Travel June 2001

Assisted Hiking

Purists regard using a helicopter to reach luscious mountain locales as somehow unfair. Let them.
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B efore the helicopter arrives, you and the ten or so members of your hiking group surrender your walking sticks to the guide, who bundles them together; lay your knapsacks on the ground to form a neat little Cordura cairn; and then huddle next to it, squatting or kneeling, with head bowed, so that the rotor wash doesn't blow your glasses to kingdom come and coat your eyeballs with grit. As the clattering mechanical monster descends, your group could be mistaken for a cargo cult performing oblations.

Travelers' tips: Once the helicopter has touched down, don't walk around the back of it, where the rear rotor is whirling so fast it's invisible. Nor is it considered smart to walk downhill toward a helicopter whose overhead rotor is turning.

There are many other tips where these came from, and last September, when my husband, Julian, and I went on a heli-hiking expedition in the Purcell Mountains, part of western Canada's Columbia range, I learned more about helicopter safety procedures than I really wanted to know. I can show you how to bust out the seatback in front of the jump seat in order to escape in an emergency. I know the approved method for climbing up and out of a chopper that happens to have crash-landed on its side. The emphasis on safety apparently pays off: in the twenty-two years that Canadian Mountain Holidays, the company we traveled with, has been running summer programs, no one has been killed or seriously injured by its helicopters.

In advance of our trip with CMH—originally a pioneer of heli-skiing, which these days keeps five of its eleven lodges open in the summer for the benefit of heli-hikers—I had imagined that zooming around in the helicopter would be the main attraction. I was conscious that the reputation of the Purcell Mountains hardly compares to the one that draws throngs from around the world to the Canadian Rockies, a few hours away. But the Purcells turned out to be gorgeous—immense saw-toothed peaks, with ice fields and year-round snow cornices and high mountain lakes, with waterfalls and river gorges and hundred-year-old trappers' paths—and the trip made me think they deserve to be much better known.

Starting each hike by helicopter was definitely interesting. There was the moment, for instance, when we were within a few feet of touching down on a mountainside and our guide spotted grizzly-bear tracks at our intended landing site. Back up we flew. Another time, I was in a rear-facing center seat, so I couldn't see where we were going. We touched down and performed our landing ritual, approximately the reverse of the one for takeoff. Not until the chopper was well away from us did I stand up and look around. We were on a flat, sandy patch no more than twenty feet wide between a lichen-spattered mountainside and a waterfall. Beyond the waterfall lay a dead-calm lake, and beyond the lake, in the middle distance, loomed jagged peaks partly covered by the eerie, glittering white-blue of an ice field. It was as if I had been teleported there.

When Julian and I arrived at Canadian Mountain Holidays' Bobbie Burns Lodge (guests are brought in by helicopter, having first been delivered in a big bus from Banff or Lake Louise, in Alberta, to a helipad in British Columbia), last Labor Day weekend, drizzle was falling intermittently out of a heavy overcast. "Good news!" one of the guides said in greeting. "There's a foot of new powder in the mountains!" She gestured toward the one peak that was visible in the murk. The idea of snow so early in the year brought me up short—I had been imagining frolics in meadows strewn with flowers. But that white patch looked very far away, and, figuring that we could just go hiking someplace else, I wondered why snow way up there seemed to matter to her.

It didn't take long to find out. First we collected some gear from the communal stock—as part of its basic package, CMH lends guests most of the gear they might need, from good-quality boots, rainwear, and warm parkas to knapsacks and walking sticks. Then we settled into our room; had lunch; were assigned to one of four groups according to an estimate we'd previously given of our hiking ability; got a helicopter-safety lesson from Jens Gessner, the lodge's pilot, who received his training in the German air force; and flew 3,000 feet up the mountain—pretty high up, given that the lodge itself sits at nearly 4,500 feet—to one of the few hiking areas that the snow had not rendered completely impassable. We scrambled out of the helicopter into a winter wonderland.

Sarah, the member of the certified-guide staff who had been so upbeat at the lodge, obviously loved teaching her charges about the flora and fauna of these mountains, but that afternoon she had a tough time finding any. She dredged up some heath and heather from under the snow and pointed out Indian paintbrush and an alpine larch, a species said to signal the end of summer by dropping its needles; the little tree was still prickly and green. And Sarah found us some elk tracks and a bemused hummingbird darting among the yellow and purple asters that poked up forlornly. Mostly, though, we spent the afternoon hiking, with each step sinking into the snow nearly to the tops of our CMH-issued waterproof gaiters.

The sun came out the next day, blazing off the shiny white surfaces and warming the air until we were happy to hike—even to picnic—in our shirtsleeves. By afternoon we were finally able to strip off those gaiters and hike on solid surfaces of green, gray, or brown, amid berries and gaudy fungi, ferns and mosses, and deciduous bushes whose leaves were beginning to turn. Once the snow had started to melt and the dramatic rock-black and snow-white landscapes gradually filled in with color—once it was clear that the art-photography vistas were just a bonus and we were also going to get the summertime picture-postcard scenery we had looked forward to—nearly all of us came around to Sarah's attitude toward the snowfall.

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