The best holidays send you home with a moment – that instant you felt at utter peace or you discovered a hidden strength. Last summer I found a vacation that offered a lot more of those moments: hiking with the help of a helicopter in the icefields of the British Columbia interior. Every swoop and dip of the chopper – 12 rides in three days – would be as fun as it was nerve-racking. Each sweaty, spine-tingling climb would leave me both exhausted and awestruck, even dumbstruck at the view.
But the days also left me surprisingly content. If a restorative walk in the woods is called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in Japan, the same walk in B.C.'s Cariboo mountains, some of the oldest ridges in the Columbia range, would have to be called “glacier bathing.”
A heli-hike here touches all your senses: the cold wind blowing off the snow, the eerie groans from glacial crevasses, the made-you-jump roar of a rock fall, the sweet, icy nothingness of a mouthful of glacial water, the eye-boggling visual of an ice wall soaring above you. It’s impossible to leave the Cariboos unmoved. Exploring this terrain, newly reopened for the summer months, not only awakens the senses but a sense of wonder, too.
I edged away from my hiking group as they photographed the sky-high glacier we’d spent the past few hours climbing to reach because I’d noticed something even more jaw-dropping. Facing the opposite direction, I balanced on ridges of ancient schist rock and gazed down: the Canoe River Valley lay before me. The valley swallowed all sound and I felt alone on top of the world. It was a quiet, jolting moment – so much so that later, I realized I hadn’t even taken my camera out to capture it.
“This place has that exceptional feel of wildflowers and glaciers,” certified mountain guide John Mellis says of the area he’s worked in for 27 years. “In this day and age, when glaciers are receding – there’s ice everywhere you turn around.”
Mellis has a compact, powerful build with cheeks as ruddy as you’d expect for someone who’s spent their life in the mountains. He runs Cariboo Lodge, Canadian Mountain Holidays’ high-end backcountry escape that’s better known for its heli-skiing (December through April) than its six-week heli-hiking season. Last summer, CMH reopened the lodge for summer guests after a 10-year hiatus. With 27 rooms, hikers only have to share the 1,489 square kilometre tenure (crown land CMH alone has the rights to explore) with up to 44 guests. On some days, you may only see the people in your small group.
Upon arrival at the lodge, guests are asked how much or how little work they’d like to do. This is “technical hiking” – there are no paths – so you can be scrambling along steep ridges, over boulders, up snowy slopes or along knife edges of unstable sandy moraine.
Mountain guides assess your energy levels and ability each day as it can take time to get used to the altitude. Everyone heads out with like-minded hikers, but that group can change daily.
While they want guests to be happy, they need them to be safe – even if that means breaking up a friend group. Hikers on my three-day trip include ambling teenagers, fit trail runners and 70-year-old strollers. Not everyone is ridge walking with crampons, picks and ropes, but not everyone wants to be. Many are happy to amble.
Ken Malecki of New York has been heli-skiing 15 times but he wanted to share the scenery he loved with his wife, who’d rather hike than ski.
“It’s like a religious experience being on top of the mountains with no one else around,” he says. This is their third summer of heli-hiking at a CMH lodge: “It’s an addiction,” he adds with a grin.
That’s one thing you notice – CMH has a lot of repeat guests who know the lodge routines and a lot of guests who already live in and know their way around the mountains. If you’re a first-timer or a city slicker, be ready to ask lots of questions. I learned too late on my first day that lunch and snacks need to be packed right after breakfast, and spent two days wondering why I was being asked about my “exposure” before I realized it wasn’t a sunburn my guide was concerned about but how I was coping with the altitude.
Missteps are soon forgotten, though, when you spend your days looking up at snowy blankets tucked around rocky spires and wander wildflower meadows glowing red, yellow and purple or step on heath and heather so thick it gives you a bounce in your step.
No matter what level of intensity your group is moving at, the quiet and the isolation of the Cariboos is exquisite. This lodge is further inland than CMH’s other summer properties; the Bugaboo and Bobbie Burns lodges are less than five hours west of Calgary. But to reach the Cariboos, it’s a seven-hour drive from Calgary up the unforgettable Icefields Parkway even before you arrive at the heli-pad in Valemont, B.C.
We’d scrambled out of the hovering helicopter – they never actually land – and waited, heads bent, glasses and hats clutched, until it left. Once the deafening whomp-whomp-whomp was swallowed by the vastness of the valley, we looked up and gasped. We’d been dropped on a rocky ledge and the only way out, was up.
The chopper rides make all the difference. It means guests spend their days seeing the best parts of the glaciers and mountains. If the weather is iffy or smoke from forest fires obliterates views, they fly you into a different tarn, or glacial pond. The helicopter – a Bell 212 – seats 13 guests, and each swoop into the backcountry offers more photo ops than you’ll ever need (snag one of the gunner sideseats for great shots). Wilder rides give you something to talk about at dinner – such as the time the chopper couldn’t lift off the glacier ledge and we had to drop weight by leaving our guide on the mountain ridge, or the heart-in-your-mouth sideways swerve when the wind changed during a rock-ledge landing. It’s all part the fun.
The tenderness of the heli-huddle was a surprise. Every day, several times a day, our hiking group crouched close – too close for strangers – while we waited for the helicopter to drop in beside us. Without speaking we’d drape arms across one another’s backs or hold onto elbows and knees to brace against the rotor wash: a vicious blast of sand, soil, mica dust and pebbles stirred up by the blades. Once, when I started to topple in the dirty wind, a strong arm reached out to stop me. I’d no idea who to thank later, but I also knew it didn’t really matter. We were working as one.
Inside Cariboo Lodge, the wooden figure of a mountaineer looms over the dining hall. It’s a carving former carpenter and CMH guide Franz Frank did of himself in the mid-seventies (his craftsmanship is found all over the building). The statue is bolted to the top of a spiral staircase, placed to look out the enormous windows and keep an eye on the guests and guides below. Mellis tells me a long and amusing story behind the statue’s removal and return to this perch, and I wonder whether its placement is meant to be a daily reminder of the “mountain hospitality” staff employ.
Everyone pitches in. The guy who runs the gift shop also fits your boots; the bartender sweeps the hallways and waters the plants; the guide who hauled you over some slippery footing by your backpack strap serves you dinner, sits at your table and clears the plates. Guests feel as if they’ve joined a large family, a place where they can help themselves to espressos, freshly baked cookies and fruit all day long. The meals are served family style at long tables, with no seating plan, and all the staff – the guides, pilots, the kitchen staff and the chopper mechanic included – sit down with guests every day. The conversation is lively and the food is prepared with care and creativity.
After dinner, Mellis often slips on his flip flops and carries a guitar out to the back deck. As the alpenglow warms North Canoe glacier in the distance, another staffer will bring out a ukulele, a guest might pick up the tambourine and lyrics are pulled up on cellphones for an impromptu singalong. Mellowed by the exertions of the day and the view of the golden ice, you might actually join in.
There is a magic to this place that gets under your skin – and on it. The rocks we’ve been climbing every day break down into a pretty, glittery mica dust. When stirred up by the chopper blades, it gets into every nook and cranny. It’s tough to wash off, but eventually I chose to look at it differently: Maybe the mica was less of a nuisance, more of a memory.
On our last morning, my group lands in a valley “newly” uncovered when a glacier that melted back about 30 years ago. It looks similar to a garbage dump for boulders, which we wander around and over as we walk beside a fast-moving river of melted ice. We come upon a large glacial tarn with bergs still floating in August. One is shaped like a heart. The still water reflects the ice-capped mountains and blue sky so perfectly it is almost hard to tell which way was up. No one wants the walk to end and we linger over paw prints and scat we keep finding in the sandy, shiny moraine – all recent reminders that wolves and bears drink here regularly.
“Zip up tight,” our guide warns at the sandy helicopter pick-up spot. “The dust storm will be heavy here.”
But it’s no use. The chopper blades blow it into my neck, my ears, my hair.
Back in my room, the mica twinkles back at me in the mirror. There’s time for a shower before we leave, but I don’t want to wash away the magic of this trip – of this moment – just yet.
The writer was a guest of Canadian Mountain Holidays. The company did not review or approve this story.
Three day trips start at $3,595 (based on double occupancy) and include pickup from Banff, Alta., all meals, non-alcoholic drinks and heli-lift. For more information, visit cmhheli.com.
So, umm, where do we pee?
Guests receive a one-litre Nalgene bottle to stay hydrated in the mountains but there are no outhouses in the alpine. There are, however, boulders. Check with your guide about which one looks safe to duck behind. Hidden from the group, you’ll still be exposed – but your view will be fantastic. Just keep an ear out for the helicopter, which can appear over a ridge at any time. You’ll be tempted to take out your phone to capture the scenery. Stop yourself. Some moments really should be yours alone.
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