Peter Schlunegger’s great-grandfather Karl was one of the first Swiss Mountain Guides in Rogers Pass in 1899. Almost 70 years later, Peter continued his legacy, becoming one of the first heli-ski guides in Canada and a decade later founding Selkirk-Tangiers Heli-skiing – Revelstoke’s first heli-skiing operation. We look at his story and that of Swiss Mountain Guides in Canada.
Peter Schlunegger, the founder of Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing, is the fourth generation of Swiss mountain guides in his family and the first since his great-grandfather Karl at the turn of the 20th century to work in Canada.
The history of the Swiss Mountain Guides in Canada is well entrenched in the annals of Canadian mountaineering and is the subject of a new exhibit at the Revelstoke Railway Museum.
The first Swiss guide to operate in the Canada was Peter Sarbach, who was hired by the American Appalachian Mountain Club to lead hikes in Banff National Park in 1897.
Two years later Canadian Pacific Railway hired two Swiss Guides – Christian Haesler Sr. and Eduard Feuz Sr. to work at their luxury mountain hotels.
A year later, several more guides arrived and Karl Schlunegger was amongst them. He became one of the first guides to work out of the Glacier House lodge in Rogers Pass – a popular tourist and mountaineering spot due to its proximity to the massive Illecillewaet Glacier.
He didn’t stay long and eventually returned to Switzerland, where he kept the mountain guiding tradition going in his family. His son and grandson, both named Hans, also became mountain guides and in 1944 Peter joined the clan and eventually also became a guide.
In 1967, on his way back from a trip to New Zealand where he worked as a guide, Peter stopped in Banff to work as a ski instructor at Lake Louise.
Schlunegger knew about his great-grandfather’s legacy but little else. “My mother used to talk about him but really I didn’t know that much about him,” he says.
A year later he was offered the opportunity of a lifetime by Hans Gmoser – a position as a guide with the fledgling heli-skiing company Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH).
Gmoser, an Austrian, was one of the founding members of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), along with the Swiss Walter Perren and several others. He then went and transformed the face of Canadian guiding by starting CMH, the first commercial heli-skiing operation in Canada. To help lead guests, he hired four Swiss mountain guides known affectionately as the “Swiss Mafia”: Rudi Gertsch, Peter Schlunegger, Sepp Renner and Herb Bleuer.
“That was a dream come true for us,” recalled Schlunegger. “We all like skiing but ski instructing is just not the same as being out there in powder every day.”
During the ‘70s, while with CMH, he completed his Swiss Mountain Guide Certification, guided numerous ski touring trips in the Rockies and throughout B.C., led a group of glaciologists to Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest peak, started Purcell Helicopter Skiing out of Golden, B.C., and established the Banff Mountaineering School.
In 1978, Schlunegger blazed his own trail and founded Selkirk Tangiers Heli-skiing in Revelstoke.
At the time, it was the only heli-skiing operation taking skiers out into the legendary powder of the area. Since then many others have followed in his footsteps. CMH established numerous lodges north and south of Revelstoke and Mica Heli-skiing and Eagle Pass Heli-Skiing have both made Revelstoke their home base while flying skiers into the mountains nearby.
Three years ago Schlunegger, now 66, sold Selkirk Tangiers Heli-Skiing to Revelstoke Mountain Resort. Throughout the years, Schlunegger remained active within the ACMG, acting as an examiner for aspiring mountain guides. Over the years, the number of Swiss Mountain Guides coming to Canada has dwindled as their necessity has dwindled to to the number of Canadians entering the guiding industry.
“We started off, there were four guides. Now there’s probably 100 guides working in the industry every day,” he said.
The exhibit Swiss Guides: Shaping Mountain Culture in Western Canada is on display at the Revelstoke Railway from Feb. 4-26.