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Peak Performance

by Barb Dacks

Award-winning photographer, filmmaker, mountain guide, and local legend Bruno Engler has spent 60 years sharing his love and respect for the natural splendour of the Rockies.

Bruno Engler in 1998 On the edge of Canmore, in the mountain community of Harvie Heights, Bruno Engler gazes out his front window as he ponders my question. His magnificent photographs of Alberta's mountain heritage line the walls of his cosy livingroom. Trained as a mountain guide and professional photographer in Switzerland, he arrived in Alberta in 1939 at age 24, eager to test his skills. But unlike so many others who come as tourists and snap photos as observers, he chose to stay, live, and share the mountain life. I've asked him why. 

"I guess I have a little of the pioneering adventurous spirit," he answers quietly. Indeed.

Engler's career as a mountain guide in the Rockies spanned about 35 years, from his first job at Lake Louise in 1940. He has accompanied avid novice and veteran climbers alike on their first ascents in the Rockies. He cites as his most memorable climb, the honour of assisting renowned mountaineer Colonel Frank Smythe and his wife to explore peaks in Jasper National Park in 1946. Mount LefroySmythe had achieved fame in 1934 on reaching the record altitude of 28,200 ft without oxygen during the British Everest Expedition. Engler's long list of distinguished clients includes world-leading climbers Tony Cromwell and Georgia Englehard, politicians Pierre Trudeau and Peter Lougheed (whom he guided to the summit of Mount Lougheed), as well as Governor-General Roland Michener.
As he talks about his climbing experiences, Engler's voice reveals the deep respect he has for the majestic peaks towering around him. "Every mountain has its own character," he reflects. "The challenge is to find the key to the summit." He would never use the word 'conquer' with regard to a mountain, he stresses. "The goal is to challenge yourself." In fact, the ultimate test of skill for a guide is to seek and achieve the easiest and safest route to the summit, he explains, not to take risks for the thrill of risk-taking.

Bruno Engler c.1977Engler knows the mountains well and the range of magnificent vistas they offer. Yet his respect extends not only to the size of these marvels of nature but also to their 'moods.' In the fall, when the rock above the tree-line glistens with "glass ice," the thin coating of first snow and rain, dangerous no matter what kind of climbing boots you wear, his advice is simple. "That's when the mountain is refusing you," he suggests. "That's the best time to come back down. The mountains will always be there for another attempt another time." I follow his glance to a starkly dramatic photograph on the wall to my left - a line of people proceed along a ridge-line, the jagged snow-streaked rock-face of Mount Lefroy looms in the background. "That's a rescue school training," Engler says of the tiny figures contrasting with the colossal wall of rock in the background. 

Concerned about the preservation of the mountain environments around the world, Engler expresses frustration with the continuing trails of people who leave behind vast amounts of equipment and other "junk" on some of the most exquisite and frequently climbed peaks (most notably Mount Everest). He remains sanguine, however, about the impact of development thus far in the Rockies, literally taking a long view. "If you fly up in a helicopter, 10,000 feet up, Banff is as big as a dime. The rest is mountains and forest," he observes. He worries, he admits though, about too rapid development just outside the parks, in places like Canmore.
Engler's incredible mountain wilderness photographs and his award-winning film footage represent a remarkable legacy, not only for his family, but for the province. The Whyte museum of the Canadian Rockies has purchased 12,000 of his negatives for their archives as a permanent collection of his work. Don Bourdon, Head Archivist, speaks of the significance of his photographs. "Much of Bruno's life and career is reflected in them. He has been here over a period of huge change - environmentally and socially. We did a major exhibit of his work - High, Wild, and Free: Bruno Engler, 50 years in the Canadian Rockies - about 10 years ago. This collection is not just for posterity. It's for the 'here and now' so we can share the legacy over time."

South Peak of Mt. Victoria RidgeWith his camera, Engler has captured haunting images as diverse as those that record the awesome power of a spring avalanche and a particular favourite that reveals the dream-like solitude of a real-life cowboy on horseback looking for stray cattle. Engler happened to be on a photo shoot down near Carstairs as the lone figure emerged from the early morning mist. Engler was startled but snapped the photo as the man passed by. "The best picture is the unexpected, to be there at the right time and be ready … to know you have the picture that can only be taken once and nobody can repeat," he reflects. His photographs express how he sees his world around him through the lens of his camera, as a painter conveys his impressions through his art works. He reads the light the way a painter does, to reflect the emotion and mood of a scene. "My filters are my brushes," he explains. Though it has been a while since he has taught classes, his eyes light up as he talks about sharing his insights about the craft in summer courses in high altitude photography at the Banff Centre for the Arts. "We'd go high above the timberline…combining photography and adventure," he recalls with a wide smile.

Mt. Assiniboine & Magog LakeEngler has caught more than one avalanche on film, but perhaps his most memorable was the footage he shot for the Walt Disney Studios production "White Wilderness," in 1956. It was springtime. "I told them I thought I could get an avalanche, but no guarantees," he begins. "I stayed in a cabin on the lower Victoria Glacier near the Plain of Six Glaciers above Lake Louise for four days…I set up my camera from early morning until sundown…piled up rocks to build a wall around me and even had a little fireplace for making coffee." Three days passed with no luck and then it rained all night. In the morning, Engler was ready to give up when he heard the ominous rumbling. "The upper Victoria Glacier has three distinct ice walls stacked one on top of the other," he explains. He saw the top one collapse. Then nothing. Then all at once an explosion as the second wall collapsed and the whole mass of ice came crashing down a 1,000-ft cliff. "I never saw a big icefall like that, about a quarter kilometre wide," he recalls. A menacing "cloud" of ice dust and debris rolled towards him. He'd calculated his escape route and made it back with spectacular footage the company used as a trailer and played repeatedly to dramatic effect for years to come.

"Silent Trail"Stunning cinematography for the National Film Board, Universal Studios, CBC, ABC, and others has earned Engler kudos from film critics and colleagues. A half-hour feature, "Diary of a Mountain Man," part of CBC's This Land television series, celebrated his life and contributions. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his work. In 1981, he received the Alberta Achievement Award for Excellence and the Premier's Cup Award for Photography and Mountaineering. IN 1986, he was one of 12 recipients of prestigious Rose Awards at the World Environmental Festival in Ottawa. He was honoured for his "life-long commitment to capturing the magnificence of the Canadian mountains on film." The next year, he was presented with the Summit of Excellence Award at the Banff Festival of Mountain Films. In 1990, he was selected as the first patron of the Annual Mountain Guides' Ball, recognition by the Alpine Club of Canada and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. This summer, he presides over the festivities as patron of the 100th anniversary of the CPR's Swiss guides in Canada. At the Swiss Village in Golden, BC, a special exhibit of his work will launch the celebrations.

Engler's first book, A Mountain Life, was published by The Alpine Club of Canada in 1996. In this volume, he recounts events and recalls people who played significant roles, not only in his own life but in the life and history of the mountain parks. Dedicated to the memory of his wife of 30 years, Angel, and with love to his 10 children and his wife Vera, it is filled with reproductions of his stunning black and white images. I ask if he has plans for a second book and he gestures animatedly. "I'd like to have a mixture of colour and black and white photographs, with a dramatic picture and its story side by side," he says.

Engler has spent 60 years waiting patiently for the right combination of light and shadow to produce images that best reflect his beloved mountains, 60 years living the mountain adventure to gather the experiences for the best stories. The full Engler legacy is yet to come.  

Reproduced with permission from the author and Legacy Magazine.

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