One of Bruno Engler's most famous photos: Rudi Gertsch jumping off the teahouse at Mt. Norquay, AB, 1967
Photo courtesy of Bruno Engler Archives
For most, skiing and Western Canada go hand-in-hand. It's difficult to imagine the powder-filled gems of Whistler and Lake Louise without thousands of ski and board tracks cut into them. These mountains were meant to be used for skiing, hiking, and climbing. But most don't know about the origins of these activities and how they became so ingrained in Western Canadian culture.
Mountain culture in this country is certainly the result of diverse influences, but for the most part, skiing, climbing, and hiking in Western Canada can be attributed to a few brave Swiss mountain guides out of the Alps.
By the end of the 19th century, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) responded to a growing international interest in mountaineering by encouraging tourism in British Columbia's Selkirk and Rocky Mountains. CPR had seen how popular mountaineering had become in Europe since the 1860s, but by the 1880s, the Swiss Alps and Mont Blanc had been conquered. Austrian and Swiss mountain guides needed a new Matterhorn, a new challenge. For them, Western Canada was the next frontier.
Canada's federal government, anticipating the new wave of mountaineers, created Canada's first ever national park in Banff in 1885. One year later, Yoho National Park was created along B.C.'s Continental Divide.
As William Van Horne, a famous CPR executive, said it, "Since we can't export the scenery, we shall import the tourists."
In 1896, Peter Sarbach, the first Swiss mountain guide in Canada, was hired by the American Appalachian Mountain Club in response to a deadly climbing accident that occurred in the Rockies in 1896. Clearly, there were mountain safety standards that weren't being met. Professionals needed to be brought in if mountaineering was going to survive (and thrive) in Canada. Sarbach successfully led a party to the summit of Alberta's Mount Lefroy in 1897, and only two days later, he ascended Mount Victoria.
The CPR took note. Realizing the value of professional Swiss guides, they hired Christian Haesler Sr. and Eduard Feuz Sr. in 1899. Together, the duo successfully guided dozens of British and American groups on first ascents, and the project was such a success that in 1901, a second generation of guides followed (quite literally).
"Feuz's brothers, Ernst and Walter, came over with Haesler's son, Christian Haesler Jr.," said Ilona Spaar, project manager and curator of the Swiss Guides Exhibition that is currently making its way through Western Canada (info on this below). "Eduard Feuz's son, Eduard Feuz Jr., also came over, albeit much later. Feuz Jr. went on to become one of Canada's most famous mountain guides. Over the course of the next 50 years, some 35 Swiss guides, and their families, were employed by CPR."
Edelweiss Village sign with chalets in the background, in Golden, B.C.
Photo courtesy of White Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Fields, B.C. became the first home away from home for most of these guides. Due to Fields' close proximity to the Illecillewaet Glacier, and the fact that the railway passed through, a great amount of mountaineering went on there. Mount Stephen House (in Fields) soon became a popular "alpine" resort.
But the guides eventually became restless. Illecillewaet wasn't challenging enough for them, so they spread out to Golden, B.C. and Lake Louise, Alberta. In Golden, a veritable Swiss guide village was formed – Swiss Edelweiss Village – where the guides and their families lived.
"At this point, the guides were only employed during the summer months, so they would have to move back to Switzerland during the winter. As a result of their dissatisfaction with the arrangement, they built the Edelweiss Village so they could remain in Canada year round. This meant their families could move here and stay, also. Today, the Edelweiss Village remains as a museum, and Jean Vaughan, a descendant of Walter Feuz, acts as its curator."
The period between 1899 and 1954 is known in Canada as the Golden Age of Swiss Guides. Canada's entire mountaineering culture grew out of this period. Of the 56 first ascents of mountains greater than 3,000 metres, as much as 50 of these were performed under the guidance of Swiss mountaineers.
The guides famously conquered Mount Assiniboine (3,618m), and dubbed it "The Canadian Matterhorn". They ascended Mount Bryce (3507m) early on in 1902, and managed to summit Mount Alberta (3619m) in 1925. This climb is so difficult that it wasn't repeated again for another 23 years.
"What's astounding about this time is that the guides accomplished all this with little more than a hemp rope and some hiking boots. Even more astounding is that in the more than 50 years of Swiss mountain guiding (thousands of climbs), there was not a single fatality."
An impressive undertaking occurred in 1927, when guide Hans Fuhrer led a 63-day trek through the Columbia and Clemenceau Icefields, during which time his group ascended 36 major peaks; 27 of these were first ascents.
Bruno Engler in Lake Louise, AB, in 1975.
Photo courtesy of Bruno Engler Archives
Mountaineering played a major role in establishing ski culture in Western Canada. Haesler, Feuz and company laid the base for Canadian mountaineering, and out of this activity came skiing. Ski culture in this country can truly be attributed to the Austrians and Scandanavians, however, the Swiss guides played a major role in promoting skiing as a sport, especially in the 1950s after the war.
In the 1920s and '30s, the majority of Canadians thought skiing to be an act of lunacy. But word soon spread of the incredible things happening out of Revelstoke and Banff. Ski jumpers were setting world records, and these areas were starting to garner international acclaim. Even with the modest fanfare, ski culture was still in its infancy in Canada. It was due to the hard work of two notable Swiss pioneers that Canada's famous ski destinations have become what they are today.
Zug, Switzerland's Joe Weiss saw nearly endless potential in Western Canada after he immigrated here in 1921. He discovered (and named) Marmot Basin, and for many years was an advocate of ski area development in the Marmot Basin area. Throughout the early 1930s, he also pioneered ski mountaineering at Snow Dome, Resplendent, and Mount Columbia. Along with being a mountaineer and a skier, Weiss was also a photographer, and fell in love with Canada's winter landscapes.
Bruno Engler, who trained the Canadian army in survival and mountain warfare until 1946, was also a filmmaker and photographer. His films did a great deal to promote skiing throughout Alberta and British Columbia, and he directly inspired many of the investors who went on to establish Sunshine Village in Banff, AB. Along with personally helping to design ski areas in Blairmore, AB, and in the Crowsnest Pass, Engler was directly responsible for kick-starting ski racing in this country. Sunshine Village's annual Veterans race (which Engler helped create), is now known as the "Bruno Engler Memorial Ski Race."
Ernst Feuz and Georgia Engelhard on Mt. Victoria, Banff National Park, 1931.
Photo courtesy of the Glenbow Archives
To honour and celebrate these remarkable men and women, a touring exhibition is currently making its way through Alberta.
Swiss Guides: Shaping Mountain Culture in Western Canada illustrates the remarkable history of Swiss mountain guides and Swiss skiers in the Canadian Rockies, as well as the Columbia and Coastal Mountains. It documents the pioneering methods the Swiss, well, pioneered, in terms of mountain guiding, mountain safety, skiing, and heli-skiing.
"The exhibitions have been going great," said curator Ilona Spaar. "We had a huge reception at the Chateau Lake Louise last week. So many guides lived there and worked there, so it's really great to be able to connect with some of the places these guides called home."
As to what people can expect: "Visitors will learn about the foundation of skiing, guiding, and heli skiing. Essentially, the roots of Western Canada. We have so many beautiful photos and panels, and two special showcases that will educate people on both original and current climbing equipment.
"We also have two beautiful black and white movies from the 1920s, courtesy of the CPR archive, one of which features the climbing of Mount Assiniboine."
The exhibition will be going strong through 2011, but its success has people chattering about a possible permanent exhibit somewhere, some day.
"We would like to thank all the descendants of the guides, who played a huge role in acquiring the information for this exhibit. A lot of the materials came from private photo albums and records. We're all eternally grateful for their generosity."
The exhibition will be touring in the following areas:
• Lake Louise, AB – The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, September 4 – September 26, 2010
• Banff, AB – The Banff Centre, Banff Mountain Film Festival, November 2010
• Jasper, AB – Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives, March 2011
• Prince George, BC – University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), April 2011
• Smithers, BC – Bulkley Valley Museum, Smithers Culture Crawl, May-October 2011
• Calgary, AB – November 2011
• Toronto, ON – December 2011
Planning to head to Jasper or Banff? Check out our Trip Planner service - featuring a collection of businesses we recommend for your next visit. Read more
Check out our weekly gear review, showcasing some of the coolest gear and gadgets for the winter adventurer. Read more
Not sure what resort to visit next? Our Resort Recommender will tell you where to go, based on what you want. Check it out