As we continue hiking south along rugged Grizzly Ridge, the spectacular heart of the Bugaboo Range draws ever nearer. The iconic peaks of Bugaboo Spire and Snowpatch Spire rise regally above the emerald green chasm of the Vowell Valley, showing more than 4,000 feet of relief. This 15 mile stretch of trail-less ridge crest may be one of the finest ridge walks in western Canada. And the best thing about this airy traverse is that it seems to go on forever, the view growing more sublime with each boot step.
Finally, at a minor summit along the many undulations in Grizzly Ridge, our guide Kellie points down to a small flat spot a few hundred feet below. "That's our pick up point," she tells our group of six fit hikers who have come from every corner of North America. "We've done the entire ridge route, and that's rare. Time to head for the lodge." Pulling out her radio, Kellie lets the Bugaboo Lodge helicopter pilot, Chad, know that we have reached the end of the trail.
In short order, the unmistakable drumbeat of the big Bell 212 reverberates among the peaks, heralding the appearance of the helicopter in the familiar red and white livery of Canadian Mountain Holidays. Chad deftly touches down on the ridge crest, and the six of us and Kellie pile in the big flying machine (we are old hands at safe and proper loading by now). In less than 15 minutes we're already enjoying a cold brew from the roof top hot tub of the company's Bugaboo Lodge. There's no escaping the obvious: even hard-core hikers eventually give in to the massive appeal of this kind of treatment. I'm thinking: it's truly irresistible. I could get used to this.
The Canadian Mountain Holidays helicopters are what make this unique experience possible. Just this morning, Alex, the pilot out of the Bobbie Burns Lodge, had flown us up to the start of Grizzly Ridge. And for two days before that, he had flown us around the Bobbie Burns mountains, to ridge hikes, to valley walks, to the start of the legendary Mt. Nimbus via ferrata. This magic carpet ride to the best hiking terrain in these rugged mountains means you get to do the most enjoyable parts of each hiking route, but without strenuous and time consuming elevation gain to get up into the high peaks, or the knee jarring descents at the end of the day. With mid-day "bumps" from one location to another within the range, the helicopter transport can make it possible to do two outrageously beautiful walks, miles apart, in a single day.
Canadian Mountain Holidays, the venerable heli-skiing company founded by Hans Gmoser more than four decades ago, has taken its summer programs to new highs. "Heli-hiking" has long been a part of CMH's offerings, but now the warm weather months allow for what the company calls "summer adventures," of which hiking is just a part. From glacier exploration, rock climbing, even via ferrata routes to challenge any in Europe, the summer fun now comes in many flavors. Activities can be tailored to varying level of fitness or sense of adventure. Those of us who want full-on, all day, strenuous backcountry activities, even rock climbing and glacier travel, are not disappointed. And those who seek an invigorating hike among the high peaks but want to be back at the lodge in time for a massage after lunch, are catered to as well.
Most of the CMH summer trips span three nights and four days, with guests staying at either the company's Bobbie Burns Lodge, or the Bugaboo Lodge. These comfortable lodges are situated about 20 miles apart in what is known as the Columbia Ranges of British Columbia, just west of the better known parks of the Canadian Rockies, such as Banff and Yoho. I had done one of the three-day trips before, and had enjoyed the hiking so much I hated to leave when the time was up. I wasn't alone in that regard, and so CMH has come up with a way to combine two of the usual lodge vacations into a single trip. The new "lodge to lodge" trips make it possible to spend a full week hiking and climbing among the peaks of British Columbia by combining stays at both lodges. The extra days allow one to savor the relaxed rhythm of hiking already gained during the first few days into an entirely new cycle. You get to start all over again. And those of us who wanted to do so were able to hike most of the distance between the lodges. That full day along Grizzly Ridge in the wild terrain of the Bugaboos turned out to be a highlight of the extended excursion.
The Lodge to Lodge package also allows guests to experience two separate lodges in one visit, a good thing because though the CMH experience is consistent, each lodge has its own ambience, character and unique offerings. Bobbie Burns, for instance, has one of the most extensive via ferrata routes in the range. The phrase "via feratta" translates into "road of iron," which is aptly put. The Bobbie Burns guides have fixed into the rock faces a route of "staples"--steps made of metal rebar--ladders, bridges and cables that enable even inexperienced but adventuresome guests to climb high on steep, exposed mountainsides.
The Bobbie Burns via ferrata is an exceptional one, and includes long, hand over hand ascents up the staple ladders, and a heart-stopping suspension bridge almost 300 feet in length, finally finishing with a 500 foot rappel to reach the ground. Doing the route provides perhaps the greatest thrill possible for non-climbers, and one with an unmatched degree of safety because each person is clipped into belay lines the entire way. Even those who get a little gripped up on the scary parts are gently coaxed along by the CMH certified mountain guides like Carl, who helped install the route after looking at others in Europe. The excitement of the climb adds a nice foil to the pleasant ridge walks and meadow strolls and other hikes that are all part of the Bobbie Burns Lodge experience.
Each visitor at each lodge is able to choose the activities that appeal most from an extensive list of offerings. For me, the chief allure is strenuous hiking among the striking beauty of these remote mountains, thereby making the most of the helicopter assists in this unrivalled landscape. With me on the lodge to lodge trip in August of 2011 were about a half dozen like-minded souls from Calgary, Missoula, Vancouver and Seattle. Each day we started out with a stretching class at the lodge before the big healthy breakfast served family style in the dining room. We then grabbed our packs (and the lunches we had ordered the previous evening) and were whisked away in the helicopter to a ridge top or mountain bowl to begin the morning outing. Other guests who chose a less strenuous program got a later helicopter flight into a less demanding landscape. CMH is a well-oiled machine that is proficient at matching guides to guests, and at matching terrain to the desired level of difficulty. The guides know what you want, and they deliver in spades.
Often the morning hike from both lodges ended at a scenic viewpoint, from which the helicopter would come to fetch us for a quick ride over to yet another location for more hiking--or some other activity, even a return to the lodge for those who wished. "Well, what do you think?" asked Bobbie Burns guide Carl, in his laconic way, as we finished up our lunch of sandwiches and fruit after a long morning hike. "You guys want to head for the zip lines now, or go for more hiking?" Some of us chose yet another long ridge walk, others opted for the zip lines, part of what CMH calls its "high flying adventures." The helicopter makes it possible for everyone to do exactly as they please. It's enough to spoil a person, particularly as the staff learns your preferences. At the Bugaboo Lodge, guide Kellie pulled me aside one evening to say, "You know, Peter, your fast group is doing a good one tomorrow, but the prettiest hike will be my group over on Groovy Ridge. What's your call?" I opted for the scenery, and enjoyed the relaxed pace and a chance to hike with other guests.
For me, day after day of hiking in a beautiful environment is what draws me back to the Canadian Mountain Holidays summer programs again and again. But the company incorporates ever more features into its warm weather offerings. An impressive speakers' series adds interest at every lodge, with a group of presenters providing lectures after the elaborate evening meals served family style in the open dining rooms. The speakers include wildlife experts, writers, photographers and authors, and many of the presenters are part of specially themed trips offered at specific times each summer. These special programs are geared toward almost every interest: family groups, or women's groups, or painters, or photographers. The specialty trips allow visitors to pursue their passions in the unique environment of the mountain lodges.
For the first time last summer I had the time to take advantage of one of the special programs CMH offers. At the Bugaboo Lodge I was lucky enough to experience the photo seminar taught by noted Canadian wildlife and landscape photographer John Marriott. Marriott is not just a published photographer of acclaim, he is a patient and inspiring professor as well. And when you mix the scenery of the Bugaboo Range with the mobility of the Bell 212, the combination is positively cheating when it comes to opportunities for getting great images.
Those lodge guests who signed up for the seminar become part of a separate, discrete group. The photographers not only get personalized instruction, but extra flights to take advantage of flattering light. A pre-breakfast morning flight took us high on a ridgetop to capture dawn's glow on Snowpatch Spire, where each participant worked away behind tripods and cameras, as Marriott offered technical tips, sneaky advice and even special filters to each one. An after dinner sunset photographic flight took the seminar members to another high vantage to shoot the mountains under a setting sun, with the added thrill of a dusk helicopter flight back to the lodge. Once there, it was time to order up a glass of wine and get out the laptops to compare images, with some expert criticism from Marriott himself. The intensive three-day seminar can advance a beginning or intermediate photographer's skills quickly.
My final day in the week-long lodge to lodge visit was a spectacular hike up to the glaciers among the spires of the Bugaboo Range. CMH mountain guide Miky offered basic instruction on rope technique, crevasse rescue, and the use of an ice ax before we set out, with the ice of Dome Glacier crunching beneath our boots. Under a blue Bugaboo sky we crossed the glacier to ascend a rocky peak to reach perhaps the most scenic lunch spot in the range. Craggy granite peaks poked above the glaciers as verdant valleys of old growth forest sprawled below. I knew soon we'd have to descend back to the glacier, where our pilot Chad would come roaring in with his own special--one might say flamboyant--style. From here it would be back to the lodge for our final dinner, and tomorrow would bring the drive home. But I wasn't ready to say goodbye yet. This was a moment to savor.
The CMH lodges in this story are located in British Columbia, but for most people the trips generally begin through the Calgary airport and the resort town of Banff. Transportation is arranged for those arriving through Calgary, but it is also possible to drive to the heli pads in British Columbia for each lodge. For more information on Canadian Mountain Holiday's Summer Adventure, check out the summer pages of the CMH site. And for information on planning a visit to Alberta, the provincial website can be invaluable.