- Written by Ben Jacklet
- Category: Mountain Characters
- Published: December 18, 2014
- Last Updated: December 19, 2014
Fred Noble was a Mount Hood legend. He starred in Warren Miller films, shredded powder with some of the best skiers on the planet, and introduced thousands of people to the thrill of heli-skiing.
Fred died last May from ALS, just after being honored at Ski to Defeat ALS and at the premiere of a documentary about his life, The Noble Spirit. Now that he is gone, Fred’s daughter Julie is determined to continue his legacy. But she is finding that the laid-back world that her father thrived in is hard to find in the heli-ski industry these days.
The first time Fred Noble saw an ad for heli-skiing he loaded his 1958 Volkswagen Beetle with skis, a sleeping bag, cheese, crackers, carrots and celery, and left Oregon for Canada, driving for 17 hours straight and arriving at 2 in the morning. The weather was terrible but he convinced the other skiers to go anyhow. Then he convinced the dubious guide to take them. Even though it was pouring rain, he and his new ski buddies had a blast shredding up the soggy snow.
Fred returned a few weeks later with a different group of friends, and then again a month after that, with yet a different crew.
Before long, Canadian Mountain Holidays founder Hans Gmoser was insisting on sending Noble a check for all the new business. The two men eventually established a handshake agreement, and Fred decided that he would represent CMH as long as he was having fun.
That was the start of Fred Noble’s 40-year relationship with CMH, the pioneering heli-ski business that has grown to 11 lodges in the Canadian backcountry, 7,000 guests per year and 3.1 million acres of mouth-watering terrain.
8 million feet of backcountry vertical
Noble had a gift for convincing people to try heli-skiing, and to keep them coming back for more. He made friends with clients from Portland to Lebanon, and he was famous for booking trips for them on a whim — then calling to inform them of where they were going, when and with whom.
He was audacious, but he got away with it on the strength of his personality and his enthusiasm.
“It wasn’t about the money to him at all," says his daugher Julie Noble Bakkala. "He just wanted to introduce heli-skiing to people and share what he loved with everyone else.”
“What kept them coming back was that passion and that feeling. They didn’t come back just because they had the money. They kept coming back because they tasted what it was like, and they wanted to taste that again.”
Noble made a decent living as a CMH rep, but he was far from a bean-counter. Even as everyone else in the business world switched over to computers for the sake of efficiency, Noble still kept his contacts and leads and receipts in large piles of paper and three-ring binders that no one could navigate except him.
And of course he put all of his earnings directly into the business. As soon as he earned enough money to book a heli-ski trip for himself, he booked it. He skied 8 million feet of vertical from the Bugaboos to the Cariboos, and that is just the official tally. His daughter Julie Noble Bakkala is convinced he actually skied even more than that.
'He didn't want his legacy to end'
Julie learned to ski from with her dad at Mt. Hood Meadows when she was six. She remembers 20-minute hikes to get the "well worth it" 3 turns in the most amazing powder. He taught her well and they had a great time together, and then when she was 12 she got to go heli-skiing in Canada. She remembers having a blast heli-skiing, being too young to feel scared, sticking close to the guide and not allowing herself to whine when things got tough.
Julie’s parents divorced when she was in fourth grade, but she always kept a profoundly close bond to her free-spirited father, even as her life moved in a different direction.
Julie and her husband Gary Bakkala run the concrete business Willamette Curbing, and between work and raising five kids they kind of lost touch with the skiing world. But Fred kept them connected with frequent gifts to take the whole family heli-hiking up in the mountains in Canada. When the kids grew up they got back into skiing, and for Julie it was like she had never stopped.
And of course her dad never did stop. He could still shred the powder with power and grace through his 60s and into his 70s. Here he is at the age of 70:
But even Fred Noble had to slow down eventually. Around 2008 he first talked to Julie about passing along the business to her. “He asked me, ‘When I retire from this, would you be interested in carrying it on? Because he didn’t want his legacy to end.”
The issue of legacy became an even bigger deal in 2010, when Fred was diagnosed with ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative muscular disease that is brutally irreversible, with no cure.
Julie and Gary were devastated. They took care of Fred for as long as they could manage, then hired a full-time caregiver.
As the ALS took over Fred Noble's life, Julie began to get serious about getting his business in order. For starters she re-organized his CMH files and built a database from his list of clients and prospects and friends.
“He would call it organized but it was a mess," she says. "The more he lost his ability to do things, the more I would organize things onto his computer instead of into these boxes and notebooks and stuff. Then it made sense and it was like, ‘Man, you could have been doing this years ago.’"
Spreading his ashes in the Bugaboos
Fred Noble was honored with the Noble Spirit Award at Ski to Defeat ALS at Mt. Hood Meadows on April 12, and the film about him opened to enthusiastic reviews. He was able to attend Ski to defeat ALS, but he was too sick to make the movie premier. He died on May 1, 2014. Here he is with his Noble Spirit Award, photo by Randy Boverman.
This winter Gary and Julie plan to scatter Fred's ashes in the Bugaboos in honor of his life-long love of the freedom of backcountry skiing. Julie has built a website at heliskiwithme.com to keep her dad's story alive and to connect his story with the heli-skiing experience.
“My goal is to carry on my dad’s legacy and his passion for the mountains, doing what he spent the majority of his life doing," she says. "Because I understand it now. And I just want to keep it going.”