Mike Wiegele Heli-Skiing (MWHS) is marking 50 years of business this winter and in the half-century the company’s offered its services, operations have come a long way.
In the late 1960s when it all began, Wiegele walked the mountains, scouting terrain in the Cariboos, looking for the right location to open shop.
“I walked into the Cariboos from Valemount with Hans Gmoser, founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays, and came back every year to explore it; I went from one range to another on foot, because I didn’t have any money,” said Wiegele.
“In 1970, I took my first test flight to Mt. Sir Wilfred Laurier and Canoe Glacier, with a Bell 47 helicopter—Gary Foreman, owner of Yellowhead Helicopters, was the pilot.”
He added he wanted to start a ski operation because he was younger, on his own, didn’t have liabilities, and perhaps most obvious—he loved skiing.
He had a big desire to spend time in the mountains and skiing was his main focus.
“When I did go to the mountains in the summertime, and if there was a white spot on the mountain, I would do everything to get to that spot,” noted Wiegele.
“I didn’t owe anybody and I wanted to build my own existence and business—and I also wanted to have fun and enjoy the sport.”
Hannes Schroll, Austrian ski racer and founder of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in California, met with Wiegele one day while he was working with Junior Bounous, a pioneer of the American ski industry and instructor at Sugar Bowl, as one of his instructors.
He asked Wiegele who he was and where he lived.
“I said, ‘Canada.’ He said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ He was a big guy and I stood up straight. I said, ‘I’m a pro here,'” explained Wiegele.
“‘When you go back to Canada, find yourself a mountain with the best snow and build yourself a resort.’ So that’s what I did.”
His wife Bonnie ran a ski shop in Banff and Wiegele used money from the shop to make promotional materials for his new business and shortly after the pair moved to Blue River, which at the time was a much smaller community than what it is today.
It was here Wiegele would make the acquaintance of a forestry worker named Carman Smith and begin a friendship that would last the rest of their lives.
“Mike came to Blue River and he had this vision, and I’d done a lot of backcountry skiing and what not, but at that time we couldn’t afford to take a helicopter up the hill; we’d never even thought of it. Then Mike comes along and has this little bubble helicopter and we thought holy crow, what’s going on here,” said Smith with a laugh.
“We’d never even dreamed that was possible, but Mike had this vision and he stuck with it and made a very successful endeavor for Blue River and everybody else who skied with him.”
Smith added Wiegele’s contributions to the North Thompson Valley have been many, encouraging people to ski as well as training and employing a lot of residents throughout the years.
The heli-skiing operation also provides opportunities for local youth who otherwise wouldn’t have such an outlet for recreation.
“It’s opened up a new world for a lot of these kids and a lot of these kids have stuck it out and become guides,” said Smith.
“I think he’s really done a lot for the Valley. He put it on the map. You ask around the world where it is and they know.”
A recession during the 1980s made business a bit rough, and though operations in Blue River started out quite small, they were still seeing hundreds of guests a week.
In 1981 there were seven guides, two office workers, one person in charge of the sport shop and a housekeeper employed by MWHS. The foundation for the lodge was laid in 1980, but the building wasn’t finished until 1987 and in 1988 the main guest lodge opened its doors.
Also in the late ’80s, Wiegele founded the Canadian Ski Guide Association to train ski guides for the mechanized ski industry, which is one of the many undertakings that garnered him a recent honourary doctorate from Thompson Rivers University.
As for why Blue River was his area of choice, he simply did his research and realized it had the best snow. Wiegele spoke with Blue River’s loggers, railroad workers and other old-timers and the word was, “When it snows here the snowflakes fall down big and straight.”
Blue River local Molly Nelson also offered him 34 years of detailed weather information from the area showcasing the snow records.
“I followed my nose; I was looking for a place with less wind than in Valemount, as wind is devastating to powder snow,” said Wiegele.
Of course, he wouldn’t have been able to develop such an operation before consulting with the local First Nations people.
Nathan Matthew, former Chief of the Simpcw First Nation, said he’s known Wiegele for years and always had a sense they were dealing with a respectful, and humble, businessman.
“Whenever there was a development within the territory the developer had to consult with us just to let us know what was happening so we could talk about our concerns and have a First Nation voice in the planning, especially for concerns we had with the environment,” said Matthew.
“We began a very cordial relationship and what struck me was he was so respectful about the Simpcw First Nation and our culture, and was really quite open to listening to suggestions and explaining what he was doing, and really finding out more about who we were because we didn’t really have any village up that way, not many of our people lived there.”
Matthew said Wiegele shared a similar philosophy in keeping the environment healthy and not causing a disturbance to nearby plants and animals, noting Wiegele had a special respect for the caribou as well as the salmon in the river near the resort.
“Any suggestions we had with environmental issues, he was always already there with his professional planners working on those issues specifically,” said Matthew.
“When he was able to share his plans, he was already putting it out in a fashion we thought was pretty good in terms of looking at our interests. He’s just a great guy, has a sense of humour and I don’t think I ever heard him say a cross word.”
The location now offers a luxury resort with 22 chalets, two off-site luxury estates, The Lodge which offers five-star dining and Silver Buckle Lounge, a boutique, fitness and spa area, a Guides House, Sports Shop, as well as the private Albreda Lodge – 45 km north of Blue River, which has 17 rooms and an additional two bedroom luxury suite.
In the winter season the site employs about 200 people in the town of Blue River, which has 260 year-round residents.
For the 50th anniversary season, MWHS will be putting out a short documentary this fall telling Wiegele’s story. The movie will be entered into some film festivals and also shown during the season at the resort.
As for the future of MWHS Wiegele said, “We have the assurance of huge mountain ranges—the Cariboo, Monashee and the Rockies—as long as we have snow in abundance, and we have that, these elements will provide a strong future.”