30September 2017

It all started with a van and a clipboard

As many people know, Rudi founded Purcell back in 1974. Forty-five years later, things have grown a lot from the early days.

We have a beautiful lodge, a heli-pad, a fancy sign, high-tech communication systems, piles of safety gear and emergency manuals. Guiding staff, kitchen staff, reservations and marketing staff.

But that’s not what it was like at the beginning.

Like almost every entrepreneur, Rudi was faced with a big challenge and limited resources. He had his skills, a few connections, and a conviction he could make it work. Many people told him he was crazy, to try to take people skiing in the backcountry out of a helicopter.

(Heli-skiing was barely a thing in the early 70s, so you could say the ‘early adopter’ crowd was still pretty small. )

Rudi as a young man recently qualified as an IFMGA Mountain Guide before leaving Switzerland for Canada and new heli-ski opportunities

He was not deterred. He had already seen how amazing it could be. Working at CMH during the first years of heli-skiing showed him what it gave people – the access! the awe! – and he knew this thing called heli-skiing was only going to grow.

Like so many entrepreneurs, his vision and his hunger lead the way, while the skeptics looked on. And so he bloody well got on with making it happen.

He was marketing. He was reservations. He was operations, transportation and kitchen staff all rolled into one. He had a van and a clipboard, and he was on his way.

At the time, Rudi was living in Banff, but his available operating area was in Golden. Here’s what a 24-hour cycle looked like back in days when Purcell was being born:

Starting at 6pm: Rudi would make the rounds to the restaurants and bars in Banff, meeting up with all the tour operators he could find, making friends, clinking glasses, and telling stories along the way. Or he’d be having dinner with his guests from that day, and their tales of adventure would draw in all the tables nearby. Networking, we’d say. And live testimonials.

He’d say ‘Okay, so who wants to go tomorrow?’ and out comes the clipboard. He’d zig-zag around town, talking and selling until that list was full.

Next morning at 6am: he’d be up early, making lunches for the day’s skiers. Then he’d fire up his van and drive around town, picking up everyone he signed up the night before. Off to Golden, prepping them for the day as he drove.

They’d meet the pilot and helicopter he’d hired for the day at the humble Golden air strip, then up and away! All by himself, before the days of a lodge, tail guides, radio check-ins, or digital heli-tracking.

Rudi skiing deep powder in 2017, as a man into his seventies with fifty years of heli-ski experience behind him

And in those days, it really was like they’d just disappear. No one knowing where they went, no radios, no back-ups. There are layers of safety nets in place these days, that all seem so normal and so necessary. But none of that existed yet. He just flew off into the mountains with his guests and they had their adventure.

(Maybe this is partly why so many called him crazy?)

Once their day of skiing was complete, they’d land at the airport and load into the van. Rudi would buy a case of Kokanee (it’s the beer out here), and pass it back to his guests while he drove everyone back to Banff, teaching them all how to yodel.

Then it’s 6pm again. End of one cycle. Start of another. Time to bust out the clipboard, and find some more skiers…

One man, with about as much ambition and passion for skiing as you could fit in one person. No excuses.

Famous Bruno Engler photograph of Rudi ski jumping off the tea house at the Norquay ski resort decades ago

Sometimes we look at a business or project based on where it’s at today, and imagine we need all those things to get it off the ground. That everything it has now is a dealbreaker for it to work. But almost everything big or successful starts small and scrappy, driven by grit, vision and a whole lot of improvising.

Remembering how Rudi got Purcell off the ground helps every time I feel like a goal is too big, and I’m too small to make it happen.

I can always pause and ask:

What’s stopping me? What’s workable now, with what I already have?

And hey, hiring help, delegating, taking time off, and finding more sophisticated solutions are all great. No doubt. I’m not talking about being super-human or irrationally independent.

But it’s also great to remember how much power we have to build something on our own, without all the things we often think we need.

Everything is figure-out-able. You can always find some way to step forward.

When you can see a bigger vision for yourself, like Rudi did all those years ago, you will fight to get to YES, you will see how to handle every obstacle, how to recognize that getting started is always better than waiting for it to be perfect.

Rudi guiding a group of heli-skiers in 2015

What are you hungry to accomplish? How can you make it happen? What’s stopping you?

Maybe all you need is a van and a clipboard.


Purcell is still a small, scrappy company run by heart. Come see the operation and the man who just won’t stop skiing. Check out why skiers and riders choose us.



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