Sherpas Cinema has a new release, La Liste: Everything or Nothing, so we wanted to look back at the filmmakers’ formative years in Calgary. We had no idea how impactful those times were or that an entire group of school friends had forged parallel and equally impressive careers in skiing. Thanks to Ross MacKimmie for sharing this remarkable story of perseverance, success and skiing after tragedy.
The Calgary Origin Story
Winter is melting down quickly in the Arlberg, Austria, and I am motivated to take advantage of its final moments. I decide to tour up Galzig from St. Christoph and ski back to St. Anton. Skinning up what snow is left, I reach the summit. The sun is warm, the sky is blue, and there is little wind, so I kick back to take it all in. There has been significant snow at higher elevations over the week, making the alpine the purest of whites. The moisture has taken the valley to a deep green, and the contrast between the blue, white and green is spectacular. It is a quintessential spring day in the Alps, the kind that overwhelms the senses and replenishes the soul.
I examine the surrounding peaks and notice a party making their way up Saumspitze. One of few to break the 3,000-metre mark in the Arlberg, it involves climbing an exposed, large north face and it only attracts the most motivated and experienced skiers. I wonder if I might know some of the group. I watch intently as they push the skin track and begin kick-stepping the final push to the summit, where the cross stands. After a half-hour, I start putting on my gear when a nightmare unfolds in front of me. I scream out in horror.
The party across the valley has triggered a small slide in the channel of the boot-pack. It propagates across the entire face, becoming a giant, some 400 metres wide and a metre and half deep. It swallows the climbers as it accelerates into a torrent, plunging over cliffs in the middle of the face. Extremely concerned for their survival, I am already on the phone with the mountain rescue.
Hit with shock and emotion, memories flood back of an avalanche 23 years ago that our circle of friends experienced in high school. None of us were there to witness it, but we experienced everything in its wake after it claimed the lives of four of our beloved friends. As I watch for the helicopter rescue, I reflect on how our relationship with the mountains both before and after that avalanche shaped our friendship and how many of us made skiing the focal point of our lives and careers.
Several of us have gone on to contribute to skiing and ski culture, including Geoff Osler, Operations Manager for the Associated Canadian Mountain Guide (ACMG) Training and Assessment Program; David Petch, head avalanche forecaster at Lake Louise; Andrew Field, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) guide; Eric Crosland, Malcolm Sangster and Dave Mossop, founders of Sherpas Cinema; Mike Nixon, freelance writer; and myself, ski chalet haus meister for primarily Canadian guests in Austria.
After this flash of reflection, my mind returns to what I have just witnessed. I hang up with mountain rescue and call my regular touring partners. I am relieved to find out they are safe in the valley.
As youngsters, we were a hyper-motivated and passionate group of Calgary-based riders who called Lake Louise our home hill. Most of us grew up in the same neighbourhood and have known each other since elementary, in some cases even longer. Petch recalls, “I think our parents really just wanted to get us out of the house. I have memories of us being put on the weekend warrior’s bus from the Ski Cellar. No parents. So much freedom!” By junior high school, our passion for the mountains and riding ran deep, and we made sure we were there to catch the first and last lifts every weekend.
Keegan Capel lofts above Lake Louise. pic: Malcolm Sangster
The nineties were a golden age for freeriding at Lake Louise. Legends like Andrew Sheppard, Greg Todds and Robin Nixon were taking their sports to new levels. Petch remembers, “There were all these really cool older skiers and boarders. Some had Elan MBX’s with the tip-cap glued to the back of their skis. They were landing switch way before the Salomon 1080 revolution.” RAP Films was capturing the action and taking it to the rest of the world. We idolized those guys, and they showed us new areas, pushed our skills and further cemented our love of the mountains. Nixon says, “Our crew took notes from all of those guys, and I’d say that Greg, Robin and Andrew influenced our mountain approach more than anyone else in our lives.”
By the time we reached high school, we’d started exploring the backcountry. Sangster recollects, “These days were carefree and some of the best of our lives. We lived for skiing and would follow the storms closely, praying they would line up with weekends. Sometimes we would ditch school, strategically leaving our gear in vehicles parked in random neighbourhoods to evade our parents. We were trying new things, challenging steep, rocky lines and having a blast.” When the resorts got tracked, we ventured beyond the boundaries. Sangster adds, “We really had no idea about the risks which, in hindsight, was quite dangerous, but it certainly allowed for that carefree lifestyle to prevail. I’ll forever cherish those years.”
Moments have passed, and I can see the rescue helicopter heading towards Saumspitze, narrowing in on the location of the avalanche. The rescuers should begin the search quickly as the footprint of the slide is obvious. Even from kilometres away, I can see the massive crown with the naked eye.
During our last year of high school, an avalanche at Fortress Mountain claimed the lives of Aimee Beddoe, Alex Velev, Dave Ferrel and Mike Patry and forever changed our lives. We learned of their passing on a Sunday morning. The darkest of days followed. Tears flowed, there were endless chains of hugs, and we grieved through four funerals in one week. It was so strange seeing their faces on the national news and the front pages of the newspapers. The pain and finality of death is absolute, and we miss them dearly. We honoured their memories by moving forward and strengthening our relationships. Osler explains, “It gave us a bond that will never be broken. Going through something like that at such a young age is unusual.”
Petch adds, “I think the timing of this tragedy had a profound effect on our friendships. At a time when people start going different directions to university or elsewhere, it made us want to celebrate life with each other and cherish time more.”
It would be a natural reaction to move away from mountain pursuits after such an experience. Instead, we continued to embrace them while seeking knowledge of avalanche safety. Osler says, “It was a formative event, due to the gravity of it but also because of how we responded and how we were encouraged after to learn about avalanches.” With the help of parents and the Lake Louise Ski Area, the school organized a course by the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) to help start our avalanche awareness. Some of their most experienced guides, like Larry Stanier and Grant Statham were there to pass on knowledge.
Sangster remembers one particular trip to Roger’s Pass from that time with guide Larry Dolecki, “At the age 18, it was our very first ski touring trip and an ambitious multi-day. Temps were in the minus ’30s, and we slept in picnic shelters or mountain huts. We were on all sorts of questionable gear in various states of disrepair. Nonetheless, we soaked up all the information we could, skied epic powder, summited peaks, and laughed the week away while having a life-changing experience.”
Within minutes the helicopter has set down behind a ridge, and I can only hope that the scenario they are finding is hopeful.
After completing their university degrees, Osler, Petch and Field all began their careers with the Lake Louise patrol. Osler moved from Louise to Chatter Creek once he was an ACMG ski guide. From there, it was on to CMH. Working on the rock and ice requisites when he had time, he became a full mountain guide at age 32. Now Osler has stepped back from full-time guiding to contribute to the ACMG in other ways. He explains, “I am the Operations Manager for the Training and Assessment Program, which means that I oversee the operation of all the guide training courses and exams.” His efforts help maintain Canadian ski guides’ reputation as some of the world’s most respected.
After working as an elementary school teacher in Banff, Petch returned to the patrol at Lake Louise. “I really enjoyed teaching but honestly find myself a lot happier when I spend time outdoors. And as a patrol, I still get to teach AST 1 and other avalanche-related courses.” Petch started under the tutelage of renowned head avalanche forecasters Rocket Miller and Dave Isles. “Mentorship has been huge in my development. I learned so much from Rocket and Isles.” Petch climbed the snow safety ladder until being named the head avalanche forecaster in 2019 after 17 years on patrol. Petch says, “It is a huge honour and a great opportunity being the head forecaster. These are some big shoes to fill. So many talented people have held my position.”
Kevin Hjertaas takes the Hourglass at Lake Louise. pic: Dave Mossop
It has come full circle from when we were the kids looking up to the patrol. He explains, “There is definitely a crew who like to hit me up with questions. Sometimes I feel like I’m the unofficial snow phone! I like to think I am approachable. I think back to our younger days and how much we valued information from Isles or Rocket. They helped us make good choices.” Petch’s commitment to his work and team, his huge smile and his friendly personality make him a worthy successor and a cornerstone of the Louise skiing community.
Field worked a few seasons on patrol at Lake Louise before being diagnosed with a condition that threatened his vision, and he put his guiding aspirations on hold. Instead, he started a career in the financial industry in Calgary. He explains, “Going into business was never my first choice. After being diagnosed, I was forced to rethink my options. It was extremely hard being in an office job when I knew deep down it wasn’t where I belonged.” A series of surgeries improved his condition, and Field dedicated himself to finding a work-life and ski balance. He seized an opportunity to work in the office of CMH as a financial analyst. This allowed him to move back to Banff and contribute to the company that birthed the heli-ski industry while also enjoying world-famous skiing.
Longing for more time in the mountains, Field decided to polish up his skills and take the ACMG ski guide exam, which he passed in 2019. He adds, “The mountains have never looked so beautiful. That’s a direct result of having faced the possibility of not being able to see them, literally.” Now fully equipped with his vision, guiding ticket and financial experience, he feels like he has balance working as a guide in the winter and running his consultancy firm in the off-season.
For Crosland, Sangster and Mossop, the avalanche and a deep-rooted love for the beauty of the mountains shaped their careers. Their dream of making films under the “Rocky Mountain Sherpas” banner began with photographing skiing at Lake Louise and later exploring film.
Crosland recalls, “I borrowed a digital camera from a friend and shot our crew all winter in the Lake Louise backcountry, at Fernie and on a trip to La Grave. I felt raw passion with film and think we were fortunate to come of age when technology started making the action easier to capture and share.” The Fortress accident directly inspired their first fully funded project,The Fine Line,which was based on their idea that avalanche education could be “cool” and teach younger riders like themselves to stay safe. It also captured the essence of mountain scenery with the masterful cinematography and time lapses that would come to define their success.
Many following projects have garnered the highest industry accolades. ALL. I. Can. won Best Film at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, Powder Magazine Awards, and the X Dance Festival, amongst many other awards. Their style pushed the creative boundaries of the industry and has inspired a generation. Their current project,La Liste 2, Everything or Nothing, promises to be another artistic cinematic experience with big mountain, high elevation skiing from Swiss prodigies Jeremie Heitz and Sam Anthamatten.
The silence of the grounded helicopter is deafening as my mind keeps going over and over what I have just witnessed.
Nixon also made a career out of mountains and storytelling, but instead of film, he chose writing as his medium. He started spending weekends with his brother in Lake Louise staff accommodation at age ten, so he has ample stories to inspire his work. Now calling Whistler home, Nixon has written for several print and online publications beginning with Freewriter, where he was the editor and publisher, and Powder Magazine, SBC Skier and Doglotion.com. When asked about his favourite part of writing, he responds, “Well, it’s a hard pick between crippling self-doubt and constant rejection from editors—just kidding. The best part about writing is that you can do it from anywhere and mostly on your own time. And it’s nice to revisit some of my older articles and feel like I am back in a moment that passed a long time ago.” His quirky humour is a trademark of his writing style, but occasionally he will focus on more serious assignments in locations like Bella Coola, Alaska or Assiniboine Provincial Park.
The closeness that exists in the group, and was strengthened by our friend’s passing, led me to ski hospitality. Realizing that my passion for skiing and connecting with people was never going away, I left the oil and gas business in Calgary to return to St. Anton, where I had spent a gap year after school. That year my job was to ski around the area in a kangaroo suit handing out free schnapps to promote the infamous après ski bar, the Krazy Kanguruh. I fell in love with everything about the place. Upon my return, I signed on to help an Austrian family fill their ski chalet and to entertain its guests. I was so excited about the role and the skiing that I didn’t miss a day that season and logged over one million metres of descent.
Ten winters later, my wife and I have hosted hundreds of Canadians and countless others from around the world. We have developed a program that showcases the well-rounded resort. The expansive lift system, on-mountain dining, après ski and nightlife are all world-class and offer a unique experience, particularly to North American skiers who haven’t skied in The Alps.
With the rescue in progress and out of sight, I ski towards St. Anton. As I approach the valley floor, the helicopter flies overhead, heading towards the hospital.
Although we’ve branched out in the ski world, many of us still consider those school years, where we skied together every week, to be some of the best winters of our lives. We were fortunate to have each other and many more fantastic friends to endure the aftermath of the avalanche. Lapping the Louise backcountry and watching our buddies shred were times that solidified our lifelong friendships and our relationship with the mountains. Sangster elaborates, “Skiing has always been a core value for our tight-knit group. In the winter, it’s all we wanted to do, and for many of us, it still is. Aside from the actual amazing physical act of skiing, the camaraderie that accompanies it is undeniably strong. Driving up from the city in a car full of friends, spending a day laughing on chairlifts, sharing peaceful conversations along the skin track and time away from other distractions help to bond with the friends you love, in the places you love.” Now it’s such a special feeling to get back together and make turns. Those of us who live close to one another make this happen as often as life allows.
I am shaken up and am anxious to hear the results of the rescue effort. “Please, let my fears be eased.” A short while later, my phone rings and my friend from the mountain rescue reports that they were able to find everyone quickly. Incredibly, no one was buried. Everyone involved has survived despite two being carried over the cliffs. My heart aches for them, imagining what a terrifying ordeal they had just experienced. He reports that there are injuries to mend, but all things considered, it is a miracle. I am astounded, relieved and so thankful that they will come home to their families and friends. Although our circle can look back and reflect on the positives that resulted from the passing of Aimee, Dave, Mike and Alex, losing loved ones in such an accident is a tragedy no one should have to experience.