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Philippe Delesalle: Respected Mountain Architect and Adventurer

PHILIPPE DELESALLE:
RESPECTED MOUNTAIN ARCHITECT
AND ADVENTURER

Written by Lynn Martel
Photos courtesy Delesalle Family

An integral and influential member of the Rockies community, Philippe Delesalle passed away July 6, 2020 at the age of 90. Lynn Martel recounts his legacy and many unique contributions to the mountain experience.


Philippe Delesalle (left) skins up in fresh powder at Battle Abbey backcountry ski touring lodge, 1989. Photo courtesy Delesalle family.

Throughout his life, Philippe Delesalle understood a few important things. 

Chief among them was the value of spending time outdoors in nature. Also, the joys, responsibilities, and hard physical work of being a horseman. From that foundation he lived a life rich with adventures and strong relationships with his family and friends, with whom he shared his passions until his death on July 6, 2020 at the age of 90. 

Philippe left his home in northern France as a 20-year-old in 1951, excited to see the world. He travelled to Mexico and the Arctic where he lived with the Inuit for six months. He embarked on climbing expeditions to giant peaks in Peru and Yukon, in BC’s Selkirks and the Canadian Rockies. 

It was while working at Sunshine Village ski area the winter of 1952/53 that he discovered the inspiration that would help shape his life. While operating a small, simple lift called a platterpull (prior to chairlifts) he thought about a common local problem – how the abundant snowfall that brought joy to skiers caused relentless grief to local builders and landlords as it threatened to collapse roofs. 

Philippe Delesalle travelled to the Arctic several times and even lived with the Inuit for six months. Photo taken 1952, courtesy Delesalle family.

He enrolled in the architecture program at Montreal’s McGill University and graduated in 1959. While there, a mutual friend introduced him to Mireille, who was from the south of France. They soon married and moved to Calgary where he partnered with Martin Cohos to found Cohos/Delesalle Architects. In 1961 their daughter Nathalie was born, followed by Bruno in 1963 and Marco in 1967. 

During those years Philippe designed numerous buildings, including several schools and churches. He earned his pilot’s license in 1965 and flew his own plane to northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Inuvik, where he designed the region’s first school built on permafrost. Over time he would fly his single-engine Mooney across all three Americas.

Philippe and Mireille Delesalle pose in front of his Mooney airplane in 1965. Photo courtesy Delesalle family.

Soon after moving to Calgary, when a photographer friend tragically died, in her memory Philippe and Mireille acquired her secluded property in Canmore on Policeman’s Creek. In that era, Canmore consisted of a coal mine, a few dozen homes, Marra’s grocery store, the post office and little more. 

“It literally was a small shack, night and day compared to what it was in later years,” Mireille described. “Canmore was not fashionable like it is today. There was dark coal dust everywhere and our friends couldn’t understand why we bought it.”  

By 1973 the family was living in the house full-time. Naturally, Philippe made changes over the years. 

“We built it a bit at a time,” Mireille recalled. “It ended up being a very charming place.”

During his years growing up, Philippe’s father, Jacques Delesalle, a successful industrialist in northern France, raised and trained horses on his property. Jacques passed on his passion for horses to his children and taught them, particularly his sons, to ride at an early age. So in the early 1970s, it was a natural progression for Philippe to purchase Swansea Ranch in the Columbia Valley. The ranch would become a much-loved second home, integral to their family life. Philippe raised and trained horses, taught his children to ride and to share his appreciation of nature and hard work. He also learned to fly a glider in the valley’s famous thermal updrafts. 

Philippe Delesalle enjoys a horseback trip to BC’s Diana Lake Lodge, mid-1990s. Photo courtesy Delesalle family.

“For Philippe, it was quite important to live with horses,” Mireille said. “Riding was a big priority when he was a boy, and he felt it was an important experience for our children, but also for our friend’s children. It was a positive experience for all the children.” 

Philippe’s love for storytelling, music and reading were constant sources of happiness, along with adventure. During Philippe’s first Rockies winter, he met Hans Gmoser, a mountain guide from Austria who went on to found the world’s first heli-skiing business, CMH. With Gmoser and others, Philippe pursued landmark adventures, including a gruelling 1959 expedition to the Yukon. In addition to accomplishing the second ascent of Mount Logan’s East Ridge, the team trekked with massive packs for 135 kilometres from Kluane Lake to the mountain, then after their climb they rafted down the Donjek River – capsizes included – to the Alaska Highway. 

The following year, Philippe was part of the Gmoser-led team that pioneered a long-distance glacier ski traverse from Kicking Horse Pass to the Columbia Icefield. In 1963, with his friend, mountain guide Peter Furhmann, and two other friends, Philippe made an impressive ascent of Alpamayo in the Peruvian Andes. Closer to home, with Gmoser and others he made first ascents of Mount Edith’s east face and Wasootch Tower in Kananaskis. He also crossed the Sahara Desert by foot and camel and in 1973 sailed across the Atlantic aboard the French ocean racing yacht, Pen Duick II. In later years he and Mireille travelled extensively.

Philippe Delesalle made his second crossing of the Sahara Desert in Nov./Dec. 1990/91. Photo courtesy Delesalle family.

Philippe’s passion for architecture, however, provided a lasting benefit for others, as his connection to nature and understanding of challenging mountain environments inspired and informed his work. He designed some exceptionally functional and aesthetically pleasing buildings, including the Sunshine Village Hotel, the Sunshine Day Lodge, and the original Whyte Archives of the Canadian Rockies. 

He also designed the world’s first heli-skiing lodge, CMH’s Bugaboo Lodge, built in 1967, which features a stunning dining room view of the area’s granite spires. Philippe then designed CMH’s equally hospitable Cariboo, Bobbie Burns and Adamants lodges, all located in remote alpine locations. On a smaller, but equally valuable scale, he designed the early huts providing shelter to skiers and climbers on the Wapta Icefield, including those at Balfour Pass (1965), Peyto Glacier (1967) and Bow Hut in 1968, as well as the much-appreciated hut perched at Sapphire Col (1964) in BC’s Glacier National Park. Chief among his innovations was the adaptation of the double roof method employed in other alpine countries, by which the snow-bearing roof is separated from the standard roof by a crawl space. 

Philippe Delesalle enjoyed heliskiing in the Cariboos, one of several CMH lodges he designed. Photo 1992, courtesy Delesalle family.

This innovative thinking, along with his enthusiasm for nature and outdoor adventure led to his being named the 2011 recipient of the Summit of Excellence Award. His value to his family, however, was immeasurable.

“My father was an integral part of my life and I am forever grateful for the life he has given me,” said Marco, an ACMG/IFMGA mountain guide. “The three most important things I learned from my dad was to live life with freedom, and dignity, and be loyal to friends and family. His adventurous spirit was instilled in me since youth and he inspired me to live my life to the utmost of my ability.”

In recognition of Philippe’s passions and his desire to see all children enjoy the blessings of spending time outdoors, the Philippe Delesalle Fund was created in his memory. Administered by the Alpine Club of Canada, the fund will provide opportunities for underprivileged children to experience mountain life, culture and adventure.  

To learn more or to donate, visit the Alpine Club of Canada.


Author of two books of adventure, ten mountain biographies, and Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers,  Lynn Martel explores the Canadian Rockies backcountry by skis, boots, camera and the written word.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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