Heli-Skiing: Mike Wiegele’s Rotary Club

Heli- Skiing: Mike Wiegele’s Rotary Club
Where Helicopters Meet Hospitality, You’ll Meet Mike Wiegele.
By Roger Toll
mike_load_upThe day begins early in Blue River, with a 6:45 stretch class. At 7:30, the mountain guides gather to review temperature and humidity forecasts, snow pack stability, and wind slab danger. By 8, everyone’s gearing up: pulling on boots, filling day packs, heading to helipads. The guides check avalanche transponders to see if they’re beeping. A distant sound of rotors — thwack, thwack, thwack — and a helicopter descends from above the spruce trees, and then another, and another — eight in all —swarming like a bad flashback from ’Nam, or at least a bad movie version.

Mike Wiegele, in his trademark white beret with earflaps and chin strap, watches his guests take off for the two deep-snow ranges that cradle Canada’s Thompson River Valley: east to the soaring Monashees, west to the gentler Cariboos. He’s been watching scenes like this for almost 40 years, though usually from inside the helicopter.

Wiegele is the second pioneer of heli-skiing, following close behind his old friend Hans Gmoser, founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays. Like Gmoser, Wiegele is part of the second wave of Austrian skiers who taught America the secrets of their alpine sport. Born in 1938, he grew up skiing and racing in Austria but emigrated to Canada in 1959 to become a ski instructor at Mont Tremblant, and later Lake Louise and Sugar bowl near Lake Tahoe.

“Hans started his business just south of here, in the Bugaboos, in ’68,” Wiegele says. “I used to ski up into the mountains with him. He was a climber, and he loved those mountains’ rock spires. But I was a skier, and the Cariboos are better for skiing.” He laughs. “We always used to fight about that.

mike_ski_downhill“He was a purist, so he always wanted everyone to hike into the mountains to earn their turns — it took hours. Once in the high alpine, we’d do a run or two, then head back down. Sometimes he’d hire a helicopter to transport supplies. One day a guest said, ‘Look, instead of skiing all the way to the mountains, why don’t we go in the helicopter, and I’ll pay you for it.’ It only took a few minutes to fly in, instead of five hours. That’s how it all started.”

Ever the entrepreneur, Wiegele spent years researching wind and snow patterns in the western Rockies to locate the deepest, most regular snow, finding it in Blue River. Then he spent a couple more years hiking and skiing into the back country to see what the mountains actually looked like. Finally, in 1970, he welcomed his first guests to Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing. Now, even as heli-ski operations mushroom from Utah to Alaska, Wiegele remains the industry standard, the five-star outfit, the crème de la crème.

“We ski the glacier under diffuse light, ridges soaring around us.”

We ski down the glacier under soft, diffuse sunlight, a vast cirque’s rock ridges soaring steeply around us. New snow reaches above our boot tops, the latest addition to the 25 feet that have already blanketed the Cariboos by the first week of March. We roll over a lip onto steeper terrain and carve a tapestry of flawless S’s, then merge into a single file across a snowfield that risks giving way. I stop and look back at our handiwork: short, symmetrical turns that from a distance appear perfect, worthy of powder 8 competitors.

mike_heli_drop“You know, the one thing about heli-skiing is that you’ve got to stop sometimes and remember to look around,” Joe Gallina says, sliding up behind me. A Midwest freestyle champion in the ’70s, he is the best skier in our group, a regular Wiegele warrior who returns annually for his heli-skiing fix. “The beauty is so intense here in these mountains, but we get caught up in the adrenaline of skiing and forget where we are. You’ve got to look around and take it all in, and remember how incredible it is to be here.”

We lunch on hot soup, tasty sandwiches, fruit, and chocolate bars near the bottom of another glacier. Blankets of snow unmarred by trees undulate over enormous bowls. To the north, peak after peak dissolves into the distance. It is huge country, but not insurmountable.

“Heli-skiing is not just for adrenaline junkies,” says Wiegele.

“We want the whole family to come.” To that end, he is developing the resort’s next phase on partially groomed Saddle Mountain, less than a mile from the heli-skiing base. Its nascent snowcat-skiing program is the first stage of an expansion to include lifts, groomed runs, a village, and homes integrating lift-, cat-, and heli-skiing operations. It’s designed to be a more relaxed introduction to back country skiing. The guides, all professional instructors, will help the less experienced progress from groomed to powder on a wide-open slope, and then to tree skiing in glades until they have enough confidence to take on the high peaks in a helicopter.

Intimidation and fear can cut into the joy of heli-skiing — unnecessarily, says Wiegele.“People worry that they’ll have to struggle to keep up in a group with better skiers and hold others back. But we have a lot of helicopters to break skiers into groups with compatible abilities. In the end, we can’t ski anything steeper or deeper than what you find at Whistler or Vail or Jackson Hole. It’s not harder than off-piste skiing at any major resort.”

mike_downhill_trioOut of modesty, Wiegele demurs when I ask how his operation differs from other industry leaders, but veteran guide Bob Sayer has fewer qualms. “The biggest change is that we went from having one guide for 11 guests in each group to two guides for 10 guests. The comfort level went way up, and the amount of skiing we got to do went way up as well.” Two other differences point to greater customer value, he adds. Instead of the standard practice of dedicating one helicopter to four groups of 12, each of Wiegele’s machines ferries only three groups, meaning faster runs, quicker turnarounds, and much more skiing. Finally, unlike his competitors’ prepaid limit — typically 100,000 vertical feet — Wiegele offers unlimited vertical.

“Boy, did that ever make a difference,” says Sayer. “We stopped posting vertical, and people stopped getting so obsessed about how much they’d skied. They became more relaxed and enjoyed themselves more. Now we ski a lot more vertical — 135,000 per week on average — and there’s none of that discomfort midweek when we have to tell our guests that if they want to ski past lunch the next day, when they hit their 100,000 vertical, they’ll need to sign this paper to say they’re going to pay more.”

The changes cost the company money, Sayer explains, which says a lot about Wiegele himself. “Mike has never been interested in becoming a millionaire. What he wants is to be the best heli-ski operation in the world. All the money goes right back into the company: another chalet, more glading, improved staff housing. Even here in the middle of nowhere, Mike recruits good people and turnover is minimal. A lot of our hospitality staff have been here five or 10 years, and some of our guides their entire careers.”

mike_lodgeThe resort revolves around the main lodge, which contains a bar, a ski wear boutique, a large buffet and dining room, a gym with 50 aerobic and weight machines, and a busy spa. Another building houses the front desk and company offices; next to that is the ski shop. Encircling this inner core are 22 cabins and chalets for up to 120 guests.

One afternoon I run into a very proud Mike Wiegele and his 2-year-old grandson, Charlie. “I took him skiing up on the mountain today,” Wiegele says, beaming. “You should have seen him. It was his first day on skis, and he was terrific.” Later, I hear him telling other guests the story with the same proud grin, which points to perhaps his biggest competitive advantage: With his native-born Gemütlichkeit, Wiegele is the ever-present host, spreading amiable warmth like fudge syrup on a bowl of ice cream. At 70, Wiegele guides fewer groups than he used to, choosing instead to focus on expansion.

mike_heli_fleet“I only ski every three days now,” he tells me. “There is so much to do around the resort.” Given the increasing competition, I ask Wiegele where his future lies. While the new operators have taken away some of the more value-oriented end of the business, he says, the elite market not only remains robust, it’s growing, especially the “privates,” groups who hire their own helicopters and guides for the week, which allows them to set their own schedules.

“Half the people here this week are on privates. Those guests who started skiing with us 20 years ago are older now. They want to ski at their own pace and really enjoy a wonderful day in the mountains.” Others, whom he calls the Terminators, may take a private in order to ski more vertical at a faster speed, accumulating huge vertical numbers for the week. “With privates, we can gear the package to exactly what guests want.”

mike_crewAnd what guests want is what Wiegele and his team are working to achieve. “We’ve done a good job at giving people lots of options so they can heli-ski in the way they want. And for that group of people, our open and friendly attitude is a real plus. We are like family to them. That’s intentional. We hire people with a good attitude. We expect everyoneto be smiling and cheerful. It’s our job. It’s the business we’re in.”