Lat­i­tudes: Blue River, BC

Get­ting sick off a glut­tonous spread of pow­der at Mike Wiegele He­li­copter Ski­ing

Powder - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Words by Matt Hansen Pho­tos by Franklin Tow­ers

I was slowly shuf­fling through the crowded se­cu­rity line at the Kelowna In­ter­na­tional Air­port, in in­te­rior Bri­tish Columbia, when I re­al­ized that my chest cold had turned into some­thing more se­ri­ous. For some rea­son, my fin­gers and toes were start­ing to go numb. Through ex­hausted eyes, I could see my fin­ger­tips turn­ing gray and wrin­kled, like I’d spent too much time in a cold pool.

I con­cen­trated on my raspy breath­ing and con­tin­ued for­ward. I held out my pass­port and kept telling my­self, “Just get on the plane.” Baby steps, I thought, baby steps.

Feel­ing like death warmed over is not ex­actly the de­par­ture you’d ex­pect af­ter a week of he­li­copter ski­ing with Mike Wiegele, one of the cushi­est and in­fin­itely re­fined out­fits in the ski­ing world. Given Wiegele’s 46-year rep­u­ta­tion for ser­vic­ing mostly older gen­tle­men of a cer­tain in­come tax bracket, it was em­bar­rass­ing to ad­mit that it (along with a heavy travel sched­ule be­fore­hand) had left me with a 104-de­gree tem­per­a­ture and dou­ble-lung pneu­mo­nia, con­fined to my bed and an oxy­gen ma­chine for five days.

At home re­cov­er­ing, feel­ing the cold burn of oxy­gen cours­ing through my nos­trils and into my lungs, I started to re­gret the whole damn thing. I hated my lack of self-dis­ci­pline, my in­abil­ity to rec­og­nize cer­tain lim­its, my glut­tonous de­sire to take, take, take. I knew I was sick and that the neg­a­tive tem­per­a­tures blan­ket­ing the Monashees that week, while pre­serv­ing per­fect pow­der, would only make it worse.

But I went ski­ing any­way. Be­cause when a Bell 212 he­li­copter comes roar­ing through the sky to gather you and all your gear and lifts you weight­lessly into the vast, sparkling im­mac­u­late­ness of the most beau­ti­ful moun­tain range you’ve ever seen, you sim­ply can­not, un­der any cir­cum­stances, ever say no.

Like an eye in the sky, the sun­dog dan­gled just above sight line, el­e­vated like a buoy bob­bing over the North Thomp­son River Val­ley. Frozen crys­tals drifted through the air like di­a­mond dust, un­af­fected by grav­ity and re­plen­ished by the smoky con­trails of yet another pow­der turn.

It was De­cem­ber 11, 2016—early for pow­der ski­ing, no mat­ter where you are—and mi­nus 20 de­grees. With ev­ery icy breath, I could feel some­thing ugly ris­ing in my chest. But if there’s any­thing that’ll take your mind off the numb­ing op­pres­sive­ness of sub­zero tem­per­a­tures, it is the mael­strom of ro­tor wash as you climb aboard a he­li­copter (cau­tion: don’t break the door, it costs more than your life), buckle up, and watch the trees fall away as you lift off. Then it touches down, you hop out, and find your­self in the mid­dle of a sea of moun­tains and perched above thou­sands of feet of un­tracked pow­der—about to en­joy the great­est guilty plea­sure of all time.

Our lead guide, a 54-year-old New Zealan­der named Bill Mark, sorted our skis and stepped into his own. Tall and lean, he had been with Wiegele’s since 1999, and em­ployed the calm de­meanor of a sea­soned guide. The tail guide was Mar­ius Marginean, 46, one of the ‘new guys’ who had worked with the out­fit for six years. Af­ter we clicked into our skis, Mark ex­plained the run, where to ski based on his track, and then dropped in, ski­ing with his heavy guide pack un­buck­led at the waist. From there, he wig­gled through knee-deep pow­der, ski­ing with­out emo­tion, if there ever was such a thing, far be­low un­til he was just a mere speck.

Fol­low­ing his track was a chance to live out child­hood fan­tasies. The Aus­trian Hans Gmoser gave birth to he­li­copter ski­ing in the nearby Bu­ga­boo Moun­tains in 1965. Five years later, his good friend Mike Wiegele, another young Aus­trian, started his own op­er­a­tion in BC’S north­ern in­te­rior. To­gether, they crafted heli ski­ing into an ac­tual thing within pop­u­lar cul­ture, some­thing that peo­ple the world over could un­der­stand as an ac­tiv­ity, whether they skied or not.

The iconic im­age of the Fly­ing V comes from Wiegele World—groups of one-piece clad skiers de­scend­ing an enor­mous glacier all at the same time, the he­li­copter rac­ing just over their heads. So div­ing into a slope of per­fect snow, sus­pected slope an­gle around 36 de­grees (not steep, not scary), it was hard not to im­i­tate the ’80s wig­gle: knees to­gether, lean­ing back a bit, arms

out­stretched to that glo­ri­ous sun­dog. But as the slope and speed in­creased, mod­ern tech­nique and equip­ment took over, and I filled up my soul till it was over­flow­ing, self­ishly and with­out re­morse.

Mid­s­lope, I pulled up next to where Mark had stopped. We both looked out into the sea of moun­tains, the val­ley floor filled with dense fog. I told him that some­times, as a writer, I feel guilty for over-ro­man­ti­ciz­ing and em­bel­lish­ing the beauty of ski­ing. He took a breath and said, “That’s not pos­si­ble.”

Stan­dard pro­to­col for a morn­ing at Wiegele’s is to first hit the ski shop. Ac­tu­ally, that’s not quite ac­cu­rate. The first thing is to hit the break­fast hall to stuff your face with a moun­tain of ba­con and scram­bled eggs, and maybe some oat­meal with dates and fresh berries, a freshly made choco­late crois­sant, blue­berry muf­fin, and straw­berry-ba­nana smoothie for good mea­sure, just to make sure you don’t die of star­va­tion out there—though you might col­lapse of Heli Belly af­ter strug­gling to buckle your boots, which, if you were smart the evening be­fore, have been warmed for you on the dry rack in the ski shop.

One morn­ing af­ter break­fast, I found my boots near a very used white Smith hel­met and white Atomic Red­sters. The boots’ spine had been la­beled “Mike” in black magic marker. Mike was a guest like me, I pre­sumed, un­til Mike Wiegele, who is 79 years old, walked into the shop and lifted them off the rack. Small in stature and very soft-spo­ken, he greeted the hand­ful of skiers in the shop be­fore sit­ting down on the bench to put on his stiff, four-buckle boots.

Like Dave Mccoy, War­ren Miller, Klaus Ober­meyer, and Betsy Pratt, Wiegele is part of a gen­er­a­tion of ski­ing roy­alty that es­tab­lished ski­ing in North Amer­ica af­ter the Great War. Raised in Aus­tria in the af­ter­math of World War II, he grew up the youngest of five chil­dren. Un­like his heli-ski­ing guests, Wiegele’s fam­ily did not have a lot of money. As he tells it, he al­ways had hand-me-down skis and leder­ho­sen.

At the age of 20, he im­mi­grated to Canada and started ski in­struct­ing at Mont-trem­blant be­fore mov­ing on to Sugar Bowl, Cal­i­for­nia. One day af­ter ski­ing, he was in the lodge when Hannes Schroll, the Aus­trian who had founded the ski area, bar­reled over to him and said he needed to go to Canada to find the best snow. Mov­ing north, Wiegele started a ski school in

Lake Louise, where he met his wife, Bon­nie, and as an in­struc­tor pro­duced six na­tional team ath­letes.

But he wanted to launch his own op­er­a­tion, per­haps build a new ski area. Heli ski­ing wasn’t ex­actly on his radar yet. He sim­ply aimed to find the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of a “good moun­tain, good glacier, and good snow.” Al­ways with re­spect for his sur­round­ings, he even­tu­ally be­gan ex­plor­ing the wild north coun­try of in­te­rior BC.

“I have a phi­los­o­phy that you have to in­tro­duce your­self to the moun­tain, not the other way around,” he says. “Even though the moun­tain doesn’t speak, I think it does. You have to listen to it, ac­cept it in the moun­tains, and you will find out pretty quick if it’s a friendly place or not.”

His pur­suit led him to the North Thomp­son River Val­ley, which sits in a weather belt be­tween the Cari­boo and Monashee moun­tain ranges and pro­duces 400 inches of an­nual snow­fall. In 1970, he founded Mike Wiegele He­li­copter Ski­ing out of Vale­mount but soon moved 60 miles south to Blue River, a log­ging town with 280 year-round res­i­dents, for bet­ter snow. Ever since, he’s been fly­ing cus­tomers into a 1.5-mil­lion-acre per­mit area, and his re­sort has be­come the main eco­nomic driver for the re­gion, em­ploy­ing up to 200 staff (in­clud­ing 35 guides and 13 doc­tors) and ser­vic­ing 2,500 skiers ev­ery win­ter. Wiegele’s fam­ily (he and Bon­nie have a daugh­ter, Michelle, who works as one of the guides) has also be­come a fix­ture in Blue River, giv­ing gen­er­ously to the small 20-pupil el­e­men­tary school, hold­ing com­mu­nity races, host­ing Christ­mas gath­er­ings for lo­cal chil­dren, and oc­ca­sion­ally tak­ing them ski­ing.

In the shop that morn­ing, Wiegele went about his busi­ness, do­ing the req­ui­site skier ex­er­cise of talk­ing about the weather and putting on his ski boots.

Then he qui­etly called to Dan Tyn­dall, the shop man­ager. Wiegele had fallen on his skis the week be­fore, and had taken a rare few days off. To­day, he needed a lit­tle help. So Tyn­dall came over from be­hind the counter and buck­led Wiegele’s boots for him, with just a lit­tle bit of friendly rib­bing. Af­ter 46 years of ski­ing pow­der, the man had earned a but­ler for his buck­les.

Over five days, I skied steep trees like you find around Nel­son, down glaciers that dwarfed foot­ball sta­di­ums, rolling ter­rain pep­pered with small trees and cliff bands, through deep ravines with steep drop offs, and a ca­sual meadow home to a rather grouchy ptarmi­gan who chased off any­one who got too close. The runs blurred to­gether. Marginean once play­fully scolded me for cross­ing a track. Lunches, held out in the snow next to the rest­ing he­li­copter, were punc­tu­ated by hot soup from a ther­mos, deli sand­wiches, hot cider, and full-sized Snick­ers bars.

On two oc­ca­sions, the last run of the day came down a heav­enly slope, called Cedar West, that was dot­ted with trees en­cased with thick rime. As the late af­ter­noon light bathed the moun­tain in a soft glow, Mark let us all ski it to­gether, as a group. No fly­ing Vs, just shouts of ec­stasy float­ing up from the snow like bal­loons re­leased into the wind.

On the fi­nal morn­ing, I could hardly get out of bed. My chest and throat burned with molten lava. I thought I was go­ing to pass out just putting on my ski socks. All I could stom­ach for break­fast was hot tea and a few scoops of oat­meal.

A cou­ple hours later, I found my­self on my skis, stand­ing atop a slope called Elk Run. Start­ing out as a steep head­wall, it dropped 2,000 ver­ti­cal feet to a forested val­ley floor, like West Rustler at Alta, but with­out the pesky im­per­fec­tions from other skiers. Only a few of the runs we skied through­out the week could be taken in one fell swoop. Most were skied from safe zone to safe zone, hopping be­tween is­lands of trees or rocks a few hun­dred yards apart. But Elk Run, Mark in­formed us, would be skied non­stop, T to B.

In the 17 years that Mark had been guid­ing at Wiegele’s, he’d never skied it. Ei­ther group dy­nam­ics or snow con­di­tions didn’t al­low it. But to­day, Elk Run was prime for the tak­ing, and off he went, noodling his per­fectly ca­sual turns down the skier’s right flank, all the way to the val­ley floor.

When it was my turn, I tried to follow Mark’s tracks, but I just let it go—ski­ing as fast as I could, send­ing my skis into huge arcs as they planed over the im­mac­u­late sur­face of cold, undis­turbed snow. My lungs felt like they’d burst from a lack of oxy­gen, while my quads burned down to the bone. I jumped a cou­ple of spongy trees near the bot­tom, com­pressed a few shal­low creek beds, and coasted up to Mark. We tapped ski poles and I reared my head back to scream out, in joy or pain I couldn’t tell which, but noth­ing came out. I had noth­ing left.

And yet, the he­li­copter was there to pick us up. So we climbed aboard and went back up for more.

Skier: Mar­ius Marginean

It’s all sun and peaks at Mike Wiegele He­li­copter Ski­ing. That, and a lot of cheese, im­mac­u­late desserts, rare fruits, and bois­ter­ous Aus­tri­ans.

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