By Laura Keil
Mike Wiegele, one of heliskiing’s most passionate champions, has died at age 82, leaving behind the business he founded and a legacy many won’t soon forget.
Wiegele first set foot in the region in 1970, when he offered his first heli-skiing trip in Valemount, BC. Despite attracting no guests the first trip, he kept on.
“I thought he was a little bit cuckoo,” his wife Bonnie said of his early plans. “He was always a bit of a dreamer, and it was his dream to ski in these mountains.”
Shortly thereafter, the family relocated to Blue River, where Wiegele founded Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing and he and his wife grew the business into an internationally renowned resort that boasts access to some of the best powder snow in the world.
Andre Schwarz remembers how Wiegele gave him his first job in Canada.
“My whole ski teaching career is based on what I learnt from Mike,” Schwarz said. “Beyond Mike’s major focus on developing his world famous heliski business, he was a relentless educator. Even back in his Lake Louise Ski School days he devoted a lot of time and attention to his junior racing program and later in Banff to the famous ‘Quickies.’ Many world cup skier’s roots are embedded in these programs.”
A humble farm boy from Austria, Mike emigrated to Canada in 1959 to chase his ski dreams. Arriving with no English, he first was employed as a carpenter-builder. After working as a ski instructor at Mont Tremblant and Sugar Bowl, he moved West. Mike went from instructor to director of Lake Louise Ski School, which is where in 1967 he met and married Bonnie Derome, an accomplished athlete and astute businesswoman who would be pivotal in building their future enterprise.
At the heart of it all was a visceral love for skiing, those who know them say. In 1976, Bonnie and Mike started the Banff Quikies which evolved into Banff Alpine Racers, growing from seven young racers to 500 over the first five years. His coaching at Lake Louise Ski Club produced six National Team athletes.
When Wiegele took part in his own races, he rarely came inside when the ski races were done.
“My friends would call me to come to the year-end banquets where I would receive all these trophies, because I had missed the awards ceremonies as I was out skiing after every race,” Wiegele had said. “I just loved it so much.”
A former ski racer who raced against Wiegele remembers him as someone who believed in his dreams.
“Sixty years ago I ran many gates with Mike, competed against him in many races and argued with him about how he—a poor ski instructor—was ever going to be able to raise enough capital to realize his impressive dreams,” said Denis Smith. “He always believed in himself and his dreams and through tireless work and devotion he reached his pinnacle.
He was a good friend and we have all lost a wonderful man.”
In 1978, Wiegele launched the Powder 8 World Championships and a decade later was instrumental in bringing fat ski technology to the people, according to a company statement.
The Powder 8 World Championships was the showcase event for synchronized powder skiing that involved teams of two competing head-to-head in creating perfect “8s” in deep powder snow.
Terry Cinnamon of Caribou Snow Cat Skiing posted on instagram words on his passing:
“What a lifelong ambassador to the sport of skiing! He was the first to send us a letter of congratulations when we were approved for our own ski tenure 21 years ago and was always keen to offer advice and encouragement.”
Another former guest recalls Wiegele’s compassion.
“On a trip to Blue River, there was a father and son in my group. The father’s brother was supposed to be on the trip, but he’d passed. They had brought his remains and Mike took the guests to a peak, after the ski day, where they could scatter his ashes. That is the kind of passion that Mike showed for his clients,” said Mark Kalisch.
His commitment to safety led to the establishment of many industry standards and an important avalanche research program with University of Calgary, according to a company statement. In 1990, he established the Canadian Ski Guides Association, opening the door for Canadians to train as heliski guides.
“Mike was willing to challenge existing paradigms, took thoughtful risks to disrupt old ways of thinking and left his mark,” said Mike Sadan in an online comment.
In 1995, he was awarded the Bravery Award from the Governor General of Canada for rescuing passengers from a burning helicopter.
On April 17, 1990, Karl Achenbach, Evan Feen and Mike Wiegele helped rescue victims trapped in a burning helicopter near Blue River. Wiegele and Feen were on the ground nearby when the helicopter crashed, and Achenbach was a passenger inside. Seeing the crash, Wiegele raced to open the pilot’s door and urge the disoriented occupants to get out. Unable to open a side door, he broke a window and began pulling people out. A passenger became stuck but was pushed out by Achenbach, who was injured. Meanwhile, Feen had rushed to the flaming aircraft and crawled part way into the cockpit to assist other passengers. As the heat intensified, the rescuers were forced back. Their efforts saved the lives of 10 of the 13 passengers.
Wiegele received numerous other awards for his contribution to the ski industry in Canada.
In 2019, MWHS celebrated its 50th anniversary. A company statement says that in advance of this milestone, Mike hand-picked and trained a management team to lead the company into the next 50 years, “ensuring his dream, his passion for safety and his high standard for customer service would continue.”
Wiegele leaves behind his wife Bonnie, daughter Michelle and grandson Charlie.
Many will remember him by his motto which guided his life: “Let’s go skiing,” others by more colourful memories.
“I met Mike back in the 60s when I first learned to ski,” said Sue Pearce. “I have a great memory of Mike climbing up and skiing down at Bow Summit, yodeling all the way.”