From your base at a remote but comfortable mountain lodge west of Banff, a helicopter ferries you, your companions and your guides to the secluded trailhead to start each day’s hike amid dramatic mountaintop glaciers and sparkling blue lakes. After a day on the trail, the chopper will zoom in to fly you back to the lodge in time for happy hour.
Sound like just the adventure for your bucket list? Here’s how to launch your epic Canadian heli-hiking holiday.
Where to heli-hike
Several operators offer heli-hiking in western Canada, but the granddaddy of heli-hiking companies is CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures. Launched as a heli-skiing provider in the 1960s and still one of the largest heli-skiing ventures, CMH currently runs two summertime heli-hiking programs between mid-July and mid-September.
Both programs are based at well-appointed chalet-style bases in British Columbia’s Kootenay region in the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains, just west of the Rockies. Overlooking the dramatic granite Bugaboo “spires,” the modern CMH Bugaboos Lodge accommodates up to 44 guests, while the slightly more rustic CMH Bobbie Burns Lodge can house 33 guests.
To reach either lodge, the company provides transportation from Banff to their helipads, which are located between Golden and Radium Hot Springs, B.C. There, the excitement begins, when a short but spectacular helicopter flight carries you over the mountains to your accommodations.
A typical heli-hiking day
If you can get up for the sunrise, you’ll score some stellar mountain photos, with the morning sun sparkling off the lakes and stony peaks. Even if you sleep in until breakfast time, when staff members ring a bell calling you to the dining room, you’ll still have plenty of time for adventures. You’ll start your day with a buffet of fruit, baked goods and cereals, along with eggs, pancakes or other hot dishes served family style.
You can also choose from a spread of snacks, sandwiches and sweets that you can pack for the trail. Grab your daypack and join your fellow hikers — who are grouped by ability and interest — at the helicopter launchpad. Guides provide a safety briefing with tips on boarding, disembarking and doing the “heli-huddle,” where guests cluster together as the helicopter lands and takes off, both to protect against the winds from the rotors and to ensure that everyone is in a safe position.
Be sure your camera is fully charged, because you’ll be snapping away from the moment you lift off. The helicopter can take you to places that are difficult or impossible to reach on foot, giving you access to untrammeled paths and remote vistas as you stroll along the lakeshores, hike through evergreen forests and get up close to the glaciers.
Depending on your group’s interest and the weather, the helicopter may return during the day to ferry you to new locations. You may be surprised to discover how little space a chopper needs to land when it touches down on a narrow rock or maneuvers between tight granite peaks.
Of course, there’s food…
At the end of the day, you’ll fly back to the lodge for cocktails and appetizers. You can perch at the bar, by the fireplace or out on the deck, taking in the mountain views, or unwind in the sauna or outdoor hot tub. If you haven’t gotten enough exercise outside, both lodges have indoor rock climbing walls to tackle.
Dinners are served family style and frequently feature West Coast seafood, Alberta beef and other regional specialties. Some evenings, you can listen to after-dinner talks about the region or other areas of interest, and you can always relax with a drink or cup of tea. Guests generally turn in early to rest up for the next day’s activities.
If you want a bigger thrill, CMH offers adventures beyond the guided hikes. Weather permitting, you can schedule a glacier trekking excursion, where you learn to traverse the ice.
Or you can test your mettle on a Via Ferrata experience, a guided climbing route with iron rungs and cables designed to assist novice climbers. Both lodges have via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”) nearby, and while you don’t need climbing experience to tackle them, expect to be challenged. The Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata, accessible from the Bobbie Burns Lodge, is currently North America’s longest.
Another option is a lodge-to-lodge trip, where you spend your first few days at one lodge, then “heli-hop” over the mountains to the other, exploring different terrain from each base.
Is heli-hiking for you?
Because the heli-hiking season is short, it’s not too soon to book for 2017, with three-day and six-day trips available. And lest you think only hard-core outdoor types would enjoy these holidays, they’re designed for active travelers with an adventurous spirit but no particular mountaineering experience.
When you arrive at the lodge, your guides will discuss your interests and fitness level. They group hikers for each day’s excursions with others of compatible abilities. Certain dates are reserved for family trips, when kids and multiple generations are welcome.
You don’t need to bring loads of special gear either. While you’re welcome to wear your own hiking boots, the lodge has a large supply of its own, along with waterproof jackets, rain pants, daypacks, hiking poles and water bottles that you can take out on the trail.
On these Canadian heli-hiking holidays, all you really need to pack are your sense of adventure, your love of the outdoors and your willingness to take flight in a beautiful part of the world.