During the recent Thompson Rivers University graduation ceremonies, the university bestowed an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon a very deserving recipient. Mike Wiegele, an Austrian immigrant who came to Canada in 1959 with not much more than a pair of skis and a dream of a better life than the one on offer in postwar Austria.
Mike’s list of accomplishments in the ski world is long and distinguished, but what he will be remembered for most is the company he founded 50 years ago, Mike Wiegele Heliskiing. In those early days, the mountains in Alberta and British Columbia were largely unexplored, sure there were ski resorts in Banff and throughout BC, but the backcountry wasn’t seen as a commercially viable option because of the lack of accessibility.
It took the vision of a handful of European immigrants to start using helicopters to explore new terrain. Mike Wiegele was one of those early pioneers. He started his operation in Valemount in 1970 and often jokes that his growth was 100 per cent every year. In his first season he had one guest, the next year he had two.
One of the smartest things Mike ever did was listen to the railway men that he met in the watering holes of Valemount. They encouraged him to explore an area south of Valemount, the town of Blue River. They talked about snow banks that buried street signs and snowflakes that fell big and straight. To anyone who understood powder skiing, the place sounded like Nirvana.
By the mid 70’s Mike had moved the operation to Blue River and the rest is history. For most skiers or boarders, a trip to Blue River is the equivalent to a die-hard Christian seeing the gates of Jerusalem for the first time. If Mike had been content to simply take people skiing, his legacy would have been safe on that alone, but Mike wanted more. Not only has he taken people from every walk of life, and all corners of the world, into the backcountry; he has also contributed more than anyone else in Canada to the development of homegrown guides and mountain safety.
In time, it’s fair to imagine that those contributions will be Mike’s real legacy. The guides he’s mentored, and those who have taken courses through the Canadian Ski Guide Institute, will be the ones to continue Mike’s vision and life’s work as the next generation of Canadian mountain guides.
I had the pleasure and privilege to work for the Wiegele family, and alongside Mike, for many years. In 2000 I was a fairly new CSIA Level 4 who was looking for a different career path, I found myself sitting around a guide’s table with some of the most experienced heliski guides in the business. I was green as grass and my level 4 pin didn’t mean a thing in the backcountry, it was one thing to be able to do a perfect carved turn and entirely another to learn how to guide people safely in the biggest terrain I had ever seen.
The culture of mountain safety that Mike preached became my gospel, I tried to soak it all up and enjoyed a career that spanned 17 years taking people safely skiing in the backcountry. My story is similar to many of the other guides who have been lucky enough to come into Mike’s orbit, his steadfast dedication to promoting mountain safety is what I will remember most about Mike.
That is why he absolutely deserves the title of Doctor Mike Wiegele, his field of study has spanned a lifetime, he has doggedly directed the guiding world to be better, and safer. He has provided opportunity to guides, snow science practitioners, and countless ski and snowboard enthusiasts to live their dreams in deep snow and big mountains.
I watched his convocation address online, while age has softened his voice it hasn’t dimmed the glint in his eye. With his wife Bonnie at his side, it was touching to see Dr. Wiegele, surrounded by close friends and family, receive his honorary degree and a standing ovation from the graduating class for the flagstones he has laid in the tourism industry.