Rudi Gertsch’s eyes crinkled when he warmly smiled making me immediately feel connected and comfortable with him. His silver hair peeked out from beneath his brown felt ranger-like hat.
My gaze followed from his hat down to his silver lariat around his neck, his embroidered shirt, wool blazer, knickers (not the UK version) and rested on his socks. His crazy, hand knit, wool socks mesmerized me. When I asked him about them, he laughed and told me that his mother knit them years ago.
This was the ‘uniform’ of the typical Swiss Guide in the Canadian Rockies. Rudi not only wears adventurous socks, but he is one of the key players in bringing adventure tourism to Golden BC and the Canadian Rockies.
If You Build It They Will Come
It all started with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and it’s desire to bring more tourism to the Canadian Rockies. CPR had a large operation in Golden BC – a small valley town in the perfect location for mountain exploration. At the end of the 19thcentury, CPR had built a few hotels around the area and was ready for tourists to show up and market the Canadian Rockies as the next frontier in mountaineering.
“Since we can’t export the scenery, we shall import the tourists.” –CPR General Manager Willian VanHorne
In order to assist those tourists, the CPR hired mountain guides from Switzerland to come out and guide in the mountains and help mentor them in growing this idea of adventure mountain tourism which was growing in Europe and Switzerland. In addition to guiding, they were also responsible for mountain rescue, and exploration. It started with a few guides who left their families to come out and guide in Canada for the climbing/hiking season (spring to fall). From there it grew and grew and Golden started to have a Swiss influence.
The little town of Golden even has a little museum with an exhibition dedicated to the story of these Swiss guides who were really responsible for bringing adventure tourism to Canada. The photos on display at the Golden BC Museum were astonishing looking at the old equipment the guides used to use. Many of these first guides were the first to summit many of the peaks in the area and subsequently had the peaks named after them – their legend lives on.
The view of other peaks from Kicking Horse Mountain
The Swiss-Canadian Village
In 1911, the program evolved further when the CPR decided to build 5 Swiss chalets for the men to bring their families with them and live in Golden full time. This innovative program had a few issues with it regarding the construction and location of the homes, but it was fascinating to learn about how the Swiss played such a big role in this part of Canada.
We drove up to the area where the Swiss Chalets were located. It was affectionately called the Swiss Village and 4 of the 5 homes have fallen into disrepair, but one remains perfectly intact as it was. Daughters of the families met us there and took us through the chalet – a fascinating step back in time and look into their lives. I can only hope that Golden continues to restore these structures as they have such a fascinating history and story to tell.
Rudi takes us to the Swiss Village.
Photos on the wall of old guides
The Beginning of the Ultimate Adventure Travel – Heli Skiing
Rudi Gertsch jumping off a teahouse. Photo by Bruno Engler
Rudi, with the adventurous socks, led us through this historical story because he himself came from Switzerland to work as a Swiss Guide in Golden and Yoho Park. However even though Rudi came over to be a guide – he also decided that it was a very hard life where the guides would be away from their families for long periods. Rudi wanted to find a way to have a job that allowed him to be at home more so after working as a skiing guide, he started the Purcell Heli Skiiing.
Helicopter skiing, which took off in the mid 60’s thanks to the Swiss Guides in Canada, was another major game changer for the Canadian Rockies and Golden. It changed the nature of mountain guiding as it was a perfect option for a year –round job. Rudi and his crazy socks were a part of the heli skiing revolution of which the Western Canadian Rockies are known for. All of this adventure talk really made me wish I knew how to ski! I wonder if they let beginner skiers jump out of helicopters in the backcountry? But even if you don’t know how to ski, there’s so much to do around Golden and Yoho that you’ll most definitely get your fill of adventure in the summer or winter.
Early Heli Skiing in the Bugaboos. Photo by Jill Durance.
We had the pleasure of spending the evening with Rudi (who is now 68 and still running Purcell Heli Skiing with his son) looking at old photographs of early Swiss guiding, seeing the evolution of ski design, and hearing his stories of what it was like to guide and bring adventure tourism to Golden. I was in awe of this fascinating story of cultures and international knowledge transfer…and yes, I was also in awe of Rudi’s socks.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Tourism Golden and Destination BC for this trip. However all of the opinions expressed here are my own. I had been wanting to see the Canadian Rockies for a long time and getting to the lesser known town of Golden was the perfect destination for my style of travel.