BANFF, Alta. – The auditorium lights dim and as classical music begins to sing over the loudspeakers, a tall, handsome man in a ski sweater with an air of the outdoors about him steps onstage.
He begins to speak in a deep, melodious voice still inflected by his native Austria and the screen behind him fills with what people have come to see — beautiful, carefree images of skiers frolicking in a wilderness, floating through powder, surrounded only by friends, mountains and sky.
The narrator was Hans Gmoser, inventor of heli-skiing, father of modern Canadian alpinism, and, at the time — the late ’50s through the middle ’60s — one of the most famous mountaineers in North America.
That fame was built through many, many nights when Gmoser narrated and showed films based on his climbing and skiing adventures to audiences of thousands throughout the continent.
Those films, utterly different than the hot-dog exploits of contemporaries such as Warren Miller, lay almost forgotten for decades.
Now, they have been lovingly restored — windows back to a time when skiing was a way of life instead of a lifestyle demographic.
“You talk about an earlier, more innocent age,” said Chic Scott, the writer and mountaineering legend in his own right who oversaw the four-year effort to restore the films through Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
“It’s the age of leather ski boots and sweaters, the age when climbing and mountain skiing had not gone mainstream. There was a certain purity. Nobody used skiing and climbing to sell cars.”
Gmoser was a Banff-based mountain guide when some of his clients and friends began lugging 16-millimetre movie cameras on their alpine adventures. They gave the footage to Gmoser, said Scott, and encouraged him to use it to promote his business.
Gmoser took the film canisters and ran with them, producing 10 movies between 1957 and 1968. He married the silent images with classical music he chose himself and showed them while narrating his self-penned scripts — not bad for someone who didn’t start speaking English until 1951.
He toured the films every year across Canada and as far south as San Francisco and Los Angeles. One night in Detroit, 2,500 people came out to hear him.
“He spoke beautifully, eloquently,” said Scott.
“That beautiful Austrian accent, this obvious, passionate love for the mountains — when you listened to Hans, it was like you were in the mountains.”
Some films were of multi-day climbs on the peaks of Mount McKinley or Mount Logan. Others featured skiers’ paradises such as the Rogers Pass in British Columbia or Alberta’s Sunshine Meadows, where the runs were long, the powder deep and the lifts non-existent.
Filmmakers such as Miller, Dick Barrymore and John Jay focused on what was happening at resorts. Gmoser’s subjects earned their turns in the wilderness, first climbing the slopes they planned to ski.
“Hans was showing ski mountaineering and mountain climbing,” Scott said. “He showed the real mountain experience.”
Gmoser did occasionally film at lift resorts, including now-iconic destinations such as Whistler, B.C., and Sunshine, Marmot Basin and Lake Louise in Alberta. He shot quite a few ski races, one of which featured a young Nancy Greene.
Gmoser was also a quick study behind the lens, said Scott.
“The films are great. They’re not home movies.”
By 1968, Gmoser’s heli-ski business (now Canadian Mountain Holidays) was big enough to demand his full attention. He stopped making films and shelved his old ones — first in a shed, then in the archives at the Whyte Museum.
That’s where they were in 2010 when Scott, fresh off writing Gmoser’s biography, got the idea of restoring them. It turned out to be a bigger job than anticipated.
“There aren’t 10 scripts, 10 films,” Scott said. “There are 133 canisters of film. There are work prints, release prints … some films have had parts cut out of them. It is a dog’s breakfast.”
Some scripts fit the films perfectly, some had to be edited. With only 7 1/2 scripts still in existence, some had to be reconstructed.
“It became a huge job of trying to reassemble the films as close as we could figure out to how Hans showed them.”
The film had deteriorated. Colours had shifted, film bases had cracked. One entire canister of film was stuck together in a large, celluloid disc. Expert restorers at the National Archives were brought in to help.
Then there was the problem of Gmoser’s narrating voice. He had died in 2006.
Someone thought of a relative of Gmoser’s who lived in Kelowna, B.C. The nephew was from Gmoser’s hometown of Braunnau, Austria, and had the same accent. It worked.
The whole project took about four years, Scott said. Its $100,000 budget was funded entirely through private donors.
The result is a box set of 10 DVDs, complete with all the restored movies, filmed interviews with skiers and climbers who appeared in them and a booklet.
“They’re our stories,” said Scott. “In 700 minutes of film, Hans captured a whole era.
“A community without history is like an individual with amnesia. Who are you, if you don’t have your stories and your histories and your memories?”