chorus or two of High Rocky Mountain.

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Austrian-born Mr Wiegele and his wife Bonnie, who both lived to ski powder and entertain their guests, oversaw it all. He died July 15 at Mineral Springs Hospital in Banff, Alta, at the age of 82.

“His leadership and mentorship will be sorely missed, but in the Austrian way he made sure that the company will last for another 50 years,” said his colleague Bob Sayer.

Born August 27, 1938, Mike Wiegele grew up in Lading, Austria, about 200 kilometers southwest of Vienna, on a farm economically ravaged by World War II. In Call me crazy, an award-winning documentary about his traveling life, he tells how his father reluctantly allowed him and his brother to cut down a tree on the family property so that a local carpenter could make skis. He quickly became proficient enough to earn a certification as an Austrian ski instructor, a considerable achievement then and today.

Mr. Wiegele was certain that Canada must have bigger mountains and better opportunities and moved here in 1959. Initially his sense of the mountains was a bit offbeat; his travels took him first to Quebec, then to Ontario, then to a modest seaside resort in the Sierra Nevada, California. In the meantime, his brother, Val, had moved to Calgary, where the view of the endless Rocky Mountains finally ignited his imagination.

To pay the bills, Mr. Wiegele acquired the operating rights to the ski school in Lake Louise, Alberta. His Banff Quicken Ski Racers have produced several high caliber racers, including “Crazy Canuck” descender Ken Read and his brother Jim, as well as Jungle Jim Hunter, Chris Kent and Cary Mullen.

While there was decent skiing in Lake Louise and Sunshine Village in Banff, the biggest and best ski terrain was beyond the national parks. Mr. Wiegele was framed in the mountain paths by Hans Gmoser, an Austrian guide who, like Mr. Wiegele, lived in Banff. Mr. Gmoser went on to found Canadian Mountain Holidays, the world’s first commercial helicopter ski company. By heliskiing, skiers are transported by helicopter to mountain peaks that have off-piste or off-piste 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 from the same hotel. than Mr. Gmoser, fighting for the precious few guests who were ready to try heli-skiing.

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Mr Wiegele withdrew and moved his farm half an hour south of the hamlet of Blue River in 1974.

“Mike built a beautiful village of log cabins of various sizes and configurations,” says Sayer. “It’s wilderness, but guests can drive there from Edmonton, Kamloops or Vancouver.”

Heliskiing needed media coverage, and one of Mr. Wiegele’s first marketing stunts, in 1980, was hosting the Powder 8 World Championships in mid-April, after skiing in traditional stations. In Ski Powder 8, teams of two skiers synchronize their turns; one takes the lead and the other follows a short distance and, if properly timed, their tracks will look like a series of eights in the snow.

Like gymnastics or figure skating, Powder 8s is a judged event. To secure a spot at Blue River, teams must win a qualifying event, usually held at a top-tier resort where expert powder skiers have gathered, like Jackson Hole in Wyoming or Lake Louise. The Powder 8 event, along with dozens of other segments filmed at Wiegele World, regularly featured prominently in Warren Miller’s annual ski films.

Mr. Miller, a California filmmaker who has marketed the adventure and romance of skiing more effectively than any other promoter, ended each film by warning his viewers that “If you don’t heli-ski now, you’ll have a year. what’s more. when you do.

Mr. Sayer was captivated by these Warren Miller films shot at Wiegele World. “I want to work for this guy, I remember thinking,” says Mr. Sayer.

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He couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars Mr. Wiegele was asking for a week of skiing, but he could handle the deep powder and, as a ski patrol director in Hemlock Valley, B.C., he knew the importance of safety and risk management. He and his partner won a Canadian event in Lake Louise and a coveted spot at the 8-a-side powder world championships.

Once at Mr. Wiegele’s, Mr. Sayer left his mark both on and off the mountain, impressing Mr. Wiegele so much that he took on the key role of COO, a title he continues to hold more and more. four decades later.

Helene Steiner followed in her father Leo’s footsteps and guided Mr. Wiegele – “I considered him my other father since he sponsored me in Canada,” she says – after becoming the first accredited female alpine guide in Austria.

To increase his margin of safety, Mr. Wiegele instituted the work of ‘back guide’ or ‘tail puller’, who would follow in the footsteps of slower skiers – giving them technical advice and a useful helping hand after a run. fall in powder snow. . Mr. Wiegele has developed his own ski guide program based on the needs of heli-skiers.

Invariably, heli-skiing drew an athletic, demanding and 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 have made a lot of fuss about the drop they’ve taken during the day. They all had a drink in the bar before dinner and then the sheets were posted. The skiers in the fast group would be delighted, but for some it would ruin their evening.

Customers skiing on a six-day, five-night package were guaranteed 100,000 vertical feet of ski in one week and then charged extra. It was not uncommon for skiers to fill their quota after just two or three days of vigorous skiing; ending the week could mean a bad wallet at the end of the vacation.

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Mr Sayer said: “I fought with Mike to get rid of the surcharge – and the practice of posting vertical totals every night – so everyone could focus on the right time. “

Yet Mr. Wiegele wanted his kingdom to be known for setting records. After hearing about an American skier who skied over 300,000 vertical feet in a rival operation in Atlin, BC, Mr. Wiegele set out to break the record in 1998. He invited elite skiers to 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 one day. Mr. Reindl was the guide for these skiers, most of whom were members of the Canadian ski team.

Mr. Wiegele was obsessed with avalanche safety, not only for his operation, but also for many of his competitors who opened up after the B.C. government granted new land tenure in chains. nearby mountains.

Dave McClung, a professor at the University of British Columbia who has devoted his academic life to snow science and avalanche safety, remembers Mr. Wiegele’s influence on safety. “When Brian Mulroney came to power in the 1980s, he cut a National Research Council funded snow safety program at Rogers Pass. Mike stepped in and single-handedly funded Bruce Jamieson’s work at the University of Calgary, which has since grown into one of the best snow science facilities in the world.

Professor Jamieson’s findings – including his development of an easy-to-perform stress test that even weekend warriors can use to assess avalanche risk – have made Canada’s mountains safer for skiing. “There wouldn’t be an avalanche research program in Canada if Mike hadn’t intervened when he did,” says Professor McClung.

In the early 1990s, snowboarding was developing explosively while skiing flat. The large surface of the snowboard slides easily over rough spots or irregularities that could catapult skiers into wipeouts. While Mr Wiegele greeted the monogliders with open arms and customized his guiding program to suit their needs, the vast majority of his guests were still on skis.

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Mr. Wiegele’s rental fleet at the time consisted of Atomic skis that were designed and manufactured in Austria, and their engineers made annual visits to Canada as part of their research and development. Legend has it that Rupert Huber, the chief chief designer of Atomic, took a bandsaw off a snowboard and cut it in half to see if they could actually turn. That’s how the Atomic Powder Plus was born, a pair of short, stocky skis designed 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 training on groomed trails and artificial snow, according to Sayer. “The participation rate for female skiers, for example, has gone from virtually non-existent to almost 30% of female skier visits,” he says.

Mike Wiegele leaves his wife, Bonnie; daughter, Michelle; grandson, Charlie Roy; Sisters Paula Haide and Hilda Arnold, Austria; and the extended family.

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