Leo Grillmair - Mountain Guide, Co-Founder Canadian Mountain Holidays
Leo Grillmair, the co-founder of the Canadian Mountain Holidays heli-skiing company, passed away on May 1, 2023, following complications from a skiing accident. He was 92.
Grillmair and fellow skier/climber Hans Gmoser emigrated from impoverished postwar Austria to Canada in 1951, looking for better economic opportunities and mountains to climb. Their friendship, climbing partnership, and later, innovative business acumen proved instrumental in building the Bugaboo Lodge and creating Canadian Mountain Holidays, the world’s first commercial heli-skiing company.
Leo Grillmair was born October 11, 1930, in Ansfelden, Austria, the sixth child of Martin and Ida Grillmair. His formative years were spent apprenticing to become a plumber, climbing Austria’s loftiest peaks under the tutelage of renowned mountain guide Fritz Kogler, and developing a rich baritone singing voice that would later serve as wonderful apres-ski entertainment for his clients.
Arriving in Canada, Grillmair and Gmoser found their way to Calgary, where Grillmair worked as a plumber and Gmoser became an electrician.
Grillmair made his mark on the Canadian climbing scene in the late 1950s, establishingand later soloingroutes on Mount Yamnuska, a prominent crag just west of their newly-adopted Calgary home. He credited his climbing success to the prodigious hand and arm strength developed from working as a plumber, where he’d spend countless hours manually threading and turning two-inch galvanized steel pipes. a trade he’d first learned at the age of 13 in his hometown of Traun, Austria. In 1963, Grillmair and Gmoser were part of a team that made the first ascent of Mount Denali’s fearsome Wickersham Wall in Alaska. Grillmair endured the agony of temporary blindness upon his descent. Grillmair also became the founding member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), an organization that follows the strict European-based UIAGM certification process.
His first helicopter ride took place at a remote mining camp near the Alaska/Yukon border when he threw a bag of ore samples and jumped onto the pontoon of a hovering helicopter rather than downclimbing a hazardous cliff. It would not be his last.
Gmoser and Grillmair created Rocky Mountain Guiding and began using helicopters to access a spectacular series of spires and glaciers near an old logging camp at Bugaboo Creek. An American client suggested that the helicopter might be put to additional use ferrying skiers to the top of each run rather than as an aerial shuttle. Teaming up with the talented helicopter pilot Jim Davies, Canadian Mountain Holidays first season of operation took place in 1965 and the 36-person Bugaboo Lodge opened its doors in 1968.
Grillmair and Gmoser financed the first two CMH lodges in the Bugaboos and Cariboo mountains and for Leo, that was more than enough. While Gmoser built Canadian Mountain Holidays into an empire that encompassed almost a dozen lodges and was sold to Canadian real estate giant Intrawest Corporation in the mid 90s, Grillmair was more than happy to host 44 guests and operate the original lodge in the shadow of Canada’s most renowned mountaineering peaks.
Their business approachto say nothing of the lodge’s financial stabilitywas further altered when they listened to another client who suggested that they could easily charge double the $625 per week which was the going rate in 1967. One of Grillmair’s early guests was Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom he’d guided on a mountaineering trip in Jasper National Park several years previous.
Legendary American tour guide Arthur Tauck convinced Gmoser and Grillmair that Bugaboo Lodge would make an outstanding base camp for helicopter-powered hiking trips into the nearby meadows, lakes, and peaks. Grillmair’s mountain guiding services were also in demand by ambitious American climbers looking to climb challenging Bugaboo rock and glacier routesa task he relished greatly. Grillmair shared the Lodge duties with his wife Lynne, who worked as head chef. Like Gmoser, Grillmair always had a soft spot for the Bugaboo Lodge’s early day, when groups slept together in dorm-style accommodations and spent the night singing songs and playing games.
Grillmair guided and served as general manager at the Bugaboo Lodge from 1968 until 1990, and retired to his small farm in the Columbia Valley near Brisco, B.C. not far from the Bugaboos heli-pad.
Leo is survived by his wife, Lynne, his two children, Carl and Elizabeth (Liesl), and his three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.