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HELI HIKING MOUNTAIN LODGES NEAR BANFF ALBERTA

Story and photos by

We're sitting on sun-warmed pencil slate, sipping Champagne. In front of us, the jagged Bugaboos pierce the sky above two emerald lakes. Behind us, glaciers frost the Selkirk peaks. To our left, a narrow trail stretches up to a lookout point. A 12-passenger Bell 212 helicopter awaits at the other end of the path. From our vantage point, it looks as tiny as a dragonfly. It's our sole means of access and departure.

Photographer views mountains.
Photographer views mountains.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We're on top of the world, on a ridge called Vertigo, in British Columbia. Lake Louise, Alberta, is only 1.5 hours from here, but it feels a galaxy away.

Heli skiing

Vertigo is only one highlight of our heli hiking adventure with Canadian Mountain Holidays. The company, based in Banff, Alberta, runs excursions, June to September, from six mountain lodges used by heli skiers in the winter — Bobbie Burns, Bugaboos, Adamant, Monashees, Valemount and Cariboo.

Participants, who range in age from eight to eighty, can cover as little as 30 meters or as much as 16 kilometers in a day. After a trial hike in the Rocky Saddle area, guides assigned us to groups, based on abilities and interests. Our group moved more slowly than the fastest hikers, so we could take photos. The slowest group followed easier routes, with equally splendid scenery. (Most hikes are between 1,800 and 2,400 meters to avoid altitude problems and maximize views.)

Vacation package

Packages include meals, accommodations, helicopter transfers, guides, hiking boots, insulated hooded jackets, wind pants, rain ponchos, day packs, water bottles, snacks and even sunscreen. Guests bring only comfortable pants and T-shirts, a hat, camera and, if they're wise, three times as much film as they expect to use.

We stayed at Bobbie Burns, a wooden lodge that sounds like it should be in Scotland. (It's name comes from a stream which commemorates an early settler.) Our fellow hikers were an eclectic bunch: a lawyer and a software designer from the U.S.A, a retired nurse from British Columbia, with her grandson, an accountant, his wife and two pre-teen daughters, from Alberta and a public relations consultant, from Colorado, who raved that the vistas far-surpassed the landscapes of his home state.

The clanging of a brass Swiss cow bell awoke us every morning. (Rooms have no phones, radios, or keys, for that matter.) Slipping off our cozy down duvet we drew the curtains to view our red and white helicopter on the helipad below balsam fir-covered mountains. Dressed in T-shirts and jeans, we joined Paul, the resident masseur, and the rest of the group, in the gym, stretching abs and leg muscles to gentle piano music.

Meals

Breakfast awaited on long wooden tables in the dining room. Big pitchers of orange juice, urns of strong coffee, bowls of fresh fruit, yogurt, muesli, cheeses, cold meats, eggs, bacon, cereals, home-baked scones, muffins and breads. Afterwards, we filled cloth bags with lunch and snacks — granola bars, fresh and dried fruits, cream cheese, avocado and sun-dried tomato sandwiches, bacon, lettuce and tomato on focaccia bread, celery and carrot sticks, oatmeal cookies, Swiss chocolate bars and juices. No need to worry about calories with a day of hiking ahead of us!

Passengers huddle next to helicopter.
Passengers huddle next to helicopter.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The helicopter shuttled each group to its designated hiking area. But, first, we learned to heli-huddle. Stacking our packs in a pile, we crouched around them, holding our hats down with one hand and our sunglasses with the other. As the deafening thwop, thwop, thwop of the rotor blades drew closer, an air blast flattened wildflowers and grasses, scattered leaves and flapped our jackets. Ally, our guide, tapped us on the shoulders when it was safe to scramble into the helicopter.

Helicopter tour

Jaws dropped as we banked over alpine firs, crested razor-sharp ridges and swirled above rumpled white glaciers. Our IMAX-view flight ended in a Sound of Music meadow called International Basin. Again we heli-huddled until our pilot disappeared over the peaks.

Zigzagging up a steep hill, hopscotching over stepping stones in trickling streams of melting glaciers, we stopped frequently to examine flowers. Fluffy white western anemones. Red-stemmed saxifrage. Purple fireweed and yellow orchid-like monkey flowers. It was late August, past the peak July wildflower season, but there were still plenty of blooms. As a bonus, tasty wild berries studded our path.

Hiking adventure

The vegetation gave way to boulders, some as large as cars. Slip-sliding on scree, we clambered over a moraine. We rested on rocks, embedded with gemstone-like pink and purple quartzite. As we munched granola bars, an eagle soared overhead. White mountain goats skirted a narrow trail across the valley.

After we resumed our hike, Ally pointed out great paw-fulls of upturned earth. "A grizzly bear was probably looking for ground squirrels here," she noted. Approaching the dig, we almost stepped on a well-camouflaged ptarmigan protectively ushering her chicks behind some rocks.

At an abandoned mine, we peered down a well where miners once lowered each other with buckets and pick axes. "People searched for gold here, in the 1880s, but they found only iron pyrite," explained Ally. "Later, in the '50s and '60s, they mined lead, zinc, copper and semiprecious minerals." We scoured the ground and found green malachite, blue azurite and fool's gold.

Nearby, in a collapsed wooden cabin, we discovered a rusty horseshoe, a broken shovel, and an old Nabob coffee tin, which we left undisturbed to delight future hikers. It was nearly lunch time, so Ally radioed the helicopter to airlift us to a postcard-perfect turquoise lake for a picnic.

Hiking in mountain meadow
Hiking in mountain meadow
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mountain vacation

Refueled, we picked our way gingerly over loose shale to a glacier covered with watermelon snow (tinted pink by algae). Waterfalls created a train-like roar. Some of us climbed over jagged crevasses to peer into a baby-blue ice cave. Others fished out bowling ball-chunks of icebergs from the water below the calving glacier. The helicopter corkscrewed us out of the glacial basin, up and over meringue-like snowfields back to the lodge.

Blazing flames, in the fieldstone fireplace, greeted us when we returned to Bobbie Burns Lodge. Smoked salmon, guacamole and nachos quelled our hunger until dinner. After showers, some of us soaked in the outdoor Jacuzzi, while others relaxed with massages. Several people gathered around a topographical map to compare hiking routes and sightings. A few sipped drinks and exchanged stories at the bar.

When the cowbell rang, the guides poured wine (included with dinner) and filled plates from bowls at the end of each table. Conversation bubbled about the day's highlights, as we dined on salad, blackened sea bass with mango salsa, fresh vegetables, homemade bread and chocolate torte.

Mother and daughter photograph mountain lake.
Mother and daughter photograph mountain lake.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mountain climbing

Each day brought new adventures, like mountaineering and rappelling, and new areas, such as Roller Coaster and Hume Lake. All too soon, our stay was over. We envied the people on the lodge-to-lodge program. They hiked to Bugaboo Lodge as we headed back to Calgary.

The guest book revealed that others shared our feelings. "We're absolutely helicopter-hooked," wrote someone from Montreal. "It was the adventure of a lifetime, filled with breathtaking views, great food and new friends," noted a Vancouver woman. "Pristine scenery beyond description and guides above expectations," added a hiker from Florida. One person wrote for all of us: "We came. We saw. We hiked. And all we want to do is come back!"


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Canadian Mountain Holidays

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Vancouver Island Chocolate Trail

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