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On the Wings of an Angel

Heli-Hiking in the Cariboo Mountain wilderness of British Columbia
By Peter Potterfield - June 28th, 2005

The impressive chaos of the sprawling South Canoe Glacier fills the window as our helicopter banks low across yawning crevasses and tumbling icefalls toward the moraine on the far side. But even there, it's too steep to land. For pilot Mike McClelland, that's no problem. He holds the big Bell in a hover, just inches off the ice, as the six of us unbuckle and jump down to the surface of the glacier.

We've been doing this a few days now, so we know what comes next, and how to deal with it. Just beneath the pilot's window, where he can see us, we huddle together. Lying on top of the packs and trekking poles to keep them from blowing away, we hold on to our hats and each other as Mike applies power. The main rotors set off a hurricane of wind, noise, ice particles and small rocks as the big helicopter lifts off and flies away. We stand to watch the machine disappear into the valley below. In the ear-ringing silence of Mike's abrupt departure, there's a moment to look around at the stunning landscape high in British Columbia's Cariboo Mountains. The glaciers here are among the biggest I've seen, outside of Alaska. Rocky, ice-draped peaks march to the horizon in rugged lines of battle. This is wild country.

Crazy Horse

 Carefully, we make our way off the ice and onto a knife-edged lateral moraine. Looking up toward the top, we're drawn ahead by the view of what's to come. Our little band is a mixed bag--a writer from Boston, a couple of British climbers on holiday, a publisher from Toronto, a physical therapist from Calgary--but we're all serious hikers eager to savor the remote, pristine terrain of these mountains. And we can hardly believe our luck to be here.

Under normal circumstances, just getting to the start of this hike would have taken us two or three days of bushwhacking through overgrown lowland valleys and grinding up steep, dead-fall covered slopes of prime grizzly-bear habitat. But, thanks to the $3 million helicopter at our beck and call, we avoided all that. What's left for us to do now is the fun part. Think of it as dessert: about 3,000 vertical feet and three miles of pure alpine majesty up this moraine and onto the big summit ridge toward the top of Crazy Horse.

Our hike goes steeply upward through dense fields of arnica, Indian paint brush, fire weed, and purple aster. The route ascends between a riot of wildflowers on one side, glacial ice on the other. The knife-edge crest of the moraine requires attention as we climb up beside the Crazy Horse Glacier, with views out over the larger South Canoe Glacier as the two rivers of ice meet below us. We work up the hogs back of the moraine to where it merges with a rocky ridge terracing back in a series of grassy ledges. The hiking is beautiful, both challenging and interesting, as we pick our way up through these miniature meadows and clamber over smooth, glacier polished slabs toward the top.

Four days of heli-hiking in British Columbia give hikers a chance to cover miles of varying kinds of terrain in the Cariboo Mountains. Finally, we can go no higher. Looking around at each other, we're grinning helplessly at the landscape of ridges and glaciers stretching out to the horizon. The Brits are positively blown away. They never saw anything like this in the mother country. We laugh and relax after the long uphill grind, and turn to Paul Langevin, our guide, and the man with the radio. The question is always the same: When is Mike coming? After three days of heli-hiking, all of us are by now completely spoiled. There's no need to prepare ourselves for a long, fatiguing, knee-jarring descent, at least not for these few glorious days. At any moment, the faint roar and rumble of Mike's big helicopter will reverberate through the valley, letting us know he's on the way. But this time there's another question, a new one: where on earth will he land up here, high on Crazy Horse?

So accommodating has been Paul in finding new and challenging ground for this fit, gung-ho, even demanding group of hikers, we've climbed above the usual established landing zones. So we roll a couple of big rocks off the ridge to make an impromptu LZ for the helicopter as Mike comes flying in. All the ridge-top pick-ups have been exciting, but the Crazy Horse pick-up proves to be unforgettable. There's no place at all to put down. But Mike, a Kiwi with 16,000 hours of helicopter time under his belt, finds a way to pluck us off. He eases on to the mountaintop and deftly leans one skid of the big aircraft against the ridge, giving us time to clamber aboard and buckle up. Gracefully then, with no trace of urgency, he rolls the helicopter down into the valley. Once again, we're on our way.

The Cariboo Lodge

In 15 minutes, we'll be back at the Cariboo Lodge, our home away from home during this heli-hiking adventure. After a quick shower, I'll head for the sunny, glassed-in bar to have a beer, find out from those in the other hiking groups where they went that day, and check out what's on the menu for tonight's family style dinner. As I sit strapped into the helicopter on the flight back to the lodge, I can't help but think: a person could get used to this.

I've been taken to great places by helicopters before--into the wilds of New Zealand's Southern Alps, into Mount Waddington and the Coast Range, through the West Maui mountains--but this is something else again. When you're heli-hiking, the helicopter becomes an integral part of every day life, perhaps even the defining factor. That Bell 212 is for only one purpose: to take us on two or three hiking trips every day. It's like cramming a season's worth of backcountry travel into just four days. The helicopter itself becomes the star of the show: a full-blown, sensory-overload adrenaline rush in its own right.

But after a few days, it's easy to take it all for granted. Time and again, the magic machine carries me into a high cirque or mountain basin or glacial slope far inside the alpine zone of this rugged range. From there, usually about 5,000 feet, the hiking starts. Three or four or five hours later, when we can go no farther, Mike returns as if on cue to pluck us off and deliver us somewhere equally enchanting, and we do it all over again. So remote are these peaks, there are no established trails, so the routes follow ridgelines or contour through basins. With the ice-draped peaks of the Cariboos and Monashees all around, the hiking is scenic and invigorating, with a wilderness character.

I'm hip to the fact that people see this as cheating: all the fun, none of the hard work. They are absolutely right. Heli-hiking is most assuredly cheating--but no more so than, say, taking the dive boat out to the reef for a day of snorkeling, or catching a ride to a winter climb with some snowmobilers. The fact is, heli-hiking is an indulgence that makes a lot of sense for both serious and more casual outdoor lovers, no matter what their level of ability might be.

The New Idea of Heli Hiking

 I signed on with Canadian Mountain Holidays, the brain-child of pioneering climber and skier Hans Gmoser. It's the largest company in North America to run helicopter adventures in the mountains. CMH began offering heli-skiing in 1965, and now operates each winter from a dozen lodges all over British Columbia. With its established infrastructure of lodges, maintenance facilities and trained staff already in place, it was a natural progression to offer heli-hiking during the summer months. For the first time, hikers too could sample all kinds of terrain--perfectly tailored to one's level of ability--in a few days. CMH began offering heli-hiking (and heli-mountaineering) in 1976, and currently uses four of its lodges (the ones best situated for hiking and climbing terrain) as base camps for trips from July through mid-September.

As it grows in popularity, heli-hiking attracts an ever broader clientele, and one that is decidedly mixed. About half the people at the Cariboo Lodge while I was there in late July 2004 had hiking experience. The rest were novices and seniors--intelligent people with an adventurous bent but little backcountry experience. For them, the helicopter was a magic carpet ride to a wondrous alpine world they might not otherwise see. Those that opted even for easy meadow strolls said they came away with a renewed perspective. Many return for bigger challenges.

 But the question I came with was this: can the serious, experienced hiker challenge himself or herself just as the heli-skier does--come here to do as many of the hardest, longest, highest hikes possible, with the help of that expensive helicopter? The answer is yes, but first you've got to show you can hack the action. Once you've demonstrated your bona fides in terms of fitness and skill, you can press your guide for harder, higher, longer hikes.

After a day or so of covering more moderate ground, our group got what we asked for: a couple of 4,000 to 5,000 foot days going as fast as we wanted to into some of the most appealing mountain terrain I've seen. It suited us perfectly, but most of the other clients were happy with less strenuous routes. They came for moderate hiking through the alpine wonderland of the Cariboos, and the comforts of the lodge, not for a lot of extended physical effort. This capability to indulge different levels of skill and fitness means that even the committed hiker can come here with inexperienced friends or family, and everyone can enjoy an outdoor experience in keeping with their abilities.

The wide variety of terrain in the Cariboos, from ridge tops to windswept cirques to meadow-filled bowls, are all within a few minutes of the lodge by helicopter. I found the entire adventure unexpectedly relaxed. CMH has been doing this for 40 years, and so has the details down pat. It's amazing how quickly you settle into a pleasant routine of hiking, healthy meals, easy socializing and well-earned rest. All this is set against the backdrop of the wild Cariboos, where the scenery is stunning and your solitude is guaranteed by sheer remoteness.

Most people do the basic three-and-half day trip, although the week long option may be the better buy. It starts out with a bang, as you hit the backcountry the very first day. A brief helicopter ride took us from Valemont, British Columbia, up to the airy, surprisingly large lodge. On arrival, you get assigned a room (mine had a view of the spectacular Premier Range), and if necessary, get fitted for boots, pack and outerwear. (Like most other experienced hikers, I brought my own.) After lunch in the dining room, it's time to grab your pack and head out to the pad.

 Based on "self-assessment" forms each person fills out prior to arrival, the guides divide the group into three or four hiking parties by fitness and experience. Each group is then airlifted into the nearby peaks for the first half day hiking. There, it becomes pretty obvious who is comfortable in the backcountry, and who isn't. That first day in the wild Cariboo high country serves as a spectacular introduction to what lies ahead.

By five or six p.m., the parties are all flown back to the lodge, where there's time before dinner to get acquainted with the other 30 or 40 hikers in residence. The clientele comes from all over the planet, including Japan, Europe, and North America. Dinner is served family-style in a relaxed and informal atmosphere conducive to getting to know your fellows. And so begins an invigorating few days, each with a similar rhythm: Arise for breakfast, choose sandwiches and snacks to put in your pack for lunch, and then get airlifted into an outrageous basin for the morning hike. Typically, you finish the morning route about noon. After lunch, Mike comes roaring in to "bump" your party over to a different ridge, or basin, for another half day of hiking.

Crystal Peak

Because you're part of a larger community of hikers, not just your close friends or usual hiking buddies, some unexpected interaction can happen. Early in our trip, a group of us had been hiking up a big cirque when some in the party opted out of going higher. For them, a massage back at the lodge, or a soak in the hot tub, or a few hours with a book, was more appealing than the thousand feet of steep going that remained to reach the top of Crystal Peak.

Kari, from Boston, and Andrew and Matthew, from the U.K., enjoy the view from Crazy Horse. For experienced hikers, the helicopter makes it possible to venture high into the mountains multiple times per day. But when Mike arrived in the helicopter to give them a lift back to the lodge, one exceptionally strong and motivated woman of some 75 years looked over at us with determination. "I'm going to stay with you guys," Caroline said. "I'm going to try to try to climb this mountain. It's now or never for me."

The rest of us had mixed emotions. Would this slow us down? But we were game. The young Brit, Matthew, started out, kicking steps up the snow slope. I looked up to see Caroline right on his heels, her tiny boots secure in the big buckets the Yorkshire lad was making. She was cruising. Caroline could boogie, and she had heart. This was something unexpected. Later, when the going got steep, Paul, the guide, showed her the way, step by step. I quietly had moved up behind her, close enough to bite. If she came off, she'd fall on me, and I was ready.

We crested the final steep slope, and Caroline took a look around at the glaciers and jagged peaks of the Cariboos and the Monashees spread out before her. Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, loomed magnificently across the valley. Caroline was filled with joy. "These remind me of the mountains of Austria, in my childhood, before I had to flee Hitler," she said. "But today, these--these are bigger--and more beautiful." She began to tear up. Suddenly the rest of us averted our faces, digging around in our packs, so the others couldn't see we were all about to lose it. Hiking with Caroline up Crystal Peak was one of the coolest things I've ever done in the mountains.

Just about then we could hear the thunder of Mike's big Bell whopping away down in the valley, and knew it was almost time to go home. Tomorrow would be another day.

Getting There
Heli-hiking is not as expensive as you might think. The basic package of three-and-a-half days of helicopter hiking, lodging and meals costs about $2,000. Canadian Mountain Holidays operates both heli-hiking and heli-mountaineering trips from Bugaboo Lodge, Cariboo Lodge, Bobbie Burns Lodge and Adamant Lodge, from July through mid September. November through March, CMH operates heli-ski adventures from 12 lodges in British Columbia.

Most hikers combine holiday time in the Canadian Rockies with their heli-hiking adventure. Calgary is the most convenient airport to the CMH lodges, allowing for visits to Banff, Jasper and the Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks. CMH can help organize an itinerary that includes a stay at the historic Canadian railroad grand hotels, the Banff Springs Hotel, the Chateau Lake Louise, and the Jasper Park Lodge. Tourism offices in Banff and Jasper can help you get the most out of a few weeks in the Rockies.


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