The Heli-Ski Blog

Hans Gmoser, ski filmmaker extraordinaire

Posted by Topher Donahue on Sep 4, 2012 8:02:00 AM

In 2009 Chic Scott penned Deep Powder and Steep Rock, The Life of Mountain Guide Hans GmoserThe biography is a must read for any ski buff or adventure enthusiast, and included with each copy of the book is “Hans Gmoser, Filmmaker”, a DVD compilation of Hans Gmoser’s films.

In many ways, Hans was a pioneer of documentary filmmaking, but his contribution to film has been overshadowed by his legendary invention: heliskiing.  He carried his camera with him everywhere, skiing with it, climbing with it, living with it - and then sharing his films with audiences all over North America and Europe. (Shown below with his camera on the first ascent of Denali's Wickersham Wall.)

Hans Gmoser on Denali

The first film in the trilogy included on the DVD is from 1966, a film called “The High Road to Skiing” and chronicles a group of ski instructors on holiday in late April in the Bugaboos (the second season of CMH Heli-Skiing) after several feet of new snow.  1960s era knit ski sweaters, nonchalantly triggering an avalanche (before avalanche transceivers were invented) set the scene perfectly.  As usual, Hans’ narration is priceless:

“Have you ever heard your ski instructor tell you you should  keep your knees so close together that you can pinch a ten dollar bill between them?  I think the only way Rod (one of the skiers using a slightly wider stance) could hold a ten dollar bill between his knees, is if he had a whole stack of them.”

“The snow is so light, once you kick it up it seems to hang in the air forever.”

“It’s almost like a dream, flying through this world of clouds, mountaintops and beautiful powder snow.”

And about the sawmill camp where heliskiing was born he had this to say:
“Even though this camp is rough and frugal, the people don’t mind it, because the skiing is the ultimate - and this is what they came for.”

The second clip is from 1959, a film called “Vagabonds of the Mountains” which tells the outrageous story of Hans and a team of six friends making the first Canadian ascent of Mt. Logan.

The adventure turns out to be one of the more epic adventures in North American mountaineering history: combining a fast ascent of the second highest peak on the continent with a previously untouched ski traverse and culminating with a disastrous whitewater finish where their makeshift rafts are lost along with 1300 photographs and all their gear.  Luckily, the team escapes unharmed, and Hans’ films survived, as he kept them on his person, and saved this exceptional documentary for perpetuity. 

Hans concludes:
“What we really treasure is those memories which we have brought back; and I’m sure those memories will let us remain calm and confident when we encounter all the pressures and difficulties of our future lives.”

The final clip on the DVD is from Hans’ 1958 film, Ski Trails, which he shot to promote his ski touring program in Yoho National Park near Banff. 

Hans’ poetic narration accompanies his footage of ski touring where he utilizes creative camera techniques that would be impressive even today - shooting into the sun, playing with low angles on the skiers, and following shadows of skiers on the snow.  The film is a testament to Hans’ incredible communication skills in an array of mediums - all the more impressive when you think that merely seven years earlier, Hans emigrated from  Austria with very little english.

“Out of a deep, dark valley, leads a ski trail, winding along a creekbed through the early morning forest.  Then, all of a sudden (with added excitement in his voice) it opens onto the first sunlight which you can see on the highest peaks through the morning mist.  You, yourself, are still in the deep shadow. It is a cold, clear morning.  

“On such a morning you have a tremendous desire to climb up there, into the sun, and to look out over this beautiful country.  With each step you take, the horizon widens and more and more of the peaks glisten in the morning sun, casting dark shadows into the deep valleys.

“Then at last, you too step out into the light and your shadow moves across the clean snow.”

With footage of breaking trail up a steep hill in deep, fresh snow, Hans continues:
“Perhaps it is difficult for you to imagine that one’s desire could be to plod through the deep snow.  But let’s be frank, in spite of all the arguments against it, don’t we all have a desire to do something difficult and thereby lift ourselves above the dull everyday?”

“Climbing up every morning, it becomes, actually, every bit as enjoyable as the ski down - in a very different way though.  Everything is quiet around you, and as you push your skis through the soft, new snow, you are once more in perfect harmony with the beautiful land in which we live.  Every morning you feel as if all this had been created the night before - all is fresh and new."

On one section, where it was too steep to continue upward on skis, Hans shows footage of a skier carrying his skis up an extremely exposed looking section:  Hans says, in his light-hearted and honest form of humor, “This is quite awkward, particularly if you tilt the camera a little bit.”

This collage of three of Hans Gmoser’s classic films was produced by Guy Clarkson, a mountain guide and filmmaker, in cooperation with The Banff Centre, Canadian Mountain Holidays, and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.  Chic Scott’s book can be ordered here, and includes the historic DVD collection. 

Topics: Ski Heroes, Hans Gmoser, Bugaboos, Canadian Rockies, Banff, ski touring, History