Marquee photo: Swiss mountain guide and owner of Selkirk Mountain Experience, Ruedi Beglinger. PHOTO: Ryan Creary.
He navigates the blanket of whiteness with uncanny ease, and I wonder just how many times he's made these exact steps. Meandering through the alpine in near-zero visibility, he's confident and natural in his stride. Over his 30 years here he's watched forests burn, glaciers recede, and mountainsides crumble. His tenure has lasted long enough to see the landscape physically change, but he still knows it intimately. Ruedi Beglinger walks with the cadence and stamina of a man half his age--purposeful and driven.
At 60 years old, he's been ski mountaineering in the Selkirk Mountains northeast of Revelstoke, British Columbia, for three out of his four decades with a guide's badge. His company, Selkirk Mountain Experience, is one of North America's original hut-based touring operations.
Today, a small "village" of Swiss-style outbuildings surround his original Durrand Glacier Chalet, which includes Beglinger's own family home, where he raised his two daughters. Farther afield are the Moloch hut and his new Empire Lake Chalet--all uncannily Swiss in feeling.
Having survived 40 years of arduous journeys to the world's tallest places, Beglinger is one the most highly decorated guides of his generation. And yet he's long been criticized for his autocratic approach to guiding, pushing his guests too hard, and his involvement in a notorious avalanche in 2003 that claimed the lives of seven--including snowboarding legend Craig Kelly.
"Yeah," he says, "if you got the muscles then you can have a better ski." Strength is a virtue here, but it's mixed with a cordial and sincere kindness I've heard little about.
On this particular day in late February when I was following Beglinger in the mountains, British Columbia was reeling from a huge pineapple express: a storm that rolled in hot and heavy off the Pacific, and blanketed the southern half of the province with rain. Over the years, these systems have progressively threatened the skiing throughout the Interior. But at Selkirk Mountain Experience we were shredding powder.
"You know there's an ecological balance," says Beglinger, "and if it tips too far in the wrong direction, it's really bad." Setting out on my first of seven day-long tours from the Durrand Chalet, I'm put pleasantly at ease--somewhat unexpectedly--by his intelligent and gentle nature. As we stride, he spies my skis and asks if they're light. "Not really," I answer, "but I can get them up anything." He nods approvingly, "Yeah," he says, "if you got the muscles then you can have a better ski." Strength is a virtue here, but it's mixed with a cordial and sincere kindness I've heard little about. He accepts high fives, tells dirty jokes, and regrets not ever seeing Super Tramp live. This doesn't feel like the militaristic man whose legend precedes him.
Born and raised in the Swiss Alps in the village of Glarus, Beglinger's father was a guide before him. By 1975 Beglinger himself became aspirant, and in 1977, after a climbing trip to Yosemite, he got a job with Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing in Revelstoke. Forever a product of the enterprising Swiss tradition, he wanted something of his own, and the vast tracts of Canadian wilderness called to him.
"I knew I wanted big glaciers," he recalls. "The vision was just guiding and a hut. The hard part was convincing the government that hut-based ski touring was an industry." But by 1985 he did just that and invited his first guests to a single-room fly-in hut that today remains the centerpiece of his operation.
As Beglinger leads our own group unendingly from stash to stash, he minces few words and commands an impressive physical power. Alex Geary, an Australian ACMG-certified ski guide in his thirties, takes the second group behind us and nods knowingly as he admits, "Ruedi's still stronger than anyone else I ski with."
This is big country. Beglinger's able to safely ascend the stormy alpine by "hand-railing" the terrain; working its nuanced rolls without so much as a single kick-turn. But when it's time to move he definitely skips the pleasantries: "Okay guys, skins off. Let's go. We keep moving or we lose out on the day, huh!"
For a guide, the inevitability of mistakes is part of the game. In big mountains it only takes a small amount of bad luck to produce big consequences.
Bottom line: no other guide could safely deliver this trip, in these mountains, right now. And still, detractors have come in all shapes over the years: mostly North American guides uncomfortable with his terse European style. But perhaps most notable is Ken Wylie--a former assistant guide at SME who recently penned a vitriolic and damning account of the tragic 2003 accident that's become canonical to North American mountain culture.
In his new book, Buried, Wylie accuses Beglinger's hubris of leading to poor decision-making. However, Wylie calls his literary work a personal journey to accept responsibility for his own role in the accident--his life spiraled out of control in the years that followed. Nonetheless, he's unabashed in his attack on his former boss' character. The accident remains the only blemish on Beglinger's otherwise perfect safety record, and he's long been cleared of any gross negligence.
For a guide, the inevitability of mistakes is part of the game. In big mountains it only takes a small amount of bad luck to produce big consequences. Part of what's made Beglinger controversial over the years is his stoicism in the face of this reality, and his ability to carry forward. As for Wylie, Beglinger says, "[His] book is filled with lies from the first page to the last, but sometimes I [still] feel sorry for Ken."
Today, the famous Swiss guide is able to reflect on his reputation, and put it in context: "I think it's partially my fault. Sometimes the slower group gets pushed harder...You can't cater 100 percent to everybody. But you also can't slow a guest down, it's about helping people achieve their goals."
Nearing the age most consider retirement, he jokes that his new "relaxed-pace" program will be his pension, but not for some time still. He's only recently cut down to 180 days a year from 200. When the time does come, he's hopeful one of his daughters might take over. He's doggedly defended SME's legacy, as well as been a steward of the wild place he's made his home.
"What I want to protect is the guiding industry," he says. "I would hate if these chalets just became huts you can rent. The whole service we built, it would be nice if this carried on."
For now, he's happy to have experienced guides like Geary helping him. Geary's been with Beglinger for six years, and says of him, "He puts a lot of energy into his work; he expects a high standard. But he's definitely a friend. He's a good mentor and he puts a lot of energy into me, too."
After a long run down to Cairns Creek we top out back at the Durrand chalet, with 6,000 vertical feet behind us for the day. Geary pauses to look at a small tree that causes an awkward bend in the skin track. "Should I cut it?" he asks. "No," says Beglinger, "it's a nice tree. Leave it."
There's no accounting for what time and memory have changed, but strong characters don't often get remembered for their gentler traits. If the truth is a product of the moment, this moment reveals a man who's built a full life around the mountains, and sharing them with as many people as he can.