BOW VALLEY – Mike Wiegele, a local alpine legend whose enthusiastic determination and prolific vision dawned a new era of ski culture in the Bow Valley, passed away at the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital on July 15. He was 82.
Renowned for “being ahead of his time” and “crazy, but in a good way”, Wiegele set the foundations as an alpine ski coach to develop home-grown talent into world-class athletes.
“We lost a legend,” said Patrick Gillespie, president of Alberta Alpine. “Mike was a true pioneer in the ski industry, with starting ski racing clubs at Mount Norquay and Lake Louise [and] with seeing the future in offering heli-skiing to those who loved the mountains as much as he did.
“He will be deeply missed.”
Wiegele was born in Austria in 1938 and grew up on a farm in Lading Kärnten where a healthy passion for skiing grew within him.
In 1959, Wiegele immigrated to eastern Canada and by the mid-‘60s had moved west, landing in the timeless beauty of Lake Louise, where he operated a ski school and pro shop.
He married his wife, Bonnie, in 1967 and three years later they had a daughter, Michelle.
During the ‘60s, Wiegele coached at the Lake Louise Ski Club, which produced six national team athletes under his tutelage. A then 14-year-old Ken Read, one of the famed Crazy Canucks and five-time world cup winner, was one of Wiegele's first students.
“He’s touched so many people and left us with such good memories and has been in many ways highly influential or transformative for us, just in terms of the questions he asked, the look he gave you, or the ideas he had," said Read.
Read said in later years, he and his former coach spoke about the Lake Louise Ski Club and what it was like to run the club back in the day.
"One thing he said was he always had a tremendous respect for the parents because he put this program together and got all these young kids, but there was no history," said Read. "Coming out of Austria, where every club has a history, and the successful clubs have athletes who were former members of the Austrian team, current members of the Austrian team ... he said we didn’t have any history, there was no legacy, there was nothing to point to."
One of Wiegele's philosophies he implemented was time on snow. As an Austrian, Wiegele was always keen on skiing and encouraging his pupils get as many hours on powder beyond the typical ski season as possible. It was an instrumental part of the high performance program.
“There was a period of time where the Lake Louise Ski Club was the best represented ski club on the Canadian Alpine Ski Team,” said Read.
“I reflect back and there are certain people in your life that are transformative and at the time you didn’t really realize it, but you grew to appreciate it."
During the ‘70s, the ski entrepreneur gambled on starting a heli-ski business, which morphed into the Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing (MWHS) empire and operated out of Blue River, British Columbia.
According to MWHS website, on Wiegele's very first outing, no guests signed up. Now, for the past 50 years, guests from around the world look to the B.C. heli-skiing pioneer's Blue River operation in search of arguably the world's best untamed and untouched snow.
During the decade, and with the help of ski friends and parents, Wiegele and Bonnie co-founded the Banff Quikies, a junior ski program, which turned into the Banff Alpine Racers and Bow Valley Quikies.
The program and its legacy has produced athletes such as Jan Hudec, Erik Read, Jeff Read, Trevor Philp, Vania Grandi, and Thomas Grandi, among others.
“In Austria, skiing and ski racing is kind of like hockey for us and I think that’s what Mike was able to bring to Banff,” said Thomas Grandi, a four-time Olympian and former pupil of Wiegele.
“For him to instill in us that this is a great sport and it’s worth pursuing to a high level. I think he also knew what we had here with all the infrastructure, all the facilities, we had what it takes to become a ski racing community, and eventually a nation, so I think that’s what he brought, this knowledge of ski racing direct from the motherland of ski racing.”
Wiegele was keen on teaching the technical aspects of alpine, which, when it was all said and done, reflected on Grandi as the most successful men's technical skier in Canadian history.
Wiegele's No. 1 quality was enthusiasm, Grandi said, with an unparalleled passion for skiing that was contagious and he had an intensity to be successful.
Following one Banff Alpine Racers season, Grandi and Wiegele set off biking up the backside of Sulphur Mountain in Banff.
"I remember him breathing like he was going to explode," he said. "He was working so hard and he said, 'at the beginning of the year, you have to clear your lungs out. You have to push yourself as hard as you can. You just have to do it at the beginning of the season,'" said Grandi. "It’s kind of a random story, but it just shows the intensity he had."
The Grandi's were friends with the Wiegele's, and a young Thomas Grandi, at just six years old, remembers one of Michelle's extraordinary birthday parties at Blue River where he went heli-skiing.
“It’s quite hilarious; what a birthday party. I get to go heli-skiing, it was wild,” Grandi said.
At the same time, famed ski and snowboard filmmaker Warren Miller was featuring Wiegele and Blue River in his latest movie. The operation was featured 21 times in Warren's movies from the early '70s to late 2010s and in one film, a young Grandi can be seen holding balloons from Michelle's party.
Wiegele was always tuned in for skiing, but, outside of it all, he sincerely cared for those around him.
At age 16, Grandi's father, Ugo, died in a drowning accident.
"Mike came to me and said, and he said it genuinely and so meaningfully, he said, 'if whenever you need anything, you give me a call' and that to me was probably a lasting memory of Mike that I will remember forever," said Grandi. "Just the generosity and the caring and making himself open to get me through this difficult patch. To me that was very meaningful."
Many accolades over the years were presented to Wiegele.
He was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame, the Banff Sports Hall of Fame, and was an industry leader in providing training for young ski guides through the Canadian Ski Guide Association.
"He was really a thinker and a visionary," said Grandi. "Some of his own ideas and I think some were adopted by widespread in the industry and others were a little different, I would say. I don’t think you start heli-skiing and doing these innovative things if you weren’t just kind of a little bit crazy."