It’s conceivable, I guess, that you recall my posts about the six things I sort of forgot about Heli-Hiking, and which once again became wondrously clear to me soon after my wife Mary and I embarked on a lodge-to-lodge hiking trip a few months ago.
To recap: I was thrilled to reacquaint myself with CMH’s bubbly and bright staff; delighted once again by its masterfully designed lodges; re-charmed by the fun, ease, and unobtrusiveness of helicoptering; impressed by the professionalism and graciousness of the guides; and pleased to meet such engaging fellow hikers.
And now for the sixth thing that I didn’t quite forget, but which turned out to be far more enthralling than my creaky memory remembered, the absolutely A number one best thing about CMH Heli-Hiking: the mountains. Those world-class mountains.
(You’re reading the ruminations of a serious mountain fan here. I’ve been besotted since I first poked my head above timberline in the Colorado Rockies, long, long ago, and--before I learned to love the sea--I was so singly mountain-minded that I agreed with the eccentric philosopher Joseph Zondlo, who once wrote: “How strange to call mountains mere scenery. Without mountains there would be no scenery, except the odd novelty and the dumb and compulsive oceans.” I’ve calmed down a little, but I still believe that, as John Ruskin said in the middle of the 19th century, “Mountains are the beginning and end of all natural scenery.”)
So: If I ran across someone who wanted to find out what all this mountainy fuss was about, someone let’s say from the Maldives (highpoint: just a little taller than Shaquille O’Neal), I couldn’t do better than to take her or him up to CMH’s domain, the particularly handsome and personable sub-ranges--the Selkirks, the Purcells, the Cariboos, the Bugaboos, etc.--that make up the Colombia Mountains, one of North America’s greatest ranges, a proud member of the Patagonia-to-Alaska American Cordillera, and an older sister to the neighboring (and quite dissimilar but nonetheless quite fetching) Canadian Rockies.
Like most mountain fans, I’m averse to pitting one range against another; they all have their charms, they truly do. Yet the Colombias are inarguably world-class. Why? Because they are brilliantly classic. They embody the classic Western idea of what mountain beauty is all about. (Other world cultures will have to weigh in for themselves--with praise for the misty, knobby peaks of Chinese scroll paintings, for instance.)
The locus classicus of mountain beauty is, of course, the Alps. But as the English novelist and journalist C.E. Montague wrote back in the 1920s, “A range of mountains may not be the Alps. and yet still have a career.”
CMH’s mountains--gloriously sprightly after 180,000,000 years on the job--share the Alps’ morphological drama: a fine collection of showy, spiky peaks; lots of variety of form; solid, serious rock set against healthy white snow; soaring, elegant, eye-catching ridges; lots of exciting verticality. They rise from classic green forests; their glacier-carved valleys provide interesting scenic interludes. And their almost sentient glaciers catch and hold and intrigue the eye. (Like most mountain guys, I’m enchanted by glaciers: No two are alike. Rugged and spunky individualists, they nonetheless obey the laws of physics with a molecular devotion.)
In some ways, the Colombias even out-alp the Alps. As Topher Donahue recently pointed out on The Adventure, “It’s hard to believe, but there are more summits without names than named peaks” in CMH’s bailiwick (which, during Heli-Skiing season, is larger than 19% of the countries in the United Nations, very much including the Maldives). I sometimes say, without exaggerating unforgivably, that from the Bugaboos, CMH’s southernmost hiking outpost, it’s wilderness, a pure, almost-unthinkable-to-Americans wilderness of unnamed peaks and rarely visited forests and vast tundra, all the way to the North Pole. I’ve never seen a non-CMH Heli-Hiker in the heights on any of my Heli-Hiking trips, but more tellingly, I don’t think I’ve ever talked with a guide who has either. The Alps are gorgeous, but they host a lot of folks. The Colombias, by contrast, might as well be on a lush and oxygenated moon.
And speaking of oxygen: The Colombias have a lot of it. Well-glaciated by dint of their high latitude, they have a big and high mountain feel without the altitude. (Though of course they get up into the respectable 10- and 11,000-foot range [3- to 3350 meters], topping out at lordly Mount Sir Sandford at 11,542 feet, or 3519 meters). Most mountain lovers are acutely aware of altitude, knowing that every major upward increment places you in a very different world. And generally speaking, the more altitude, the more huffing, puffing, and, at very high altitudes, the more danger.
I’ve spent a lot of time at altitude, in the Himalaya, the Andes, and elsewhere, and when the helicopter delivers us to timberline or higher in the Colombias, I always unconsciously prepare for a little heavy breathing. But the air at 7,000 or so feet, timberline in the Colombias, is rich and almost soupy compared with a similar place in similarly winsome mountains. (The highest timberline I’ve ever encountered, just in the bye and bye, was in the Ruwenzori, the fabled Mountains of the Moon, in Uganda. We were hiking in a giant lobelia forest at 14,300 feet before we emerged into the timberline). Wandering at timberline is a CMH joy. The great Gretel Ehrlich said it for many of us: “To be above the tree line is to be fully alive.”
I may have tried your patience, but this subject is so close to my heart that it sometimes seems contiguous with it. Since I’ve done a lot of quoting, I’ll close with a favorite from the Zen person Chang Ch’ao. It sums up my feeling about mountains in general, and CMH’s heart-stirring mountains in particular: “If there are no famous hills then nothing need be said, but since there are, they must be visited.”
If you haven't experienced CMH's mountains first hand,