What would the ultimate mountain guiding career look like? Well, CMH guide Bob Geber demonstrated one variation on the theme when he announced his retirement this spring. It was his 44th season of guiding with CMH Heliskiing.
He summed it up: "I’m mostly proud that I was the oldest heliski guide, and if I had a second life I would do it all over again.”
Let’s put 44 years of heliski guiding into perspective:
- Bob’s first winter guiding with CMH was in the Bugaboos in 1966.
- It was CMH’s second season of operation and the Bugaboos was the only place in the world offering commercial heliskiing.
- Bob was skiing on 215 cm skis for making quick turns during the powder season, and 220cm downhill skis for the corn season in the spring.
- The helicopter could hold 3 people – including the pilot.
- There were no avalanche transceivers.
- The terms “snow” and “science” had yet to be used in the same sentence.
- There were no mountain weather forecasts.
- There were no Run Lists to give guides a team-oriented approach to safety and decision-making.
I asked Bob about the changes he’s seen over those 44 years, and he was quick to reply: “When the fat skis came out it was like a new lease on life. Fat skis were the biggest change in the history of heliskiing. Before fat skis, when the snow was bad, even the guides were working hard to make 10 turns before landing on our heads. At the end of the day we were just kaput. But we didn’t know any better.”
While fat skis may have been the highest-profile change, many incremental changes have made modern heliskiing possible - and much safer. Bob shared a story about a helicopter crash in the days before landing flags and long-range radios. In the early 70s, he was guiding a trip for a heliski operation south of the Bugaboos that at had a partnership with CMH.
Without landing flags for reference, the pilot misjudged the landing and crashed. Aside from some cuts and bruises, everyone was unhurt, so they pulled their skis, lunch, and wine (in those days it was standard to bring a couple of bottles of wine for lunch) out of the helicopter and proceeded to wait for a rescue. Without long-range radios or emergency locator beacons, there was no way to call for help, but at some point people would realize they were missing.
The group sat around until they’d eaten all their lunch and drank all their wine, and with no rescue yet forthcoming, they decided they would escape faster if they just skied out. The pilot had no skis, so they pulled the cowling off the helicopter where the rotor enters the fuselage, and used it like a sled.
The system worked well for a while, with the pilot sliding down the steep sections and the skiers pulling him across the flat sections. When the sled bogged down in soft snow on flat terrain, Bob and one of the stronger skiers each gave the pilot, who had zero skiing experience, one of their skis so he could ski on two skis.
That worked well, until the pilot started having fun and decided he wanted to ski down a hill. Bob remembers: “He went about 50 feet, fell over, and started squealing like a pig. We couldn’t figure out what he’d done to himself in such a sort distance and insignificant fall, but I skied up to him and he was holding his leg. Immediately I could see he had somehow gotten a compound fracture. The bone was obviously sticking out against his pants.”
Not long afterwards, a second helicopter found the team, but Bob’s story of the helicopter crashing, and then the pilot breaking his leg while skiing, goes down as one of the wildest days in heliski history.
At 77, Bob still plans to spend as much time as possible in his beloved mountains. When I talked to him a few days ago at his home in Banff, he told me he had just returned from the Lake Louise ski area and he excitedly said, “It was some of the best corn snow I’ve ever skied!”
Bob considers CMH to be his second family and he’s not ready to leave completely, but it is time for him to stop ski guiding. Bob explains his reason for retirement: “When you can’t keep up with the fast skiers anymore, it’s time to hang it up. The most important thing now is that I keep doing the same things – but that I do it on my time.”
From the thousands of skiers you've shared the powder with, and from all of us at CMH: It's been an awesome ride - thanks for everything, Bob!
Have a Bob Geber story you'd like to share?