For good reason, most people remember Mike Wiegele for his renowned heli-ski operation in Blue River, B.C. I remember him as my coach, mentor and inspiration during the years I worked at the Lake Louise Ski school.
I was at the Lake Louise Ski Club meeting the day Mike was introduced as the new ski school director. He had arrived in Canada only a few years earlier, so although his English was challenging the Austrian looked very professional in his ski sweater and jet-black hair—and that’s what mattered. The year was 1965. It was Mike’s guidance and example that set me on the path to a lifetime career in the ski teaching business.
The beginning was inauspicious. His wife, Bonnie, had hired me to work in the ski shop, but every morning before work I joined the ski school when they went out for the compulsory morning session. One busy day Mike burst into the shop and pointed at me. “You, get your boots on, I need you outside.” I was assigned a group of youngsters and enjoyed the first of thousands of lessons to come over the next 30 years.
My memory is a bit fuzzy now but the way I remember it, Mike managed the skiing while Bonnie managed everything else. I started out in the rental and retail shop where Bonnie’s steady hand and calm demeanour made for a smooth operation in spite of the cramped space and hectic weekends. Bonnie never once had a meltdown.
Mike’s professionalism at his introduction was a hint of things to come. He took it seriously. In addition to the morning ski session, he would also deliver the occasional lecture indoors (with a blackboard) on how to act professionally—and how to sell lessons. He called his lecture “How to be a Pro.” Those end-of-day sessions also included a critical review of the day with key points, good and bad.
Mike was a true leader and his passion for excellence could be felt every day. Throughout his career, he expected the same from all of his staff. When possible, he would cruise around during the day and pop into ski lessons for a few minutes or just tag along within earshot. There was no doubt who was in charge and we all knew expectations were high. Instructors who were off their game found out about it at the end of the day.
The day started with a compulsory morning session. It wasn’t freeskiing; each one was structured with a theme. A recurring theme was “the intelligence of the feet.” On those days we sideslipped and did uphill christies by the mile under Mike’s watchful eye. Now, 50 years later those words are still relevant.
Mike loved innovation. In the early days of video, he hired a videographer who skied around with a large pack holding the reel-to-reel machine. In another experiment we skied with a radio system that allowed the instructor to talk to the students while they skied. When the Graduated Length Method was introduced, the Lake Louise Ski School offered that system, too.
Mike saw the potential of heli-skiing and I was not surprised at all when he prompted Atomic to build special “powder” skis, the first Fat Boys. Vision and unstoppable drive made Mike Wiegele larger than life to me.
I liked Mike’s sense of humour. He would fly off the handle at something and minutes later he would be laughing about it. He told me about an incident while working as a carpenter in Banff where he flipped out and hit the wall with his hammer in anger. The hammer went through the wall and fell down inside. He thought that was hilarious. One evening Bonnie and Mike were at our little one-room cabin for dinner. After dinner Mike offered to demonstrate a party game that involved spinning around until you were too dizzy to walk. He careened across the room and plowed into our stove headfirst, breaking the handle off the oven door. It was a fun evening.
Mike went on to build a world-class heli-skiing operation with an avalanche and guide’s training program to match. Over the years I spent many days at Blue River and I was always impressed and humbled that Mike always made time to talk and reminisce. Mike the man was also world-class.