Mike Wiegele is focused. Focused on skiing powder, and enabling others to do so. No one else in the industry can stand up to the influence he had on the world of gliding on powder, ranging from the invention of the powder ski to the progression of the sport of snowboarding. It began in a small town in Austria, but once Mike was old enough he moved to Canada where the mountains inspired him to lead the charge in the world of backcountry skiing, eventually starting up his own heli-skiing skiing operation out of Blue River, British Columbia. This is the story of how it all happened, in the words of Mike Wiegele himself.-ML
Where did it all start, Mike?
I’m from Austria and I came to Canada when I was 20 years old. My grandfather was in Canada in 1880 and my father also went to Canada to work on a farm, so it was kind of natural to follow their footsteps. They were farmers, and I was a skier. That was my work, and joy, all at the same time.
What brought you over?
I don’t know why I was thinking different than other people, but in some ways, I wanted to get out of Austria. My parents were in the First world War, and I lost family members. I grew up in the second World War and I thought, I gotta get out of here. Yugoslav closed off the borders to the west, and Russia closed off the borders to the east. I was six years old and I ran into army people often. We were under the suppression of the Nazi’s and I wanted to make friends with them, and they would play with me, tease with me. Once I did something wrong and an officer came over and said “Oh, you little rat” and threw me over a fence. He booted me right out of the yard and I never played with the Nazi soldiers ever again. That put a bad taste in my mouth even at a young age.
How did you get into skiing?
I started skiing when I was 3 years old so that’s how I spent my time right away. We lived halfway up the mountain, so we got to ski just by walking up the street—it was free too, so that was nice.
Were you aware of the ski opportunities in Canada?
Well, I just kind of followed the footsteps of where my parents were hanging out. But I got out into the Canadian ski world really quick because my parents were interested in skiing as well, so that helped me along. Skiing was always my backbone. I was skiing well enough that I got hired as a coach and I was also racing for the Calgary Ski Club. In the summertime, I was getting into the mountains, hiking and mountaineering. There’s no better place than being in the Banff and Lake Louise area—it’s totally magical. Being in the mountains in both winter and summer made me realize the beauty of the area and piqued my interest.
How did you meet Hans Gmoser of Canadian Mountain Holidays? You two basically invented heli-skiing.
Well, after my first winter in the Lake Louise area spring came and I had no work. So, I thought if there was nothing else to do, I might as well go skiing. With that I went up to Temple Lodge and of course I didn’t have any money, so I just walked. But walking up the mountain was not a problem for me—I loved exercise and of course the reward for turning around, pointing the ski tips down and going like hell. That always creates joy, fun and excitement.
One day when the bus stopped at Temple Pass, I saw this tall guy come out of the bus—he had knickerbockers on and a ski jacket—nobody had a real ski jacket at that time. I figured he must have been an Austrian, so I thought I would take a chance and greet him in Austrian—sure enough it was Hans Gmoser and we shook hands and became friends right away, and skiing partners from then on.
Then you went on some trips together?
Hans was making a film for his business, but he needed skiers—good skiers. I was one of the selected ones, and Jim McConkey was another one. He asked me if I would go along with him, and of course I was honored and delighted. We planned for the middle of May, but I broke my leg at the end of January, so I was unable to go. Lucky for me, Hans was so fascinated with the area that we still went back to the Cariboos the next year because Hans was so fascinated by the area.
We spent a week there and I immediately knew there was a place for me in the Cariboos. I talked my wife into moving there—and she’s still my wife— but it wasn’t an easy goal. She heard out my plans, and she’s a toughie. I basically knew right then she was a keeper. She always supported me in whatever I was doing.
Where did you go from there as far as exploring the mountains?
Well, the mountains had to prove themselves—I hadn’t seen all of them, so I went on as many tours into the mountains and valleys that I could so that I could get to know the area and the mountains could get to know me. So, I spent a lot of time right from the beginning between Banff and Jasper. And then I split off from the Columbia Icefield. So, I don’t know—you know, you look around, and if you see a nice valley, you walk up the valley. Eventually I went back to Lake Louise and I managed the ski school there, and I tried to turn it into a racing school. That gave me some great experience.
In the summers, me and Hans would climb quite a bit with a few other local mountaineers. I was fortunate to get connected with those people. They may have thought I was good, but I didn’t think so. I respected them, and they kept coming and asking me to go on climbing trips with them, and with that I gained even more time in the mountains.
From then on, I wanted to make one trip to somewhere I hadn’t been. All the mountains were new to me, and they were challenging —nothing was given. I continued to learn the dangers as I explored. I never encountered an avalanche, but they were certainly right under my nose.
Were you aware of the dangers?
I think there is such a thing as you make your own luck. I grew up on a farm without learning about snow science, so I have asked myself the question—why didn’t I get caught?
I learned a lot through experience, especially the weather in the Cariboos. One day it was a beautiful clear day and I was headed out for a hike. I Figured I didn’t need a jacket, just a little lunch and a water bottle. I was walking along a ridge and I thought to myself, I should look what the weather is doing. I looked west, then north. There was a big U-shaped valley and I look across and I see a tiny cloud way, far away. We were conscious that we needed to watch out all the time, but it was so far away I could barely see it.
Off we went, playing the game. As we were laughing and jumping the lightning struck right between us—scared the living daylight out of us and then it immediately started hailing. There was no hut, no rock, nothing to hide under. The hail was like golf balls, so we just laid down and put our hands over my head and got beaten up by the hail. After that, I said to myself—don’t you ever do that again. I think my whole back was blue from the hail. From then on, I had great respect for weather.
When you grow up in the mountains, you grow with the stability development, the structure, the snowpack—we were playing in it. And we learned early that if ice grows across the snowpack, that provides a great gliding layer. Any kind of snow that comes down, you know will avalanche.
Eventually, I got into the guiding business and I already knew avalanches were a problem. I have learned to play the rule of the game—don’t challenge the conditions and look closely at the snowpack. Carry a shovel with you, dig a hole, and see if you can find any layers of concern. That is the most accurate test for stability.
How did beacons change things? I know you had a big hand in testing those.
Well, it was pretty primitive to start. I was at a seminar and there was a topic on detecting snow stability and it was so primitive I can’t believe it now. But there was also a lady there who sponsored the research of an electronic detecting device so that each person could wear the unit and find each other if they were to be buried, and it seemed like it worked pretty well—it was called the Pieps One. So, then I went to Austria to the guy who was promoting the company and we talked about avalanches and he gave me one. I said, I’m going to Lake Louise and show it to anyone who wants to know about it.
Next in your long list of innovations came the powder ski. Tell us about that.
Well, for me it comes down to one thing: How much fun can you have? That comes down a lot to the equipment you use. In 1963, I used my downhill racing skis as my powder skis. The reason for that was it is a long surface, and the flex over the 220 centimeters allows you to get into the powder snow and come out with normal ski technique.
One time, Atomic invited me to work with them on the powder ski. The owner was a really intelligent guy making skis, but not powder skis. He didn’t like me much because I said his skis were no good for powder. But one of his co-workers, Rupert Hoover, he knew what it was all about. He called me and said he wanted to make a powder ski. We worked together, I gave him a list of designs, widths, flexes, and so on. It meant changing the way they made the ski completely and the owner gave an order not to have anything to do with me. But he had some smart employees, so they made the ski overnight and they sent me 4 pairs. It was a hit right away. The next year we got 16. We would have guests fighting in the ski room because we didn’t have enough. So, then I was fighting with the company because I was telling them I didn’t have enough. I had to go elsewhere to try to find something that would work, but the other companies knew much less than Atomic.
Then, we had the Powder 8 world championships. When we brought in the powder ski, it became popular to pair up with a friend and make powder 8’s in the snow, which is sort of challenging with your partner. We had about 30-40 competitors and the event was a hit. The two guys from Whistler who won got their skis from Rupert Hoover at Atomic. They had the best chance because they could really turn in the deep snow, and nobody else could. In the rest of the ski world, everyone was condemning the deep powder, saying it was awful, but I immediately got such joy from it.
You were also one of the first people to openly accept snowboarders—why?
When I first heard of snowboarding, I thought, I need to see it in action before I say no. The same day I got the Atomic ski we got a snowboard. My daughter took the board first, and I rode the new skis. We rode a huge Heli-run and we both had a great time. A few other boarders were there as well— Don Schwartz and Ken Achenbach. I saw how much fun they were having, and I was convinced.
You’ve accomplished so much in the world of winter sports, what’s next, Mike?
Well, first—skiing. That is most important. We need to continue to focus on skiing, how they are made, the shape, flex, and so on. We want to promote skiing, the safety of it, the conditioning, and everything. We like to ski fast, so we often have the debate on what the new skis have done—skiing fast is a lot of fun. We want to continue to do that. The new general manager at Atomic, Wolfgang Mayrhofer is willing to work with me and experiment on some ski designs. Everyone is experimenting right now. For me personally, I am just rehabbing my knee and looking forward to a great season of powder skiing.