How to be a Heli Ski Guide and What Makes Them Tick

Words:: Bradford McArthur

What makes up a company’s culture?  Is it the head honcho? Is it the employees?  Is it the work? Is it a mix of all these things?

Curious and wanting to know more I set off to find a business in the outdoor industry that is well known for its high caliber product and strong company culture.  Having always heard that Mike Wiegele Heli Ski was known for its guides, guest appreciation and solid safety record I decided to dive in a little deeper.

The two guides I wanted to interview was a no-brainer.  Bob Sayer has been there longer than anyone, while Sam Ozana is their newest up and comer.  Two uniquely different perspectives, life experiences and age would provide a great understanding of what it means to work for Mike Wiegele and possibly a glimpse into their company culture.  However, what I didn’t realize I’d find was such a cohesive story from each of them and how similar they talk about the company they work for.  Almost makes me what to drop everything and become a heli guide too!

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How long have you been ski guiding and how long have you been guiding at Mike Wiegele’s?
Bob: I have been a heliski guide for 34 years, 32 of them have been with Wiegele’s.

Sam: This winter coming up will be my 4th winter at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing. I have been with MW pretty much exclusively from the beginning of my guiding career. I did a little bit of work for Powder Mountain Catskiing before making the full time move to Blue River. Prior to heli-ski guiding, however, I was teaching skiing at Whistler Blackcomb for 5 years and was running my own kids program out of the Blackcomb base.

 

Heli guide covering the skis & boards while a heli buzzes away.
Sam Ozana covering the gear before the group drops in on their next line.

Can you remember a moment when you knew this is what you wanted to do?  What was the motivation?
Bob: I was at a Warren Miller movie in about 1976 and I saw a piece on Mike Wiegele. I was hooked before the show was over. I said to myself “that’s what I want to be, a heliski guide for that guy”. I spent the next 10 years working my way to that place and I am still 100% sure that it was the best decision of my life!

Sam: Oh yes. My very first mechanized skiing experience was actually given to me as a tip from a hugely experienced ski guide for coaching his daughter for the year. That day happened to be a bluebird day and we were skiing 60cm of coastal blower. That was pretty much all I needed to make the decision that this is what I wanted to do for a living. The promise of skiing epic snow and being able to share that experience with people coupled with being able to be in the mountains and nature – that is my happy place.

My strongest motivation to be a ski guide would have to be sharing and showing the unspeakable beauty of the winter covered mountains to people that don’t get to experience that very often. The look on their face when they get out of the bird at 9000’ and untamed mountains are all the eye can see – priceless. And then we get to ski down it! Awesome.

 

two heli skiers ripping an open slope of powder
Chad Chomlack photo: Bob Sayer and Seth Wescott turning it wide open on a perfect run down Mount Albreda, during the filming of Warren Miller Entertainment’s latest release, the “Face of Winter.”

How long did it take to become a guide for MW?
Sam: Getting all the necessary certifications took me around 3 years. This included many courses, study time, practicing alone in the living room and in the mountains, tieing knots until you could tie no more and the list goes on. Additionally, this is still going on – I’m still taking courses, dedicating hours and hours to study etc. I suspect that this will never end. Being a guide, at MW or not, requires constant dedication and not just getting comfortable once you have made it. We are always improving and always trying to be better guides.

 

heli touching down to pick up heli skiers
Chad Chomlack photo: Bob Sayer guiding Seth Wescott and Rob Kingwill, during the filming of Warren Miller Entertainment’s latest release, the “Face of Winter.”

If you weren’t guiding for work, what would you be doing instead?
Bob: If I wasn’t heliski guiding I would be fly fish guiding. I did for many summers. Or I would be kayak guiding or mountain guiding. Guiding is what I do.

Sam: Good question. I never really had much of a backup plan. I am a carpenter in the summer months but I doubt I would do that through the winters. In winter, I would probably still be working as part of a ski school in some role, either coaching or managing.

 

Snowboarder slashing a big powder turn.
People and Powder, the two loves of Bob’s life.

Do you have a guiding ethos you either seem to live by or try to live by?
Bob: Guiding is the art of looking after people. If you are heliskiing you look after people while skiing, if you are a fly fishing guide you look after people while fly fishing. It’s not so much about the sport it’s about the people. The best guides are not necessarily the best at their sport, they are the best at looking after their people.

When someone applies for a guiding job and tells me how rad of a skier they are their application goes to the bottom of the pile. I want to know how well they can take care of their guests and that they have a passion for people. That is what makes a great guide.

Sam: Yes. It is all about the guests. I really try to keep in my mind that the guests behind (or in front) of me have paid a significant sum of money for this experience and we have subsequently entered into an agreement that my primary job is to keep them safe and bring them home at the end of each day. Accidents can happen and no guide is perfect, but I really strive to have as few incidents as possible. Basically, safety and wellbeing of the guests is number one. All the awesomeness that follows is a bonus.

 

heli ski guide getting some powder turns
Sam enjoying the “bonus”

Could you see yourself doing this the rest of your life?  Or do all good things come to an end?
Bob: After spending most of my life guiding I would have to say I plan on spending the rest of my life heliski guiding. I love my job and can’t imagine ever stopping.

Sam: I recently got to guide a gentleman who was attempting to break the Guinness World Record to be the worlds oldest heliskier at 91 years of age – that was some inspiring stuff. Yes, I certainly see myself guiding as long as my body will allow. So yes, all good things do come to an end, but hopefully not for a long long time!

 

heli skiers above to drop in on their next run of powder
John Schwirtlich Photo:  Easy to find bluebird days when you can just bump above the clouds for a few laps.

What is the company culture like at MW?  Where and how do you think it is formed?  Do you feel like you have an impact in molding it?
Bob: MW is a family owned and operated business and there is quite a strong family feel to the culture amongst the staff and the guests.  This starts with Mike but is felt and practiced by the staff year after year.  Family is strongly honoured.  It has always been a key concept with Mike and started with him but it has been picked up on by all of the staff over the years.  As with any family we don’t always agree on everything and we don’t always get along but you always feel supported by the company and your coworkers.

The other big part of our company culture is Safety.  Again it begins with Mike and his absolute focus on safety but all of the guides have been infused with this attitude and there is little room for any risky behavior.  Guides are strongly supported to make conservative decisions, to speak up when they don’t feel that the safest approach is being followed.
Sam: The company culture at MW is based around safety. Clean and simple. Safety and bringing people home safe (or not going out, for that matter) is the corner stone of everything we do at MW. I think this culture has formed through a combination of heuristic learning and having such vastly experienced lead guides that have been through the ups, downs, ebbs and flows of the company as we approach almost half a century of operation.
I think that everyone who works at MW has, to some degree, an impact on helping to mold the culture of safety. But this only works if everyone buys in. So, by buying into the company culture, I don’t necessarily feel like I am molding the safety culture so much as continuing what those before me have embedded into a blatantly successful and effective way of doing things.

 

Anything else you’d like to add about what guiding means to you that we didn’t touch on?
Sam: I really love what I do. Each year, as November comes around the snow starts to fall on the mountains, I get butterflies in my belly. It’s almost time to throw on the down and head north for the winter. Being able to share deep powder skiing and unfathomable beauty with people gives me so much.

 

We couldn’t have said it better Sam.  Thanks to you and Bob for your insight, now let’s get some snow on this ground and fire up the bird! -ML

 

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