The whirling sound of the chopper blades is barely audible, just a whisper on the wind, but we know our cue. Backpacks get tossed on the ground and we sink to our knees, forming a tight shoulder-to-shoulder half-scrum around the gear. What a curious sight we must make: A dozen men and women huddled heads down on a remote snow-covered mountain. An Outward Bound prayer session? A communal contact lens search? Brian Keefer, who has been guiding flatlanders around the Canadian Rockies for more than 20 years, pulls out his two-way radio and speaks between bursts of static: “We got kind of a tough spot here… on a hump… but I think you’ll be okay with the tail rotor.”
Moments later a Bell 212 helicopter swoops up majestically from the green valley below, bringing with it a whirlwind of noise and commotion. Then…utter calm. The pilot pulls back on his throttle, and the helicopter touches down with all the fury of an autumn leaf falling from a tree. We’re saved.
Well, okay, not exactly saved. “Serviced” may be a better word. As much as this might resemble a search-and-rescue mission, nobody in our party is in any distress. No broken bones. No hypothermia. Not so much as a sprained finger from snapping too many pictures. So why has a helicopter pilot come to fetch us? Because Brian Keefer asked him to. Because that’s his job.
Because this is summer heli-hiking with CMH.
In summer, there are three wilderness lodges run by CMH. Each CMH lodge has some 386 square miles of wilderness all to itself. That’s a lot of elbowroom to be shared by some 40 visitors. By comparison, in the Swiss Alps as many as 30,000 people can often be shoehorned into the same size area.
The 11 of us scrambling aboard the roomy twin-engine helicopter are part of a capacity crowd of just 44 guests (the majority vacationing families) booked into the wilderness lodge, a quasi-Tyrolean retreat set amid the wild and jagged 7,000-foot peaks of British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. It’s late July, the middle of the hiking season. The wildflowers aren’t at their peak any longer, but, then, neither are the bugs. The tourist town of Banff, Alberta is a two hour drive east, and the only other humans around here might be some lonely loggers.
Our morning began with a helicopter drop into grizzly bear terrain. Keefer led our group over spongy expanses of heath and heather, and across vast fields of sandstone boulders, as we made our way towards a stunning glacier. During one rest stop Bill Borgers, a Californian orange processor with a crooked smile and a carefree demeanor, gazed at a line of dots approaching a ridge about a half mile away. Two of the dots were actually his son and daughter, hiking under the supervision of another CMH guide.
“Look at those little rats,” Borgers said, chuckling. “They’re laughin’ at how long it takes us to get up there.” But within 30 minutes we geezers were standing on the glacier too. Alpine moss growing here has turned the snow pale pink in spots. When you scoop up a handful it smells like watermelon.
“They say it can take 200 years for snow to fall on a peak and end up at the foot of the glacier as ice,” Keefer remarks. Two hundred years amounts to temporal chump change here. This is a still primordial landscape gouged out of the Earth’s crust ages ago by glacial action, of mountains thrust up into being by the slow-motion collision of subterranean tectonic plates, of delicate mosses and lichens that can take several decades to grow an inch.
Normally a wristwatch is of little use in a place where time is measured in eons as opposed to hours. But CMH has introduced speed to paradise. Shortly after we had reached the top of the glacier, Keefer radioed for our helicopter pick-up. Now, as we fly across the valley, I note how long we’re actually in the air: about two minutes, 50 seconds. It would take a fit man at least a full day of hard hiking to cover the same distance on foot.
We disembarked on a narrow ridgeline. Different trail. Different geology. But another splendid panorama. Here we pick our way over ground littered with acres of splintered shale. It’s as if the gods had thrown a wild party and smashed all their dinner plates. The shale tinkles like wind chimes in a breeze after each of our footsteps.
“I’ve hiked many years in Colorado,” exclaims Don Gore, an orthopedic surgeon from Wisconsin, “but I have never seen any landscape like this.”
I’VE HIKED MANY YEARS IN COLORADO, BUT I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANY LANDSCAPE LIKE THIS.Don Gore
Gore is a wiry, taciturn fellow with a trim mustache. He’d make a good New England country doctor. The day before I had hiked for a spell with him, his wife, Jackie, and two of their grandchildren. The helicopter set us down on a ridge over-looking a succession of valleys. At one point Gore leaned on his walking stick, breathed in the surroundings, and offered up his opinion that hiking via helicopter makes a darn fine addition to one’s recreational toolbox.
“Look at that view!” he declared. “I’d like to camp here. But not if I had to get here any other way.” Indeed. The topography here is so wildly remote – with most of the peaks well over a mile in height – that the average hiker wouldn’t have the time to enjoy such splendor. But heli-hiking makes it both safe and enjoyable.
“The ability level we cater to is broad,” says Julia LoVecchio, CMH’s marketing director. And indeed it is. Each morning after breakfast, assembled trekkers would self-segregate into four groups, choosing from a menu of easy, moderate, or quite strenuous routes.
High country is a metaphorically perfect backdrop for a family vacation. In a way, families are geological formations, shaped over time as surely as any mountain peak or moving glacier. Some families are as strong as solid granite. Others shatter like shale. The Clifford clan is like granite. Eleven of them were staying at the lodge, enough to command their own dinner table. Betsy, a lively double widow, who for years ran ranches in California and Montana with her husband, is celebrating her 70th birthday; this trip is a gift from her son and two daughters, their spouses, and four grandchildren.
On one of their day hikes I tag along with the Cliffords. The helicopter deposits us in the vicinity of a uniquely shaped peak, and I find it a delight to encounter three generations of a family that actually enjoy each other’s company.
Indeed. Team Clifford scrambles up staircases of rock together, navigates a slippery icefield together, falls into an impromptu conga line, and even gives each other soothing neck massages. The entire clan, including Betsy, does butt slides down a snowy slope. A properly executed, multi-generational butt slide can almost bring tears to your eyes.
“I guess because we don’t live close together anymore you learn not to sweat the details,” explains Bill’s sister, Katie.
Hans Gmoser, the Austrian immigrant who founded CMH, is credited with inventing heli-hiking. But he didn’t do it for the sake of family fun. It was basically a guy thing. In 1965, Gmoser hit upon the idea of ferrying hard core, thrill-seeking skiers to virgin powder by helicopter. Initially he ran a decidedly Spartan ship. It’s said that CMH cooks were not allowed to reach for any spice more exotic than salt or pepper. No alcohol was sold at the lodges. Elite skiers were apparently willing to endure such depravations, but, as a CMH guide observed at dinner one evening, Gmoser soon discovered that the best skiers in the world often had no money.
And so in 1978, he expanded his helicopter service to hikers, and he also wisely loosened up. CMH now offers a full complement of luxuries in both summer and winter: bar, sauna, retail shop, whirlpool, massages, gourmet meals. Only what has been dubbed “electronic pollution” – television, mobile phones, and email – remains verboten, although WiFi is available throughout the lodges.
CONTINUE TO HIGH MOUNTAIN ADVENTURE: PART 2