Johann Wolfgang "Hans" Gmoser, 1932-2006
Johann Wolfgang “Hans” Gmoser 1932-2006
It is beyond the capability of this aging wordsmith to come up with a simple summary of the eventful and productive life of a brilliant but complex man, who was also a good friend to so many and accomplished so much in the mountains of North America. Hans was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria (the same place where Adolf Hitler had been born a long generation earlier), and moved to Canada in 1951. After a few rocky years, Hans started guiding, following somewhat in the footsteps of his fellow countryman, Conrad Kain, another long generation earlier. In concert with fellow Austrian expatriate, Leo Grillmair, he developed the idea of using helicopters to gain access to the better skiing above timberline. This was the beginning of a whole industry that now features a great number of competitive off-shoots and mountain chalets, while providing gainful employment to hundreds of guides in the mountains of Western Canada.
It was Brookie Dodge, son of the White Mountains’ legendary Joe Dodge, who first brought moneyed American skiers to the Bugaboos, thus giving credence to this novel approach to better skiing. As time went on, Hans found he also needed further employment for his guides and arranged for summer activities, culminating in the 1970s with the formal establishment of heli-hiking, a program that now uses most of the seven Canadian Mountain Holidays backcountry lodges as bases for bringing hundreds of new people to see and enjoy the beauty of alpine regions every summer. To some purists, who may think the world’s mountains are personal property, this process was anathema, but to the many thousands who were thus enabled to appreciate the beauty—and the need for the protection—of the world’s mountains, Hans’s most famous lifework has thus been an enormous service to the cause of mountain protection and conservation.
Besides his work as founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays, Hans led numerous great ascents, from the Yamnuska of the Frontal Rockies to the Wickersham Wall of Denali. He was also one of the very few non-native-borns to be elected to the Order of Canada and honored during his lifetime with honorary membership in the Alpine Club of Canada, the honorary presidency of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, and honorary membership in the UIAGM; and—in death—with a full-page obituary in Canada’s national newspaper.
I first met Hans when he visited Fairy Meadow in 1957 with some friends, who have also now crossed the final divide. It was a difficult introduction for two “Type A” persons, but we both survived it. He then visited us in his promotional travels, and was interviewed on television several times by my wife, Kitty. In due course, I was tabbed as an “arm’s-length” investor to meet a requirement of Canadian revenue rules. This turned out to be the best use of $5,000 I ever made. At about that time, he asked me if I could conjure up a few first ascents that he could offer to summertime clients. So, I did that for 10 years—mostly in the Frontal Ranges of the Canadian Rockies. With various accompanying personages—often malamutes—I would visit the Gmoser home in Harvie Heights, either coming or going to the hills, and was always welcomed, generally with some fine Scotch, which Hans kept around for my pleasure. I sort of grew up with his two boys, Conrad and Robson (the fruit of his marriage in 1966 to Margaret MacGougan), who all visited with me at Battle Abbey (our “home for geriatric alpinists,” which they helped build) on many occasions, in summer and winter.
Hans’s most notable trait was his invariable custom of standing back from the limelight and giving credit to others, some of whom deserved it. Besides all that, Hans Gmoser was the finest gentleman this writer has ever met.
William Lowell Putnam, AAC