Wednesday, June 10, 2009

18. Deep Powder and Steep Rock: the Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser

If you're a ski geek, especially out in the west, you have almost for sure heard of Hans Gmoser. He is responsible for putting Canadian Rocky Mountain Skiing on the international map and arguably singlehandedly responsible for helicopter skiing in particular. He came out from Austria after the Second World War, already an avid lover of the mountains and outdoor adventure and ended up in Alberta, in Canmore and Banff, on the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies. He is also the father of one of my best friends, which is why I ended up reading such a book (as many of you know I am part of a small but powerful cabal working on eliminating downhill skiing from the world).

Very briefly, Hans grew up in Austria and got into mountaineering as a young boy, through a Catholic priest who seemed more like a scout troop leader in that he led all kinds of mountain trips. Later, Hans became an electrician and as a young man, emigrated to Canada. He was a pioneer climber and led many first ascents of mountains that are famous today among the clmbing set. He also did a bunch of major treks and lots of skiing. Later, he really got into promoting skiing in Western Canada, driving all over North America and showing skiing films at local community centers. A friend of our family's who is a big skiier remembers when Hans would come into his town and all the ski geeks would get psyched to watch his films and here his talk. He was the first guy to attach a camera to his head and ski with it. Later, he set up a lodge and then got into sending people up into the mountains via helicopter which developed into a full blown heli-skiing empire, Canadian Mountain Holidays. Later, a truly evil empire, Inwest (responsible for the atrocity known as Whistler) bought CMH. That really is a brief, brief version as there is a lot of rich and interesting history behind all that.

As I said, that is a very broad outline of the history. If any of it is interesting to you, the book does a really solid job of portraying the stories and details of the history. Chic Scott gets the facts down and interviewed many of the people who were there, filling out the human side. There is a lot of climbing porn in the beginning, which if you are a climber will get you hard as some nice south-facing granite. As a non-climber, I was able to get through it without too much pain, while retaining a laymen's appreciation of the determination and skill these guys had, doing extremely hard climbs before climbing shoes were even invented. Overall, it's a really interesting story about one man's life as he makes his way from a young person to an outdoor fanatic, to a succesful businessman and finally settles down to being a loving family man, mellow and rightfully satisfied with his life.

I knew Hans first through the anecdotes of his two sons, with whom I went to boarding school. They were an excellent mix of crazy stories from his youth (like the time he was driving through a snowstorm and his defogger wasn't working, so he put on ski goggles and stuck his head out the window, driving through the snowstorm like that for several hours) and some of his more autocratic tendencies as a father. We were all pseudo-rebellious teenagers at the time and most of us bitched about our parents in some way or another and Hans didn't come off as all that bad. He was just particularily freaked out about trivial things like hairstyles, a button the older brother pushed during the new wave '80s. But he did come off as a bit of a hard ass. When I did actually meet him for the first time, he was quite pleasant and friendly. Later, as an adult, when I spent more time out in the mountains and Hans was basically retired, he was super warm and generous, really deep-down happy, great to hang out with and listen to his stories. He seemed so generally psyched and happy to be hanging with his sons, that I had a hard time reconciling the Hans I got to better know with the uptight dad of the teen years, but this book goes a long way in explaining that.

If you are a fan of Canadian history or the Rockies or skiing, I would recommend this book to you. It's an amazing story. For me, it filled in a lot of gaps about my friends' families past and was very informative for that as well as being entertaining. It's important to understand where people came from, especially people who travelled across the world before they were even fully formed to come to a new country and start a new life. It's a very different world today, much more stable for those of us in the first world and a lot of that is thanks to people like Hans who came to Canada with a lot of drive and saw a beautiful land where they could make a life.

Sadly, Hans Gmoser died a few years ago while riding his bike between Banff and Canmore, which is why this book got written when it did. Though Hans would never have been happy had he been in a situation where due to health he couldn't have been active, he was still pretty young and fit when he died, so it was a very sad loss for the community and especially for his family. Here's hoping he's somewhere climbing, skiing, hiking and biking in the most amazing places.


meezly said...

what a lovely review!

caropops said...

Loved this review. Helped fill in some of the facts of the Gmozer clan.