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.