In the Field
Alexandra van Zyl
Few skiers get to go heli-skiing, but most will admit to dreaming about it. Mike Wiegele, the impresario ski legend who oversaw the world’s largest single-base heli-ski operation in the wilds of British Columbia for half a century, not only understood this dream but also pursued a personal mission of living it daily — while helping his guests do the same. When he died on July 15, 2021, at the age of 82, both his family and the ski world bid farewell to a man who, though he may not have invented heli-skiing, had an outsized influence on elevating its global profile. Remembered by all for his frequently uttered motto: “Let’s go skiing,” Wiegele’s enthusiasm and pioneering efforts in safety, customer service, powder-ski technology, and mass-marketing helped make heli-skiing the backcountry juggernaut it is today.
Raised on a farm in post-war Austria, Wiegele’s early passion for skiing is exemplified in the oft-shared story of a young Mike cutting down a tree to make a pair of skis his parents couldn’t afford. But growing up in Austrian ski culture meant focusing on racing and challenging pistes, and Wiegele soon had his eyes on softer horizons—the powdery slopes of the Canadian Rockies. It would take him a while to get there. Arriving in Canada in 1959 with no English to help pave his way, he worked first as a carpenter before landing a job as a ski instructor at Quebec’s Mont Tremblant — a busy ski area to be sure, but thousands of kilometres from the Rockies. Eventually, he did move west, beginning with a stint at Sugar Bowl in California’s Lake Tahoe region, before finally heading north to Banff, Alberta, and the Rockies he’d set his heart on. Landing at the Lake Louise Ski School, it didn’t take long for the now-well-seasoned Wiegele to go from instructor to director. In 1967, he met and married athlete and businesswoman Bonnie Derome, a partnership crucial to the couple’s future enterprise.
Exploring the mountains around Banff, it was inevitable that Wiegele would meet compatriot, moviemaker, guide and heli-ski doyen Hans Gmoser. As the two forged a friendship, Wiegele joined Gmoser on ski tours, climbs, and, of course, the nascent activity of heli-skiing, which Gmoser had been pioneering for a few years. Wiegele immediately understood its potential; with plenty of mountains and endless space in B.C., it wasn’t long before he launched his own heli-ski dream out of the hardscrabble town of Valemont. Seeking to build their own more comfortable wilderness lodge, Mike and Bonnie relocated just south to the even snowier berg of Blue River — sandwiched by the Monashee and Cariboo Mountains. Here, the vision of a full-scale, internationally renowned heli-ski resort would come to fruition.
Officially known as Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing but whimsically labelled “Wiegele World” by both industry folk and customers, waypoints in the business’s evolution read like a history of modern powder-skiing: Wiegele organized the first Powder 8 World Championships there in 1978, became the first heli-ski operator to welcome snowboarders in the 1980s, and, perhaps most famously, pioneered the use of fat-skis (remember the “Atomic Powder Plus”?) with ski-designer Rupert Huber — who first slapped bindings on the two halves of a snowboard sliced lengthwise. This determined knack for invention also led to less-visible heli-ski innovations — better industry safety standards, avalanche research projects, and the Canadian Ski Guides Association, among others. As a result, Wiegele’s lifetime service to skiing garnered boatloads of awards from both the community and industry, including an honorary university law degree.
As a ski journalist in the 1990s, Wiegele World, with its 12 helipads and constant goings-on, was part of my reporting circuit, and a visit never failed to engender joy and veneration. In addition to memorable days skiing the powder-choked trees of the Monashees, I had the opportunity to watch my childhood ski hero, Wayne Wong, win a Powder 8 World Championship, and join ski luminaries in springtime attempts at setting records for vertical skied in a day. But my most enjoyable trip to Blue River was a Powder Magazine assignment to follow and document the journey of two wholesome, wide-eyed teens from North Dakota farm country who —improbably and fittingly — won a week-long trip to “the promised land.”
It wasn’t so much the predictably outsized impression that heli-skiing in big, glaciated mountains made on a couple of green Prairie kids that I recall but the mark left by Wiegele’s overriding passion and welcoming attitude. Already a living legend who dwelt on a higher plane in their minds, as mere mortal guests, the kids had never expected to actually meet him. So, when Wiegele made a point of seeking them out and sitting down with them to chat skiing — and farming — at dinner on their first night, god-like status was immediately granted the exotic Austrian in his trademark natty-white cap.
After he’d moved on, one leaned over the table and, voice cracking in the kind of reverence that would be bestowed on Wiegele by generations of ski-dreamers, whispered, “That was him!”
Indeed it was. A ski icon may have passed from this world, but the stories and legends that Mike Wiegele spawned live on. As a racer, coach, powder pioneer, businessman, innovator, husband, and father, he’ll be remembered by all for his frequently uttered and resonant motto: Let’s go skiing