Columbia Valley Origins: Leo Grillmair

·6 min read

Before Leo Grillmair helped invent heli-skiing with his best friend Hans Gmoser, he was a journeyman plumber. “I became a plumber because that’s what my mother decided,” Grillmair said from his kitchen in Brisco. “And whatever my mother said, you did.”

Grillmair was the sixth of ten children. Born in October of 1930 to Ida and Martin, the first eight years of Leo’s life were spent in Ansfelden, Austria – a small town located on the outskirts of Linz. Linz, with its baroque architecture, straddles the Danube River and is midway between Salzburg and Vienna.

Hometown: Born Ansfelden, raised Traun, Austria

Age: 90

Occupation: Retired; plumber, mountain-guide, co-founder CMH Heli-Skiing

Columbia Valley Arrival: 1965

Hobbies: woodcraft, gardening, travel, singing

When Leo was eight, his family moved from their four hundred year old Ansfelden home to nearby Traun – also on the outskirts of Linz but slightly closer. Martin rode twenty kilometres into Linz every day to shovel coal for the railroad. Money was always tight.

In March of 1938, the Nazi occupation of Austria began. Leo had no choice but to enrol in Hitler Youth. Through Hitler Youth, Leo learned some practical skills. Camping skills for example, and how to safely jump off a moving motorcycle.

The second world war devastated Austria. Families were torn apart. Cities, bombed out. “In 1945, the [Allies] wanted to bomb Linz because Hitler spent his youth there,” Grillmair said. Hitler went so far as to designate Linz as a Führerstadt (Führer City). Hitler’s vision for the handful of Führstadts was a promise to undertake gigantic urban transformation projects after the war.

“Near the end of the war, my mother heard the [Allied] tanks rumbling into town,” Grillmair said. “She didn’t think she’d ever see me again. When I came back that night, she said she thought I was a ghost.”

There was scarcely any economic opportunity in post-war Austria. “Everything was upside down,” Grillmair said. “After the war, the German system didn’t exist anymore and the American system hadn’t taken over yet. Nobody had food.” Austria had no choice but to rebuild. “The schools, the hospitals, everything. There was so much to be done, but there was no money to pay for it,” Grillmair said.

In those dire times, it was music that helped the Grillmair family. In fact, Leo is related on his mother’s side (née Schubert) to the Austrian composer Franz Schubert. And Martin sang beautifully. “In our family, everyone sang,” Grillmair said. “We would get invited to big farm weddings to sing and eat and drink all we wanted.”

To help put food on the table, Leo left school as a teenager to begin apprenticing as a plumber. In his free time, he pursued his growing passion for mountaineering in Austria’s Alps. With friends, sometimes Hans (two years Leo’s junior), or sometimes on his own, he would bag 12,000+ foot peaks. It didn’t take long for Leo to realize his heart belonged in the high country.

In 1951 when Leo was twenty-one, his foreman at the plumbing company he worked for told him about an opportunity to immigrate to Canada. “He had a friend in the travel agency and they were signing up people to go to Canada. Canada needed tradesman.” Leo’s foreman suggested he go for a couple of years and come back with more experience under his belt. That evening, Leo signed up.

On his way out of the immigration office, Leo ran into Hans riding by on a bicycle. Hans at the time was working in Linz as an electrician. “He was always on his bicycle. I told him I’m going to Canada and he said to me: whoa, that sounds interesting!” Hans, knowing more about Canada than Leo. “So I said to him, Hans why don’t you come with me? Two of us going would be more fun than one.” Gmoser was keen, but he told his childhood friend he’d first have to talk to his mother.

A few days later, Hans said he was in for the adventure. “Hans had a good reputation in town, so my mother was happy to hear he was joining me,” Leo said laughing. The pair had early visions of trapping in the Canadian wilderness. “We thought we could never be hungry in Canada,” Grillmair said. “Of course, we had no idea what it meant to be a trapper.”

Sailing from old world to new took thirteen days. Leo landed in Quebec City. At the port, he was befriended by an old local. “I didn’t even know they spoke French there, but since I didn’t speak English, it didn’t make a difference.” The older gentleman took Leo on a tour of the city. They went to the Château Frontenac and then to a bar where he bought the young Austrian a stein of beer. “It was such a nice way to be welcomed to a new country,” Grillmair said. From Quebec City, Leo boarded a westbound train to Edmonton, Alberta. To the mountains, he was told.

Hans arrived in Canada a couple of months later, joining up with Leo in Alberta’s capital. But where were those damn Rocky Mountains they’d heard of? Four hundred kilometres to the west, they soon learned; an enormous distance to continental Europeans.

The following spring, the pair landed in Calgary where they both found work in their respective trade. And after two years in Canada, Leo returned to Austria to visit friends and family. While it was tempting to stay, he knew Canada was his new home.

Every chance they could, off Hans and Leo would go to adventure in the Canadian Rockies. To Assiniboine, to Little Yoho Valley, to Robson. As members of the Alpine Club of Canada, they skied and climbed and drank beer. Along the way, Hans and Leo would suffer their share of injuries and hardships. It wasn’t always bluebirds and fresh powder. But they learned a new language, made new friends, found a new home in Canada.

Soon they started guiding people in the mountains to complement their careers in construction. Having earned his guides’ licence in 1957, Leo was one of the founding members of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides formed in 1963. And In 1965, Leo visited the Columbia Valley for the first time. To climb, naturally, in the Bugaboos – a place he’d heard of from friends in the club.

1965 was also the year Hans and Leo cofounded Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and by extension, the modern concept of helicopter skiing. The Bugaboos was a popular early destination for the fledgling company and it was there, in 1968, CMH’s first lodge was built. The company was growing fast and Leo was able to leave behind forever his work as a plumber. His last job was on the newly built Foothills Hospital in Calgary.

Leo managed CMH’s Bugaboo lodge for the next twenty-two years. In that time, CMH grew from one to ten lodges. He saw the company grow from a scrappy guiding outfit to become a global leader of a unique ski tourism concept. His client list was wide and many: Pierre Trudeau on three separate occasions. “I remember when Justin was a little baby,” Leo said laughing.

In the early days, when CMH had a winter program only, Leo had his summers off. In the summer of 1976, he built with his wife Lynne and nephew Norbert the Brisco house he and Lynne still live in. And with that, Leo became a permanent resident of the Columbia Valley.

James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer

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