Friday, February 12, 2010

The man who popularized heli-skiing


"To be bound to one slope, one mountain, by a lift . . .robs us of the greatest pleasure that skiing can give."

Hans Gmoser, the young mountain guide who composed these words almost 50 years ago, emigrated in 1951 from Austria to the regal glacier-capped mountains of the Canadian Rockies.

He learned to write English by candlelight in tents and lean-tos, after guiding clients on winter ski tours and summer climbs. He also made annual movies about trekking and ski touring in the inner mountains of British Columbia and Alberta, showing them, as Warren Miller did, in assembly halls and theaters across North America.

Gmoser began to use a helicopter to make his films in the early 1960s, not long after Gstaad and Val d'Isere in Europe were offering 'copter-assisted skiing to lift their affluent guests. At a 1963 movie lecture, Gmoser met Brooks Dodge, former Olympic ski star, who asked him to guide a ski tour in the Canadian Rockies, employing a helicopter to replace arduous climbs on skinned skis.

In April, 1965, using a two-passenger Bell helicopter, Gmoser led Dodge and 17 skiers into British Columbia's Bugaboo Mountains. The vast treeless slopes of untracked powder snow, reached by chopper, supplied a kind of skiing that no one before had experienced. The price for the week was $260 per person, including a bunk and home-cooked meals in a logging camp.

The next winter 70 skiers came, and 150 skiers in 1967. So many skiers wanted to repeat the experience that in the summer of 1967 Gmoser built a cozy lodge with four eight-bed bunkrooms, its windows looking across at the Bugaboo Glacier. Over the next 25 years, Gmoser went on to add a dozen more remote heli-skiing lodges, scattered over an area larger than Massachusetts.

Heli-skiing leapt ahead in the early 1990s with the advent of fat skis that made deep-snow skiing easier. This winter, at least 15,000 avid powder hounds are enjoying the experience shaped by the young Austrian guide in the Bugaboos. They will spend anywhere from $3,000-8,000 for a week in British Columbia, Alaska, the Rockies, and as far away as Kashmir.

Gmoser died in 2006 in a bicycle riding accident. He was 73. Over the years, he hosted his heli-guests with a wry wit, candor and a quiet modesty so compelling that he was loved and admired by almost everyone he met. He was a formidable mountain climber, a musician, film producer, and founder of a new kind of ski tourism. Through his vision, skiers entered a magical world of etching miles of tracks on virgin snow on a scale unimaginable until he showed how it could be done.

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