photo courtesy of www.heli-archive.ch
Searching for who started
all the fun.
The helicopter has been called “the God Machine,” for its ability to fly, hover and land on almost any kind of terrain. Helicopters have even reached the lofty heights of the summit of Mount Everest (8850 meters / 29,029’). On May 14, 2005, Didier Delsalle landed an Ecureuil/Astar AS- 350B3 on the summit for 3 minutes and 50 seconds. While the high altitude record for a helicopter was set by an Ecureuil B2 helicopter in 2002 of 42,500’. Clearly, helicopters can go just about anywhere on Earth.
The helicopter has been used for many uses; transportation, air ambulance, rescue, fire-fighting, etc. One of the more interesting uses has been with downhill skiing. Helicopter skiing, is simply using a helicopter to transport skiers to the top of mountainous backcountry terrain that the skiers wish to ski down. People also use snowboards for this activity. Helicopter skiing has also been known as Heliskiing or Heli-skiing. For the purposes of this article, I’ll use the term “Heliskiing.”
The first time I ever heard about heliskiing, I was just a young skier in the late 1960’s. When I heard the term, heliskiing, I seemed to automatically understand what the term meant. As a kid raised on watching the TV show “Whirlybirds,” it made perfect sense to me to use helicopters to get to the top of mountains in order to ski them. And I knew immediately that one day I wanted to go heliskiing. Since then I have enjoyed a number of week’s heliskiing.
But, I have often wondered who first came up with the idea of heliskiing. In a way it’s like asking, “Who was the first to fly?” We of course seem to know the answer that it was the Wright Brothers in 1903. But there is limited evidence that backs-up claims that Gustave Whitehead made a controlled flight in 1901 in his own aircraft design. The mainstream ski media has said for years that Canadian ski-guide; Hans Gmoser is the inventor/father of heliskiing. Gmoser started Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), and CMH on their website states that Gmoser invented heliskiing. This has become a generally accepted fact. But, on closer examination Gmoser’s story has more to it than what is generally accepted.
Hans Gmoser originally came to Canada from Austria, after WWII. He became one of the more important climbing and ski guides in the history of Canada. From being a humble mountain guide he eventually became the majority owner of CMH, the largest heliskiing operation in the world. CMH has 15,000 Sq. /km of tenure areas with 12 heliskiing lodges and 500+ employees. Gmoser eventually retired from heliski guiding and sold CMH in 1995. He died May 5th, 2006, after a bike accident.
There are three books about Hans Gmoser and the growth of CMH. The first is Deep powder and Steep Rock: The life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser by Chic Scott, Bugaboo Dreams: A Story of Skiers, Helicopters & Mountains by Topher Donahue; and A Photographic Celebration: 25 Years of CMH Heli-Skiing by Hans Gmoser. In all of three books, Gmoser says that the idea of heliskiing was first brought to him by a Calgary geologist by the name of Art Patterson. Patterson had used helicopters in the mountains for summer field work, and he knew that a lot of these helicopters were sitting idle during the winter months.
Patterson was a skier and he could see using helicopters by carrying skiers to the top of mountains, could be an interesting new business. But, Patterson realized that to make the idea of heliskiing work, he would need professional guides that understood where to go and understand snow and avalanches. Gmoser and Patterson teamed up together at first. Patterson handled the business side and Gmoser did the guiding.
Their first heliskiing adventure began in late February, 1963. There were 20 clients that paid $20 (approximately $160 in today’s dollars) for a “day of heliskiing.” As it turned out, it was less than an ideal beginning; the small Bell 47G-2 piston-driven helicopters, took hours to get everyone to the top of the ski run. And the skiing conditions turned out to be less than ideal. They tried another heliski day in May, but that was marked with difficulties in trying to get where they wanted to go due to high winds. Patterson decided that heliskiing was too risky as a business and it wasn’t for him. But, Gmoser saw the potential in heliskiing. Gmoser eventually went on to form CMH, and grow it to being a successful heliski operation.
Bell 47G-2 helicopter used by Gmoser and Patterson in 1963
Bell 47G-2 helicopter with Mike Wiegele on-board in 1970
The mainstream ski media has kept with the idea that Gmoser and Patterson were the first to come up with the idea of heliskiing. But, in Donahue’s book Bugaboo Dreams he writes, “As early as the late fifties, skiers in Europe and Alaska had experimented with using helicopters to access untracked snow in the high Alps and the Chugach (mountains)7.” This sentence intrigued me, with who really was the first to try heliskiing. When I started to do research about who was first, I realized that I’d have to research the use of helicopters in an alpine environment. My hope was that by finding out who flew helicopters first in the mountains, I might be led to who did the first heliskiing. So, my new question became, “Who first flew helicopters in the mountains?”
It is generally accepted that Igor Sikorsky developed the first real functioning helicopter with the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 model. The first untethered flight
was on May 13, 1940 (the VS-300 first flew with ground tethers on September 4, 1939). The VS-300 had a 3-bladed single rotor blade disk of 30’ in diameter, with a 75 horsepower engine.
Vought-Sikorsky VS-300 in tethered flight on September 14, 1939
Igor Sikorsky died on October 25, 1972. I have not found anything written or quoted by Mr. Sikorsky about heliskiing. But, he did know the helicopter’s potential as a lifesaving tool; you have to wonder if he knew how much enjoyment his machine has brought to skiers and snowboarders worldwide.
Meanwhile in 1939 Germany, Henrich Focke and Anton Flettner were working on some advanced helicopter designs. Eventually Focke and Flettner parted ways to work on their own separate designs.
Overall, helicopters did not play any major combat role in the WWII. Both the Germans and the allies pursued helicopter development during WWII. The Germans had some of the more developed machines. The German Luftwaffe (Air Force) was the first to test and use helicopters in a high alpine environment. The Americans used a version of the VS-300 called the Sikorsky YR-4B in the jungle mountains of Burma, mainly for medical evacuations. But, this was late in the war, and used only on a limited number of missions.
In Germany, Focke produced the Focke Achgelis Fa-223 Drach (The Dragon) helicopter design, as a transport design. It was an unusual design compared to modern helicopters. There were two rotor disks, one on each side of the fuselage (it’s now called a “transverse” rotor arrangement) with 3 blades on each, with a total span of 80’ 4.5”. The fuselage (40.25’ long) held a 1,000 hp BMW 301 nine-cylinder engine. It had an empty weight of 7,000 lbs. and a maximum weight of 9,500 lbs.. The Fa-223 could reach a maximum speed of 109 mph, and had a cruising speed of 75 mph; with a range of 435 miles. The Fa-223 had a service ceiling of 15,900’. It was manned with two pilots and could carry four passengers. The Fa-223 also had skis that could be attached for landings in deep snow.
The Fa-223 first flew on June 18th, 1940. Extensive flight testing of the Fa-223 took place throughout 1940 -1944. The Fa-223 was first displayed and demonstrated to Adolf Hitler on June 12, 1944, at Obersalzberg. At first Hitler reportedly acted impassive and unimpressed at first seeing the Fa-223. But, when it lifted off Hitler immediately recognized its potential and said to General-Feld marshal Keitel, “This could be very useful for mountain warfare8.” Thankfully, there is no evidence that Hitler was a skier, so he didn’t see the potential of the Fa-223 for heliskiing.
After the demonstration flight for Hitler, the Luftwaffe and RML (German Air Ministry) decided to conduct mountain flight tests of the Fa-223. The first mountain flight testing of the Fa-223 was in France at Chamonix. It is not clear if during the testing the Fa-223 did any high-altitude landings on Mount Blanc. A crash of one of the Fa-223’s brought the program to a temporary halt.
Mountain flight testing resumed in Mittenwald in the Bavarian Alps on
September 6th 1944. Part of the flight testing was to develop the use of long-lining techniques. Long-lining is where cargo is suspended from the helicopter on a cable while in flight. Long-lining has become a standard practice with modern helicopters for fire-fighting, search and rescue work, logging and moving structures (i.e., ski lift towers, weather stations, etc.).
During the flight testing small howitzers, field kitchens and other supplies where lifted to mountain troops high in the mountains with long-lining. High-altitude landings were also done. The highest of which was at 7,549’ for a simulated exercise of transporting wounded soldiers. Numerous landings were also done between 7,500’ and 2,900’ in the mountains. A landing at 7,500’ and a pick-up at 2,900’ would have meant a maximum of 4,600’ vertical ski run. That alone is impressive by today’s heliskiing standards.
There is video footage on YouTube.com of the Fa-223 flying long lines and landing (in snow) in the Bavarian Alps. It is remarkable the control and power that the Fa-223 has compared to modern helicopters like the Bell 47. The video can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ztiPjVGolXw
Ironically, the video is listed under the titled of “USMC helicopter lies: U.S. Army & Germans first combat use of helicopters.” Obviously, from the title there is some issue with the claim of who first used helicopters in actual combat.
The mountain flight testing of the Fa-223 ended on October 5th, 1944. And the whole Fa-223 development program was terminated on October 11, 1944. The Fa-223 had proven the value of helicopters for mountain warfare, but by then Germany at this time lacked the resources or need to go into full production of the Fa-223. The war in Europe ended on May 7th, 1945.
I cannot find definitive proof (photos or written reports) that the German mountain troops used skis while testing the Fa-223 in the Bavarian Alps. In the YouTube.com video there is clearly enough snow, that skiing could have been conducted. It is possible that if the mountain flight testing had continued longer into the winter of 44-45’, the mountain troops may have carried skis in the Fa-223; and become the world’s first heliskiers.
One has to wonder if there were wistful conversations amongst the German mountain troops about how great the helicopter would be as a ski lift. I have interviewed Mike Wiegele (an early Canadian heliskiing pioneer and friend of Gmoser’s), who was a boy in Austria during the war. He never heard anything about the German helicopters during the war. Also in the books about Gmoser there is no mention of the WWII German helicopters.
Photo from YouTube.com of Fa-223 in flight in Bavarian 1944
Fa-223 in flight
After WW II, helicopter development continued in earnest. Documentation about the use of civilian helicopters in the mountains during the late 40’s and early 50’s is limited. Notable exceptions are the first helicopter landings atop Mount Blanc (15,776’) and Pike’s Peak (14,110’) on June 6th and in September of 1955.9&15. Clearly, helicopter technology was slowly overcoming mountain flying difficulties and limitations. Heliskiing information during the late 40’s early 50’s is limited at best and hard to find.
Landing on the summit of Pike’s Peak, Colorado, 14,110 ft.
In the February/March 2012 issue of VERTICAL MAGAZINE (a Canadian Helicopter magazine) there was an article about the history of Canadian heliskiing called, Top of the Mountain10, by noted Canadian aviation writer Bob Petite. In his article Petite leads off with, “The first recorded occurrence of a helicopter being used to airlift skiers into mountains was back in 1948, by Skyways Services, which was one of three Canadian commercial operations at the time.” I emailed Mr. Petite for details. It turns out this first use of helicopters to airlifting skiers to the top of a mountain was basically an air-taxi ride from downtown Vancouver to the top of Grouse Mountain ski area outside of Vancouver. This service apparently didn’t last very long.
I wouldn’t call this true heliskiing, because it wasn’t done in a true backcountry setting, but, it apparently is the first time that a helicopter was used to transport skiers for the purpose of actual downhill skiing. Should Lewis Williams, the president of Aero Services, be credited as the “father/inventor” of heliskiing? And should Paul Ostrander be credited as the first heliskiing pilot? Clearly, these guys had a creative idea of how to use a helicopter. By being the first to do heliskiing, they should be credited as the true “fathers/inventors of helicopter skiing”.
Newpaper article dated January 30, 1948 about the first skiers carried
by helicopter to go skiing on Grouse Mountain outside Vancouver, BC
In my research before I found out about Lewis Williams, I have run across one other mention of skiing by using a helicopter in the early 50’s. Monty Atwater was one of the first avalanche snow rangers for the US Forest Service. He established the first avalanche research center in North America at Alta, Utah.
In 1950 Atwater was working as a “snow problem consultant” on a ski area site survey for an area that Walt Disney wanted to build. This new ski area was to be called Mineral King. It would have been in Northern California, near Sequoia National Park. Atwater wrote in his book, Avalanche Hunters11, about using helicopters during this job:
“In Northern California I once did a job surveying a complex of ski areas of the future. My companion and I used a chopper first of all to jump over the snowbound (i.e., closed for the winter) highways. Then we used it as a ski lift with an infinite number of lines. It flew us to the top, picked us up at the bottom, flew us to a different top. In three day of about three hours’ of flying time apiece we did more work than we could have in a month on foot and with Sno-Cats, and we did it better. It was an aerial platform for making maps and photographs. If one of us got hurt, our angle of mercy was slurruping overhead. I have ridden helicopters from Chile to British Columbia, and I have great affection for them.” Clearly, Atwater was doing heliskiing. Sadly, he doesn’t mention what was the type of helicopter or who was his pilot or skiing partner.
Atwater’s wife Joan did realize how much fun heliskiing could be. Atwater also wrote this: “As soon as she knew that there was a chopper on the program, Joan began propagandizing for a ride in it. ‘Not a chance,’ I told her. Do you have any idea how much it costs per hour to fly this doodlebug? Besides, it’s a government job and the government doesn’t approve of using its equipment for joy riding.” Obviously, Joan wanted to heliski just for the fun and adventure of it. I would almost say she was the first wannabe “backcountry recreational heliskier.”
The Mineral King development project seems to have been the
main site for early helicopter skiing in the USA. Not only did Atwater use helicopters for snow study work in 1950, but Disney also hired the famous avalanche researcher André Roch, to make a study of Mineral King in 1965. Roch spent much of the winter in the area doing a study of the areas avalanche potential. On several occasions he used a helicopter to access the higher bowls, and he brought along other skiers on these trips.
Master Plan Presentation to the US Forest Service of proposed ski area called the Mineral King Project by Walt Disney Productions
It might have been interesting if Walt Disney had heard about their heliski experience at Mineral King. If Disney had known he might have become the first heliski vacation operation developer. But, Disney apparently never heard about their heliskiing, and the Mineral King Ski area was never developed due to environmental opposition.
In the February 2007 issue of SKIING MAGAZINE, there was a short article about heliskiing. It listed a timeline of events that led up to Gmoser starting CMH. The SKIING MAGAZINE timeline stated with; “1958: Bengt “Binks” Sandahl, the first known heli guide, starts guiding skiers out of Alyeska Resort, Alaska, using a Hiller helicopter with Solay conversion, but his operation doesn’t last.” I had once met Binx Sandahl in the fall of 1997 at the American Association of Avalanche Professionals (AAAP) meeting in Alta, UT. At this meeting Sandahl received the Bernie Kingery Award from the AAAP. The Kingery award is given for excellence and longtime dedication to avalanche professional practice. I didn’t know at the time of Sandahl’s connection with guiding early heliskiing.
Sandahl first went to Alta in 1953 and worked as a bartender in the
Alta Lodge. While at Alta he started to become interested in snow and avalanche work. The following year he left to take a job in Alaska where eventually he worked as a ski instructor at Alyeska Ski Area. He later became the snow safety director there. Sandahl later returned to Alta, Utah and was hired as the US Forest Service Snow Ranger in 1964.
The dates are contradictory about when Sandahl used helicopters for skiing. SKIING MAGAZINE says it was in 1958. But, an ad in December 2001 issues of POWDER MAGAZINE for Chugach Powder Guides (an Alaskan heliski operation) shows a black and white photo of a Hiller helicopter lifting off with skis strapped to the side. The photo is dated 1957, and the photo is courtesy of the Anchorage Museum of History & Art. I suspect that the museum folks have the correct year.
Advertisement for heli skiing in Powder Magazine
I have been able to talk with Connie McClaren, who is Sandahl’s daughter. She was very young when her father was in Alaska. She doesn’t remember much of Sandahl talking about heliskiing. But, she does know that Sandahl talked a lot with Monty Atwater. I don’t think that it would be much of a stretch to assume that Sandahl and Atwater talked about using helicopters for avalanche work and skiing. Sandahl later pioneered the use of helicopters to do avalanche control work with explosives from helicopters in Utah. Atwater’s 1950 heliskiing in California may well have given Sandahl the idea of using helicopters to carry skiers to the top of “Max’s mountain” in Alaska. The exact date(s) of where and when Sandahl started to guide skiers in Alaska via helicopter isn’t well documented.
Helicopter landed on the top of Max's Mountain, Alyeska Ski Resort, AK
Dave Hamre, who mentored under Binx at Alta after he returned from Alaska, says that the above photo was taken at the top of “Max’s Mountain;” which is now the Alyeska ski resort. He thinks this picture was taken before chairlift construction when they were scouting the mountain and selling lifts up the mountain, which would have been about 1958. It is rumored that a heli-lift cost $10 (approximately $80.00 in today’s dollars). There is even 16 mm color movie footage by W. J Wellenstein on YouTube.com of this heliskiing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVUA96LuzVE&feature=youtu.be
In 1964 Sandahl returned to Alta, Utah and was hired as the US Forest Service Snow Ranger. Sandahl was an early mentor to many in the avalanche business and heliski guiding. He was a close friend of Mike Wiegele’s. Contrary to how SKIING MAGAZINE spelled his name, “Binx” is how he preferred to spell his name. Sandahl died
September 1st, 1999.
The January 1959 issue of SKI MAGAZINE ran an article entitled,
“By Helicopter to Virgin Snowfields”. The article is about how folks in the Alps and Alaska have started to switch over from ski-equipped planes to helicopters; “By helicopter it is possible to ski unbroken powder all day long without ever seeing ski tracks except the ones you make yourself.” The reference to heliskiing in Alaska, and the photo in the article match the other ones of Sandal’s operation. The heliskiing being done in the Alps was at Gstaad and at Val d’Isere. The cost of these early heliski flights in Europe was quite expansive at $22.00 to $52.00 per flight. In today’s dollars that would be approximately $176.00 to $416.00 per flight. As a Heliswiss archive article says this heliskiing was mainly done by only the very wealthy.
It is interesting that on the caption of the Alaska photo, the magazine mentions that about 100 skiers per day were lifted into the mountains by helicopter. There were also plans to get a larger Sikorsky helicopter to hold more skiers for the next winter. I haven’t found any additional information about if this actually happened.
The Heliswiss company archive also mentions that Heliswiss started to offer heliskiing during the winters, because their helicopters weren’t being used much during winter season. But, the archive does not mention who was the person that thought up the idea of heliskiing. So, unlike the Aero Services and the CMH story there isn’t a Lewis Williams or Art Patterson to take credit for the idea.
photo courtesy of www.heli-archive.ch
Heliswiss archive photo: Samedan/GR Switzerland Winter 1958 Pilot
Walter Demuth transports Athina Onassis along with her ski instructor
By the late 60’s, Hans Gmoser really had CMH up and running. Mike Wiegele, a friend of Gmoser’s, started his operation in 1970. The 70’s and 80’s saw amazing growth in heliskiing. In the November 1982 issue of POWDER MAGAZINE, there where 15 heliskiing opperations listed in the lower 48 states of the US alone14. There is a claim on being the first “offical” American heliski operation, (Sun Valley Heliski), that was started by Bill Janss in 1966 in Ketchumn Idaho after he had heliskied with Gmoser in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. But, there is information that in 1963 Bob Hosking was flying skiers from the Rustler Lodge at Alta, Utah. It’s not clear if Kosking held a special use permit that allowed this. There are rumors that for $5 - $10 one could get lifted up to Mount Superrior above Alta. Later in 1973 Wasatch Powderbird Guides (WPG) would start operations in the Wasatch mountains of Utah. And Hosking was the secretary/treasurer of WPG.
Cover of comic book Richie Rich, the Poor Little Rich Boy
Even the April 1972 issue of the comic Richie Rich showed that heliskiing was becoming known to the general public. It’s hard to say what model helicopter that is, but it looks sort of like a Sikorsky R-5D Dragonfly.
The early leaders in heliskiing learned by trial and error, and their experiences in around the helicopter have become a major component in heliskiing safety protocols today. Avalanche safety has been equally important to heliskiing operators. Numerous heliskiing operations have contributed heavily to avalanche safety and research projects worldwide. The non-heliskiing backcountry skiing public has benefited greatly from this research.
Hans Gmoser and Mike Wiegele deserve credit for being the first to create the “helicopter skiing vacation package” into what it is today. Their operations are the standard by which many judge other operations. But, the first heliskiing operations clearly started primarily as just daily heliskiing operations. Today there are both
the “vacation package” type and the “daily” heliskiing operations throughout the world. Mike Wiegele has told me that the heliskiing/snowcat skiing industry contributes upwards of $160 million Canadian dollars to the British Columbia economy.
And CMH claims to be the largest single employer of ski guides in the world.
It is clear that there may have been many “fathers” of heliskiing. As early as 1944 some unnamed German mountain trooper may have seen the potential of using helicopters for skiing. But, wartime thinking obviously suppressed this idea. Trying to name just one person as “the father/inventor” of heliskiing seems split between Lewis Williams and few others.
There would be a long list of names of people who could try to lay claim to being the “father/inventor” of heliskiing. Unfortunately, as more years pass, their names fade from memory. And it just gets harder to document some claims. All I can say is “thank you,” to Lewis Williams for launching the first helicopter with skiers up into the mountains, and I give him the ultimate credit for being
1 The God Machine: from Boomerangs to Black Hawks – The story of the helicopter. By: James R. Chiles. (It’s interesting that nowhere in this book does the author mention helicopters being used for skiing.)
2 Planet Aerospace Magazine 4/2005 October/November/December, Landing on the Plant’s Roof, page 4 – 11
4 Deep Powder and Steep Rock: the Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser, By: Chic Scott, page 201 - 203
5 Bugaboo Dreams: A story of skiers, helicopters & mountains, By: Topher Donahue, page 32
6 A Photographic Celebration: 25 Years of CMH Heli-Skiing, By: Hans Gmoser, page 10
7 Bugaboo Dreams: A story of skiers, helicopters & mountains, By: Topher Donahue, page 32
8 Helicopters of The Third Reich, By: Steve Coates with Jean-Chistophe Carbonel, page 104
9 Vertical Magazine, August/September 2013, Cessna: in the helicopter age, By: Bob Petite, page 156 – 159
10 Vertical Magazine, February/March 2012, Top of the Mountain, By: Bob Petite, page 164 – 167
11 The Avalanche Hunters, By: Montgomery M. Atwater, page 209
12 Ski Magazine, January 1959, By Helicopter to Virgin Snowfields, By: uncredited staff writer, cover page & pages 20 -21, From the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame.
13 Heliswiss archive,
14 Powder Magazine, November 1982, Heliskiing Directory, by: uncredited staff writer, Page 32
15 Heliswiss archive,
Other research sources:
German Mountain & Ski troops 1939 – 1945, By: Gordon Williamson and Stephen Andrew
Helicopters of the Third Reich, Steve Coats with Jean – Christophe Carbonel
The Avalanche Hunters, By: Montgomery M. Atwater
Deep Powder and Steep Rock: the life of mountain guide Hans Gmoser, By: Chic Scott
Bugaboo Dreams: a story of skiers, helicopters & mountains, By: Topher Donahue
A Photographic Celebration: 25 Years of CMH Heli-Skiing, By: Hans Gmoser
Powder Pioneers: ski stories from Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains, By: Chic Scott
Binx Remembered, By Steve Conger, The Avalanche Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Autumn 1998
The Binx Sandahl Years, By Doug Abromeit, The Avalanche Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, December 1988
Dream Season: Worldwide Guide to Heli & Cat Skiing/Boarding, By: Chris Anthony and Bill Wanrooy
Heli-ski Nation, By: Elan Head, Canada Skies Magazine, January/February 2014
The Lodge Where Old Meets New, By Jackson Hogan, Skiing Heritage Magazine, March 2010
I’d like to thank these folks for helping with my research for this article: Steve Conger, Heath Coleman, Erica Garcia (Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame), Dave Hamre, Robbie Hilliard, Connie McClaren, Marcus Peterson, Bob Petite, Beat Steuri and Mike Wiegele.