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Rudi Gertsch - High Fives

On the cusp of his seventieth birthday, Rudi Gertsch, one of the forefathers of North American heli skiing, owner of  Purcell Heli Skiing and a founder of ACMG, is still skiing eighty days a year and guiding clients. Late this spring, we caught up with him to lap a few runs in his tenure outside Golden, British Columbia, and to talk about how heli-skiing has changed.

Pure stoke. Photo by Purcell Heli-Skiing.

Is it true that in the early days skiers used to jump out of the heli with their skis on?

There were no rules, but jumping out of a heli wasn’t practical at all. Most heli skiing was done from a two-passenger D47, and there was barely room to get in with your ski boots on. We’d bungee skis to the skid. We had rudimentary maps. We had to do our homework to find fun and safe lines. We didn’t mark landings—we just landed. So we were restricted to fly on sunny days only. In Golden, forty years ago, it cost $55 a day to heli. For $280 you could get a week of skiing and lodging!

I get to take people to places they wouldn’t go on their own. So it’s not just the skiing that’s magical. Being out in the mountains, in the wilderness—that’s a special thing and it never gets old.

Now heli skiers use 120-underfoot super fat powder skis. When did equipment start to change heli skiing?

In 1960s. When the first powder skis came out—we thought we had it made. These misery sticks were less than sixty mm underfoot—almost like cross-country skis. You had to work so hard just to stay afloat that most guides were skiing 215s. But better equipment gave skiers more drive—it got us jumping and doing other tricks.

Hell yeah. Photo by Bruno Engler.

You’ve been guiding for more than fifty years. How do you stay fresh and engaged?

Every day has its challenges: weather, snow conditions, guests, avy hazards. It’s not like working on a conveyor belt. It’s like playing cards: every day you have a new hand, and you have to figure out how to play it well. I like to see my guests smile. It gives me the drive to carry on. And, I get to take people to places they wouldn’t go on their own. So it’s not just the skiing that’s magical. Being out in the mountains, in the wilderness—that’s a special thing and it never gets old.

Rudi's skills transcend the snow. Photo by Bruno Engler.

Has snow safety gear changed how people ski?

We’ve come a long way with educating the public on avalanches. But often skiers with Avalungs and balloon packs figure that nothing will happen—they are protected. Balloons can keep you on the surface in a slide, but you might not live long enough for the avy to stop. You could easily hit a tree, or a rock. It’s the same as driving a car. There are airbags and safety equipment, but there are still accidents.

Photo by Purcell Heli-Skiing.

How do you stay safe?

There is a lot of talk about snow science, and studying snowpack. It’s not a science, the snowpack. It’s local knowledge and good route finding in field. This year, at Purcell, we skied only twenty-five percent of our runs simply because of bad snowpack.

We’ve come a long way with avy bulletins and easily accessible information. But people need to learn how to interpret terrain. Observe the way cornices have shaped. If they are in both directions, like this winter in the Purcells—the snow becomes very unpredictable. You need to pull in the reins and pass on runs.

What’s still on your to-do list?

It’s turning into a book there are so many pages. Staying healthy is at the top. Ski a few more years—that will make me happy. Share a few more moments with guests in the high country. Really, I haven’t had time to sit down and make a list—I’ve been having too much fun out there.

Photo by Purcell Heli-Skiing.

Is there one lesson you’ve learned and regularly revisit after having guided clients on a total of more than 50,000+ ski days?

We need to show respect to nature and to the mountains and ski accordingly.

To learn more about Purcell Heli Skiing, drop into  Purcell Heli Skiing.

From The Column: High Fives

About The Author

stash member Berne Broudy

Writer, photographer, adventurer; on the road a lot but I love Vermont; dog lover, fun seeker, prefer two wheels to four.