I’m sitting in historic Tweedsmuir Lodge in Bella Coola, BC, base to world-renown Bella Coola Heli Sports. In front of our group stands a crazed camp counselor clasping a clipboard, disheveled in track pants and a hoodie, dirty-blond hair barely escaping the confines of a soiled baseball cap, hand-rolled cigarette behind his ear. He barks news updates, weather reports and the occasional joke not everyone gets. He looks like he should be cleaning out garbage bins or fiddling under the hood of a truck, but no. He is the owner.
Peter “The Swede” Mattsson is a study in contrasts. At just over six feet, the gruff skier is an unassuming poster boy for the simultaneous consumption of aquavit, snus and hand-rolled tobacco. Another northern Euro who loves slam-dancing, Iggy Pop and Frank Zappa. For many years he was also the most in-demand guide and film coordinator for the worldwide snow-sports film industry that frequents his adopted town of Whistler, BC. These days he’s a principal and guide at Bella Coola Heli Sports, the world-leading operation he started with cinematographer friends Beat Steiner and Christian Begin. The place was an instant hit with media and guests who craved a different kind of heli experience—the kind that the steep, deep, extra-long, glacier-cooled runs of the Coast Range could deliver. And being intimately in tune with its labyrinthine convolutions, Swede is the guy to deliver the Coast Range. How did a dirtbag Swedish cowboy, a true original whose mountain baptism came in the testosterone-laced waters of the extreme-skiing movement come to occupy such an exalted post?
Mattsson grew up in Uddevalla, Sweden, where he skied on small local hills. At 19 he entered the hospitality industry, managing a hotel restaurant in Åre, Sweden’s rising-star version of Whistler. He partied hard and skied his ass off but wasn’t quite ready to stay put. He attended restaurant school, traveled the world as a cruise-ship cook, spent winters in the Alps and summers at Scandinavian sailing resorts. In 1978 he landed in Steamboat, Colorado, where he worked as a chef before returning to Stockholm to help his brother open a restaurant.
Swede is celebrated for his rough, wiry exterior. Get past the crusty exterior and peel away the layers, however, and you find a heart of gold with more tales than anyone you’ve ever met. He’s well-traveled, educated, opinionated and has a dry sense of humour. He’s confident in the mountains, scary when he’s drunk, and, most important, loved by all.
How did you end up in Whistler?
In Steamboat I heard about this place north of Vancouver—huge mountains, no people, wild and unexplored. It sounded good. In 1981 I emigrated directly from Sweden to Whistler. It was a small town then—only two buildings in the village. Blackcomb was being developed, so there were two huge mountains and no people. There were a bunch of big winters in a row, and I had one of the best jobs in town, running the restaurant and bar at the old Highland Lodge. It was tough, though. I had a professional job with a lot of responsibility and hired ski-bum buddies to help out. They were hard workers but never showed up on time if the skiing was good. Pretty soon even I couldn’t show up on time and gave up the restaurant lifestyle to ski and climb more.
You left Whistler to spend the winter of 1983-84 at Apex in the BC Interior. That move would reverberate around the world.
I met two greenhorns there named Eric Pehota and Trevor Petersen. They were total rubes—like 18 years old—and just ate up everything I said. I told them about Whistler and that I was going back; they decided to come, too. Who could have known what would happen?
Back in Whistler, you all fell in with a big-time ski-mountaineering and climbing crowd, and you had all the uncharted territory around newly opened Blackcomb to explore. Any special memories?
One time I was on the face of Mt. Turner and fucking Pehota [who is also a pilot] buzzes me in his plane. He flew so close I thought he was going to knock me off. Let’s see… I skied the northwest couloir on Wedge Mountain six times. Back in the ’80s we used to get dropped on top with cappuccinos and croissants…. The south side is hardly ever in shape, but we got it once in knee-deep powder…. One-thousand-eight-hundred vertical metres on a single 40-degree slope… some crazy shit went down.
The cowboy rides Blackcomb. Markewitz photo
Your group’s reputation spread quickly.
Yeah. We got involved with high-altitude climbing and even participated in all the training climbs for the 1991 Canadian Everest expedition—we summited Denali in Alaska and Argentina’s Aconcagua. We were living a real wild life, doing wild things no one had done before. Adventure was life. It was pretty much like a movie.
When did you get into guiding?
In the early ’90s I was looking for something that could keep me outdoors, so I turned to guiding. Extreme skiing was big, so me and Petersen started No Wimp Tours. One of our first trips was to the Pantheon Range near Mt. Waddington with Powder magazine. That story helped launch the business. I did most of the guiding because Petersen was a big-name skier by then, and he was busy with family, sponsors and film work.
What did you learn from the experience?
In big mountains like these, people are fucking clueless. But since they keep coming, somebody has to keep them from getting killed. Besides, they pay well. Ha!
You also guided for Whistler and Tyax Heliskiing, Klondike Heliskiing in Northern BC, and a heli-skiing operation in Greenland. How did you get into film work?
It was natural. I knew the Whistler area, how to organize people, pick runs and do safety stuff. After all my guiding I also knew about heli logistics and how to keep fuel costs down. Pretty soon I was setting up the whole fucking trip—booking, guiding all day and cooking at night. I don’t do the cooking anymore, though. Ha! My first job [in the ’80s] was guiding snowboard crews for AdventureScope. There weren’t many people making movies then, and it wasn’t common to have a guide or take on that kind of expense, so at first we just did safety. Pretty soon we were doing way more and not even calling ourselves guides—we were film coordinators and producers.
People say you have great intuition and powers of observation in the mountains—Argus-eyed, so to speak. How do you feel about that?
All I know is that word got around. I had so much film work by 1997 that I started another company, Mountain Sport Productions, to specialize in it year-round. And not just snow-sport films but also all the big-bucks advertising and feature film shoots around Whistler.
Your biggest athlete fans and clients like MSP have called you a “cowboy” guide. Are you?
I don’t know what that means. Ha! Maybe it’s because I let them do things other guides won’t. If I was running a film shoot, I paid my guys $100 a day more than commercial heli-ski guides because it’s all high-risk—although in some ways it’s safer than [commercial] heli-skiing. On films, the people you’re doing safety for are all pros who don’t freeze up when things go wrong. Look at that versus 10 beginners floundering behind you in deep snow.
You worked as location coordinator on the documentary Ski Bums, which featured friends and acquaintances as subjects. Did the king ski bum see any irony in working for his dirtbag friends?
That job was all about fun. But then, all my jobs are. Ha!
What about Bella Coola Heli Sports. Where did that idea come from?
We had a film shoot there with Head-Tyrolia. Beat Steiner and Christian Begin were filming, and I was managing the shoot. We basically looked at each other and said, ”We’ve got to do something here.”
What have the biggest challenges been?
In some ways it was easy to start an operation here. It’s easy to get here; planes fly in every day, and you can drive if you want. There was already an airport, heli pilots, hospital, food availability. And of course the Tweedsmuir Lodge base was already there. The challenge came later, when we realized how much work and detail is involved in this business. It started with dealing with governments in getting the tenure.
Why did you guys buy Pantheon Heli?
The price was right. Ha! They were going out of business, and it was an opportunity for us—fairly close to where we are, and we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’re basically doing the same thing as here, and we have a background in the area from filming and know people there.
Is it like coming full circle from No Wimp Tours?
Our first trip with No Wimp was to Pantheon. And then we went up there with Warren Miller, Standard Films and MSP at various times. So maybe. But then, maybe not. It’s a whole new ball game. Ha!