Standing in the middle of a flower-studded high alpine meadow in British Columbia, I’m struck by how much the scene resembles a Monet painting - great splashes of red, yellow, purple and pink scattered across an emerald green palette. A background of snow-capped mountains frames the picture.
It is absolutely stunning. Any minute now, I think, Julie Andrews is going to come across the top of the ridge and run toward me, singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.’
Incredibly, this panoramic setting, along with others even more magnificent, is repeated three or four times a day during my three days of heli-hiking in the Bugaboos, a group of mountains in the Purcell Range west of Banff.
Heli-hiking, or more aptly put, heli-exploring, is “soft adventure,” where a helicopter does the hard work. It takes would-be adventures with experienced mountain guides to near-fantasy places - dramatic glaciers, snow fields, forest-clad mountains and high alpine grasslands resplendent with flowers.
Before helicopters started ferrying people around, only intrepid mountaineers and gung-ho backpackers came up here. It could take three or four days of rigorous climbing.
Now the chopper, which can sit down in tiny clearings beside a lake or along a ridge top, can whisk you there in three or four minutes. All you’ve got to be able to do is climb in and out of the helicopter.
Heli-hiking is particularly great if your not-so-young-anymore body is no longer into sweating, blisters and aching muscles.
You can, of course, take the macho route if that sort of thing turns you on; you choose your own level of activity, based on your own stamina and interests. The guides divide the participants into groups accordingly. Athletic types head off on rigorous hikes to the top of granite peaks. Less ambitious explorers walk along ridge tops. Nature lovers stroll leisurely through the blooming meadows. Meditative types sometimes just get off the chopper and go sit on a rock.
Guide Wendy Edge says the ultimate laid-back outing is heli-snoozing when “everyone sort of just spreads out after lunch, and before you know it, we hear someone snoring.”
In the 19 years since Connecticut-based Tauck Tours started heli-hiking, people of every background and ability and all ages, from 8 to 80, have taken this trip.
Austrian mountaineer Hans Gmoser put this region on the map in 1968 when he conceived the concept of heli-skiing, founded Canadian Mountain Holidays and built the Bugaboo Lodge to accommodate skiers.
Arthur Tauck, who has been operating motor coach tours in Alberta and British Columbia since 1963, spent a week heli-skiing here in 1976 and found it hard to believe that the ski lodges were empty in the summer. Heli-hiking during the summer months, he thought, seemed a natural extension to winter skiing.
Two years later Tauck started bringing heli-explorers - as he now likes to call his guests - to the Bugaboos.
We meet our helicopter pilot in Spillimacheen, about a two-hour drive west from Banff, Alberta. From here, it’s a 15 minute flight west to Bugaboo Lodge, just over the border into British Columbia. After a reassuring pep talk about helicopter rides - “we have a perfect safety record” - our pilot gives us a safety talk about the jet-powered, two-engine Bell 212, which he says can fly on one engine.
Helicopter blades can dip very low; they can make spaghetti out of us, he says, so we’re told to be respectful. We learn how to “huggle” - that’s the operative word for the approved position we take during pick-ups and drop-offs, hugging one another in a tight huddle close to the ground.
Initially, some of us are nervous about flying in the 14-passenger helicopter; it takes some getting used to. On the ground, it’s noisy and the wind velocity will blow off hats, glasses - anything not held down. In the air, it’s sometimes unsettling to see how close you come to a towering granite spire or when the chopper drops suddenly into a canyon. But by the second day, we’re so enthusiastic we’re clamoring for a turn to sit up front with the pilot for even better views of the panoramic landscape.
Our first landing, at 8,500 feet in Silver Basin, isn’t exactly what we had envisioned. We exit into a driving hailstorm, put on our parkas, wind pants and rain ponchos (all supplied) from our lightweight backpacks and head off across a snow-covered field. There is some grousing.
Our guide, transplanted New Zealander Jos Lang, tells us we don’t have to be masochists in lousy weather; she can always radio the helicopter back to pick us up. But we demur; no one wants to be a wimp.
Fifteen minutes later the gray gives way to an azure sky with crisp, sweet-smelling clear air and a warming sun. We strip off the foul-weather gear.
We’re in high alpine country, meandering along rocky fields, crossing small creeks and threading our way across gentle slopes covered with shale, which makes pleasant clattering sounds underfoot. Wild flowers, ablaze in color, splash across the ground. It’s like walking through an English rock garden.
Jos watches over us (we tend to wander off in pursuit of photographs) and patiently gives us an encyclopedic rundown on flora and fauna. She identifies white heather, alpine forget-me-not, mountain valerian, Indian paint brush, golden fleabane, western anemone and more.
The helicopter returns an hour later and takes us to Bugaboo Pass. It starts to drizzle, but it is warm and not unpleasant. Walls of misty green forests replace the brilliant colors of the flower-strewn meadows. In a scene reminiscent of Hawaii, a rainbow arches over a tree-clad canyon.
Each subsequent helicopter set-down takes us to another location with unbelievable views. We walk alongside pristine turquoise lakes, past lovely waterfalls and to ridge tops where a spectacular panorama spills down the hills in front of us. There is no sign of civilization and the only sound the rustle of trees or the flap of a bird’s wing. I feel as if I’m the first person on earth to be here.
That night we rehash the day’s adventure in the lodge’s family-style dining room over dinner - seafood bisque, trout stuffed with bay shrimp and herbs, garden-fresh vegetables, homemade breads and strawberry mousse cake. The pilot sits at the head of the table and serves the wine. Later he helps clear the table, as do the guides, the chef and the housekeeping staff.
We have time before and after dinner to enjoy other activities at the lodge - we can play tennis, volleyball and croquet, fish for trout in a nearby pond or just relax with a book in front of the fireplace. Some of us with creaking joints unwind in the Jacuzzi or in a session with the masseuse. There are some, the walk-until-you-drop type, who take to the trails that encircle the lodge.
We fall asleep in comfortable wood-paneled rooms under cozy down duvets. The clanging of a school bell wakes us every morning at 7:30 to a soft pink and orange sunrise that illuminates the glowing Bugaboo Glacier and Marmolata Spire just outside our windows.
A breakfast fit for lumberjacks is served at 8 and the first helicopter liftoff departs between 9 and 9:30.
On our second morning we spend an hour walking along Easy Roll Ridge, then take a gentle hillside stroll to Pocket Lakes for a picnic that the chopper has brought in - sandwiches, fresh vegetables, cookies, nuts, tea and lemonade. After lunch we trek across Groovy Ridge, where some of us don our waterproof wind pants and sit-slide down snow banks.
On our last day we fly to Pernicular Pass, an awesome ice field surrounded by the Purcells’ major peaks. When I climb out of the helicopter I’m struck with an irresistible urge to run around like a little kid and throw snowballs.
We meander sure-footed - not cold-footed because we’ve been supplied with waterproof boots - through the snow fields, then take a couple of glacier walks, using ski poles for walking sticks. Our guide tethers us with a rope secured to an ice hook and, one by one, we walk with him to the edge of a crevasse, firmly plant our feet and peer (nervously) over the edge. Someone drops a rock; we never hear it hit bottom.
After a barbecue lunch at Tamarack Glen, a tree-studded rocky plateau, we explore more flowering meadows, hike around a small lake and take one last ridge walk to wait for, we think, our last helicopter ride back to the lodge.
But after dinner that night we get an added treat, a quick chopper ride to watch a spectacular sunset from another ridge top. We stand in a clearing, feeling as if we’re on top of the world, and look down on granite snow-capped spires rimmed with orange and red. It is the perfect ending.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The heli-exploring season is from mid-June to mid-September. The eight-day Bugaboo trip starts in Calgary via guided motorcoach tour in the Canadian Rockies that includes Banff and Kootenay National Parks, the Icelands Parkways, Lake Louise and Emerald Lake. The price is $2,040 (U.S.) per person, double occupancy. Airfare is additional. Tauck Tours also offers combination heli-hiking and motorcoach tours in the Cariboos (80 miles west of Jasper) and at the Bobbie Burns Lodge (115 miles west of Banff). Generally, age and physical fitness are not a factor, although you should be in reasonably good health. Elevations range from 6,500 to 10,000 feet on some peaks. Informal, comfortable clothes are called for. You should include walking shoes or boots, jeans, warm socks and gloves, a light rain jacket and hat. Bring sunglasses, sun-screen, insect repellent, binoculars and lots of film. U.S. citizens need proof of citizenship (passport, birth certificate with driver’s license or naturalization papers) to travel in Canada. For further information or brochures, contact Tauck Tours, P. O. Box 5027, Westport, CT 06881, (800) 468-2825. Canadian Mountain Holidays, Box 1660, Banff, AB, T0L 0C0, (800) 661-0252, also offer heli-hiking trips in British Columbia at the same locations as well as two additional lodges, Adamant and Gothics, both 225 miles west of Banff. Rather than the motorcoach drive through the Rockies, they pick up independent travelers in Banff and transport them by van to Spillimacheen for helicopter transfer to the lodges. Three-night Bugaboo trips are around $975 (U.S.) per person, double-occupancy; 6-night tours are around $1,850 (U.S.).
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