By general agreement, the most effective skill that mountain guide Robson Gmoser possessed was his laugh. This is not a sentimental observation. It rose quickly and frequently from somewhere between his Roman nose and his bottomless lungs, and seemed to take him by surprise. Clients of wilderness guides tend to ski in places where you can fall headfirst into a three-metre tree well, or disappear down a crevasse, or ski off a cliff, or be buried in an avalanche. Robson Gmoser’s laugh told you not to worry.
But when a guide dies in an avalanche, as Robson did on March 10 – when a person revered for keeping others safe slips over the lip into the silence – everyone who loves the mountains takes notice. A worm of doubt begins to turn in the collective mind of an otherwise practical, flinty community.
Robson was one of the best known and most accomplished mountain guides in the country – a small but storied club of wanderers that poses an existential question to every person it encounters: If intensity of feeling increases with risk, how much risk should you shoulder to feel sufficiently alive? He ran a B.C. mountain lodge, and infused thousands with his addiction to the wilderness. He was a father, a husband, a brilliant skier. That he was Rocky Mountain aristocracy – a son of Margaret and Hans Gmoser, who invented helicopter skiing in Western Canada – meant his death attracted even more attention.
Beneath the tragedy, of course, is another question: Why him? Or, to ask it a different way: Why do people of such talent and character feel compelled to put their lives in the path of danger? Was his decision worth it? He was only 45.
The shock of the random
The avalanche occurred less than a kilometre from Sorcerer Lodge, a remote ski cabin northwest of Golden, in B.C.’s Selkirk Mountains. You reach the lodge by helicopter, then spend gorgeous days climbing up and swooping down the surrounding slopes.
I skied with Robson (my third tour with him, a piker compared to many others) at Sorcerer two springs ago. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful place, a lodge on a ridge below a vast theatre of snow-upholstered peaks and bowls and valleys and spires. The red trim of the lodge stands out, a tiny human dab on huge and haughty nature. A friend of mine from Edmonton, John Mitchell, remembers that 12 centimetres of new powder had fallen around the hut the night before our last day there with Robson. The new snow and the sunny day made us optimistic. Nothing could go wrong.
“We were all so excited,” John reminded me when I called him after hearing last week’s news. “We were going up high to play in the snow. I exited the hut, and approached Robson to have him conduct the usual morning avalanche beacon check. He leaned in and said, in his quiet tone, ‘This should be an okay day!’ Then he burst into his laugh. That laugh. It was his greeting.”
Robson’s accident occurred on a Tuesday at approximately 5:30 in the afternoon. He had returned a group safely after a day on a nearby glacier, and carried on to prepare a nearby slope for the next day’s outing.
He was with a guide-in-training, a fellow named Darren, who was working on the uptrack while Robson cut a narrow trail – a rail of a platform barely two skis wide – across a steep slope known locally as the Heinous Traverse. “We never go in there blind, because it’s so hard to turn around,” Tom Raudaschl, Robson’s long-time co-guide, told me the other day.
The traverse is a shortcut to Mount Iconoclast, a peak that offers luscious descents: You hold your breath and step daintily to get to the good stuff. Robson had set the uptrack, and was skiing back on it when a Size 3 avalanche swept him down the hill. A Size 3 can slide for a 1,000 metres and have a mass of 1,000 tonnes, enough to bury a car, destroy a small building, break a few trees.
Darren tried to reach Robson on his radio, twice, to no avail – Tom could hear that on his own radio, back at the lodge – and set out along the track to see what was wrong. He saw a crown (the fracture line) and avalanche debris, radioed back to the cabin (Tom was already preparing rescue gear), and skied down the runout path, using his avalanche beacon to find the one strapped to Robson. It was Darren’s first ski tour as a guide-in-training.
He did everything he was supposed to do, and did it heroically. But he was alone. It took 10 minutes to clear Robson's face from under almost a metre and a half of snow, from the time Darren spotted the avalanche, bringing Robson's estimated burial time to approximately 30 minutes. Ten minutes is considered the outside margin of survivability, though there are exceptions and even miracles.
By then, Tom, two other ski guides and two ER doctors had arrived at the accident in helicopters. Tom helped Darren and the guides dig Robson's body clear while the doctors tried to resuscitate him. There were nearly a dozen doctors skiing at the lodge, including the two ER physicians; the squad was carrying adrenaline and oxygen. None of it was enough. "He was really the first person I found in an avalanche," said Tom, who has been a guide for three decades, "and the first dead person I had to dig out of the snow." He'd known Robson for 22 years.
According to Tom, the slab of the avalanche that smothered Robson wasn’t thick – 25 cm, “not a deep release or anything.” But it was enough to sweep Robson over a 25-metre cliff. “He still had a pack on. And there was no obvious sign of trauma.”
Tom and I were talking on the phone, three days after it happened. It was late at night. He was having a whisky and thinking about Robson. “Just his overall personality; nothing would stress him out, really. And he had some really bad farts the night before. I remember that, too. I asked him if he was taking his enzymes.” It was an old joke of theirs.
Tom was heading into the mountains again the morning after we spoke, to lead a new party of expectant skiers. That’s the life of a mountain guide. The accidents are shocking in their randomness and tragic in their effect, but they do not delay the next group. Within six days of Robson’s death, his wife, Olivia Sofer, herself a guide, was on e-mail, arranging replacements for her late husband’s upcoming tours. People were still counting on him.
At 15, alone in the backcountry
Some friends and I once spent a few days in a tent with Robson in a whiteout on the Columbia Icefield. When we weren’t playing cards or telling jokes or checking the weather, we talked about what you talk about in a tent, which, depending how long you’re stuck, can be just about everything. Every time I remember that conversation, I think of something else I want to tell Robson.
He was born June 20, 1969, while his father was climbing Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies – hence his son’s name. The usual joke is: Thank goodness the old man wasn’t climbing Mount Assiniboine.
Growing up, Robson and his older brother, Conrad, spent so much time outdoors they were almost feral. This was near Canmore, Alta., and at their father’s fledgling lodge in the Bugaboo Range to the northwest, where Hans was determined to establish helicopter skiing. The boys had a pair of coyotes as pets. As he approached his 15th birthday, Robson was allowed to take a two-week ski tour in the backcountry, on his own. One doubts that happens much these days.
As a skier, his physical grace was unmatched. He made you want to move the way he did, but you never could. Everyone in a ski party wants to be like the guide, and that was especially true with Robson.
Robson earned a degree in forest ecology from the University of British Columbia, but what he wanted to be was a mountain guide, like his father. He started with hikers at Mount Assiniboine Lodge, to the west of Canmore, in 1985, and later worked in the heli-ski business.
But after Hans sold his heli-skiing company, Canadian Mountain Holidays, for a reported $15-million in 1995, Robson began to lead his own ski tours out of Battle Abbey, a remote backcountry lodge of which he would eventually inherit half-ownership from his father.
I first met Robson at Battle Abbey, on one of the trips he guided there and elsewhere every year with Tom Raudaschl and Eileen McKie, their cook. Eileen always said he had a guide’s enviable all-round capability: could build anything (a wood-burning oven, a sauna, a pumphouse), was resourceful (he used a sawed-off hockey-stick blade to cut uptrack turns in hard-slabbed snow), took care (he liked to stuff his infant son, Max, into a backpack and take off down a pitch, Max shouting “More! More! More!” all the way).
He liked to memorize poems on the uptrack – William Henry Drummond’s The Wreck of the “Julie Plante” and Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee were favourites – to recite in the evenings back at the lodge. “Back at the lodge” was a concept that mattered to him: He had a talent for creating comfort where you wouldn’t expect to find any, and a need for groups of people to enjoy it.
Once, his mother made a winter ski-camping trip from Jasper to Lake Louise with the writer and explorer Chic Scott. Before she left, she wanted to see what it was like to sleep outdoors in the winter, so Robson lent her a sleeping bag. The temperature dropped to minus 40 overnight, and Robson found his mother tinged with blue in the back yard the next morning. He’d inadvertently given her a summer-weight bag. He was exceptionally well organized but could be absent-minded.
We think of (male) mountain guides as manly types with technical skills, but it is their caring side, their ability to comfort nervous people in subtle ways – their mothering, if you will – that distinguishes the best ones.
Robson’s father was one of the more famous he-man mountain guides on Earth; his mother, who spent more time raising him, is one of this country’s most adventurous women. (Last summer, at 69, she toured Nepal on foot, walked across a good chunk of Europe, and spent the rest of the season hiking in the Rockies.) That strange combination of solid softness, of gentle reliability, of daring plus caring, was one of Robson Gmoser’s notable traits.
The other was humility. There’s an old joke about mountain guides: The difference between God and a mountain guide is that God doesn’t think he’s a mountain guide. Robson wasn’t that type. Olivia, his wife, met him in 2005, at Bugaboo Lodge. He was working as a lawn boy.
“I had no idea he was a ski guide or of his background in relation to CMH,” Olivia says. “He never said anything. I only found out after a few weeks of being there, from someone else.” She liked his “calmness” and his “great looks.”
The risk we all face
Robson was no stranger to avalanches: He broke his femur in one a few years ago, and avalanche deaths were a regular feature in the early days of heli-skiing. The deaths deeply upset his father, who became a nervous wreck when snow conditions were shaky; partly because of Hans’s influence, accredited Canadian mountain guides are among the best trained and most rigorously tested avalanche analysts in the world. Hans had a ready reply when he thought Robson had done something questionable in the mountains: “Don’t be a fucking idiot.” Years later, when Tom and Robson discussed a potential route, the conversation often boiled down to a single question: “You’re not being a fucking idiot, are you?”
To someone who spends no time in the high wilderness, the motive for adventuring might seem indulgent, or moot, or even illogical: Why do dangerous things at all, if you love life or have children or don’t want to die? Why try to feel more alive by trying stuff that could end your life?
The answer is not recklessness or endless adolescence or selfishness: guides try to beat the odds by being extra careful. They do a good job of it. Robson Gmoser was the fifth avalanche fatality in Western Canada this winter; the average at this point in the season is 12. There is no evidence he was careless. There had been very little fresh snow for four weeks, and while the skiing was lousy, Tom Raudaschl says, “the stability was very good. So there’s no way you could have triggered any of it.” Karl Klassen, the manager of the Public Avalanche Warning Service at Avalanche Canada, himself a guide for 37 years, agrees: “I’m not convinced that anybody would have predicted that large an avalanche at that particular time.”
The avalanche that killed Robson, in other words, was the kind that every guide fears – the “low-probability, high-consequence event.”
The rogue no one sees coming
“Most of the risk you can calculate, right?” Tom said over the telephone – he meant, by examining the snowpack and the slope and the terrain and the weather: the standard moment-by-moment assessment of risk that is the tireless routine of winter guiding. “But there’s always the rest of the risk you can’t calculate. It’s part of the job.”
He was talking about the non-negotiable risk that we all face, driving to work, crossing the street, taking a bath.
I might be wrong, but I had the impression Robson Gmoser went into the mountains because he had to. Maria Coffey, the author of Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, who lost a partner, mountaineer Joe Tasker, to a climbing accident, called the urge “a search for transcendence” when I called her the other day. “It’s a moment everyone craves – when you’re lifted out of the ordinary into something sublime. It’s the moment when the traffic stops and the mind stills. Focus is probably one of the most satisfying experiences there is.”
Skiing in the high country, you have to pay attention. The confusing flurry of life, its extraneous detail, is clarified to essentials. You focus on necessities and proceed step-by-step; gradually, life below seems more manageable by comparison. It’s a form of liberation. The only catch is that, once in a rare while, for all the precautions, someone still dies, due to the incalculable risk.
Of course, if you worried about that possibility all the time, you’d never go skiing again. Robson would never have agreed to that. I wish he were still alive, but I’m glad I got to ski with him anyway. He showed me a way through the danger.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story implied that Tom Raudaschl at one point dug Robson Gmoser's body out of an avalanche on his own. He was in fact helped by two emergency doctors and Mr. Gmoser's co-guide. This has been corrected.