Heli-hiking Canada’s mountains an uplifting family adventure
BY LORI RACKL March 23, 2011 3:48PM
IF YOU GO
CANADIAN MOUNTAIN HOLIDAYS: Summer heli-hiking trips take place from July to early September at two CMH lodges in western Canada. Packages range from two to six nights and include all meals, hiking equipment (including boots), helicopter flights and guided hikes, as well as a pick up in Banff and a drop off at Calgary International Airport. Prices start at $1,777 for adults and $1,333 for children, based on current exchange rates. Specialty trips like family adventures and girlfriend getaways are scheduled on certain dates throughout the season. Visit CMH’s web site cmhsummer.com or call (800) 661-0252.
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
PURCELL MOUNTAINS, British Columbia — A dozen of us huddle on the ground, hanging onto our baseball caps as the approaching helicopter whips up a wild vortex of wind. Even with earplugs, the rotor blades’ unmistakable thwop-thwop-thwop sounds thunderous.
The 14-seat chopper touches down, the door slides open, and we file in.
I buckle up and steal a glance at my husband and 9-year-old stepson, who look part nervous, part excited. We all do.
Door shuts. Liftoff.
We’re soaring above the treeline, over powder-blue rivers, wispy clouds and snow-packed peaks.
A few minutes later we touch down. Door slides open and we pile back into a huddle, waiting for the whirlybird to depart. When it does, we’re left in silence. Silence and spectacular mountain scenery.
We’re in the Purcells, a subrange of the Columbia Mountains just west of the Canadian Rockies. We’re here for a three-night “family adventure” summer trip run by Canadian Mountain Holidays, or CMH. It’s the world’s largest heli-skiing company, hosting thousands of powder hounds each winter in 11 lodges peppered throughout the Columbias.
CMH’s late founder, Austrian immigrant Hans Gmoser, is widely considered the father of heli-skiing. He first used choppers in 1965 to deposit schussers high in Canada’s Bugaboo Mountains. Success snowballed and by 1978, Gmoser finally figured out a way to keep his business running after the white stuff melted. Heli-skiing begat heli-hiking.
Some 33 years later, two CMH lodges stay open through the summer for heli-hikers, which sounds like some extreme sect of adventure athletes. It’s not. Heli-hikers can be anyone from little kids and great-grandparents rambling through gentle alpine meadows to fit-and-fearless mountain climbers. The operative word is “heli,” which means a flying chariot shuttles you and your CMH guides to remote spots unsullied by roads, trails and other people. We’re talking the velvet-roped VIP section of mountain scenery.
Heli-hiking guests can take it easy, going on afternoon strolls in fields of wildflowers or simply lounging in the outdoor hot tub at the mountain lodge. But guests can just as easily push themselves in ways they never thought possible, which is how I wound up dangling off a mountain (more on that later). And it’s how my 9-year-old stepson Ben — typically a very cautious kid — wound up 80 feet above ground, balancing on a bridge as jiggly as Jell-O.
Ben and a dozen other kids and adults were on the lodge’s new high-ropes course. CMH guides stationed at treetop platforms made sure everyone was attached to safety cables in case they took a spill. But that didn’t stop Ben’s dad — and every other parent on the ground — from repeatedly shouting, “Are you sure you’re clipped in?” as their offspring wobbled on tightropes and log beams high overhead.
“I don’t believe this,” said my slack-jawed husband, watching Ben swing like a monkey from one obstacle to the next.
We both noticed that Ben, no doubt emboldened by his high-ropes experience, had a bit of a swagger as we walked back to the lodge that night for dinner.
Meals at the 44-person lodge are served family-style at long communal tables, just the way Gmoser would have liked it. Gmoser, who died in a cycling accident in 2006, made no secret that he wanted guests to feel like relatives. He once went so far as to have a rule that light bulbs in guest rooms couldn’t be stronger than 40 watts. He didn’t want folks retreating to bed with a book; he wanted them congregating around the lodge’s fireplace or telling tales over a beer at the bar.
Even now, rooms don’t have TVs — or external locks. We’re all family, remember? Feel free to throw your dirty laundry in the lodge’s washing machines. A big bell gets rung to let you know it’s time to get out of bed.
Guests eat side-by-side with the guides, several of whom hail from Gmoser’s homeland in the Austrian Alps. One of those guides is Tom, who served as Brad Pitt’s double during the climbing scenes in “Seven Years in Tibet.” As if that weren’t bragging rights enough, Tom also has 20 stitches in his leg thanks to a bite from an angry mama grizzly. He surprised the bear and her cubs while riding his bike in the mountains.
“I still go riding,” Tom says matter-of-factly. “But now I put bear spray in my water bottle cage.”
Hang around with guys like this — even for a little bit — and their adventurous spirit begins to rub off. This might be why my husband and I decided to swallow the ostrich-egg lumps in our throats and try CMH’s “via ferrata.”
Italian for “iron way,” via ferratas are basically Mountain Climbing for Dummies. A network of permanently fixed cables and metal rungs drilled into the mountainside make it physically possible for any reasonably fit person to safely scale sheer rock faces and summits that would otherwise be off limits to amateurs.
Mind you, via ferratas make mountain climbing physically possible. Mentally, well, that’s another matter.
Few things have terrified me more than crawling up the vertical edge of rock that led to the summit of Mt. Nimbus. I knew that the ropes on my harness were my umbilical cord connecting me to the cables on the mountain, but that was small solace when I couldn’t find a decent foothold, couldn’t quite reach the next metal rung or couldn’t see anything but a mile-deep abyss over my shoulder.
One of the guides, another Austrian import nicknamed Roko, helped quell my periodic eruptions of pure panic. He’d calmly offer advice like “Lori, smaller steps for better balance,” and “Lori, trust your boots.”
“It’s good to get out of your comfort zone every now and then,” Roko reminded me.
Then this was more than good. This was great.
When I finally reached the top, my euphoria evaporated as I realized no helicopter was going to pluck me off this summit. I gingerly made my way back down to a spot where Tom was waiting with a long rope. A very long rope. He attached it to my harness and told me to walk backward, off the side of the mountain. Gulp.
Brad Pitt’s double lowered me 200 feet to solid ground, which feels really good after you’ve been dangling off a mountain in the air.
I happily collapsed next to a group of fellow climbers, which included the son of one of the Eitel brothers, founders of Chicago’s legendary Bismarck Hotel. He was 80 years old — the oldest person to have climbed the Mt. Nimbus via ferrata. Better yet, he did it with several of his children and grandkids, including Isabella McShea, 13, of Seattle.
“It’s possible this is one of the biggest things I’ll ever do in my entire life,” Isabella said while we ate our sandwiches on the mountain, waiting to hear the familiar thwop-thwop-thwop of our ride back to the lodge.
At the age of 13, Isabella has plenty of time to do something bigger. And after a day like this, she’ll have the confidence, too.
Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the Canadian Tourism Commission and Canadian Mountain Holidays.