Adventure. Through the heliski pioneer Leo Steiner, the former gold digger settlement Atlin in the far north of British Columbia became a place of longing for powder snow enthusiasts. But after his son had an accident in a crevasse in 2011, the helicopter remained on the ground. The Swiss André Gutenberg recently revived the legend of Atlin. His heliski area is a very special one: more rustic, wild, lonely and weird than that of the "usual Suspects" in the south of the province.
Finally he is back in the air, Josef "Josi" Jennewein from Pettneu am Arlberg. With determined gestures he directs the helicopter pilot through the wild labyrinth of peaks and glaciers. When the immaculate white Juneau ice field on the border to Alaska is almost reached, he points to a landing place, hardly bigger than an eagle's nest. A few minutes later his group swings down a perfectly inclined slope, which lives up to its name: Powder-Bowl.
For years ski guide Jennewein had accompanied the guests of "Klondike Heliskiing" to this magical place. Until this misfortune happened. Leo Steiner Junior, 47, head of Klondike Heliskiing, had been on the road with a group of skiers in spring 2011. The season was actually already over, he just wanted to do the solvent Russian guests a favour. While the ski guide took photos of the customers and took a few steps backwards, the snow cover broke. Steiner fell 35 metres into a crevasse. The "powder bowl" now remains untouched for five winters.
That marked the end of an era. Leo Steiner Senior, was one of the pioneers of heliskiing in Canada. Steiner, who emigrated from Leogang in the Salzburger Land region, had worked as a heli guide himself for 20 years before founding his own company in 1994. He settled them in the very north of British Columbia, in the former gold digger town of Atlin, far away from the many other heliski providers in the south of the province. "At first I just wanted to avoid the competition," he explained once. "But then I realized the nature up here is much more spectacular and wild than in the south."
Steiner Senior, now beyond the age of 80, was still a mountain guide from the old school. His son on the other hand also liked to be an entertainer and party lion. His guests loved him for the fact that even on a "downday", a day when the weather made skiing impossible, they could have a lot of fun with him. Many of his guests came back every winter, although the Atlin Inn, a historic hotel, was getting on in years and did not offer the standard of other heliski lodges. But it was authentic, not Heliski-Disneyland. Country singers performed in the "Inn" with its saloon atmosphere. The whiskey was drunk with real trappers and gold diggers. Those who went outside looked at the frozen Lake Atlin and the dry laid M.V. Tarahne, a passenger ship from the boom time at the end of the 19th century.
130 years ago there were 10000 adventurers living in Atlin who wanted to get rich at the last gold rush of the High North. Even the workers who built the "White Pass Railway", the railway line between Skagway (Alaska) and Whitehorse (Yukon), left everything behind when they heard that Fritz Miller, of German descent, had found the first nugget here.
Of course Steiner jun. sold nostalgia and history a little out of necessity, because he lacked the money for investments. When he had an accident in 2011, Klondike Heliskiing was in the red. Neither his own family nor his sister Helene, by the way Austria's first state-certified mountain guide, wanted to continue running the company. In Atlin, therefore, a few more lights went out.
For most of the remaining 450 inhabitants this meant little. They had moved here to the edge of the wilderness with its severe winters to have their peace. Atlin is therefore today a kind of artist colony, a refuge for weird birds, weary of civilization and dropouts. It's self-governing, there's no mayor. It only gets a little louder when the music festival rises in the short summer. Only Len Graf and his wife Edie, the owners of the Atlin Inn, the first four-star hotel in the High North a hundred years ago, were at some point too quiet. After all, business has been pretty bad since the heliskiers failed to make it in winter.
They were looking for a "reanimator" and found him in the Swiss André Gutenberg, who owns a ranch in Teslin in the Yukon, about a hundred kilometres away, and spends the summer months there with his family. Gutenberg has a small helicopter with which he occasionally visited Atlin during his excursions into the wilderness, for example to refuel. You got into a conversation, made friends.
Gutenberg, born in Zurich in 1970 in "unprofitable" circumstances, is considered a true self-made entrepreneur. Already as a young man he travels a lot, is a commercial diver, caterer and runs a falafel stand for a while. In the mid-1990s he then founded the real estate development company Immo Trade Eigenheime AG, which buys up apartment buildings in need of renovation in Switzerland, refines them with new technology and then sells or leases them at significantly higher prices. "I never took out a loan from a bank. I have always reinvested all my profits, for example in machines and excavators." His youngest "baby" is the venerable but dilapidated Hotel Galenstock on the Furka Pass near his adopted home Realp in Canton Uri. He bought it cheaply and now wants to renovate it bit by bit, including a revolving restaurant offering 360-degree panoramas.
Along the way, together with his brother Daniel, he invests in an Israeli start-up - Mobileye produces software for evaluating camera images for self-propelled cars. Gutenberg had met the two founders Ziv Aviram and Amnon Shashua in 2000 on a ferry from Italy to Greece. In 2017, semiconductor giant Intel buys Mobileye for 15 billion US dollars. It is the largest exit in the Israeli high-tech industry to date. How much of Gutenberg's share was worth, he won't reveal.
He doesn't seem to care much either. "I only have two hobbies anyway - working and skiing." The self-confessed powder snow junkie knows Atlin and his strange inhabitants well enough. And dares to make a move there.
With his small yellow helicopter, Gutenberg flies off the 5000 square kilometre area for which the Steiners had a heliski licence. He likes what he sees: "The landscape up here, on the border to the Yukon and Alaska, is far more spectacular than in the south of the province. Already the flight over the frozen Atlin Lake with its fjord-like side arms is an experience. But Gutenberg also notes: "The mighty glaciers with their gaping crevasses and rugged mountain sides are not terrain that forgives mistakes. When an accident happens here at the end of the world, it takes a long time for help to arrive.
Nevertheless, Gutenberg's decision has been made. The mountains around Atlin are to become his new claims, his prospecting area for the white gold. However, he lets Steiner's license expire and applies for a new license himself: "I didn't want to take over any inherited burdens."
Looking back, the Swiss admits today that this may have been a mistake. Now he has to obtain all permits at his own expense: studies by wildlife biologists take a look at the mountain goat population; the hunters and their powerful lobby have to give their okay. Even the 300 or so members of the Taku River Tlingit tribe smell a deal: they only agree to André's plans when they have a document in their hands guaranteeing them a bonus per heli day and skier.
It is also important to convince the Counts that the Atlin Inn needs an upgrade: the hotel should not be a luxury lodge, but a place to feel good after a strenuous day of skiing, with sauna and outdoor whirlpool overlooking the lake. And skiing should be as safe as possible here. "I had a team from the Swiss Air Rescue come in to help us perfect our emergency plans."
Alone: out there hundreds of runs are waiting in an area as big as half the canton of Graubünden. The Swiss is therefore quick to realize that he must inspire the ex-guides of Leo Steiner for his cause. So he goes to Whitehorse, where "Josi" sells Jennewein in summer at a stand Burritos. He convinced the Tyrolean, who had worked for Steiner for many years, to make his "GPS memory with the saved descents" available to the new company called "Atlin Heli Sports". Peter Sidler, a Swiss emigrant who has been living with his family near Atlin in a log cabin in the woods for more than 30 years and who helped rescue Leo Steiner jun., is also part of the party again. We're good to go ...
Actually. First, Gutenberg has to coordinate the plan with his family. He is finally married and has two daughters of primary school age. Fortunately they are used to a lot of things. Four of them had been cycling through foreign countries for weeks. In Teslin, their second home in the Yukon, the girls Noa and Nili grew up like the Red Zora and her gang on the edge of the wilderness - without any TV or Internet.
And now Atlin: Gutenberg convinces his German wife Mira that she cooks for the Heli guests. This is also a challenge - not all suppliers are characterised by reliability here. The daughters are taught at home, at the Atlin Inn, by a Swiss emigrant. If you book your holiday with Altin Heli Sports, you get the family connection for free.
Right on time for the start of the season in March 2016, everything is perfectly organised. Chris, the "Beaver" pilot, is ready to fly the helicopter guests with his skid plane into the mountains, where he will land on a frozen lake to shorten the long transfer times to the ski resort. Many of the regulars now return when they hear that Heliski is possible again in Atlin. "We had - like in former times Steiner - immediately again the English Lords with their Ladies to guest. And the Zurich private bankers on a boys' excursion also feel really at home here."
Of course, this is also because André can offer them an exciting downday program. From earlier heli trips in Canada he knows: "There's nothing more boring than these never-ending days when there's nothing else to do than sit in a whirlpool until your skin is soaked and drink one beer after the other out of frustration." He wanted to spare his guests that.
Now they are spoilt for choice: make the forests around Atlin unsafe with the snowmobile and grill sausages and marshmallows at the campfire. Or take the dog sled out for a ride. Go ice fishing on the lake. Conquer the surrounding mountains with touring skis without any ascent assistance. Learn more about the "golden" times of Atlin in the village museum. Or just step on the gas and sweep across the ice of the lake with a spiked sports car on a circuit.
Of course, this is always only an addition to the Powder range. But it's an interesting offer if the weather doesn't play along. And it doesn't cost a cent extra: "Downdays are Fundays with us", André laughs. And because the "white gold" didn't fall out of the sky so abundantly in the first season, he was happy to keep his guests happy in this way.
The Swiss man set out his claim cleanly. Now all he has to do is "harvest" the nuggets. Josi vom Arlberg will certainly help him. Because the Tyrolean has meanwhile taken root in Atlin. After he had said yes to his Tara from Whitehorse, they had a big party - of course on the M.V. Tarahne, with a view of the lake. And the white gold in the mountains behind it. ®
// General Information
Travel tips: www.BritishColumbia.travel, Telephone: Tourism BC Toll-free number: +1-800-Hello BC (435-5622)
With Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) early in the morning to Vancouver and in the early evening further to Whitehorse. Transfer time to Atlin: two to three hours, depending on road conditions
Atlin Heli Sports, www.atlinhelisports.com, telephone contact in Switzerland: +41-79-6677660, prices from 13.750 CAN$ per week, details on the programs on the website
A heli week can be ideally combined with sightseeing in Vancouver. Those who have some days before the return journey should definitely visit the metropolis at the Pacific Ocean. Heli-skiers will be staying at the Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Vancouver: www.shangri-la.com/vancouver/shangrila. For the tired legs after skiing, we recommend a massage at "CHI", the hotel's award-winning spa. Tourist Info Vancouver:
www.tourismvancouver.com, T: +1 604 682 2222
Author: Dr. Günter Kast