As I’ve said many times, when I produced my first ski movie in 1949-50, there were less than 15 chairlifts in the world. Everyone who went in the ski business in the next 25 years was an innovator. One of those innovators was an Austrian named Mike Wiegele who talked his father into an airplane ticket to Canada, but Mike never went back home, well, to live in Austria.
I first met Mike when he was teaching at the Sugar Bowl in 1962 when he skied for my camera with Junior Bonous in knee-deep Donner Summit powder snow.
From California, Mike went to Banff in Alberta, Canada, were he ran the ski school until he decided that his future was skiing in the Canadian Rockies west of Banff using helicopters instead of a traditional ski resort. While traveling through Blue River, British Columbia, he had a chance meeting with an elderly women who had lived there for 40 years and had been keeping snowfall records for the prior 28 years.
As Mike says, “I could not believe the record; almost 30 feet of snow had fallen in and around Blue River every year of her recordkeeping.”
Forward to the spring of 1969 when I was finishing up the Jean Claude Killy, 13-week television series with 40 employees and a client who refused to pay me for what he had promised.
When I got home from Europe, one of the many letters that I had to handle was a note from Mike Wiegele inviting me to come and ride in his helicopter at no charge. I had been gone from home for two months and as I was dead broke and frantic, I sent one of my best cameramen at the time, Rod Allin.
He arrived in Blue River and Mike had a small, two-passenger Bell helicopter and no radios because he did not have any employees to talk to on a radio.
Mike only had 13 customers that winter and he jammed them all together while Rod was there so that he would have skiers to film. When I saw some of the footage Rod shot, I phoned him and told him to stay as long as Mike would fly him around and he still had some unexposed film.
When Rod’s footage of Mike was seen by my audiences the next fall, the ski film business was changed forever. The footage was that outstanding.
Today, Mike has 11 helicopters flying out of his Blue River headquarters and from that simple idea of his, as well as 16 hours of hard work every day since then, he now has 240 employees, accommodations for all of them and handles 200 customers a week with an annual gross income in excess of 25 million dollars.
Blue River is located at the convergence of cold Arctic air with moist clouds from the West Coast so that the snowfall is virtually guaranteed to be both deep and light.
While Mike was skiing at the Yellowstone Club this last week, we had a couple of 6-inch snowfalls and in Mike’s words, “I have to ski in powder snow every day so carving turns on these immaculately groomed runs is some of the best skiing I have ever had.”
What is next for Mike?
He talked a lot about building a resort at a place he calls Eight Peaks. He wants to be able to offer skiing in helicopters, snow cats and on chairlifts. He wants to offer 5,200vertical feet of skiing in a leasehold that is 8 kilometers by 6 kilometers, or about twice the size of Vail, Colo.
During his visit in Montana, Mike said, “When I wrote that letter years ago, inviting you to film helicopter skiing in Blue River, I sent that same letter to the other five or six ski filmmakers and you were the only one that responded.” Thus began a 45 year-long friendship.
Mike comes from a family of seven children and lived in a small village several thousand feet above the valley floor in Austria. It was a long walk down to his school in the valley below and a longer walk back to his home after school.
Once in awhile, I can get him to talk about his childhood and how lucky he was to live in such a remote mountain village, particularly during World War II when Hitler occupied Austria and forced anyone older than 16 to join the army, where most of them would wind up fighting on the Russian front.
At the age of 75, with a 14-year-old hip replacement, he is still skiing and guiding his helicopter operation in British Columbia.
I can say that some of the best skiing in the world for me was when it was cloudy at Wiegeles’ helicopter operation and I could just ski instead of running a camera or directing a camera crew.
Mike used to guarantee a 100,000 vertical feet of skiing in a week. When fat skis were invented, that amount of skiing almost doubled overnight and price adjustments had to be made. He used to have a surcharge for anything over the allotted footage. Now, you come up and for a flat price you can ski yourself into exhaustion every day and never ski in a track.
Everyone I know has a wish or bucket list. Put Mike’s name on your list because I have never heard of anyone who has come back from a week of skiing with him that was disappointed.
And, I’m so grateful to him as he was the person who introduced me to the lady who later became my wife.
Warren Miller is history’s most prolific and enduring ski filmmaker. Visit warrenmiller.net or visit his Facebook page at facebook.com/warrenmiller.