“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 of BC’s Columbia Mountains
until they’re mere specks of fleece jackets and hiking poles in the forest
green. All day, my friend and fellow writer Don
George and I have been trailing the geriatric athletes as we traverse
snowfields and high ridges, up craggy escarpments to sapphire lakes, over hills
lush and emerald and shrieking with Indian paintbrush and glacier lilies. 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
all, this is a place where racing ahead should land you in jail. Or at least on
a reality show.
earnest hikers,” says Don. “They have hiking poles. Why are you collecting
we have to dash through paradise, I’m taking some of it with me.” I gaze beyond
tinkling ribbons of mountain brooks and can hardly see our group at all
anymore. “Let’s just sit by this stream and enjoy the view. If we’re alone, we
might have an adventure we can write about.”
a grizzly roaring at us out of the woods?”
or Julie Andrews, singing at us.”
well imagine Julie Andrews here. Although she probably didn’t take a helicopter
up to her mountain meadow like we did. Today is the first of our three-day
heli-hiking adventure with Banff-based Canadian Mountain Holidays, 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. Before the helicopter landed to pick us up, the guides had
carefully instructed our group of ten to heli-huddle—which meant we all
crouched down together grinning our faces off—as the 5,500-pound Bell 212 Twin
Huey came in for a landing four feet from us. After two minutes of whooping
blades, hurricane winds, and a deafening thump-thump-thump, we were all piled
inside and lifting into the sky.
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.
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, lying perfectly still on an unnamed
mountain, was a glacier lake—atarn—of
the deepest turquoise. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I kept thinking we’d
landed in another time, in the world as it existed eons ago, before
humans were even an idea, a thought on the wind, before the far-fetched
incident of animal life began.
silence all we could do was gawk. “Time for a walk?" said our guide Paul.We all nodded. *
Paul is tall,
sandy-haired, knowledgeable and thoughtful and somehow keeps ending up in my
photos as he surveys the crystal green lakes while I survey him.
Oh darn. There’s
lady Margo again—Don and I have now caught up to the group—and she’s getting in
the way of my perfect shot of Paul and the lake. Margo is asking Paul another
question about the history of the rocks. Earlier, she’d told me about her golf
clubs. Don and I are a little out of place here, noticing the conversations
usually involve real estate and retirement funds. But
that’s okay. These friendly and mostly retired Americans all seem to be as
euphoric as I am. One guy, a heavily perspiring Miami attorney even plunged 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.
This must be the
kind of experience that Austrian-born Hans Gmoser—the founder of modern
mountaineering in Canada—had in mind in 1959 when he started Canadian Mountain
Holidays. Soon after forming the company, he decided to incorporate helicopters
into his backcountry skiing operation. Today, CMH is the most experienced
heli-resort in the world, employing 500 people. Although Gmoser didn’t invent
the idea of heli-skiing, which had been tried in the French Alps, he did invent
heli-hiking, an ingenious jump-start means of experiencing the high alpine
lakes, peaks, glaciers and snowfields without the extensive approach. I thought
it might feel like cheating to be catapulted up into paradise without the grunt
work to get here. Surely we’d annoy the real hikers who’d spent two or three
days schlepping to the top only to find us up here, a bunch of goofy,
camera-happy tourists who’d dropped down from the sky for lunch. And the truth
is, I would have felt silly had I seen any such hikers, but fortunately, was
spared the humiliation.*
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. My
imagined cabin would be beside one of these indigo lakes where fresh water
brooks tumble down the green hills amidst star fields of flowers. I’d be in the
wild heart of the mountains, where not a single blossom, bird or birch tree
would know anything of traffic, gas stations or big box stores.
again, despite being the youngest, I’m trailing the group. I have to say I’m impressed
with the fitness level of my fellow hikers. This morning I felt like a keener,
waking up to attend the 7 a.m. stretch class, and was amazed to find the room
not empty, but packed full with sixty-something female Pilates enthusiasts
who’d obviously been core-strengthening every morning of their New York lives.
navigating another boulder field—with Margo out in front—and traversing a
valley forest dark and rich with the earthy scent of conifers, we climb up to a
glacier lake the color 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-jeweled grass and tuck into our packed snacks of goat-cheese
sandwiches and hearty chocolate oatmeal cookies as we women try not to stare at
Paul. Instead, we stare at the glass-clear lake and the snowcapped mountains
reflected in it. The Miami
attorney 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.
third day I get into a conversation with a retired executive named Glenda who
tells me that ever since her 60th birthday seven years ago, she has
been giving herself an annual gift: she does one thing a year she has never
done before—ridden horses, learned Italian in Italy, scaled a climbing wall.
Now she’s heli-hiking on her 67th birthday.
love this idea and start throwing out suggestions for next year—a shuttle into space
perhaps—when, after jumping across a line of streams trickling down a
wildflower mountain, I see it: my perfect place, the site for my cabin, another
life that could be mine.
dreamt of this place. It’s the precise spot where nature’s combination of meadow, brook, alpine
flowers, tarn and mountain vista transcend time and place. I drop to the ground. I fumble for my camera and start
shooting, trying to capture something—delicate mauve petals beside a glistening
brook with the towering snowy mountains behind—but I know none of this can
truly be captured. Already, the group is getting ahead of me. I see Glenda in
the distance wondering what I’m doing on the ground. But there’s no way I’m
leaving. They can’t make me.
I hear something—whirling blades and a clamor in the sky. The helicopter is
coming to take us to another paradise. But we’re already here. I’m rolling in
paradise, even getting a little soaked and muddy in it from all these streams.
Every fiber of my being wants to shout out one question: how can anywhere else
look up to see Paul coming toward me. I make my plea from the ground. “Can’t I
just stay here?” He seems to consider this but tells me I really should see
what’s coming next.He even stretches
his hand down to pull me up. “You’ll see what I mean,” he says with a
I say weakly. Clearly I’m amoebalike when a cute guy winks at me. No spine at
Paul is right. The helicopter ride is unlike any we’ve had until now, an IMAX
extravaganza of dizzying proportions. After an unclear amount of time—when
you’re that deep in the moment your sense of time goes out the window—we land
on a precipice at what feels like the edge of the Earth. How the helicopter
pilot made the landing on such a postage stamp of granite on the side of a
steep mountain is unfathomable. Paul slides open the helicopter door. 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.
Beyond words, all we can do is shake our heads at the magnitude of beauty
not to disturb the lichen and moss with the our shoes, we fan out to hike
across a sun-filled meadow before a further two-hour trek up to a glacier. I
watch Margo and Glenda way in front, vying for Paul’s attention. I’m taking
them, I think, starting to speed ahead.
no, the approaching glacier is thrilling enough. At the top, far above the tree
line and nearly blinded by snow, we’re directly beside a massive green-blue
glacier roaring Siberian air at us. To our other side, we’re as close as we’ve
been to what we’ve been hiking around the past three days: the Bugaboo spires.
They are soaring granite monoliths stabbing into the blue of the sky. They are
almost close enough to touch.
throws a snowball at the glacier—with all the hidden crevices, it’s too
dangerous to walk on the glacier itself, says Paul. “That’s how I’m starting my
story,” says Don with a grin, “throwing that snowball!”
“Much better than seeing a grizzly!”
takes a picture of me and I take one of her. Then we all stand at the top
together as a group, staring out at the world below. It doesn’t matter if we
cheated a little to reach these heights. The whole world has transformed into
one of mountain top islands, and for that, we are a little transformed
ourselves. The Miami
attorney’s words replay in my mind. Maybe the world isn’t such a bad place
after all. Maybe not, indeed.