Assisted Hiking

Purists regard using a helicopter to reach luscious mountain locales as somehow unfair. Let them.

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.

The group quickly got a cheerful team spirit going—and so, to judge from people's behavior in the lodge's dining room and the common room, did most members of the other three groups. But we were all free at any point to opt out of our guided hikes and either just laze around or explore various trails that meandered away from the lodge.

I should mention a few dissenters against the idea that heli-hiking is glorious. One is my brother, Dean, a sometime leader of Sierra Club hikes, who was appalled when he heard of my plans. For one thing, he told me, I was depriving myself of the most important value in hiking—as he put it, "a direct, intimate, sustained relationship with the landscape." Well. Letting a helicopter do the heavy lifting did not seem like a deprivation to me. It meant freedom from having to strap on a ponderous frame backpack, trudge uphill for days, camp out, and prepare meager meals of freeze-dried who-knows-what over a tinny camp stove in a howling wind in order to see that particular landscape—an effort that, if you haven't guessed, I would never undertake. Though I admire mountaineers, I have no delusion that I am one. Heli-hiking allowed me to treat expeditions to remote glacier-capped peaks as if they were so many walks in the park.

Then, too, as far as Dean is concerned, the very idea of heli-hiking is environmentally insensitive, "walking heavy on the land." Once I was on the trip, I wished I were able to introduce him to my fellow heli-hikers John and Ann: they would have told him in no uncertain terms that it was too late to worry about despoiling this landscape. John and Ann had arrived in Canada under the impression that the lodge was set in pristine wilderness. They live and work on a biological reserve in Costa Rica, where they hope to re-establish the indigenous harpy eagle in the wild—so they have a pretty good idea of what pristine wilderness is supposed to look like. By their standards the uninhabited 400 square miles that surround the Bobbie Burns Lodge look like something else again: most of the forest is less than a hundred years old, and in the more readily accessible areas logging continues. One day we did briefly hike through a clear-cut—an activity that John, as he wrote in the guest book, found "depressing." My group's guide that day, Jean-François, told us he had previously worked as a logger and as a tree planter for a logging company, and he wanted us to see all the healthy baby trees growing up amid the snarl of downed branches the loggers had left behind. I teased J.F. about it, but I found that part of our day educational.

John and Ann were further disappointed by the accommodations. According to my informal researches, this was very much a minority opinion, but, let's be honest, the Bobbie Burns Lodge is not the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat. The bedrooms in the lodge, though comfortable, are simple: for instance, we stored our belongings on pegs and shelves rather than in closets and bureaus. The words that spring to mind to describe the food in the dining room are "plentiful" and "wholesome," rather than "sinfully delicious." But I didn't for a minute feel that we were actually roughing it in a lodge that offered a sauna, an outdoor hot tub, a masseur, an exercise room, an indoor climbing wall, volleyball and bocce courts, a basketball hoop, a pool table, a cricket pitch, four-course dinners with wine, and a well-stocked bar.

Not the least of the lodge's charms was that the staff worked hard to please us. One day they prepared a lunchtime cookout on a pinnacle. My hiking group was the first to arrive, and we burst into laughter when out the helicopter windows we glimpsed a lone man in a chef's apron flipping burgers and chicken breasts on a smoky grill in the middle of nowhere. Another day the staff set up two Tyrolean traverses. Carefully supervised and assisted, clipped into nylon harnesses by our guides, we each walked off the sides of cliffs to ride a rope across gorges high above churning whitewater.

Worth bearing in mind is the lodge-to-lodge option, which about half the guests (not including us) had chosen: On your last morning at Bobbie Burns you leave your bags outside your door, catch a helicopter ride to Grizzly Ridge, and hike along it until you feel like calling it a day. At that point your guide radios the helicopter at another CMH property, the Bugaboo Lodge, to come carry you off there, where your bags await.

Instead Julian and I took the helicopter back to the helipad. The bus sat ready to take us to the airport hotel in Calgary. Among our fellow passengers were a man who had visited Bobbie Burns many times to go heli-skiing and his nonskier wife, who had been curious about where he'd been spending a week every year. Now she knows. Of course, in the winter he doesn't get the cookout, the Tyrolean traverses, or even the hummingbird. Still, I don't think that come December she'll be pitying the guy.

Canadian Mountain Holidays lodges, in various parts of the Columbia range of British Columbia, offer heli-hiking and mountaineering from late June through mid-September. Packages range from three nights (beginning at $1,382 Canadian, or about $880 U.S., per person all inclusive) to six (beginning at $2,597 Canadian, or about $1,650 U.S.). CMH's "personal vacation planning service" will make whatever other local arrangements you'd like before and after your heli-hiking excursion; we were quite happy with the hotels chosen for us in Banff and Calgary. If airline schedules had permitted, however, I might have preferred to spend the night before our heli-hiking expedition in Lake Louise rather than Banff: Lake Louise is a good deal closer to the helipad, so guests can get an extra hour or two of sleep.