by Lee Foster
Suddenly the Bell helicopter pulled into the sky, leaving me and a dozen other hikers in a huddled cluster under the wash of the rotors.
I rose up from the ground to look around. I had been dropped in a remote area of the Canadian Rockies–the Bugaboos of the Purcell Range on the western slopes. With a certified alpine guide, I would walk from the improvised helicopter landing over terrain that few backpackers have ever reached.
You can do the same. In your party there may be children and seniors. Because the helicopter will return to a site perhaps a mile down the ridge, you don’t need to possess more than casual fitness to enjoy this pristine wilderness.
Let us continue as if this is your story:
You begin to identify the wildflowers with your guide, distinguishing between heaths and heathers, mountain lilies and saxifrages.
One helicopter drop puts you on the middle of vast Vowell Glacier. Expertly guided, you make your way amidst the crevices, the streams of water, and the massive boulders that lie on the surface of the ice mass.
While enjoying the visual experience, you breathe the fresh, brisk mountain air. During the walks, aside from conversations with your comrades, all is silent, except for the wind and the occasional whistle of a pika, one of the small rodents of the mountains.
You see remarkable sights, such as excavations grizzly bears make to dig out ground squirrels. Your guide informs you that some researchers think the grizzly does this partly for play. The grizzly’s caloric energy expended to dig out the squirrel exceeds the energy gained by eating the squirrel.
Such are the insights of the mountains, available primarily to the helicopter hiker.
Soon the hour and a half at the average drop has passed, and the helicopter returns. Your guide calls the helicopter in with a radio phone. You lift off to another location for a second drop. In a day there are usually two drops in the morning and two in the afternoon. By late afternoon you return to the first-class comforts of the lodge.
The drops themselves have fanciful names that eclectic mapmakers have left on the land here. My drops for the first day started at a mountain site called Powder Pig. The next day included an outdoor barbecue lunch on a glacial moraine and drops at Groovy, Dead Elk Lake, Tidy Bowl, and Easy Roll.
All the 27 major drops in the area have special features to enjoy, whether they be alpine meadows with wildflowers, slopes tiled with small sheets of shale, lakes formed at the base of glaciers, or forests thick with spruce and fir. Big game, such as bear, deer, and elk, are sometimes seen.
The single main nature experience is that of geology. You immerse yourself in the wondrous forces of glaciers, learning how they scraped out the landscape, slowly shifting large masses of rock and earth. You see the metamorphic shales of the Purcells, folded and upthrust in different layers, then shot through with molten rock that cooled as quartz, sometimes with lovely crystals.
Such is the world of helicopter hiking in the Canadian Rockies, an adventure sport available to all travelers.
The sport began in 1978 when tour operator Arthur Tauck of Tauck Tours approached Canadian Rockies entrepreneur Hans Gmoser of Canadian Mountain Holidays. Gmoser had built a remote lodge in the backcountry on the west side of the Rockies. He had transported skiers by helicopter since 1965 for the extraordinary experience of skiing on the largest snowfields available anywhere, all made accessible by the helicopter. Skiers are dropped at backcountry locations otherwise inaccessible.
Tauck saw the possibility of organizing summer tours that would helicopter people into the same area for walking and nature enjoyment. Gmoser was skeptical of the idea at first, but he agreed to participate, and Tauck delivered the travelers. Gmoser expanded to three lodges (Bugaboo, Cariboo, and Bobbie Burns). The two entities–Tauck Tours and Canadian Mountain Holidays–started the business of summer helicopter hiking.
Tour options include picking you up at Calgary and providing all transportation, lodging, and food, as well as helicopter hiking, until you are returned to Calgary. Helicopter hiking tours can be combined with trips through the great national parks of the Canadian Rockies (Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay), with tour leaders explaining the natural and historical story. Nights can be added at the historic lodges of the parks, Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
The Bugaboo Lodge, base for one of the tours and site of my trip, is a friendly place with family-style dining. (The word Bugaboo is British for hoax, referring to the assessment of miners who had been lured into the area in search of gold. There was little gold. The area was a bugaboo. Little could they imagine that tourism would be an enduring vein of wealth for this Canadian Rockies region.)
All three of the lodges operate as helicopter ski facilities in winter and helicopter hiking bases in summer. The Bell helicopter is the most expensive aspect of the whole operation. All three lodges are comfortable places accommodating a maximum of 44 people. There’s a reason for that number. The helicopter must be used efficiently and can carry 11 passengers and a guide. By dividing the party into four groups, the helicopter can operate continuously, dropping and picking up parties at scattered locations in the mountains.
Helicopter hiking occurs in what Canadians have named the Bugaboo Recreation Area, an immense acreage along the west side of the Canadian Rockies in the Purcell Mountain Range.
Hans Gmoser came to Canada from Austria in 1951, when he was 19 years old, and worked in various odd jobs, then at the Banff Hotel, starting in 1953. Gradually he rose in the travel industry here, accumulated capital, started helicopter skiing in 1965, built his first lodge, the Bugaboo, in 1968, and gradually expanded. He opened the Cariboo lodge in 1974 and the Bobbie Burns lodge in 1981. Gmoser died at an advanced age a few years back. Ironically, he died in a bicycling accident.
Gmoser recruited some guides from his homeland in Austria. Other guides are Canadian. All are enthusiastic about the region and hike or ski on their free time as well as during their work.
The genius of helicopter hiking as a concept is that it opens up the mountain wilderness to everyone. Only the experienced backpacker, able to traverse treacherous terrain for days, could reach remote mountain locations that the helicopter can arrive at in minutes. The helicopter drops you at these locations and you savor the pleasures of the wilderness, a domain of philosophers and mystics, without the exertions that would limit the experience to a hardy elite.
“You arrive in an isolated area,” Gmoser once said to me. “You know that it is entirely uninhabited, with no sign of man. The experience is incomparable in summer for hiking. In winter, skiing here is the best skiing I can imagine.”
Helihiking the Canadian Rockies: If You Go
Canadian Mountain Holidays is at www.canadianmountainholidays.com.