The Easy Way Up: Heli-Hiking in the Bugaboos

The rotor wash from a Bell 212 helicopter is startlingly strong. Though I was getting used to the pick up and drop off routine — kneel, huddle together, cover your face — every time the helicopter landed I was nearly blown off my feet.

JH/Jill Robinson/Justin Walker

Editor’s Note: Our relationship with the mountains is built on awe. Their age seems to impart wisdom; their violence, humility; their proximity to the sky, faith. We go to the mountains for peace and solitude or a stroll with a date. But sometimes it’s more: an ancient struggle of man’s imagination versus the hard truth of rock. We dispatched intrepid GP editor Jason Heaton on three journeys to three mountain ranges in three countries. Over the next month we’ll share his stories and photos from the Bugaboos of British Columbia, the Swiss Alps, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains in what we’ve come to call The Mountain Series.

The rotor wash from a Bell 212 helicopter is startlingly strong. Though I was getting used to the pick up and drop off routine — kneel, huddle together, cover your face — every time the helicopter landed I was nearly blown off my feet. Peering out the side window as we lifted straight up from a postage-stamp-sized rock atop a peak called “Kickoff”, I noticed that getting blown over here would have meant a very long fall. Note to self: don’t be the guy at the back of the huddle.

Helicopter travel is addictive. Though it’s loud and uncomfortable, it’s the swiftest and most scenic way to get from Point A to Point B in the mountains. There’s also a certain Green Beret appeal to being whisked off a remote peak by a Huey. Purist hikers and climbers may call it cheating (I used to be one of them), but reserve judgment until you’ve hiked for five hours and 5,000 vertical feet in some of the wildest backcountry in the world and can get back to the lodge in ten minutes for a beer by a crackling fire. I came to this newfound appreciation after a week of up and down in the Bugaboo Mountains of British Columbia.

In the 1960s, transplanted Austrian mountain guide Hans Gmoser fell in love with the remote wilderness and steep peaks of the Bugaboo range and set up a lodge below the famous Bugaboo Spires as a base camp for climbers and skiers. Access to his backcountry lodge and its surrounding mountains was difficult back then and still is today. Helicopter travel was introduced out of necessity, first for ferrying guests from Banff and Canmore to the lodge and then for reaching the nearby ridgelines to ski virgin powder. Today, helicopter is the de rigueur mode of transport for ski porn film directors, Euro-chic tourists and trust-fund snowboarders from Alaska to New Zealand to the Alps. And it all started in British Columbia.

But why let those choppers sit idle in the summer? Sometime in the 1980s, Canadian Mountain Holidays, the company that Gmoser founded, figured they could be just as useful for transporting hikers to peaks, valleys and meadows that normally would take a day to reach on foot. Instead of trudging for hours to get to the beautiful trailheads, a five-minute ride over the next ridge plants you smack in the middle of pristine hiking territory, where you can spend the day bagging peaks and cooling off in alpine lakes. CMH runs the heli-hiking program out of its two lodges, the Bobbie Burns Lodge and the Bugaboo Lodge, the latter which grew out of Gmoser’s first crude backcountry basecamp. I stayed at the Bugaboo Lodge, situated amid thick pine forest on the east side of the famous Spires, which rise right out the front door, a postcard-worthy photo op that comes with every morning’s cup of coffee.

The Bugaboo Lodge follows the European guide-led tradition that Gmoser brought with him to North America. Though the lodge doesn’t lack for luxuries (spa, hot tub, indoor climbing wall), the feel is that of a rather swanky backcountry Alpine hut. Meals are served family style at long tables in the dining hall where everyone eats together — staff, guides and guests. This encourages an informal camaraderie rather than a stiff client-guide relationship. I sat next to pilot Jens one night and guide Hans another (yes, the Old World traditions extend to the staffs’ nationalities, too), practicing my rusty German and learning the pros and cons of two-rotor versus four-rotor helicopters.

A day out of the lodge typically consisted of two long hikes with lunch eaten on the trail. A roster of hiking groups was posted each morning with departure times listed based on individuals’ preferences for terrain and difficulty. After a hearty breakfast, we would stock our daypacks with extra layers and the sandwiches prepared for us in the kitchen and head to the helipad. After the morning hike, our guide would radio for pickup; moments later, we would hear the thwack-thwack echoing off of nearby peaks and see the helicopter swing into view, a sight that never got old. Then it was on to our next hike.

Heli-hiking isn’t all cushy. The Bugaboos are rugged mountains, steep and boulder strewn. There aren’t really established trails, so hiking is based more on guides’ knowledge of the terrain. On my first day, we were dropped on a 9,500-foot peak in a wind-driven rain. From there, we negotiated the precipitous ridgeline and then worked down a knee-crushing scree slope to a meadow of alpine wildflowers where the going got a little lighter and the wind eased. As we picked over hummocks and across streambeds our guide, Paul, briefed us on what to do if we came across a brown bear. This is grizzly country, and being on foot in a remote valley suddenly knocks you down a few pegs on the food chain. While common sense and good knowledge of bears helps, the guides carry “bear bombs”, essentially loud firecrackers that are deployed to scare off curious or aggressive bears. Thankfully, we didn’t run across any — but other groups did, and the guides’ radios crackled with helicopter pickup requests to move groups out of danger.

My appreciation and trust for our German pilot, Jens, grew with each pickup. Even on exposed ridgelines in windy conditions, he would set the big bird down between our huddled group of hikers and our pile of backpacks with incredible precision. From my cowering position I would glance up to find the chopper no less than an arm’s length away, skids on the ground but rotors still thumping at near full power. After the group quickly ducked into the bench seats, buckled up and shoved in our earplugs, Jens would take off, whisking us at cliff and treetop level to our next destination, either trailhead or lodge.

On day two, I signed up for a morning of via ferrata climbing. Via ferrata is Latin for “iron way” and is an apt name: the style uses an established climbing route consisting of bolted anchors and a strung steel cable on a vertical wall. Climbers wear standard rock climbing harnesses and clip onto the cable as they negotiate the route, sometimes using natural foot and hand holds and sometimes using iron rungs drilled into the rock. While many avid rock climbers scoff at this so-called “cheating”, via ferrata routes have long been prevalent in the Alps and Dolomites, where the practice originated. It provides a safer, less gear-intensive way to climb a face, and a less steep (ahem) learning curve.

The chopper dropped us off in a boulder field below a steep crag known as Mount Trundle. Our small group pulled on our harnesses and self-arrest devices — two webbing straps with locking carabiners — and hiked the short distance up to the start of the route. One by one, we started to climb, making sure to always have at least one carabiner clipped onto the steel cable as we moved. The route was modest by rock climbing standards — perhaps a 5.6 or 5.7 difficulty rating — but had plenty of exposure, which provided some pucker-worthy moments. Holds weren’t always obvious; it required some skill to negotiate narrow traverses and friction-only footholds, made more difficult by the fact that I was wearing my heavy leather mountaineering boots.

It took about three hours to climb the roughly 1,000 feet to the peak, where we unclipped, signed the summit register and dug into our lunches. Then we set off down the Black Forest Ridge for a grueling afternoon of rocky, undulating hiking, rewarded by a stop at the impossibly blue and appropriately named Cobalt Lake at the bottom of the Vowell Glacier. We lingered there, literally cooling our heels in the freezing water, before setting off for an hour-long slog up, up, up to Kickoff and our rendezvous with Jens and the Huey. Ten minutes later, I was back at the lodge drinking a beer.

On my last day at Bugaboo Lodge I joined a group for a glacier trek. The chopper dropped us off directly on the ice of the Vowell Glacier, where we were surrounded by a cirque of vertical peaks, including the South Howser Tower, which was first climbed by legends Fred Beckey and Yvon Chouinard (the latter of whom went on to found a little outdoor company called Patagonia). Though we had packed along a rope, harnesses and crampons, our guide decided that conditions didn’t require their use, so they remained in our packs as we hiked across the glacier single-file. The lack of snow made crevasse-spotting easy, and the warm sun made for grippy footing. We spent the morning negotiating the labyrinth of ice before Hans called in the helicopter. Then came the familiar throb and vision of the red-and-white chopper angling around the peaks to collect us. We piled in and Jens lifted off, the shadow of the chopper playing on the brilliant blue ice as we ascended. As we thumped around Howser, I glanced at my watch and smiled. I would be back at the lodge in five minutes and on the massage table in 30. Heli-hiking had spoiled me forever.

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