There are many ways to explore Canada’s Rockies—on foot, by train, or in a car—but helicopters can fast-track you to some of the most stunning, deserted spots. I recently took a Backroads heli-hiking trip in British Columbia, staying at Canadian Mountain Holidays’ Bugaboo Lodge, on the edge of Bugaboo Provincial Park. It was my first full week of real hiking, and my first time in a helicopter, and 20/20 hindsight has highlighted a few things that might be helpful to anyone following in my heli-assisted footsteps.
You need a lot of gear, but it doesn’t all have to be pricey pro stuff
Base layers, pants, shorts, hiking vests, breathable rain jackets—there’s seemingly no end to the items you could pack for a hiking holiday in a place where the weather changes every 10 minutes. I decided for this trip that rather than cobble together specialist gear from friends and neighbors once again, I’d actually upgrade some of my active wardrobe.
That meant asking an REI guy for his recommendations for “full shank waterproof boots with Vibram sole” (and learning what that phrase, in our Backroads packing list, actually meant), and picking up a few breathable base layers shirts. Those essentials, along with a waterproof Musto sailing jacket here or Quiksilver surf cap there, equipped me well.
On the trail, shrouded in mist and snow, most hikers look indistinguishable: shuffling layers of grays and dark greens with an occasional splash of color. It’s really more important to feel, than look, good.
Those hiking boots need to be broken in
I got lucky with my brand-new Lowa shoes. Against our brochure’s advice, and much to my guide’s consternation, I’d only managed to wear them in by walking around my house a few times. But this pair fitted perfectly and didn’t give me any grief. Don’t be like me. Break those shoes in on a few trial hikes.
Buy it: $240, Lowa.com
Trekking poles are great, but they take some getting used to
They should be so easy. Two pointy sticks. You poke the ground with them and keep yourself upright. But I started out on the trail pushing them backward simultaneously as if I were skiing, and I navigated rocky sections like a spider with lumbago. One of our guides got particularly angry when I almost blinded him with one. No wonder he and his fellow guides mostly avoided them, casually strolling along with hands in pockets while we flailed. They do help keep you upright when you’re climbing up and down rocky terrain, though.
Helicopters run on a tight schedule
We were warned that, on this trip, times were hard or soft. Breakfast? Fairly soft. Helicopter departures? As solid as the granite spires surrounding us. Our chopper apparently cost $1.30 a second to run, so it wasn’t going to wait. Its rattling windows offered amazing views of dense pine forests and uncomfortably close jagged peaks, and it landed in some unexpected spots—on pieces of rock above the clouds, next to hidden lakes, at the top of rushing waterfalls—and unlocked lots of otherwise unreachable terrain.
Even here, you need to carve out time to be still
The valleys are empty, the mountains lonely. When the helicopter disappears, a hush descends and the views unfold in every direction. But as soon as the packs are adjusted, you’re off, taking a slow and steady pace and stopping only to add or lose layers or nibble some squares of Lindt. Before you know it, the helicopter has whisked you back to the lodge, where a hot tub, climbing wall, full bar, shuffleboard table, Wi-Fi, and library await. I wish I’d factored in some more time to just think.
Early in the week I saw a sign by Moraine Lake that quoted explorer Walter Wilcox, who visited in the 1880s and found that “contemplating the view . . . was the happiest half hour” of his life. Why just 30 minutes? What else did he have to do? Twitter wouldn’t be invented for another 140 years. Maybe we’re just hardwired to rush through life. But these vistas deserve reflection.
These mountains harbor a wealth of stories
You won’t see another soul outside your group during your days on the trail, but plenty of people have been there before you. Backroads recommends Switchbacks: True Stories from the Canadian Rockies by Sid Marty, a readable memoir from his time as a park warden in the surrounding national parks in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s full of tales of dramatic alpine rescues and his encounters with the early Swiss trailblazers—literally, they made some of the trails here.
The Bugaboo Lodge was the birthplace of heli-skiing. It was here that another pioneer, Hans Gmoser, took over a logging hut to offer the freshest of powder to his affluent guests. Today the lodge hosts hikers and skiers alike, and there’s a room stuffed full of artifacts from the early days.
Wildlife is scarce but out there somewhere
Reports of a grizzly. Some spiders. A fleeting glimpse of a mountain goat. A handful of ground squirrels. We didn’t see much wildlife on this trip, but there were signs: footprints; holes in the ground where a bear had been scrabbling for lunch; bones where another had perished in an avalanche. Our guides carried bear spray, but we were mostly bugged by mosquitoes.
Don’t expect to lose weight
Days began with a hearty hot breakfast, family style, at 8 a.m. and by 9 we were adding sandwiches, dried fruit, and chocolate to our lunch boxes. After a day of grazing while on the trail, the bar opened at 4 p.m., accompanied by ribs or nachos or a cheese board, before a three-course dinner at 7. We hiked a solid eight to 10 miles a day, so we definitely deserved the shrimp, scallops, orange and fennel baguettes, cured bison, and chia seed and peach puddings accompanied by selections from the glass-walled wine cellar. Right?
Altitude may be an issue
The hikes take place at around 8,000 feet, with a couple thousand feet in altitude gain or loss during the course of the day. I suffered a lot of headaches during my trip, but the glass-walled wine cellar may have contributed to that. I was thankful I’d come prepared with painkillers, and also Afrin and Sudafed for congestion. Hydration helps, if you don’t mind making a few extra stops at the “lava-tree” during your hike.
There’s no need to be intimidated by heli-hiking
Some people I spoke to before the trip had the idea that we were throwing ourselves off helicopters and scrambling up death-defying slopes with the Reaper’s scythe just out of sight. That wasn’t exactly the case. Steve, our helicopter pilot, gave a safety briefing on day one and explained that he’d never used the first aid kit’s splint in the summer. Yet.
I did suffer vertigo on a few high ridges, and I became known as “the one with the fear of heights.” But I managed to push myself through these sections and continue with the group rather than ask for an early pickup.
Guides assess each guest’s abilities, fitness levels, and preferences, and meet up in the mornings to assign hikers to groups. They run from A to D, with A reserved for daredevils and D for those preferring a gentler experience. I stuck with B.
All travel courtesy of Backroads.