My favorite portrait I’ve ever taken is this one: Ethan and Joan Compton on the eve of Ethan's 88th birthday in the CMH Bugaboos Lodge, as he intently describes the turning of a ski. His hands angling like a pair of skis, his eyes blazing like a kid’s, his wife Joan looking over his shoulder with a look of attention and love.
With Ethan's passing on December 21st at age 92, the ski world lost one of its greatest and most unsung icons. His generosity and enthusiasm for people and skiing inspired him to invest much of his prodigious energy and spirit into the sport.
In 1962, Ethan founded the Herald Ski School at the small Paskapoo ski area on the outskirts of Calgary. At the time, it cost $20 for a season pass and $2.50 for a lift ticket. Through the school, and while working as an instructor in other ski areas, he introduced thousands of children to the sport of skiing.
As owner of Calgary’s Premier Cycle and Sport, Ethan was generous with young mountaineers and skiers, and at one time helped an Austrian immigrant named Hans Gmoser with ski equipment. Later, Ethan recommended Hans as the guide for the first endeavors to use a helicopter for ski access, and inadvertantly combined the right ingredients for the recipe of heli-skiing. By providing Hans with skis, Ethan unknowingly became the first investor in what was soon to be Canadian Mountain Holidays and the sport that became known as heli-skiing.
In 2005, Hans showed his gratitude to dozens of people who helped create heli-skiing and Canadian Mountain Holidays by throwing a two-week heli-ski party in the Bugaboos. Even amongst a lodge full of legendary guides, and investors who risked money and reputation to make heli-skiing happen, Ethan received from Hans a special kind of thanks. Each day Hans helped the guides organize his friends into groups that would have the most fun skiing together, and then left with Ethan in a small helicopter on a private heli-ski tour of the Bugaboos. I remember watching the two friends, Hans in his 70s and Ethan in his 80s, laying perfect tracks, side-by-side, down the most spectacular ski runs in the area.
“Whose tracks are those?” somebody would ask, seeing the two sets on some big mountain face.
“Oh, that’s Hans and Ethan.” Another skier would answer.
One day they skied up to the lunch area after linking perhaps 150 turns down a sublime ridge cloaked in dreamy powder. Ethan took off his skis and promptly fell right into the lunch bucket, grinning from ear to ear. I’ll always remember Ethan for that look in his eye - whether talking about skiing at dinner or falling into a lunch bucket after skiing 150 turns with Hans Gmoser - a look of enthusiasm for life that few people seem to keep into their final chapters.
Even in his eighties Ethan entered ski races, often winning his age group. I interviewed Ethan during the writing of Bugaboo Dreams, a book about the invention and state of the art of heli-skiing, at his house in Calgary. At one point, he looked out the window with a faraway look in his eyes and described his last trip to the top of Mt. Norquay, the steep ski hill just outside Banff. He said, “I looked out at the Rockies and knew it would be my last time to stand there on top, but it was just as wonderful to be there for my last time as it had been my first time.”
A full obituary can be seen here, and a service for Ethan will be held tomorrow, January 12, at St. Barnabas church in Calgary.