It’s hard to believe, but there are more summits without names than named peaks in the areas of the Canadian Rockies where CMH Summer Adventures take place. This isn’t because Canadians don’t like to name their peaks. It’s because Western Canada has so many peaks that naming each one is a nearly impossible task.
Since CMH guests and guides are the only people who see much of the terrain, and CMH needed ways to differentiate summits, CMH has given names to some of the unnamed peaks. Some were named to help with logistics in the winter heliski program, and others were named during the development of the CMH Summer Adventures heli-hiking and mountaineering program.
So while CMH uses peak names to communicate logistics between pilots and guides, there is far more significance than just logistics in adventure travel to an area so remote that many of the mountains have yet to be named.
Think about it – just a few hours drive from the Calgary International Airport, on the western side of the backbone of the Rockies, is a mountain range that is largely the exclusive domain of just a few people.
Imagine visiting France and having Mt. Blanc to your self.
Imagine going to Yosemite and Yosemite Falls being entirely unnamed.
Imagine going to Arches National Park and going to Delicate Arch and seeing no sign of a trail, no foot prints, and no road.
Imagine going home from these places and showing your family and friends photos of a world-class destination they had never seen in a magazine, online, or on a license plate.
Photo of celebrating another unnamed summit in CMH Bobbie Burns.
Take a normal hike: You drive to the trailhead and hike up a trail towards your destination. Upon arriving at the destination, you eat a snack, take a photograph, turn around, and head back to the trailhead. In the process you walk along ground that has been walked by hundreds if not thousands of other people.
Sure, the scenery may be beautiful and since you’ve never been there before it can be an exciting day of discovery, but the well-known destinations and the trail’s confining influence both limit true exploration.
Take a heli-hike: You fly to a location in the middle of what is arguably the most extensive mountainous region in North America. When the helicopter leaves, the guide has a general plan of where to go, but from the first step, the world is yours to explore, and the fact that there is no trail to follow encourages following your curiosity and wonder.
Of course - with unstable glaciers, huge cliffs, slippery waterfalls, dense forests, as well as sensitive ecosystems that could be damaged with curious feet - wandering too far from your guide is a really bad idea. But within the vicinity of the guide, the world is your oyster and no two heli-hikers follow the same path all day.
One of the features of the Rockies that I find most compelling are the slabs of polished stone, scoured by thousands of years of glacial action. While some people choose to walk on sponge-soft tundra, I often wander along the rock slabs, studying the patterns of erosion and the rainbow of colors in the varnished surface.
Later in the day, when the alpine sun warms the alpine cirques to beach-like temperatures, the guides sometimes choose hikes across the ancient ice of a flat, safe glacier. The glaciers are often scattered with boulders that have melted out of the glacier as it melted. I am always fascinated by sticking my head into the shade of the boulders, where the ice chills the air, the temperatures are like winter, then stepping back into the sunshine for a sensory exploration of temperature changes and the extreme nature of the alpine world.
In the forests, debris from mid-winter avalanches looks like the aftermath of a hurricane. Heli-hikers wander slowly through these areas, in awe of the power of moving snow, touching trees the thickness of a man that were snapped like matchsticks. The smell of pine sap is fresh in the air, as if the avalanche happened minutes before, even when the snow has long melted away.
Sure, sometimes heli-hikers follow animal trails, and have goals of reaching lakes, summits, or viewpoints, but much of the time individual exploration gives heli-hiking an incomparable feeling of wandering from one wonder to another as if we were astronauts on our own planet.
Photo of heli-hikers doing their own thing in CMH Bobbie Burns.
Surely, with a helicopter at your service during a CMH Summer Adventure, you could go hiking in sandals, right? Wrong. It’s a little more committing than that – a lot more committing. The helicopter just makes it really easy to get into some of the wildest, most beautiful, least developed wilderness in North America. When the helicopter leaves, you definitely want boots on your feet.
Snow, mud, dirt, tundra, gravel, talus, sand, ice and solid rock can all be touched in just a few steps. My first time heli-hiking, I was a committed light shoe hiker. I’d hiked all over rugged terrain in the Rockies, the Alps, the Andes, and never needed anything else - at least not in the summertime. So why would I need boots if I had a helicopter to help with the long walk out?
Within a few hours of heli-hiking, my shoes were full of a combination of sand, water, partly melted snow, leaves, rocks and pine needles. It wasn’t that the heli-hiking was more difficult or rugged, it was that helihiking occurs almost entirely off trail. In the environments where I’d hiked before, we walked off trail, and sometimes my feet got wet, but I'd never encountered so many different kinds of terrain so quickly.
After that first trip, I’ve always worn sturdier footwear while helihiking. Even the CMH Guides wear boots. It makes walking in the diverse terrain of the Columbia Mountains so much easier and more comfortable. Lightweight, leather hiking boots are fine, but high top ankle support and protection are essential.
CMH keeps and maintains a high quality selection of boots for guests. I’ve always used my own, but guests who use CMH boots seem to be extremely happy with them. Between trips, the guides clean the boots with a brush wheel, deodorize them, and give them a new coat of waterproofing.
What I learned is that the lightweight hikers are great for long, grueling hours on the trail – but with CMH helihiking there are not long, grueling hours on the trail. If you want long grueling hours, there are plenty of hard hikes, but it will not be on a trail. Instead, you’ll be traversing an alpine wonderland and subjecting your feet to unmaintained wilderness every step of the way.
That’s the beauty of helihiking that people who have never been just don’t realize: helihiking is exploring wilderness in a completely untamed form and, while lightweight hikers are great for the tamed wilderness, they just don’t cut it in the wild.
Photo of hiking on a glacier in CMH Bugaboos.
Well, as I said in my blog a week or so ago, I didn’t really forget these six things; they just re-announced themselves cheerily as soon as we got back into the Heli-Hiking curriculum.
Seriously memorious readers of The Adventure may recall that the first two-and-a-half things I sort of forgot were: 1) Just how on the ball and charming CMH’s staff is. (And not just in the air and in the lodges. Quick story: I have a trusty old Tyrolean-style hat, festooned with pins from places I’ve visited around the world. We were up in the Bobbie Burns on our Lodge to Lodge hike to the Bugaboos when a spunky little squall forced us to shelter behind some rocks. Somewhere between re-layering and zipping and fiddling around in my pack, that well-traveled hat zipped off into the ether. I was sure it was lost, destined to become an archeological oddity. A couple of weeks later we got a call from CMH. The hat was (amazingly) found, it was lovingly transferred from the glorious Alpine down, down to Banff, where it was carefully packaged and FedExed down, down to the Northern California Wine Country where it is normally stationed. My thanks to the sparky and efficient CMH office staff!)
And, 2) I’d kind of forgotten how much fun (and how unobtrusive) the helicopters are. (I have an English friend who always accuses me of being a Boy’s-Own-Adventure junkie. But those super-cool helicopters: wow!)
And then I got into 3) The world-classness of CMH’s guides. Their excellence at natural historying, their alert leadership, and their ability to engage with their clients. Here’s what I’d like to add: If CMH devoted one of their lodges exclusively to climbing and mountaineering guests, and staffed it with a cross-section of its guides-who-are-climbers, that lodge would immediately become North America’s--heck, the Western Hemisphere's--number one guided-climbing destination. I’m pretty familiar with guided climbing in this half of the world, but if you think I’m wrong, tell me (and if you think it’s an interesting idea, tell CMH). So, take a bunch of talented, rigorously trained guides, add a stunning collection of climber-infatuating mountains, throw in the range and ease-of-approach of helicopters, and you’d have an absolute sensation.
On to 4), the lodges.
Whenever I grab people by the lapels and begin raving about Heli-Hiking, one of the (largely American) prejudices I seek to smash is that a “wilderness lodge” is either a Coleman-lanterny shack, or it’s an overblown mega-resort with naturish pretensions.
To me, CMH’s lodges--I’ve Heli-Hiked out of six of them over the years--qualify as wilderness-based; there’s not much, if anything, but very naturish nature for miles all around. (One of CMH’s marketing challenges has always been that Heli-Hiking, as invented and practiced by CMH, is impossible to imagine in the United States; I hope to blog about this in detail soon. But when I’m on a proselytizing roll, I sometimes make the not-entirely-crazy claim that “Heading north from Bugaboos, CMH’s southernmost lodge, it’s just wilderness, pure forest, tundra, and ice wilderness, all the way to the North Pole!”).
(And, of course, within seconds of walking into one of the lodges, you know with concrete certainty that this is no shack.)
I admire CMH’s lodges for the intelligence and crafty unpretentiousness of their design, on a macro and a micro level. The big picture: The common rooms are airy, commodious, and warm, good places to settle into an armchair for a chat, or to scarf up hors d’oeuvres after a day’s hiking. And then there’s the inspired CMH tradition of bringing guests together in family-style dining (with staff; this is a brilliant, bonding touch). And on a micro level: The rooms are specifically, and subtly designed for Heli-Hikers and Heli-Skiers (as opposed to passers-through). They’re simple but inviting, easy to navigate, luxurious in that all you need is right at hand.
The lodges exude what CMHers call "huettenzauber", a German word that means "Hut Magic" or as I like to say "you’ve got to be in a real funk not to feel heartily welcomed."
5) I was pleased to be reminded that my fellow Heli-Hikers are invariably a pretty interesting bunch. And how fun it is to trade travel stories and hiking stories and just plain stories with people from all over the place. And to share the world-unique Heli-Hiking experience in such an informal, small d democratic environment.
On our last Heli-Hike we hung out with a fascinating couple from innermost Manhattan and a couple of hiking fans from Hong Kong. (I made a rash statement one day--one of the few I’ve ever made, you’ll be glad to know. I called some sylvan spot, “The place on earth least like Hong Kong” (a place that entrances me, by the way). They reminded me that Hong Kong is not utterly urban (and just now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I learn that “70 percent of Hong Kong is undeveloped open land, 40 percent of it officially preserved in 23 Country Parks, four marine sanctuaries and four major hiking trails.”) You can learn a lot from CMH’s cosmopolitan clientele but, more importantly, you’re likely to meet new friends.
6) I’m running out of steam here, and you probably are, too, so I think I’ll save the sixth Thing I Forgot About Heli-Hiking for another time. In case you’re curious, it’s incontestably the A Number One best thing about Heli-Hiking….
Editor's Note: What do you think are the best things about Heli-Hiking? Share them here!
Photo: Guests getting ready for their first helicopter flight of the day at the Bobbie Burns Lodge by Topher Donahue.
Well, I didn’t exactly forget them, but they rushed back into my consciousness after my wife and I settled into a recent 6 day lodge-to-lodge Heli-Hike in the Bobbie Burns and the Bugaboos. (What follows may strike you as a mite praiseful, but, hey: I’ve been in the travel business for a long time, and I believe in celebrating excellence.)
1)CMH staff is a wonderful collection of humans. This really hits home for me when the lodge staff is introduced after the first dinner. Up they line, all healthy and young (if sometimes only in spirit), and they introduce themselves, and make charming little jokes, and I’m always impressed by their cheer and grace and high morale; I actually believe them when they say, “If there’s anything I can do for you [in the lodge, in the mountains, in the kitchen, in the helicopter, anywhere] please tell me.” You Canadians out there should be proud.
2)The helicopter experience is fun. And when the helicopter leaves, it’s gone. I’m struck each and every time by the keen, jazz-solo precision of the take offs and especially of the landings, and of the adventure of swooping over the Columbia Mountains’ dense forests and then up into the resplendent high country. (As an old backpacker, I always mentally chart a quick route up that marshy valley, through those steep forests, up to the ridge we land on, and I am--at my advancing age--relieved that I didn’t have to spend a few days of grumbly bushwacking to get to the magnificent timberline places we gracefully get to).
We set down with “all the delicacy of a falling leaf,” as one writer memorably put it, and then, zip, off goes the helicopter. I Heli-Hiked once with a helicopter skeptic, a guy who was concerned that his wilderness experience was going to be sullied by buzzing noise. We carefully counted a fleeting 25 seconds from the time the machine lifted off and it was out of sight and the many-million-year silence of the mountains resumed.
3)CMH guides are world-class. I wrote a blog a few months ago--based on 30-odd years of trek leading around the planet--about leadership and expertise and all the things that go into making a first-rate guide. But each time I Heli-Hike, I’m re-impressed by CMH’s cadre, not just because they’re knowledgable about their mountains; not just because they’re obviously competent, rain, shine, sleet, or snow; not just because they’re skilled at sharing their passion for the freedom of the hills. In the end, I’m immensely impressed by them because they get along so well and comfortably with the guests. They like people.
This blog is running a little long. I don’t want to try your patience, so I think I’ll close and continue in awhile with a little more about CMH’s guides and the three other things about Heli-Hiking that I didn’t exactly forget, but was very pleased to learn again.
If you are a repeat heli-hiker (or Alpinist), what are the things that suddenly come rushing back to you when you get up to the lodge? Share them with us in the comments here.
Adventure travel is a bit of a misunderstood concept in the first place. Driving through an ice storm to visit the relatives for Christmas is certainly adventurous travel, but not really what comes to mind when we think of adventure travel or read about it. Even among classic adventure travel destinations, one person's ideal adventure is another's nightmare.
Billions of words have been written about adventure travel experiences, and millions of photos taken of adventure travel destinations, but still the concept is difficult to define. In an attempt to define adventure travel as a collection of emotions rather than experiences, I put together these 4 photos taken during CMH Summer Adventures that I feel demonstrate the adventure travel experience on an emotional level.
Love - When a grandma and a grandson have a laugh together high in the Purcell Mountains of Western Canada, love is pretty much the only feeling that comes to mind:
Euphoria – There is something about walking a suspension bridge between two rock spires at the rim of a kilometre-deep valley rimmed with glaciers that gets the endorphins pumping and brings out expressions that use facial muscles we didn’t even know we had:
Reflection – Gazing across views that only a few people on this planet have ever seen gives even the most insatiable multi-taskers cause to pause, turn off the mind, and stop thinking about both the past and the future for a little while:
Wonder – Hiking though a warm summer day across the high tundra, and then taking a moment to peer through a natural ice window of a glacier takes us back to that childlike state where the world is filled with mystery and experiences stay with us forever:
There are places we travel in hopes of feeling these emotions, but many of them are somehow disappointing, and there are others that take you by surprise and hand you an adventure travel experience that blows your mind.
Photos by Topher Donahue
Ever since CMH invented heliskiing in the mid-60s, and then heli-hiking in the 70s, the safety of guests, guides, pilots and staff has been objective number one. Of course, in the beginning nobody knew as much about mountain dangers as we do today, and technology available in those days left a lot to be desired. After nearly five decades of learning, however, safety at CMH is an institution.
Today, all aspects of CMH Summer Adventures, from the lodge activities, to the helicopter to the via ferrate, ziplines, hiking routes and mountaineering objectives are designed around providing the safest adventure possible; and the guides, staff, and pilots are all trained in managing safety to the highest professional standards.
To find out what CMH guides and staff are thinking about out there when it comes to safety, I asked Lyle Grisedale, a hiking guide, what he felt were the biggest safety concerns of CMH Summer Adventures. Here are the four areas of concern he outlined, as well as how CMH manages the issues:
- The Helicopter: Of course the pilot, engineers and staff are all trained in working around the helicopter, but the guests are usually not so familiar with the machines. To manage this, CMH and its partner company, Alpine Helicopters has developed a safety briefing that every guest must attend, even the many guests who visit CMH every year. The twin engine Bell 212 helicopter used by CMH Summer Adventures is known as one of the safest helicopters ever made, and Alpine Helicopter’s fleet of Bell 212s is known throughout the aviation industry as one of the most well maintained 212 fleets anywhere.
The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides provides the training courses for CMH Mountain Guides, and each season CMH runs in-house training for every employee. From the person who cleans the rooms, to the area managers, everyone who works at CMH receives specialized training in safety and guest care.
- Terrain Management: In the alpine areas where CMH operates, there is a lot of terrain where there is virtually zero risk, however, there is also a lot of terrain where it’s just not wise for a human to go. There are cornices of wind-deposited snow that form on ridges and mountaintops and can fall unexpectedly, areas with frequent rockfall from huge alpine faces, glacial icefalls that shed ice avalanches all summer long, and river drainages that would swallow a human without a trace. Training and familiarity with the terrain allows CMH guides to show guests the wildest and most spectacular places – the icefalls, the alpine faces, the cornices, and the glaciers - all while staying on the safest terrain.
- Wildlife: Hiking in groups almost entirely eliminates the risk of a dangerous encounter with a bear, but guides are trained in dealing with bears and in some situations guides carry non-lethal deterrents like bear spray, bear bangers, or air horns in case a bear gets too curious. Those adventure travellers who are lucky enough to see a bear in it’s natural habitat with CMH - and natural habitat is what CMH is all about - usually count a bear sighting as one of the highlights of their trip.
- Environment: While the alpine environment is largely devoid of poisonous plants, snakes, spiders and other nasties that are common in other areas, there are still a few plants you wouldn’t want to eat, water you wouldn’t want to drink, and places you wouldn’t want to go hiking in a lightning storm. While CMH maintains safety as the number one concern, a close second is stewardship, and that means protecting the environment where we operate with programs like Second Nature as well as contributing to environmental initiatives at a local level in the region of British Columbia where we operate.
The places we go during CMH Summer Adventures would be among the world’s most visited adventure travel destinations – if they were easier to get to. Instead of roads, visitor centres, hotels, restaurants, campgrounds and picnic areas, the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, the mountains CMH Summer Adventures calls home, is surrounded by a vast expanse of wilderness.
Among the countless wilderness adventures possibilities in the Purcells, a few stand out as exceptional. One of the most visually stunning can be found at a place called Snowman Pass in a hanging valley at the top of Crystalline Creek in the CMH Bobbie Burns area. A lake is perched almost on top of the pass, an unusual place for a lake to have formed, allowing for postcard views in nearly every direction. Here is a photographic tour of the Snowman Pass experience.
Getting moving after a hearty breakfast is easy with the help of a twin-engine Bell 212 helicopter, a machine that’s been called the safest helicopter ever made:
The view out the window of the helicopter towards the Bugaboos with the ridgelines receding into the distance is alone worth the price of admission:
Within minutes after landing the helicopter, you’re picking your way through fields of waist-deep flowers in some of the least explored and most spectacular of our planet’s wildflower displays:
The first view of the lake at Snowman Pass and the glaciers of Mt. Deluge in the distance sucks the very breath from your lungs:
Taking the time to soak your feet in a cold alpine stream during a long hike on a warm summer day is like a new lease on life:
After a half-day hike to Snowman Pass you can call it a day and catch a ride back to the Bobbie Burns Lodge, or if you're looking for an all-day adventure you can traverse into Valley of the Lakes for a heart-pumping workout and another valley of alpine magic:
July 8 is the first day of CMH Summer Adventures 2011. Come see for yourself!
A study conducted in 2011 by the Outdoor Industry Association has revealed that young people enjoy hiking a lot more than many folks, especially their parents, might guess.
The study surveyed the participation in outdoor sports among people in the United States from the age of 6 to 24. Only running, bicycling, camping and fishing were ranked above hiking. Skiing and surfing, sports often perceived as hip young people's sports, rank far below hiking in terms of participation.
Accesibility to recreation resouces has a lot do do with what's popular in the study, but what is surprising about the youth's top five is that four of them, including hiking, can have difficult, strenuous elements requiring mental tenacity that we usually associate with older athletes.
It also suggests that it’s not just the youth whose tendencies in outdoor sports reveals some exciting trends, namely that more peaople are getting outside to play. The total number of participants in outdoor sports in the United States grew from 134 to 138 million between 2006 and 2010 - that's a million new participants each year.
Another revealing aspect of the study is the relative equality of outdoor sport across the income spectrum. When broken down into 5 household income categories ranging from $25,000 to over $100,000, the fraction of participation is not dramatically different.
Essentially, the study says that getting outside, even for a simple hike in the woods or a run on a trail is good for people of all ages and every year more people are figuring this out. A survey of people’s enjoyment while heli-hiking with CMH would likely reveal the same thing: Young hikers enjoy the experience as much or more than anyone.
During a CMH Family Adventure, a common pattern emerges that shows how of the young hiker’s enthusiasm grows with participation.
On the first day, the younger hikers in the group are excited about the helicopter, but tend to be generally more ambivalent about the hiking. The pilot answers questions like:
“Can I ride in the front?”
“How fast does it go?”
“What does this do?”
But everything changes after a day of hiking across thick, spongy alpine tundra, glissading on pristine snowfields under the crystal-clear alpine sun, watching marmots sunning themselves on a boulder, and feeling the euphoria that exercise in the mountains tends to inspire.
At breakfast the second day, the conversation tends to include not only the lofty experience of riding in the helicopter, but also revolves around the anticipation of what the day's hiking may bring. The guides answer questions that reveal the change in the young people’s motivation for being there:
“Will we hike by a glacier again today?”
“Can we slide on the snow again?”
“Do you think we'll get to see a bear?”
This transition suggests that hiking, be it heli-hiking or otherwise, needs to be experienced before it will reveal its secrets. Like life, hiking is not a spectator sport. But once we try it, hiking takes on surprising qualities. It becomes a meditation as well as a work out, a bonding experience for a group as well as an empowering experience for an individual, and both a grounding and life-changing experience.
Photo of heli-hiking in the Bugaboos by Topher Donahue.
Just because you use a helicopter to go heli-hiking doesn't mean it has to be easy - if you want to be, you will be challenged.
CMH Summer Adventures has exclusive use of two areas the size of many National or Provincial Parks. Within those two areas lies more mountain terrain than a single hiker could explore in a lifetime.
By using a helicopter to access the ideal starting point and again at the end of the day, CMH heli-hikers are able to spend the entire day in the most beautiful and inspiring part of our terrain. The weaker or more relaxed hikers go for less vertical, shorter, and less strenuous adventures – albeit in spectacular terrain - while the stronger and more motivated hikers will often hike 20 kilometres (12 miles) or more through the most inspiring alpine terrain imaginable.
While many world class hikes entail trail hiking to get into the alpine, and then trail hiking to get back to your car, heli-hiking is best parts of all the world's finest alpine hikes compressed into a single experience. Imagine hiking all day across lush tundra, over huge slabs of stone that still show angry scars from the passing of a glacier, around frothing waterfalls, up sharp ridges with views across a mountain range of Himalayan scale, and traversing between valleys lined with lakes bordered by some of North America’s healthiest wildflowers on one side and icy blue glaciers on the other.
Heli-hiking began in the 1970s when a tour operator named Arthur Tauck asked Hans Gmoser, the founder of CMH
, if he would be interested in taking groups of seniors on summertime hikes through the same mountains where Hans led heliskiing trips in the winter. Hans liked the idea, and for many years Heli-Hiking catered to older hikers who may not have had much hiking experience at all.
Today, the game of Heli-Hiking has changed. There are still groups of older hikers who book hiking trips, as well as families with young kids, and as many as four generations have been known to enjoy a CMH Summer Adventure together, but the vast majority of heli-hikers now are motivated hikers with a wide range of fitness levels ranging from relaxed families to seasoned athletes looking for new adventures.
The CMH Guides put everyone in groups of hikers with similar fitness and motivation. Each day the groups go as far, as hard, and as long as they can given the limitations of the mountains on that particular day. Some groups or families book the trip together, but then split up for part of the trip so the more athletic in the group or family can have a huge day while the mellow hikers take a more casual approach. Then the next day the group will get back together to enjoy each other’s company in the splendor of the mountains.
That’s the beauty of Heli-Hiking – it is perhaps the only mountain adventure on the planet that is just right for everyone.
Photo: Heli-hikers on the steeps during strenuous day with CMH Summer Adventures.
Never been Helihiking? Give CMH Summer Adventures a call at (800) 661-0252 or check out our web page dedicated to first time heli-hikers.