'Duck down! Now's the time to lose them." I watch the group of sexagenarian hikers sprint ahead of us through an alpine flower meadow in B.C.'s Columbia Mountains until they're mere specks of fleece jackets and hiking poles. All day, fellow writer Don George and I have been trailing the aging athletes as we traverse snowfields and high ridges, up craggy escarpments to sapphire lakes, over hills lush and emerald and shrieking with Indian paintbrush, glacier lily and tansy aster. In all directions snow-white, jagged, blue mountains stretch into the sky with nothing but pure wildness between us and them. All day I've wanted to yell out to the group, "Stop! What's your hurry?"
After all, this is a place where racing ahead should land you in jail. Or at least on a reality show.
Today is the first of our three-day heli-hiking adventure with Canadian Mountain Holidays - based in Banff and operating out of nine mountain lodges around the Bugaboos south of Golden, B.C. - and despite the overambitious pace set by the group, I'm ecstatic. For one thing, I hadn't anticipated the rides up here to be so overwhelmingly heady, so death-defying and, well, so fun. The first flight took us up to the remote Bugaboo Lodge, a chalet set majestically facing the Bugaboo granite spires. On our next flight, to begin our first hike, jaws dropped as we banked over a forest of lodgepole pines and the winding jade waters of the Columbia River, then crested over a razor-sharp icy ridge into a panorama of snow-clad peaks splicing into the dome of cobalt sky. The mountains were massive up close, cradling crumpled blue glaciers in their folds. All around us was magnificence and we were flying right into it.
Five minutes later, the helicopter dropped down and left us in a vast and silent alpine wilderness. Across a valley was a massive glacier; beneath us were acres of splinted shale, as if someone had thrown a Greek dinner party and smashed all the plates. Across another valley was a glacier lake - a tarn - of the deepest turquoise. In stunned silence, all we could do was gawk.
"Time for a walk," asks Paul, our guide. We all nod.
Clearly we have been catapulted into paradise. Maybe it's the startling beauty of the crystal green lakes, maybe the altitude, but we are exuberant. One guy, a heavily perspiring Miami lawyer, even plunges his overheated naked body into a near-frozen lake. This isn't a Florida bog, we warn him. But Miami man pops out of the water beaming. "Whooopeeee!" he shouts.
It's now the second day of hiking around the Bugaboos and I'm on a secret quest to find the perfect place to build a cabin and stay the rest of my life. It would be beside one of these indigo lakes where fresh-water brooks tumble down the green hills amid fields of flowers.
Once again, despite being the youngest, despite the 7 a.m. stretch class, I'm trailing the group. After navigating another boulder field and traversing a valley forest dark and rich with the earthy scent of conifers, we climb up to a glacier lake the colour of a tropical sea.
Paul, who always reminds us that we're the ones who set the pace, suggests it's a nice spot for lunch. We sit down in the flower-jewelled grass and tuck into our packed snacks of goat-cheese sandwiches and hearty chocolate oatmeal cookies. The Miami lawyer sighs and says, "This place makes you think that maybe the world isn't such a bad place after all," more to himself than to anyone else. He's right; that's exactly what it makes you think.
On my third day, I get to know Glenda, a retired executive who tells me that since her 60th birthday she does one thing a year she has never done before - riding horses, learning Italian in Italy, scaling a climbing wall. Now, she's heli-hiking on her 67th birthday.
I love this idea and start throwing out suggestions for next year (a shuttle into space, perhaps?) when I see it: my perfect place, the site for my cabin, another life that could be mine. I've dreamed of this place. I drop to the ground, fumble for my camera and start shooting, but I know none of this can truly be captured. There's no way I'm leaving.
Then I hear something - whirling blades and a clamour in the sky. The helicopter is coming to take us to another paradise. But I'm rolling in paradise already.
"Can't I just stay here," I ask Paul. He tells me I really should see what's coming next. Paul is right.
The helicopter ride is an IMAX extravaganza of dizzying proportions before we land on a precipice at what feels like the edge of the Earth. Above us is the backside of the Bugaboos, a view we haven't seen. Below us is the gaping yawn of a canyon entirely devoid of human exploration. We tiptoe outside. All we can do is shake our heads at the magnitude of beauty engulfing us. At the top, after a two-hour hike, the soaring granite monoliths that are the Bugaboo spires stab the blue sky, almost close enough to touch.
The Miami lawyers's words replay in my mind. Maybe the world isn't such a bad place after all.
Special to The Globe and Mail
IF YOU GO Canadian Mountain Holidays offers more than 100 hikes in the Bugaboo and almost 50 in the Bobbie Burns subranges of the Columbia Mountains. Rates for a three-night escape start at $2,490. 1-800-661-0252; www.canadianmountainholidays.com