Heli-Hiking in British Columbia

The Nimbus Bridge (photo courtesy of C.M.H.)

The scenery is, quite simply, epic. I’ve drawn the lucky window seat in the helicopter, giving me an eagle’s eye view of two hulking towers of rock, close enough to touch. It’s like one of those movie moments, when the music gets big and the camera lens widens to the max. Words like awesome and heroic seems almost too small for mountains on this grand scale.

I have to admit that, as a dyed-in-the-fleece backpacker, the idea of being dropped on a mountain by helicopter seemed a little like cheating. But here is the reality of the Canadian Rockies: With huge distances, few roads and fewer services, the mountains of British Columbia are among the world’s wildest and most beautiful – but also, least accessible. You could spend a week simply walking to the base of a mountain range where you wanted to hike (assuming there were any hiking trails to follow) — by which time you’d be out of food you could carry, and probably time. The reality is that a helicopter is the only practical way to get here.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You’re a high-country junkie who can’t get enough thin air.
  • You’re looking for a complete getaway in some of the world’ most stupendous mountains.
  • Good for families, girlfriend getaways, adventure hikers, climbers, nature lovers, photo buffs, and those who like a little luxury with their adrenaline.

Canadian Mountain Holidays and Heli-Hiking 

Heli-hiking was born as an offshoot of heli-skiing, which was brought to the Canadian Rockies by Swiss immigrant Hans Gmoser. Gnoser had already imported the tradition of Swiss mountain huts; now he used helicopters to move hikers to otherwise inaccessible backcountry. Today, Canadian Mountain Holidays runs a summer-long program of activities in British Columbia, all boasting creature comforts — gourmet meals, pasty-chef concoctions, wine cellars, massages, hot tubs, saunas, and comfortable private rooms — as well as hiking gear and guides.

But a heli-hiking trip is no softie-pseudo-adventure. CMH offers all levels of hiking, from serene wildflower hikes to high adventure programs that involve mountaineering skills, aerial bridges, a via feratto (“iron way,” referring to iron cables bolted into the rock), and even the chance to make a first ascent of a previously unclimbed peak (for experienced climbers only, and at the discretion of a guide).

Heli-Hiking Basics 

The Adventure Course at Bobbie Burns Lodge (Photo courtesy of C.M.H.)

I arrived at the lodge after a lengthy bus ride that involved a couple of wrong tuns up a logging road or two. On arrival, we were given an orientation that included safety rules to follow around the choppers (heads down, huddle together, make sure all loose items — scarfs, straps, jackets — are battened down), then ferried to a mild slope for a short leg-stretching hike — really a shakedown where the guides could watch and see who was comfortable on rock and scree and snow, and who had the endurance to hike how hard for how long, who might need a helping hand, and who might want a little more challenge. After we returned to the lodge, the guides planned the next day’s outing, taking into account what they’d learned about the guests, and, of course, the weather.

It takes no special skill or experience to go on a guided heli-hiking trip, but the more fit you are, the fewer aches and pains you’ll have. Guests range from people who have never been above treeline before to experienced alpine junkies who live to breathe the thin cold air of higher altitudes. One of my fellow guests was there for a second full week; she’d been on previous CMH hiking trips several years in a row. When I asked what brought her back year after year — after all, the world is a big place —  she simply pointed to the scenery. And who could argue with that?

A Typical Heli-Hiking Itinerary

The next morning, we feasted on a hiker-worthy breakfast, then got together for the helicopter huddle. On a guide’s signal, we crouched in a circle, shoulders hunched, hands clutched on backpacks, Gore-Tex jackets flapping wildly. Loose pebbles and bits of dirt scattered like miniature missiles under the assault of the wind. On a second signal, we scurried into the chopper, strapped ourselves  in, put on noise-cancelling earphones, and were gently lifted into the sky.

It only takes a few minutes to reach the high country, but it’s one second after the other filled with jaw-dropping scenery, each peak more eye-popping than the last. Our chopper landed on the edge of a glacier, and we hopped out, standing in stunned silence, while we tried to absorb the waves of snow-tipped peaks, the craggy gray glacier, the rainbow of alpine flowers. After the chopper flew away, there was only a vast and overwhelming silence.

Sorted by interest, fitness, and experience, we headed off on three separate hikes. Over the next few days, I had the opportunity to do each level of a CMH hike: The first day was a scrabbly rugged hike up onto some exposed ridges, followed in the afternoon by a more leisurely stroll with plenty of time to smell the glacier lilies. (Depending on the trip, the chopper may pick up hikers at several drop spots during the day, and take them to other ridges, or to a particularly nice spot for lunch. Tired hikers also have the option of getting an early ride back to the lodge for rest and recovery.)

The next day, I strapped on crampons and climbing harness, grabbed an ice ax, and headed uphill. The weather changed several times that day, from threatening mist to bright sun shine, and the terrain varied from snow-fields up high to boulder fields down low.

For experienced hikers, the hiking-in-a-group thing can be a bit stifling, depending on the group. But that’s to be expected virtually any time you hike with a guide, and CMH did a good job with matching participants. I think what made this trip such a standout was simply the combination of superlatives: Superlative mountain scenery, and at the end of the day, superlative accommodations: a fine gourmet meal, good wines, comfortable rooms, and a good night’s sleep.

Practicalities

  • Getting there is a big of an adventure in itself. Standard packages include motor coach transfers from Banff, with a return to Calgary International Airport. Extended packages can include pick-up from Calgary, with an overnight (or more) in Banff.
  • Spend time reading the various programs and itineraries offered: The high-flying adventure program, for instance, is offered only at the Bobbie Burns Lodge. Other lodges offer lodge-to-lodge hiking options, family and women-only trips,  nature trips, special speakers, and outdoor photography workshops.
  • CMH has a full complement of outdoor gear, including boots, hiking poles, climbing equipment, rain jackets, water bottles and more.

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