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Memories of mountains



Gisela Bahm carried a love of mountains from war-time Germany to Whistler

A carved cedar snow post used to measure snow depth at Diamond Head Lodge sits on one windowsill in Gisela Bahm’s West Vancouver apartment. A lifetime of memories; crayon drawings from grandchildren, and photographs of her sisters and mother dressed in long woollen skirts decorate the room.

"How can they go in the mountains in long skirts?" Gisela asks, as she gets up briskly to answer the phone. She talks for a few minutes in German then sits back down at her small kitchen table.

"It is one that is very interested in mountains," she tells me in her thick accent.

Gisela has always loved the mountains; a love she carried with her from the Alps in Europe to Diamond Head in Garibaldi Provincial Park and Whistler. Born 89 years ago in the town of Mecklenburg, in eastern Germany, she was 18 when her parents took her to a town in the Bavarian Alps. Gisela and her three brothers and two sisters hiked every day, staying in cowgirl huts in the alpine meadows.

"The cowgirls went up from the villages with cows to the big meadows high up," Gisela explains. "All summer they had the cows up there and the cowgirls made cheese."

Gisela’s family slept on hay and cooked their meals on a wood-burning stove.

"There was very good milk," she says. "The milk of the cows in the Alps is fantastic!"

Some hikers came to the Alps to pick little white flowers, called edelweiss.

"You could only find it on the high mountains," Gisela says, as if she’s telling a secret. "If a young man was in love with a girl, he brought her edelweiss from the mountains."

But one morning everything changed for Gisela’s family. Gisela’s father had built up and worked a 1,000-hectare farm for 28 years. The family had 20 cows, 80 horses and 800 sheep and pigs. Then the Russian army invaded Germany. The army was two days away when Gisela heard the canons. When the Russian planes flew over the farm there was a loud whistle and everybody went into the shelters.

"I had to flee from Mecklenburg when the Russians came," Gisela says.

But leaving was not going to be easy. Hitler had taken all the motorcars away for the war effort and had forbidden people from leaving their farms. On the morning Gisela was preparing to go, she went outside to her rubber-tired, horse-drawn wagon. Nazi officers were standing outside her front door.