He seemed like such a nice guy. That was the group’s initial impression of our hiking guide, Paul, a mellow, Canuck with a wry sense of humor. He appeared calm and assuring as he gathered us around to talk about our first hike of the day. Moments before, the helicopter had gently set us down in front of Howser Towers, an impressive set of peaks in the Bugaboos, a range within the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia.
The name “Bugaboo” actually means a hoax in Old English. Story has it that when folks came up here looking for gold, they found only pyrite or fool’s gold so they aptly called the area the Bugaboos and the name stuck.
Running closely parallel with the Canadian Rockies, this little-known, vast wilderness is home to sprawling glaciers, hidden meadows carpeted with wildflowers, sparkling cobalt lakes, dense forests and jagged crags. Older than the Rockies by a couple of hundred million years, but equal to them in height and majestic quality, the Columbia ranges attract few visitors compared to their well-known kin. Their relative inaccessibility makes them difficult to get to, especially up into the most resplendent altitudes. Only the hearty and determined are able to make the arduous trek. But, with the help of a helicopter, anyone can experience them.
Heli-hiking is not a new phenomenon, but there aren’t many companies in North America that are true veterans of the experience, like CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures. They’ve spent the last forty years perfecting and sharing it with guests of all ages and hiking abilities.
Having a helicopter whisk you away each morning into the deep blue yonder and deposit you in some remote corner to explore is the ultimate luxury in adventure travel. I felt like a V.I.P. as I hopped into the red and white “taxi,” donned a pair of earplugs and then proceeded to be wowed by the jaw-dropping vistas unfolding outside my window.
CMH groups its hikers by ambition, interest and capability, and then each morning sends them out to a new destination in the company of expert mountain guides. After a short ride, the helicopter deposits guests amid indescribable splendor, where they proceed to spend the day traipsing along airy ridges, atop glaciers, through meadows and woods and up and down rocky tors.
Each group travels at its own pace to soak up the mountain beauty and experience a dazzling feast for the senses. There are no set paths, trail markers, campgrounds or signs of human habitation as you hike in this pristine wilderness. It’s just you and a handful of other like-minded adventurers seeking to explore a magical place.
You’ll find folks of all ages from around the world who come on a CMH heli-hiking summer adventure trip because they relish the opportunity to escape civilization. They want to breathe the invigorating mountain air, bond with Mother Nature and disconnect from the rat race of their daily existences. And often they come with the desire for a personal challenge. For some, it may be sustaining the endurance to hike for several hours at a time or combating acrophobia while walking on a narrow precipice. For others, it may involve making a steep ascent up to a summit or learning to rappel down a rock wall. Such challenges, big or small, abound, ripe for the picking.
As you hike, your guide will talk about the terrain and the natural history of the area, pointing out geological formations, providing names of wildflowers and making rocks more meaningful than you can ever imagine! He or she will also dispense advice about hiking techniques, such as the safest manner to walk on a glacier or the most effective way to use walking sticks. The company’s guides are dedicated professionals and have a wealth of knowledge and experience, but they’re also fun individuals, each with entertaining tales to tell and different personality quirks that endear them to the guests.
Be wary of “guide speak,” however. My group learned this terminology the hard way. We dutifully followed our fearless leader, Paul, through endless valleys colorfully dotted with Yellow Monkey, Silky Scorpion Weed, Paintbrush and Fireweed, dipped our feet into numbing cold Wonder Lake and hiked up to a massive glacier. All this in the course of a morning.
After a picnic lunch, the helicopter came and took us to another spectacular spot to continue our rambles. At this point, Paul gave our group a few choices: hike around a lake, meander in the nearby hills or make what he referred to as a relatively easy climb up to Aluette Ridge, where he claimed the views of the Ballroom (an area of meadows surrounded by peaks) were grand and expansive. We fell for the ploy about the views and voted for option three.
The “easy” climb we expected had us scrambling up a steep rocky slope, clawing onto clumps of moss and thinking about what we were going to do to our beloved guide once we could catch our breath and find level ground. Thoughts of impaling this nice young man with our hiking poles and seizing his radio in mutinous fashion were mumbled, first quietly, then louder, as the climb intensified.
We then began to entertain ourselves by coming up with names for our ascent, like “Needle Point Peak,” “On Shredded Knee” and “Paulgatory” – our version of “purgatory.” All along, Paul steadily kept pushing us onward with words of advice and encouragement, while torturing us with his “we’re almost there” mantra.
None of us could imagine what was in store for us on the ridge and there were doubts among the group as to whether our labors would be aptly rewarded. But we needn’t have worried because when we reached the top, each one of us was rendered speechless by the eye-caressing, lump-in-the-throat-inducing view that stretched for miles in all directions. And we were able to see just how far we had climbed, which pumped us up with pride. It was then that we understood “guide speak.”
Paul had initially presented the situation without going into extensive detail about it, knowing full well that if we knew it was going to be a tough climb, most of us would have opted out. He had confidence in our abilities even when we didn’t, and once we committed to making the ascent, he was there to motivate us forward.
Had we selected another perhaps more benign hike, we would have missed this amazing challenge, as well as the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be on top of the world. We had earned bragging rights and back at the Bugaboos Lodge, we made sure to spread the word of our accomplishment to all who would listen.
CMH currently operates two wilderness lodges (CMH Bobbie Burns and CMH Bugaboos), which serve as bases for the company’s heli-hiking operation in the summer. Each has its own individual character, but all of them emulate the European alpine tradition, combining old-fashioned comfort with modern efficiency. And they’re built with state-of-the-art systems to minimize energy consumption and waste.
The Bugaboos Lodge’s claim to fame is that it is situated on a prime piece of land offering guests a drop-dead view of the Bugaboo Glacier and the unique Hound’s Tooth rock formation. When the sun rises and sets on this scene, it explodes in a fiery red hue and observers become instantly tongue-tied, unable to find the words to describe this sublime picture.
Food is an important aspect of any hiking endeavor, as all that exercise serves to sharpen the appetite. Rest assured, you’ll never go hungry when you stay at one of these lodges. Healthy, delicious cuisine that uses plenty of fresh Western Canadian ingredients is innovatively prepared and served family style in the intimate dining room, where both guests and staff eat together.
Folks tend to gather in the cozy living room around the fireplace or at the small bar adjoining the dining area before and after dinner to regale one another with stories of their hikes and conquests. There’s also a games room, fully stocked retail shop, exercise room, where daily stretching classes are offered, and an expansive deck to take in the glorious surroundings. And if you’re looking to soothe those sore muscles after a long hike, head up to the rooftop hot tub, sauna and steam room, or book the massage therapist for a session of bliss.
You’ll find the staff to be personable, hospitable and genuinely caring folks. They share a passion for their work and the environment, and never tire of sharing their “office” with others. Many have been with the company for years and are proud of the CMH reputation for excellence. They treasure the opportunity to introduce people to this special piece of paradise. And they never tire of watching the emotional reactions and powerful transformations that occur when guests interact with nature on a personal level.
If you go: